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Ellen Arthur was born in Virginia and grew up in Washington D.C. She was an only child and remained very close to her mother until the latter died. William Lewis Herndon, her father, was a U.S. Naval officer; consequently he was often away on sea duty. His notable achievement was a 327 day exploration of the Amazon river from the Peruvian Andes to the Atlantic Ocean. He turned his observations into a Congressional book, Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon. Herndon did a hero’s death in 1855. He was captain of the merchant steamship George Law when it shipwrecked off the North Carolina coast. Thereupon, he conducted the evacuation of all the passengers and most of the crew. Herndon went down with his ship.

Ellen Herndon was well educated and of medium height, brown hair and brown eyes. She had a splendid contralto voice; it was an appreciation of her musical talent that first drew rising New York politician Chester Alan Arthur to her. They married a year later. Three children filled the Arthur family, two sons, one of whom died at age three, and one daughter. Mrs. Arthur continued her singing while married and sang professionally.

Her husband was a New York State Republican politician who rose through the ranks of the Roscoe Conkling political organization. Arthur was never elected to any position, but was appointed to the lucrative post of Collector (of fees and duties) of the Port of New York. Then Arthur was sought to balance the 1880 Republican national ticket of James A. Garfield with Arthur as his vice presidential running mate.

Ellen did not live to enjoy her husband’s election as Vice President of the United States. After attending a concert in inclement weather she contracted a chill that rapidly progressed to a deadly pneumonia. Mrs. Arthur died from pneumonia on January 12, 1880 in New York City. She was 42 years old.

The Republican combination of Garfield/Arthur was victorious in November 1880. But James Garfield was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in a Washington train station. He lingered for eighty-one days before he expired. The widowered Vice President Chester Arthur completed the final three and a half years of the presidential term. He never remarried.

Lud Historian
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