If there was a "Most Tragic President" contest, Abraham Lincoln would be the undisputed winner—but Franklin Pierce would also be in the running. Pierce's three sons all died young. After 11-year-old Bennie was nearly decapitated in a horrific train wreck while his parents looked on, Pierce's wife, Jane, was understandably never the same, and spent most of her time praying or writing letters to her "beloved dead." She passed away in 1863. For Pierce, the tragedy didn't end there: Six months after Jane died, Pierce found his best friend, writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, dead.
Pierce and Hawthorne had become fast friends when they both attended Bowdoin College in the 1820s. Their friendship deepened over the years, and when Pierce became the 14th U.S. President in 1853, he found his pal a job as the U.S. consul in Liverpool, a cushy gig that paid $30,000 to $40,000 (a huge amount for the time) and allowed him to dedicate time to writing.
While he was in England, Hawthorne wrote a book of essays and dedicated it to Franklin Pierce:
"…it rests among my certainties that no man’s loyalty is more steadfast, no man’s hopes or apprehensions on behalf of our national existence more deeply heartfelt, or more closely intertwined with his possibilities of personal happiness, than those of FRANKLIN PIERCE.”
Pierce was a rather unpopular figure in the U.S., largely because he was anti-abolitionist movement. He found it difficult to accomplish anything in the White House, and by the time his term was up in 1857, he had even lost the support of his own party.
Hawthorne’s publisher begged him to leave the dedication to the former President out, fearing it would sink sales of the book. The author refused. “If he is so exceedingly unpopular that his name is enough to sink the volume, there is so much the more need that an old friend should stand by him,” he said. Indeed, it angered some people, including a famous one: Ralph Waldo Emerson ripped the dedication page out before adding the book to his library.
Pierce didn’t forget Hawthorne's loyalty, and in 1864, agreed to accompany his friend to the White Mountains in New Hampshire in hopes that it would revive Hawthorne’s failing health. On May 18, 1864, the writer and the former president stopped at the Pemigewasset Hotel in Plymouth, New Hampshire, for the night. After dinner and a cup of tea, Hawthorne retired to bed—and never woke up. Pierce found his friend's body sometime in the middle of the night, and recounted the events several years later:
"Passing from his room to my own, leaving the door open and so placing the lamp that its direct rays would not fall upon him and yet enable me to see distinctly from my bed, I betook myself to rest too, a little after ten o'clock. But I awoke before twelve, and noticed that he was lying in a perfectly natural position, like a child, with his right hand under his cheek. That noble brow and face struck me as more grand serenely calm then than ever before. With new hope that such undisturbed repose might bring back fresh vigor, I fell asleep again; but he was so very restless the night previous that I was surprised and startled when I noticed, at three o'clock, that his position was identically the same as when I observed him between eleven and twelve. Hastening softly to his bedside, I could not perceive that he breathed, although no change had come over his features. I seized his wrist, but found no pulse; ran my hands down upon his bare side, but the great, generous, brave heart beat no more."
The fact that it was Pierce who was with Hawthorne did not escape the attention of the media. “It is a singular and happy circumstance that friends who have lived so many years upon terms of unrestricted intimacy as Franklin Pierce and Nathaniel Hawthorne should in the final hours of one still be so near to the other as to enable the survivor to hear, as it were, the last whisper of his friend as he entered the portals of eternity,” The New York Herald wrote.
Sadly, because he was so hated by Hawthorne’s other associates, such as Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Ralph Waldo Emerson, Pierce was prevented from being a pallbearer at his friend’s funeral. He sat with the family instead.
This piece originally ran in 2016.