Most people know that one First Lady, Mrs. Kennedy, was originally from East Hampton, but fewer know about First Lady Julia Gardiner Tyler, called the Rose of Long Island, who was born on Gardiner's Island and raised in East Hampton.
Of course, the Gardiner family was (and is) one of the most prominent, wealthy and influential families on Long Island. Lion Gardiner founded the first English settlement in New York in 1639. One of his direct descendants was David Gardiner, born in 1784. A lawyer and a New York state senator, David was extremely interested in the early history of East Hampton and his family's ancestry. He wrote Chronicles of East Hampton, a series of articles first published in the Sag Harbor Corrector in the early 1840s.
David's daughter Julia (1820-1889) was known for her beauty. (Her official White House portrait, above, is kind of unattractive to modern eyes. Photographs of her show her looking prettier than the painting, oddly enough.) Julia seems to have been a rather saucy, high-spirited girl.
In 1839, Julia secretly posed for an engraving which was used as an advertisement for the dry-goods emporium Bogert & Mecamly, on lower Ninth Avenue in New York City. In the ad, Julia's reticule was printed with the words "I'll purchase at Bogert and Mecamly's, No. 86 Ninth Avenue. Their Goods are Beautiful and Astonishingly Cheap." At the bottom of the flyer, the lady was identified as "Miss Julia Gardiner, the Rose of Long Island." Shock! Scandal! This was an age in which no well-bred lady allowed her name to be printed in a newspaper.
In response, the Gardiners carted Julia and her sister off to Europe. When they returned, the family went to Washington, DC, where future president (and married man) Millard Fillmore flirted with Julia. And the Gardiners became friendly with President Tyler and his sons; Mrs. Tyler had recently died of stroke. Only five months after Mrs. Tyler's death, President Tyler asked Julia to marry him: she refused.
A year later, on February 28, 1844, Julia and David Gardiner were guests aboard the newly commissioned U.S. Frigate Princeton. The Princeton carried a brand new 12-inch, 27,000-pound cannon called the Peacemaker. While cruising, the Peacemaker was shot towards Mount Vernon as a salute to Washington. The gun exploded, killing Secretary of State Abel P. Upshur, Secretary of the Navy Thomas Gilmer, and David Gardiner. Upon hearing of her father's death, Julia fainted into President Tyler's arms. Convenient.
“The scene upon the deck may more easily be imagined than described,” the National Intelligencer reported. “Nor can the imagination picture to itself the half of its horrors. Wives, widowed in an instant by the murderous blast. Daughters smitten with the heart-rending sight of their father’s lifeless corpse! The wailings of agonized females! The piteous grief of the unhurt but heart-stricken spectators! The wounded seamen borne down below! The silent tears and quivering lips of their brave and honest comrades, who tried in vain to subdue or to conceal their feelings! What words can adequately depict a scene like this?”
Funeral services for the white victims were held in the East Room of the White House. David Gardiner is buried in the Gardiner family plot at South End Cemetery in East Hampton.
Tyler and Julia were married four months later. The couple named their first child David Gardiner Tyler in honor of his maternal grandfather and had seven children in total. Almost unbelievably, their grandsons are still alive.
- Official biography [White House]