27 Facts About Theodore 'Teddy' Roosevelt

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

You don’t have to be much of a trivia buff to know that the nation’s 26th president, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1858-1919), was responsible for putting a name to the teddy bear phenomenon after a newspaper cartoon depicted him refusing to shoot an injured bear on a hunting trip. ("Teddy's bear" became a buzz phrase.) But Roosevelt—who passed away on January 6, 1919—certainly had a much more storied life than influencing the stuffed animal industry. Here are some things you might not have known about the dedicated environmentalist who had a fondness for skinny-dipping, on the 100th anniversary of his death.

Mental Floss just launched a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., and our first season is all about Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe here!

1. He went from wimp to warrior.

Born on October 27, 1858, Roosevelt—often called “Teedie” or “Teddy” by friends—was a frail kid, prone to illness, asthma, and lacking physical strength. Despite his modest build, he was an avid outdoors enthusiast, and sometimes carried his fascination with wildlife indoors by practicing taxidermy. At 14, his family went on a tour of Egypt, and he traveled with his somewhat macabre tools of the trade, including arsenic. As a teen, Roosevelt put his stuffed birds aside and decided to become aggressive in his physical routine, training in gymnastics and weightlifting. Later, he would practice both boxing and judo. The intense interest he showed in combat sports made him a fitness advocate for the rest of his life.

2. He was an odd man out at Harvard.

The enthusiastic and boisterous Roosevelt, who began attending Harvard in the fall of 1876, was unlike many of his more subdued peers. When he was in a fervent discussion, he’d strike his hand into his palm to make a point. When he saw a friend, he’d yell at him from across the grass. Despite his rough manners, Roosevelt still made plenty of friends through his athletic pursuits. And he did OK academically, too: At the time of his graduation, he was ranked 21 out of 161 students.

3. He could be extremely jealous.

While at Harvard, Roosevelt met his first wife, Alice Lee. After a courtship, the two got engaged with an eye on marriage after graduation. Despite Alice’s adoration, Roosevelt was said to be apoplectic when any man dared approach her. If a man got out of line, Roosevelt would threaten to challenge him to a duel. At one point, he even mailed away for a pair of French dueling pistols in case anyone wished to take him up on the offer.

4. He tried his hand at becoming a rancher.

Roosevelt was often at his most comfortable when he was surrounded by the tropes of the outdoors: cattle, horses, guns, and vast stretches of land. Traveling to the Dakota Territory in 1883 to hunt bison, Roosevelt was intrigued by the idea of operating a cattle ranch there and soon went in business (with a $14,000 investment) with Sylvane Ferris, the brother of his hunting guide, and cattleman Bill Merrifield. That led to a second ranch, which he dubbed Elkhorn. While he enjoyed playing cowboy—complete with buckskin shirt and spurs—overgrazing and bad weather conspired to create financial losses. Roosevelt sold his interest in the ranches by 1898.

5. He was an accomplished author.

Drawing on his affection for the outdoors, Roosevelt spent considerable time before taking presidential office authoring books with titles like Hunting Trips of a Ranchman and a primer on the Western frontier, the four-volume Winning of the West. The writing was in some measure an escape for Roosevelt, who once retreated to his Dakota Territory ranch in 1884 after his wife, Alice, and his mother both died on the same day. (In his journal entry for that day, he wrote, "The light has gone out of my life.") Roosevelt continued writing for the rest of his life, relying on income from publishing rather than his public-office salaries to support himself.

6. He once chased down boat thieves.

In 1886, Roosevelt’s moored boat was stolen from his ranch and taken down the Little Missouri River. Calling it a matter of personal honor and feeling the need to pursue criminals in his role as a deputy sheriff, Roosevelt gave chase while accompanied by his two ranch hands. Trailing armed thieves was dangerous enough, but the frigid late winter weather had turned the river into an icy, treacherous path. Sensing he could be in for a prolonged ride, Roosevelt packed up flour, coffee, and a copy of Anna Karenina for downtime. After three days and braving freezing weather, the group crept up on the thieves on the river bank and apprehended all of them. Fearing that tying them up might cut off their circulation in the cold air, Roosevelt ordered the men to take their boots off. In cactus country, that was as good as a pair of handcuffs. Roosevelt spent the long ride back reading Anna Karenina.

7. He was a war hero.

Theodore Roosevelt in his Rough Riders uniform.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

Drawn to public service after dropping out of law school, Roosevelt became president of the New York City Board of Police Commissioners in 1895 and assistant secretary of the U.S. Navy in 1897. After the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898, Roosevelt insisted on serving and eventually became colonel of the First U.S. Volunteer Calvary. His “Rough Riders” were involved in skirmishes and Roosevelt himself was wounded by shrapnel while advancing on the San Juan River in Cuba. At the Battle of San Juan Hill, he led a charge with a skeleton crew of men, holding Spanish soldiers at bay and keeping position until they were relocated by superiors. Roosevelt’s leadership was hailed by many as an exemplar of courage, and reports of his bravery helped win him a seat as governor of New York upon his return.

