by Rich Szlosek

During the afternoon and evening of Thursday, January 5, 1933 the nation was stunned to learn of the death in Northampton of Calvin Coolidge, the 30th president of the United States. The official cause of death for the sixty year old Coolidge was listed as a coronary thrombosis and, while it was not widely known, he had been in failing health for some time. During the presidential campaign of 1932 he had promised Herbert Hoover he would make two major speeches supporting him. The first was in New York and Coolidge, suffering from a severe shortness of breath, was barely able to complete the talk. Observers at the speech noted that Coolidge had clearly lost weight and had aged in recent months. The second talk was promptly cancelled.

On the morning of Thursday, January 5 Coolidge had gone to his office but returned to his home, known as the Beeches, by ten. He and Mrs. Coolidge had a brief conversation and she went downtown to do some shopping. When she returned just before one pm, she found her husband dead on the dressing room floor. Word of his demise spread quickly and by the next day dozens of reporters descended upon Northampton. Tributes flowed in from all over the nation to the local telegraph office and the town’s florists had difficulty in keeping up with the requests for floral bouquets.

Mrs. Coolidge quickly made several decisions. She decided to keep the funeral ceremony short and simple with no eulogy and rejected all suggestions for official observances in Washington and Boston. She determined the funeral would happen in Northampton at the Edwards Congregational Church with burial in the family plot in Plymouth Notch, Vermont and that the funeral would be on Saturday, January 7, less than two full days away.

It is astounding to see how rapidly the complicated details were worked out. On Saturday morning, a train left Washington headed for Northampton. On board were President and Mrs. Hoover, Vice-president Curtis, Chief Justice Hughes, Secretary of War Stimson, other Cabinet and Supreme Court members and various Congressional leaders. All the New England governors would be present at the service. The incoming president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, sent his son James and his wife, Eleanor, as his personal representatives. That meant there were three first ladies sitting in Edwards Church – Grace Coolidge, Lou Hoover and Eleanor Roosevelt. (FDR had a Northampton connection of his own as his maternal grandmother, Catherine Lyman Delano, had been born in town.)

At approximately 8 am on Saturday the casket containing Coolidge’s body was taken from the Beeches and driven to Edwards. An honor guard of Northampton police carried the body into the church where it lay in state with a two-man honor guard. Despite all the planning that had gone on, the officials had greatly underestimated the number of people that would want to pay their final respects to “Cal”. At 8:30 the church doors were opened for the public to file past the casket but the crowd on Main Street was so large and the emotion so intense that the authorities had difficulty controlling it. The situation nearly got out of hand when, according to the pre-planned schedule, the doors were closed at 9:30 and hundreds were denied their final glimpse of Coolidge.

All the pews on the lower level of the church had been carefully assigned to dignitaries and the press. Accordingly, the public was restricted to seats in the balcony. At 9:45 the doors were again opened and there was a small stampede for the few available pews. The Washington train arrived just before 10 o’clock but it took the motorcade longer than expected to negotiate the throng on Main Street and it arrived slightly later than scheduled. As the dignitaries were being escorted to their assigned places, the organist played three pieces, the largo from Handel’s Xerxes, Chopin’s funeral march and the largo from Dvorak’s New World Symphony. Hoover laid a wreath of flowers on the casket and, just as the notables were finally settled, Mrs. Coolidge, her son, John, and his wife entered the church through a side door from State Street. The minister, Albert Penner, and a quartet of singers began the simple service of prayers and hymns and it reportedly took only twenty minutes to complete it.

The Coolidges then left by the side door and returned to the Beeches. The president, Mrs. Hoover and the vice-president followed them there and made a short courtesy call on Mrs. Coolidge to express their condolences. They then joined the Washington entourage at the depot and, shortly after twelve, the train pulled out of the station. The Coolidges returned to the church at noon and joined the cortege that would transport Coolidge’s remains to Vermont.

It was a cold, rainy day as the procession, escorted by the Massachusetts State Police, made its way up Route 5 through South Deerfield, Greenfield and Brattleboro. In both Massachusetts and Vermont citizens stood bare-headed in silent tribute to the late president as the cortege passed by. At the state line the Vermont State Police assumed the escort duties. Due to the weather and crowds, the procession did not arrive at Plymouth Notch until after four o’clock. A large crowd had gathered at the grave site. As darkness was rapidly settling in, six United States marshals carried the casket to the grave. The Reverend Penner offered some traditional prayers. Taps were sounded and it was all over. Some observers said that for a few brief moments the sun broke through and illuminated the whole scene. All those in the official procession returned to their vehicles and, accompanied by the same formal escorts, made their way back to Northampton. It had been an historic day for the city and its most famous resident had now been forever laid to rest next to his family and ancestors. One cannot help but think Coolidge would have been pleased with the quiet, dignified manner in which his funeral had been conducted. It had been a sad few days in the country for, as the New York Times stated, “In a very real sense the nation has lost the leader in whom it most completely trusted”.