Julia Gardiner Tyler (May 4, 1820 – July 10, 1889) was the second wife of John Tyler, who was the tenth President of the United States, and served as First Lady of the United States from June 26, 1844, to March 4, 1845.
Julia Gardiner Tyler was born in 1820 on New York's Gardiner's Island, one of the largest privately owned islands in the United States. She was the daughter of David Gardiner, a landowner and NY State Senator (1824 to 1828), and Juliana MacLachlan Gardiner. Her ancestry is described as being part Dutch, part Scottish and part English. Julia was raised in the town of East Hampton and the small hamlet of Bay Shore. At the age of 19 (1839), she shocked polite society by posing on the arm of a gentleman, who was not her relative, advertising a middle-class department store that billed her as the "Rose of Long Island." She was almost immediately sent to Europe in the hope of improving her social graces. They first left for London, arriving on October 29, 1840. After having visited England, France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Holland, Belgium, Ireland and Scotland, the family got back to the US in September 1841.
Romance and marriage
On January 20, 1842, then 21 years old Julia was introduced to President John Tyler at a White House reception. After the death of his first wife, Letitia Christian Tyler, on September 10, 1842, Tyler made it clear that he wished to get involved with Julia. Initially the high-spirited and independent-minded northern beauty felt little attraction to the grave, reserved Virginia gentleman, who was thirty years her senior. He first proposed to her on February 22, 1843, when she was 22, at a White House Masquerade Ball. She refused that and later proposals he attempted. However, later romantic correspondence between the two and increasing time periods spent together prompted open public speculation about the relationship.
Julia, her sister Margaret, and her father joined a Presidential excursion on the new steam frigate Princeton. David Gardiner, along with a number of others, lost his life in the explosion of a huge naval gun called the peacemaker. Julia was devastated by the death of her adored father. She spoke often in later years of how the President's quiet strength sustained her during this difficult time. Tyler comforted Julia in her grief and won her consent to a secret engagement, proposing in 1843 at the George Washington Ball. Because of the circumstances surrounding her father's death, the couple agreed to marry with a minimum of celebration. Thus, on June 26, 1844, the President slipped into New York City, where the nuptials were performed by the Right Reverend Benjamin Treadwell Onderdonk, fourth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, at the Church of the Ascension, not too far from the Gardiner's residence on LaGrange Terrace. President Tyler was 54 years old, while Julia was just 24. Tyler's oldest daughter, Mary, was 5 years older than her father's new wife.
The bride's sister Margaret and brother Alexander were bridesmaid and best man. Only the President's son, John Tyler III, represented the groom's family. Tyler was so concerned about maintaining secrecy that he did not confide his plans to the rest of his children. Although his sons readily accepted the sudden union, the Tyler daughters were shocked and hurt. The news was then broken to the American people, who greeted it with keen interest, much publicity, and some criticism about the couple's 30-year difference in age. It was awkward for the eldest Tyler daughter, Mary, to adjust to a new stepmother five years younger than herself. One daughter, Letitia, never made peace with her stepmother.
First Lady of the United States
After a wedding trip to Philadelphia, a White House reception, and a stay at Sherwood Forest, the estate the president had recently acquired for his retirement, the newlyweds returned to Washington. Although her husband was often visibly fatigued by the exertions of marital life, the fresh and youthful Mrs. Tyler thoroughly enjoyed the duties of First Lady. In the last month of the Tyler administration, she hosted a grand White House ball that drew 3,000 guests.
- David Gardiner Tyler (1846–1927) - lawyer, public official.
- John "Alex" Alexander Tyler (1848–1883) - engineer. Like his older brother, Alex Tyler dropped out of Washington College to join the Confederate army and, after the war, resumed his studies in Germany. There he joined the Saxon Army during the Franco-Prussian War and took part in the occupation of France in 1871. For his service he was decorated by the Prussian government. He became a mining engineer and, returning to the United States, was appointed U.S. surveyor of the Interior Department in 1879. While working in that capacity in New Mexico, he drank contaminated water and died at 35.
- Julia Gardiner Tyler-Spencer (1849–1871). In 1869 she married William H. Spencer, a debt-ridden farmer of Piffard, New York. She died from the effects of childbirth at 22 at the Spencer home, Westerly.
- Lachlan Gardiner Tyler (1851–1902) - doctor. He practiced medicine in Jersey City, New Jersey, and in 1879 became a surgeon in the U.S. Navy. From 1887 he practiced in Elkhorn, West Virginia.
- Lyon Gardiner Tyler (1853–1935) - educator.
- Robert "Fitz" Fitzwalter Tyler (1856–1927) - farmer of Hanover County, Virginia.
- Pearl Tyler-Ellis (1860–1947) - At the age of 12, she converted to Roman Catholicism along with her mother. She married William M. Ellis, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates, and lived near Roanoke.
Later life and death
The Tylers retired to Sherwood Forest, where they lived tranquilly until the Civil War. Although a northerner by birth, Mrs. Tyler soon grew accustomed to the leisurely routines of daily life as the wife of a wealthy plantation owner.
After her husband's death in 1862, Julia moved north to Staten Island, where her sympathy for the Confederates strained relations with her family (her home there was almost burned down by enraged Union veterans when it was discovered that she was flying a Confederate flag on the property). She resided at the Gardiner-Tyler House from 1868 to 1874. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1984. The depression that followed the Panic of 1873 depleted her fortunes. She sought solace in Roman Catholicism, to which she had converted in 1872. She returned to Virginia to live with the aid of her grown children and, in her last years, a federal pension provided to all presidential widows.
In Bay Shore, Gardiner's Park, a wide expanse of virgin land with trails leading to the South Shore, Gardiner Drive and Gardiner Manor Elementary School are all named after her family. In 2009, the United States Mint honored the former First Lady with the issuance of a 24 karat gold coin. The papers of the Tyler family, including Julia Gardiner Tyler, are held by the Special Collections Research Center at the College of William and Mary.