On Jan. 6, 1853, a train derailed in Andover, changing the course of American history. The only person killed was a handsome 11-year-old Phillips Academy boy by the name of Benjamin Pierce.
He was the only living child of President-elect Franklin Pierce and his wife Jane.
The Pierces’ connection with Andover was strong, and the town mourned the loss of “Bennie,” but more importantly, Bennie’s death affected the president-elect and his wife so much that most historians feel it demoralized Franklin so much as to diminish his ability to govern.
Franklin Pierce (1804-1869), was born in Hillsborough, N.H. and educated at Phillips Exeter and then Bowdoin, where, after a very poor start, he graduated third in his class. He became a successful lawyer and was elected to the N.H. legislature, soon becoming speaker of the house. Franklin’s father, Benjamin, had served in the Revolutionary War and eventually became governor of New Hampshire, and Franklin thought of him as a hero and followed in his footsteps. He once told a friend that he wanted to provide the same example for his own children. At age 27, Franklin Pierce was elected to the United States House of Representatives, making him the youngest member of Congress.
While a member of the House, he married Jane Means Appleton (1806 - 1863), born in Hampton, whose father was the president of Bowdoin College and a Congregational minister. Franklin and Jane’s love for each other overcame the fact that they were opposites: he was a social extrovert, while she was shy; he was robustly healthy, while she was fragile and inclined to melancholy; he drank, while she was a pro-temperance teatotaler; he loved Washington, while she hated it: and he loved politics, while she abhorred them. Yet, love had conquered all, but perhaps only for a while.
The fact that they married while he was a congressman should indicate that Jane understood he was a political, public man and that she was agreeable to that, but, if that was the case, her opinion changed, perhaps due to the sadness that awaited the two of them. In February 1836, their first child, Franklin Jr., died shortly after his birth. Later that year, Pierce was elected by the N.H. General Court to be a United States senator, and he went to Washington to assume office in March 1837, unaccompanied by his wife who stayed in N.H. In 1839, Jane gave birth to Frank Robert Pierce, and two years later, to Benjamin, who was named after his grandfather. In 1842, perhaps wanting to see his growing family more frequently, Pierce resigned from the Senate. However, death visited the following year, taking young Frank Robert during a typhoid epidemic.
Knowing how much his wife and surviving child needed him, Pierce turned down the Democrat nomination for governor and declined President Polk’s offer to be Attorney General of the United States. However, in 1847 the call of duty was too strong, and he accepted a political appointment to serve as a colonel in the Mexican War. Promoted to Brigadier General, he was badly injured when a horse fell on him. Ulysses S. Grant, who served in the war with Pierce, wrote that Pierce was “a gentleman and a man of courage.”
The Pierces’ connection with Andover was Jane’s older sister, Mary, who was married to John Aiken, a wealthy Lowell businessman. Sometime before 1850, the Aikens moved to 48 Central St. in Andover, and the Pierces were frequent visitors, perhaps providing an incentive to send Bennie to Phillips Academy. The trip from Concord, N.H., where the Pierces lived, to Andover, was a quick train ride on the Boston and Maine Railway, and John and Mary Aiken were good hosts. Pierce and Aiken, both distinguished, handsome men, attracted much attention during their walks around town, according to Claude Fuess (”Andover, Symbol of New England,” 1959).
In 1852, a surprise awaited the Pierces. Franklin had not held elected office in 10 years, but had kept up his political connections. The national Democratic convention was deadlocked over the issues of slavery and statehood for territories. A super-majority of two-thirds vote was needed to be nominated, and none of the obvious candidates could get the necessary vote. On the 35th ballot, Pierce’s name was added as a compromise candidate because he was a “doughface,” a term used to describe a northerner with southern sympathies, and because he was, above all, a loyal party man. On the 49th ballot, Pierce was unanimously nominated, and a few months later, without campaigning (not unusual in those days), he was elected the 14th president in a landslide, causing his wife to faint in disappointment.
Christmas followed seven weeks later, more than two months before Franklin’s inauguration, and the Pierces observed it with the Aikens in Andover. The day they departed Andover was a bitterly cold Thursday, and they boarded a train originating in Boston, supposedly to terminate in Concord. Instead, it terminated in a most terrible way in Andover when it hit rocks on the railway line about a mile north of the Andover station.
Bennie was standing at the window when the railroad cars overturned. His parents saw him die, but they were uninjured. An eyewitness said that the Pierce boy ...”one minute so beautiful, so full of life [was] struck so violently as to remove the upper portion of his head...” (Juliet Haines Mofford, “Andover Massachusetts, Historical Selections from Four Centuries,” 2004). His body was removed to the nearby Alms House (the brick building that still stands near the top of Argyle Street) in a carriage sent by John Smith, of Smith and Dove Manufacturing. Bennie’s remains were then removed to the Aikens’ home, where his funeral was held two days later. Jane Pierce was so broken that she didn’t accompany her son’s body to Concord for the burial.
Mrs. Pierce forever blamed her husband’s ambition for her son’s death, saying that Bennie’s death was payment to God for Franklin’s ambition. In his inaugural address, the youngest man to be president to that time, looked worn and said, “My Countrymen! It is a relief that no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself.” (Fuess). When the First Lady joined her husband in the White House, she remained upstairs for over a year, writing sad letters to Bennie. She was cruelly called the “shadow in the White House” by some newspapers, and wore black mourning clothes the rest of her life. In coming years, Jane tried to console herself by communicating with her sons at seances, at the time not considered unusual, and some of these seances were held at the Aikens’ house.
A month after taking office, Pierce’s vice president, William R.King, died, and Pierce served out his term without a vice president. While president, he and Jane spent their summers with the Aikens, whose home was known as the Summer White House. The building at 47 Central St. was used to house the presidential staff. The Pierces never recovered from Bennie’s death, and who can blame them. Franklin, a weakened man, perhaps a condition made worse by his wife’s blame, was an ineffective, unpopular president.
Jane died of consumption (tuberculosis) in Andover, and her funeral was at the Aikens home. Franklin Pierce died of liver disease six years after his wife. Both were buried with their three children in Concord.
In addition to where I have specifically indicated, some of the facts in this column were taken from Mofford and Fuess’s books.
Bill Dalton writes a weekly column for the Andover Townsman. His email address is BillDalton@AndoverTownie.com.