Why young Ann Coleman died suddenly in the autumn of 1819, after breaking off her engagement with James Buchanan and fleeing to Philadelphia, is a question that probably never will be definitively answered.
Did the young woman succumb to a hysterical fit? Did she take her own life by overdosing, purposely or not, on laudanum, a tincture of opium?
Three informed letters on this subject favor another possibility. They also underscore how much Ann Coleman's father despised the future president.
The Scribbler probably would not have found these letters without the aid of the new James Buchanan Presidential Library — an online repository of thousands of items associated with Buchanan, his family members and friends, and Wheatland, his preserved home on President Avenue in Lancaster.
The library is a collection of materials at LancasterHistory, Dickinson College (Buchanan’s alma mater), the Library of Congress, the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and Penn State University.
LancasterHistory’s materials — letters, personal and political papers, and ephemera associated with Buchanan — now are centralized at collections.lancasterhistory.org, thanks to LancasterHistory’s initiative and a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
The three letters, all written in the summer of 1927, seem to have been generated by Charles Landis, a well-known Lancaster judge and historian. Members of the Coleman family wrote to Landis and to each other, each explaining why Ann Coleman died.
As the story goes, Buchanan, as a young Lancaster lawyer, asked Ann Coleman to marry him and then, absorbed by legal work, virtually ignored her. She did not like that and told him so in writing. He barely replied. Then he visited another woman. The fragile Ann took offense, broke off the engagement, ran away to the big city and died.
Francis Rawle, a Philadelphia lawyer related to the Colemans by marriage, told Judge Landis that his mother had told him that Ann had died of a “broken heart.” Charles Keith, also of Philadelphia, told the judge the same thing. Keith’s mother was Ann Coleman’s niece.
The most interesting of the three letters — from Fanny Brown Coleman to Rawle — claims Ann died of heart disease. That suggests she may have died of a longstanding heart disorder, not a psychologically broken heart.
Fanny Coleman was a great-granddaughter of Robert Coleman, Ann Coleman’s father. Robert Coleman, the wealthiest ironmonger in the country, loathed James Buchanan.
Fanny Coleman told Rawle that she had seen James Buchanan when she was a small child. She and her parents and siblings were visiting her cousin, Harriet Old, in Lancaster.
“In the midst of the visit, in walked J. B. & out walked the Coleman family as quickly as Father could get us out,”' she wrote. “He detested J. B. Aunt Harriet has often said of the feeling in the family against him and how in Lancaster they would cross the street rather than walk on his pavement.”
That nasty, nasty, nasty James Buchanan.
Large physical libraries have been assembled for many presidents. Some people here contemplated such a library for Buchanan two decades ago. This digital library replaces what would have been a costly brick-and-mortar venture. Patrick Clarke, administrator at Wheatland, and Tom Ryan, director of LancasterHistory.org, initiated the project.
“We now can share all of these primary sources in one location,” Clarke says. “It is nice when a plan comes together.”
Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP staff, writes "The Scribbler'' column every Sunday. He welcomes comments and contributions at firstname.lastname@example.org.