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Chester Alan Arthur became America’s twenty-first president (1881-1885) after the assassination of President James Garfield. Arthur’s wife, Ellen, had recently died from pneumonia.

First Ladies of America-Mary McElroyChester Arthur was the fourth U.S. President who entered the White House as a widower. Initially, he decided against the appointment of a permanent surrogate to fulfill the complex responsibilities of the mistress of the White House and the partner to the president. His plan was to invite the wives and daughters of his cabinet members to assist him at social and ceremonial functions.

On January 14, 1883, President Arthur was accompanied by his forty-one year old sister Mary (Molly) McElroy at the annual White House New Year’s reception. Mary had taken care of Arthur’s daughter Nellie in Albany, New York since Ellen Arthur had died three years previously. It was Arthur’s desire to have his daughter live permanently with him in the nation’s capital that led to his decision to appoint a Surrogate First Lady

Mary McElroy was happily married and was the mother of four children. She lived with her husband, an insurance salesman, in Albany New York. Her tenure as Surrogate First Lady extended from January 14, 1883 until March 4, 1885. Her surrogacy was unusual in that it commenced midway during a presidential term, and unique since her White House residence was not continuous. Mary made several extended trips to her Albany home where she spent time with her family.

As surrogate, McElroy received guests at formal White House dinners, hosted popular weekly receptions on Saturday for women who worked weekdays, and greeted public figures as part of the Sunday presidential cruises down the Potomac. Moreover, President Arthur escorted her to private social events around the District of Columbia.

Molly McElroy, unlike recent First Ladies, either because of her position as Surrogate, or due to personal disinclination, avoided charity events and shunned causes independent of the president. She was very cautious in saying or doing anything which could reflect poorly on Chester Arthur. All the while, Molly was responsible for the care and direction of Nellie Arthur, her niece.

At the conclusion of President Arthur’s term in 1885, his sister returned to her family in Albany and lived quietly until her death in January 1917, thirty two years after she had deputed from the White House.

This post is abstracted from First Lady Biography: Ellen Arthur//Mary (Molly) McElroy, National First Ladies Library.

Lud Historian
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