By Brice McAdoo Clagett ’50
In March 1881, James Buchanan “Buck” Johnston, a Baltimore boy of 14, died of rheumatic fever, from which he had seemed to be recovering. The sorrow over the death of a child, always especially poignant, was soon doubled in impact. In October 1882, Henry Elliott Johnston Jr., Buck’s 12-year-old brother, died in France, while his family was traveling in Europe. And in 1884, the boys’ father died, leaving his wife, Harriet Lane Johnston, a childless widow. Such losses, almost past the point of human bearing, might have driven another woman to cynicism and despair. But Harriet Lane Johnston was a strong person and a devout member of the Episcopal Church. Out of tragedy came triumph, and St. Albans School stands today as the result.
Born in Mercersburg, Pa., in 1830 and orphaned at the age of eleven, Harriet Lane was raised by her bachelor uncle James Buchanan (she called him “Nunc”). When Buchanan became secretary of state, she attended Georgetown Visitation Convent; when he served as minister to Great Britain, she traveled abroad with him; and when he became the 15th president of the United States in 1857, she became his first lady.