The Wytheville, Va. Woman Who Became America’s “Secret President” in 1919

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Photo: Edith Bolling Wilson and President Woodrow Wilson
Photo: Edith Bolling Wilson and President Woodrow Wilson

Born during reconstruction in the former Confederate stronghold of Wytheville, Virginia, Edith Bolling seemed about as unlikely a candidate to serve as America’s “Secret President” following a major world war at the time of her birth as anyone around; however, thanks to marrying well and a few strokes of dumb luck, the Southwest Virginia-born woman had successfully maneuvered her way not only into the White House, but as the defacto head of the country by the fall of 1919.

Through her father, Bolling was a direct descendant of Pocahontas and prior to the American Civil War, the family was said to have been quite wealthy – owning both a large plantation as well as several slaves; however, at war’s end, the Confederate sympathizing family was left nearly destitute and Edith’s father was forced to settle on his father’s property in Wytheville, where he became the county’s judge.

As she grew older, Edith received very little formal education — a semester at Martha Washington College and then she enrolled in Powell’s School for Girls in Richmond for a year.

A short while later, Edith married Norman Galt, a prominent Washington, D.C., jeweler she had met while visiting her sister in the nation’s capital.

Sadly, only twelve years into their marriage, Galt died unexpectedly, leaving Edith a widow at the age of 35.

In March 1915, the widow Edith was introduced to widower US President Woodrow Wilson at the White House by Helen Woodrow Bones, the president’s first cousin and official White House hostess since the death of First Lady Ellen Wilson only seven months earlier.

According to reports, “Wilson took an instant liking to Galt and his admiration grew swiftly into love.”

The President’s new found love quickly found a hungry audience in the nation’s early tabloids soon rumors of the romance began to escalate.

It was not uncommon for people to state that they believed Wilson had been cheating on his first wife, or that he and Edith had actually murdered the First Lady — despite the fact that the First Lady had died following a continued battle with Bright’s Disease, kidney failure.

Distressed at the effect the rumors may have been having on his new fiancée, Wilson offered Edith the opportunity to back out of their engagement, but she declined and the two were married on December 18, 1915, at her home in Washington, D.C.

The couple honeymooned two weeks in Hot Springs, Virginia and at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

Soon, the honeymoon was over and the pressing matters of state had escalated into the First World War.

Both the war and the immediate peace that followed the conflict weighed heavily upon the 62-year-old President and in October 1919, President Wilson suffered a stroke that left him partly paralyzed.

With her husband paralyzed and suffering from a great stroke, Edith Bolling Wilson took over many routine duties and details of the Executive branch of the government from then until Wilson left office almost a year and a half later.

She decided which matters of state were important enough to bring to the bedridden president.

“I studied every paper sent from the different Secretaries or Senators,” she wrote later of her role, “and tried to digest and present in tabloid form the things that, despite my vigilance, had to go to the President. I, myself, never made a single decision regarding the disposition of public affairs. The only decision that was mine was what was important and what was not, and the very important decision of when to present matters to my husband.”

Despite her assurances that she did not make any decisions, no one could say for certain, as the ailing President was closely guarded.

One Republican senator labeled her “the Presidentress who had fulfilled the dream of the suffragettes by changing her title from First Lady to Acting First Man.”

In My Memoir, published in 1939, she called her role a “stewardship” and insisted that her actions had been taken only because the president’s doctors told her to do so for her husband’s mental health.

Some historians, however, have taken issue with her version of events, such as journalist Phyllis Lee Levin.

She wrote that Edith Wilson was “a woman of narrow views and formidable determination.”

In contrast, Wilson’s chief of staff Joe Tumulty wrote “No public man ever had a more devoted helpmeet, and no wife a husband more dependent upon her sympathetic understanding of his problems…Mrs. Wilson’s strong physical constitution, combined with strength of character and purpose, has sustained her under a strain which must have wrecked most women.”

In March 1921, President Wilson and First Lady Edith moved out of the White House and into a Washington, D.C. townhouse where he attempted to restore his health; sadly, the former President died on February 3, 1924, at home of a stroke and other heart-related problems.

The day following the Japanese Attack on Pearl Harbor, when President Roosevelt appeared before Congress, asking for a declaration of War, he was accompanied by the former First Lady.

Edith Bolling Wilson stayed in their D.C. home for the remainder of her life, dying there at the age 89 on December 28, 1961, which would have been Woodrow Wilson’s 105th birthday.

Downtown Wytheville now showcases the life of Mrs. Edith Bolling Wilson at the Edith Bolling Wilson Birthplace Museum, just across the street from the Bolling-Wilson Hotel.

This article is featured in the 2017 print edition of Appalachian Magazine and may be purchased from the following link: Click here.

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