8. He's still the youngest president in history.

Vice President Roosevelt became president in 1901 immediately following the assassination of sitting president William McKinley. At the age of 42, he was—and remains—the youngest president in the country’s history. (John F. Kennedy was 43 when he was sworn in; Bill Clinton was 46.)

9. He was a dedicated environmentalist.

A lover of the outdoors, Roosevelt made protecting the natural wonder of American territory a priority. Over his tenure in the White House, he reserved 200 million acres of land for national forests and wildlife refuges; previous presidents combined had only done a fifth of that. “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth," he said in 1908. "But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation.

"These questions do not relate only to the next century or to the next generation. It is time for us now as a nation to exercise the same reasonable foresight in dealing with our great natural resources that would be shown by any prudent man in conserving and widely using the property which contains the assurance of well-being for himself and his children.”

10. He knew how to charm the press.

More than any other president before him, Roosevelt knew how to enact effective change: Get the press and public opinion on his side. He created a press room at the White House and invited correspondents for informal chats while he got a shave; he was also prone to publicity stunts, like riding 98 miles on horseback and field-testing a new submarine vessel by diving to the bottom of Long Island Sound.

11. He had a beef with beef.

Food safety was not of paramount concern to lawmakers in the early part of the 20th century. (As an example of their suspect methodology, the U.S. government once solicited volunteers to ingest one common food additive, formaldehyde, to see if there were any adverse effects.) Roosevelt was firm in his mission to make sure American beef products were safe to consume, dispatching investigators to meat-packing plants and collecting horror stories of dirty preparation areas and putrid meat. Despite intense objection from the meat industry, Roosevelt signed the Pure Food and Drug Act and Meat Inspection Act into law in 1906.

12. He helped save football.

In the early 1900s, football was perhaps even more dangerous than it is today, with only loose regulations requiring protective equipment guarding players from serious injury. Roughly 45 players died from 1900 to 1905 from a variety of ailments as a result of collisions, from broken necks to broken backs. With public tide turning against the game, Roosevelt summoned representatives from Yale, Harvard, and other schools in 1905 to discuss new measures that would improve its safety profile. His concern helped usher in new rules—while the sport wasn’t and isn’t “safe,” it did largely turn around its alarming mortality rate.

13. He practically kept a zoo while in office.

Roosevelt’s White House was no place for anyone skittish over animals. In addition to the numerous dogs, rabbits, and horses, the president also kept snakes, flying squirrels, chickens, bears, a lion, a zebra, and what he described as a “friendly and affectionate” rat.

14. Boxing blinded him in one eye.

Roosevelt’s fondness for combat sports didn’t leave him when he was elected to the highest office in the land. In 1905, when he was almost 50, Roosevelt was sparring in a boxing match with a partner when he was struck with a right to his left eye. The blow left him with a detached retina and led to significant vision issues. In his autobiography, he described the punch as leaving him “dim” in that eye. Fortunately, Roosevelt had other physical pursuits to keep him busy, including the tennis courts he had installed in 1902, although he never allowed himself to be photographed while wearing his sporty racket outfit.

15. He burned his presidential portrait.

Not known as a vain man, Roosevelt was still disappointed in his official presidential portrait. Artist Théobald Chartran, Roosevelt claimed, had made him look like a “mewing cat.” Even his children teased him about it. After being displayed in Chartran’s home country of France, the painting returned to the White House, where Roosevelt burned it as one of his final acts in office.

16. He was the first president to leave the country during his term.

Roosevelt, who had petitioned for the construction of the Panama Canal for years, couldn’t resist an opportunity to see the site for himself when plans were finally underway. In 1906, he visited Panama and in doing so became the first president to travel outside the U.S. while holding office. The workers let him operate a steam shovel.

17. He hated being called "Teddy."

Still life of a 'Teddy' Bear sitting with its tag describing the origin of the toy and US president Theodore Roosevelt circa the 1950s.
Hulton Archive // Getty Images

Despite giving his blessing for stuffed-animal makers to refer to their bears as “Teddys,” Roosevelt—whose childhood nickname was "Teedie"—was no fan of the nickname. Reportedly, it reminded him of his late first wife, Alice, who used the term when addressing him; Roosevelt hardly ever spoke of her following her untimely death in 1884. (He married second wife Edith Carow in 1886.) He liked being called “Colonel Roosevelt” in his later years. While on safari, his African escorts called him “Bwana Tumbo,” or “Mr. Unusually Large Belly.”

