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Fragments from Illinois' past


Achsah Bond
Shadrach Bond,
governor 1818-1822

Achsah Bond was Illinois'
original first lady.
She married a distant cousin,
Shadrach Bond, in 1810 in Nashville,
Tenn. During the Bonds' tenure,
they lived on a farm in Kaskaskia.
Achsah inherited nine
slaves when Shadrach died in 1832.


Bina Day Maloney Deneen
Charles S. Deneen, governor 1905-1913
Bina Deneen with her daughter Bina,
the first baby born to a seated
governor and first lady.


Florence Pullman Lowden
Frank 0. Lowden,
governor 1917-1921

Florence Lowden
was the daughter
of George
Pullman, founder
of the sleeping car

by Linda Classen Anderson
Photographs courtesy of
the Illinois State Historical Library

32 / March 1998 Illinois Issues

For the most part, history has dictated that the governors' wives play supporting roles: mother, homemaker and hostess. Thus, most of the available information about Illinois' 37 "first ladies" is contained in a few sentences within their prominent husbands' biographies.

Yet they are part of the state's social and political past. Who were they? How did they experience their responsibilities? And what can they tell future first ladies about women's roles? Or the rest of us?

When First Lady Brenda Edgar looked into the subject shortly after her husband Jim Edgar took office in 1991, she was able to recover few details about the lives of her predecessors. She did locate an image of the state's first first lady, Achsah Bond, and photographs of all but seven of the others. So, in 1994, with the support of Marshall Field's Department Stores, she established a Hall of First Ladies in the Executive Mansion.

In honor of Women's History Month, we read the fragmentary story of the state's first ladies and put together our own gallery to highlight the lives of a handful of these women. Our primary sources were one unpublished manuscript in the State Historical Library, History of the Mansion, by Octavia Roberts Corneau, who interviewed a number of the first ladies, and Robert P. Howard's book on the governors. Mostly Good and Competent Men.

We found that notable women with different backgrounds, temperaments and interests held the title. They were socialites who relished their role, and recluses who shied from it. Some were content with family responsibilities; many threw themselves into causes.

Socialite Cora English Tanner stands out. She lived during the Gay Nineties, and lived up to that period's reputation. But though the wife of Gov. John Tanner was an elegant hostess, she also was an outspoken reformer, writing a series of protest letters to newspapers in the deep South to chastise them for failing to condemn lynch mobs. She accompanied her husband on tours of Illinois prisons and was critical of the conditions she observed. Three decades later, incoming Gov. Henry Horner, a bachelor, chose to escort Cora Tanner to his inaugural ball in 1933.

Prominence and power were no guarantee of a happy life for the first ladies, though. Frances Hambaugh Ford comes to mind. She was the wife of Gov. Thomas Ford, who left office destitute in 1846. The two died within months of one another, leaving five children dependent on the charity of friends and neighbors.

Two children were born to first ladies while their husbands were in office, most recently Samantha Jayne Thompson, the daughter of First Lady Jayne Carr Thompson and Gov. James Thompson.

Separate careers were virtually nonexistent for the first ladies, according to available records. Some were former schoolteachers, but Jayne Thompson appears to have been the only lawyer, and the first credited with her own professional career.

History records little about the first ladies. But as women's contributions to society begin to be recognized, that is likely to change.

Emma Gillette Keays Oglesby
Richard J. Oglesby, governor 1865-1869;
January 13-23, 1873; 1885-1889

Emma Oglesby, the daughter
of a "cattle king,"
was first lady during
Richard Oglesby's third term.


Cora English Tanner
John R. Tanner, governor 1897-1901

Cora English Tanner, who was
20 years younger than her husband,
married John Tanner in an extravagant
ceremony days before his inauguration.
She had a quick tongue and
was a social reformer.


Mary Fish Matte son
Joel Matteson, governor 1853-1857

The Mattesons found the
governor's house inadequate for
daily living, so they asked the
legislature for $52,000 to build
and furnish the existing mansion.

Illinois Issues March 1998 / 33

Illinois Periodicals Online (IPO) is a digital imaging project at the Northern Illinois University Libraries funded by the Illinois State Library
Sam S. Manivong, Illinois Periodicals Online Coordinator