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A combined image of two portraits; left: President John Tyler, [between ca. 1860 and 1865]; right: Julia Gardiner Tyler, second wife of President Tyler, [between 1850? and 1860?]. Prints & Photographs Division.

How Tragedy Led to Love for John Tyler and Julia Gardiner

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On the afternoon of February 28, 1844, President John Tyler and roughly 400 guests were enjoying a cruise down the Potomac River on the new U.S. Navy warship USS Princeton, when the mammoth, 13-ton naval gun on board, known as the “Peacemaker,” exploded. The disaster came close to costing the president his life, but instead it led to his marriage.

A lithograph depicting a canon aboard a ship exploding. Men and woman are featured standing on he deck of the ship as they watch the explosion happen.
Awful explosion of the “peace-maker” on board the U.S. Steam Frigate, Princeton, on Wednesday, 28th Feby. 1844. N. Currier (1844). Prints & Photographs Division.

John Tyler had experienced a tumultuous start as president. The former Virginia senator had been elected vice president with William Henry Harrison on the famed “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” ticket, but he ascended to the presidency after Harrison’s sudden death on April 4, 1841, after only 31 days in office. This earned him the nickname “His Accidency” by his critics. 

The Whig Party had nominated Tyler for vice president in 1840, hoping for support from southern states’-righters. Once Tyler, a former democrat, became president, he ended up vetoing so many bills passed by the Whig Congress that they expelled him from the party. His entire Cabinet resigned with the exception of his Secretary of State, Daniel Webster. The Democrats also deserted him. To make things worse, his wife of nearly 30 years, Letitia, died in 1842 at the White House.  

Detail of a newspaper article featuring a sketch drawing of the White House. The headline reads: Death at the White House.
“Death at the White House,” Richmond Enquirer (Richmond, VA), September 16, 1842.

In an attempt to regain his standing, Tyler backed the commission of the USS Princeton–the most advanced warship of its day–promoted as part of the president’s campaign for U.S. naval expansion. At the helm was Captain Robert F. Stockton, who had arranged a cruise down the Potomac for the president and selected dignitaries to show off the new ship. Among the notable guests were former first lady Dolley Madison, Secretary of State Abel Upshur, and Navy Secretary Thomas Gilmer. Also aboard was wealthy lawyer David Gardiner with his two daughters, one of whom President Tyler had been courting, 23-year-old Julia. 

New York socialite Julia Gardiner was known to be vivacious and free-spirited. As a teenager, she had secretly arranged to be a model in a lithograph advertisement for a Manhattan department store. 

A lithograph of an advertisement featuring a man and woman walking down a street side-by-side (featured right in the foreground) dressed in early 19th century period clothing. In the background is a man sitting atop a horse-drawn carriage (left) and a row of townhomes with many windows lining the street.
The advertisement Julia had modeled for. “The Rose of Long Island.” Photographic reproduction of lithograph by Alfred E. Baker, 1840, [between 1950 and 1980]. Prints & Photographs Division.
Julia arrived in Washington in late 1842 to take part in the winter social season. On February 7, 1843, she attended a small party at the White House where she caught the president’s eye. Tyler’s interest in Julia continued to grow, leading the president to formally propose marriage shortly thereafter–which Julia refused. 

Despite the rejection, Tyler continued to pursue Julia and eventually repeated his marriage proposal, but she ended up leaving Washington for the summer without formally accepting. However, Julia’s attraction was growing towards the president and they agreed to exchange letters. While President Tyler and Julia seemed to be on a path towards marriage, it would be a disaster aboard the USS Princeton that would solidify their union. 

Guests boarded the Princeton in the morning on February 28, 1844, at the dock in Alexandria, Virginia. Captain Stockton greeted his passengers in full dress uniform as the band played the “Star Spangled Banner,” setting the festive mood as they made sail. The warship then steamed down the Potomac River towards George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon.

Detail of a newspaper article describing the merry scene as men and woman boarding the ship Princeton.
The New York Herald (New York, NY), March 1, 1844.

Along the way, guests were entertained by test-firings of the Peacemaker. The first two went off without a hitch, but when the gun was fired for a final time, it exploded and sent hot metal shrapnel flying across the deck. Six people were killed, including Secretary of State Upshur and Secretary of the Navy Gilmer. 

President Tyler and Julia had been below deck and avoided injury. A correspondent from the New York Sun reported that the president “rushed to the deck, and when he saw the dead bodies of Upshur and Gilmer, he wept bitterly.” At the same time, it was discovered that Julia’s father David Gardiner was among the dead. Julia was so distraught that she was said to have fainted, and a weeping Tyler gathered her into his arms and carried her to a rescue ship. 

Detail of a newspaper article with the headline: Extraordinary Intelligence from Washington!
The New York Herald (New York, NY), March 1, 1844.

After the catastrophe, Tyler was even more determined to marry Julia. Though she had resisted the president’s previous marriage proposals, the tragedy had changed her mind. “After I lost my father,” she later wrote, “I felt differently toward the president. He seemed to fill the place and to be more agreeable in every way than any younger man ever was or could be” (Seager, 1963).  

Tyler and Julia were married in a private ceremony at the Church of Ascension in New York City on June 26, 1844. The couple eventually had seven children together, the last of whom was born in 1860, when Tyler was 70. Amazingly, two of their grandchildren were still living in 2020! Although Julia was just 41 years old when Tyler died in 1862, she never remarried. 

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* The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

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