The White House Historical Association
On July 7, 1924, tragedy struck the White House. Calvin Coolidge, Jr., the sixteen-year-old son of President Calvin Coolidge, died of blood poisoning after a week of fighting for his life in the hospital.
The tragedy began with a simple blister. Calvin Jr. had been playing tennis on the court on the White House lawn with his older brother John and developed a blister on his toe. Instead of healing easily, the blister became infected, and the infection spread to young Calvin’s bloodstream. He developed a fever and was soon hospitalized.
President Coolidge ensured that his son had access to the best medical care possible. At Walter Reed Hospital, numerous doctors worked around the clock to save the life of the president’s youngest son, but there was little they could do. Today, such an infection could be readily treated with antibiotics. In 1924, with the discovery of penicillin still a few years away, doctors had to rely primarily on “the natural strength of a boy of 16” to save Calvin Jr. He held out longer than expected, but in the end, septicemia took his life.
News coverage of Calvin’s funeral emphasized the simplicity of the arrangements and the stoicism of the heartbroken president and first lady. They buried their son at the family plot in Plymouth Notch Cemetery in Vermont, avoiding the official pomp of a White House ceremony. “Unflinchingly, with heads erect, the President and Mrs. Coolidge stood before the rose-covered coffin at the grave” while prayers were read, according to the Washington Post. In the president’s hometown, factories suspended work and flags flew at half-staff. They were comforted by family and old friends at home before returning to Washington. White House staff and local residents mourned alongside the first family.
In this photograph, taken only a week before his death, Calvin Jr. (far left) poses with his parents, his older brother John, and one of their dogs, Rob Roy.
Credit: Library of Congress