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First Lady Jane Pierce was the wife of President Franklin Pierce (1853-7). Mrs. Pierce was a sad, tubercular, and unhappy denizen of the White House during the first two years of her husband’s failed presidency. The traumatic death of the Pierces’ third and sole surviving child shortly before Pierce’s 1853 inauguration tipped his wife’s chronic cheerlessness into a profound, near catatonic depression. “As Mrs. Pierce was so stricken, the duties of hostess were to fall largely upon the shoulders of Mrs. Means.” (Nichols, 241) Abigail Atherton Kent Means became America’s eighth surrogate first lady.

“Mrs. Pierce was to have a companion in the person of her girlhood friend who had been her uncle’s second wife, Mrs. Abby A. Means, a lady of independent income and social experience…delightfully human…” (Nichols, 230-1)

Abigail (Abby) Means was the widowed second wife of Robert Means, the brother of Jane Pierce’s mother. Additionally, Abby was Jane’s very close friend from childhood. As an example of their bond, Jane and Jane’s sister visited Abby on the eve of her wedding.

Since she was not encumbered by either a husband or children, and through long years of friendship, quite attuned to this first lady’s personality and predilections, Mrs. Means was a very suitable selection to serve as a surrogate.

Abby’s White House role was identified as the official White House hostess. (Gara, 48-9). She presided over the traditional White House New Year’s celebrations, the
public receptions held each week on certain days from 12 noon till 2:00 pm, and evening receptions scheduled for two hours each Friday night. (Nichols, 312)

Many first ladies consider the management of the Executive Mansion as their responsibility. Mamie Eisenhower excelled in this function. However, President Pierce did not burden Abby Means with this chore. William H. Snow and his wife (he a New Hampshire hotel proprietor) “had been brought to the White House to act as steward and purveyor of the kitchens, to manage the servants and to have general oversight over the comfort of the official family — to hire the caterer when state dinners or receptions were given and to take charge of the accounts.” (Nichols, 241)

Jane Pierce assumed the social and ceremonial roles of first lady in the third year of her husband’s presidency. There is little record of Abby’s subsequent residence, activities, or health. She died in her native New Hampshire in August, 1857, just before her fifty-fifth birthday. The Pierces departed from the White House in March. 1857; Jane died in 1863.

Roy Franklin Nichols, Franklin Pierce. Young Hickory of the Granite Hills (Norwalk, CT: The Easton Press, 1958)
Larry Gara, The Presidency of Franklin Pierce (Lawrence, KS: The University Press of Kansas, 1991)

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