It was on this day, July 7, 1924 at 10:30 in the evening, that the Coolidges’ youngest son, sixteen year old Calvin Jr., lost his fight with blood poisoning (septicemia) from a blister on his foot after playing tennis with his brother, John. In a hurry, young Calvin neglected to wear socks. Of course, the cause of Calvin’s symptoms was at first unknown and had to be accurately diagnosed. Calvin, unusually, is in bed when Dr. Boone arrives to find John is playing tennis with Agent Haley instead of Calvin.
Diagnosing the Cause
It was Dr. Joel Boone, assisting physician at the White House who first recognized the seriousness of his condition on July 2. The White House physicians, Major Coupal and Boone, are joined by Colonel William Keller, chief of surgery at Walter Reed Hospital, Dr. Charles W. Richardson, a respected Washington area physician, Dr. John B. Deaver of German Hospital in Philadelphia and a pathologist from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Dr. Kolmar. The President catches a young rabbit from the White House lawn to cheer his boy, whom they affectionately call “Bunny.”
As the infection moves into Calvin’s other leg, the boy is taken to Walter Reed on July 5. Surgery by Deaver with Keller assisting removes a small portion of the bone to be tested. It confirms the bacteria is staphylococcus aureas. Dr. Boone, searching for blood donors, finds T. Claude Perry, a corpsman during the late War and acquaintance of Boone’s; Perry is called but does not get the message in time. Perry will later write a letter to Dr. Boone expressing his regret at missing that call. Everything possible is being done for the infection in a time when Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin’s potential remained four years in the future.
Calvin, fighting on, goes from bad to worse. He begins to manifest respiratory problems on July 6. The President and Mrs. Coolidge sit by his side through most of the fight. The President presses his locket of his mother’s (Victoria Coolidge’s) hair into Calvin’s hand, stroking the boy’s forehead. An oxygen tank being prepared for Calvin explodes in front of Dr. Boone, who is struck in the chest and escorted out for a time. Fortunately, Boone is back in an hour and no one else was hit. Calvin, undergoing a fever, begins giving and receiving battle orders. Dr. Boone encourages him to keep fighting and not surrender. Calvin’s body, overcome by the infection, presents ileus near the end and succumbs that evening. Mrs. Coolidge enters to see her boy in death. Calvin Jr. is brought back to the White House and laid in state in the East Room. It is said the President, in his nightshirt, came down during the night to stroke the boy’s head as he laid in the casket.
Services conducted by Jason Noble Pierce for their son are held in the East Room on July 9, at 4pm. The Coolidges rarely displayed what they felt inside but as the casket was being carried out of the White House, it became too much for the President, who broke down and wept. A funeral train carries the boy toward Northampton, where memorial services are held later that evening at Edwards Congregational Church led by Kenneth B. Wells.
The following day, the funeral party reaches Ludlow and begins the final passage to Plymouth Notch, where Calvin Jr. is interred in the family plot on July 10. Boy scouts pass in tribute. Marine bugler, Arthur Whitcomb (who had played taps at the White House service) having accompanied the family to Plymouth, remains on hand. The President marks John’s height on the doorjam, measuring where Calvin Jr. would be “if alive.” Colonel Coolidge accompanies the family back to Washington.
Each will grieve in his and her own manner but the President will continue to seek election, secure nomination, and faithfully serve for the next four and a half years in such a manner that he makes administration look effortless. The glory of the Presidency may have gone with Calvin’s death but the commitment, fidelity, and exertion duty required never slackened for the President. A place nothing could fill opened before the entire family when Calvin Jr. left but, as the President would later tell Jason N. Pierce, “what would heaven be like, if it were made up only of old men and old women”? The President knew, as did king David of old, the boy could not return to him but the father would see his son again (2 Samuel 12.23).
To one who remains a boy for eternity, Calvin Coolidge Jr. (1908-1924)