Martha Ellen (Young) Truman was a powerful influence in the life of her son, Harry S. Truman. Throughout his life, he remained close to his mother through visits, telephone calls and letters. In his memoirs, Harry Truman recalled that his mother “taught me my letters and how to read before I was five years old.”
When Harry was 10, his mother gave him a set of books, “Great Men and Famous Women.” Reading was an important activity for Harry, whose poor eyesight hindered his ability to play sports or to do many things outdoors.
Martha Ellen Truman, known as “Mattie,” was born in Jackson County, near Hickman Mills, in 1852. She was one of eight children born to Solomon and Harriet Louisa (Gregg) Young. Scarred by her memories of mistreatment by Union soldiers during the Civil War, Martha later told her granddaughter, Margaret Truman, that she would prefer sleeping on the floor to sleeping in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House. Martha Truman’s enduring bitterness about the Civil War undoubtedly helped President Truman understand the suffering of Jews and other Europeans during World War II.
Martha, a partisan Democrat, closely followed her son’s rising political career from local precinct to the United States Senate. Her life continued to impact his, too. In 1944, while Senator Truman attended the Democratic National Convention that nominated him to the vice presidency, the Jackson County Court foreclosed on the court-held mortgage on Martha’s farm in Grandview, forcing the eviction of Martha and Mary Jane Truman, Harry Truman’s sister. Although the farm home would be recovered, Senator Truman was embarrassed by what he was sure was a politically motivated action by his enemies.
Soon after he became president in April 1945, Martha Truman famously told reporters “I can’t really be glad he’s President because I am sorry President Roosevelt is dead. If he had been voted in, I would be out waving a flag, but it doesn’t seem right to be very happy or wave any flags now. Harry will get along all right.”
In July 1947, President Truman was informed that his mother was very ill and close to death. He was determined to try to see her before she died. His diary for July 26 is worth quoting at length:
“My sister, Mary Jane, called & said that mamma is sinking swiftly. ... Took off at 12:30 Washington time. At 1:30 Washington time recieved [sic] message my mother has passed on. Terrible shock. No one knew it. Arrived in Grandview about 3:30 CST(,) went to the house and met sister & brother. Went to Belton with them and picked a casket. A terrible ordeal….Spent Sunday morning and afternoon at Grandview. Mamma had been placed in casket we had decided upon and returned to her cottage. I couldn’t look at her dead. I wanted to remember [her] alive when she was at her best.”
The Truman Library has recently opened Secret Service records that reveal unknown details about the president’s trip to Grandview for his mother’s funeral and burial.
Martha Ellen Truman was 94 years old when she died. She never lived to see her son elected president in his own right in 1948. But she had instilled in him a strong moral compass; a direct, clear way of thinking; and a determination to never give up. As a boy, young Harry had written that goals in life could be achieved with “a true heart, a strong mind and a great deal of courage,” a statement that summarized his mother’s lessons to him.
Sam Rushay is the supervisory archivist of the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum in Independence.