18. He went skinny-dipping with the French ambassador.

Virtually all of our presidents have retained their modesty, but Roosevelt was never bashful about abandoning his clothes for a quick, naked dip in the water. While walking near the Potomac River in 1903, the president and the Chief of the Division of Forestry, Gifford Pinchot, jumped in for a swim, leaving their clothes behind. The French ambassador was with them, though he elected to keep his gloves on because “we might meet ladies!”

19. His oldest daughter tried his patience.

The eldest of Roosevelt’s children—and the only one with his first wife, Alice— Alice Roosevelt was 17 when her father took office and quickly became infamous for a series of public indiscretions. She was fond of smoking cigarettes on the roof of the White House after her father told her she couldn’t smoke indoors; she walked around with a boa constrictor on her neck. Alice’s carefree attitude made her a celebrity in her own right, with one color—“Alice blue”—named after her. Active in Washington until her death at age 96, Alice was known as “the other Washington monument.”

20. He scared Dr. Seuss.

As a boy, Theodor Geisel, who would later be known as Dr. Seuss, sold war bonds in his hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts. As sales leaders in their Boy Scout troop, Geisel and his fellow Scouts were honored in 1918 by a visiting Roosevelt. Unfortunately, Roosevelt had only nine medals for 10 boys. Arriving in front of Geisel empty-handed, he tried to make a joke of it by saying, "What's this boy doing here?" Geisel was so stricken by the booming Roosevelt's accusation that he later declared the incident instilled in him a fear of large crowds.

21. He drank coffee by the gallon.

Perhaps not literally—but close. According to his family, Roosevelt's coffee cup was akin to a "bathtub," and he sweetened each cup with seven lumps of sugar. He was such a fan of the beverage that Maxwell House once put his face on some of their print ads.

22. He was a voracious—if curious—reader.

Roosevelt was said to have devoured a book a day, reading through texts with such speed it didn’t seem possible he could retain much information—but he did, firing off answers to anything he was quizzed on. He also read magazines but maintained an odd habit: After reading each page, he would rip it out and toss it to the floor.

23. He ran for a third term.

After winning re-election in 1904, Roosevelt told his supports that would be the end for him. In 1908, he supported Republican William Howard Taft. Taft won, but by 1912, their relationship had soured. Historians have long debated the specifics of the split; theories include Taft failing to keep his campaign promises, Taft being more rigid in the law than Roosevelt would have liked (especially in attempting to break up U.S. Steel, which Roosevelt had assured wouldn’t happen), Taft’s firing of Pinchot, or just differing views on how the government should respond to a nation rapidly becoming more urbanized and industrial. Whatever the reason, Roosevelt ran against Taft in 1912 on the new Progressive ticket. Republican support was split between Roosevelt and Taft, allowing Woodrow Wilson to win the presidency. Despite the loss, Roosevelt’s attempt at a three-peat was among the most successful third-party campaigns in history.

24. He was the first former president to fly in an airplane.

Heeding another call to adventure, in 1910 Roosevelt became the first current or former president to board a plane. The opportunity came at the invitation of aviator Arch Hoxsey, who invited Roosevelt to climb on board his plane in St. Louis, Missouri. A crowd of 10,000 people watched, with some expecting the beloved public figure to meet a bad end in the suspect-looking craft. After a three-minute, 20-second flight, Roosevelt was beaming. “I envy you your professional conquest of space,” he told Hoxsey.

25. He gave a speech immediately after being shot.

Roosevelt's speech pages showing where the bullet passed through.
Theodore Roosevelt Collection, Harvard Library, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Roosevelt’s reputation as a “bull moose,” his term to describe anyone made of sturdy stuff, was never on better display than October 14, 1912, when the former president was giving a speech in Milwaukee and announced he had just been shot by a would-be assassin named John Schrank. A shocked crowd looked on as Roosevelt revealed a bloody shirt and a stack of prepared remarks with a bullet hole in them (above; you can see both the papers and the shirt at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in New York City). Roosevelt spoke for 90 minutes before allowing his aides to take him to a hospital. The bullet had lodged itself near his ribs and would remain there for the rest of his life.

26. A trip to the Amazon almost killed him.

An incurable adventurer, Roosevelt set his sights on an Amazon river in 1913, declaring it his "last chance to a boy." Plotting his course on the largely-uncharted and inherently dangerous "River of Doubt," Roosevelt's notoriously sturdy constitution was challenged like never before. Several people in his party were struck down by tropical illness and half of the pack animals traveling with them died of exhaustion; food became scarce. Roosevelt himself grew ill with fever and reportedly was prepared to be left to die. After two months, they were able to return to civilization.

27. He met Houdini.

Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt pose for a picture.
Library of Congress // Public Domain

Sailing on the SS Imperator in 1914, Roosevelt was captivated by the ship’s booked entertainment: famed illusionist Harry Houdini. After a “séance” in which the magician correctly surmised Roosevelt had been in Brazil recently, an astounded Roosevelt asked if Houdini was really practiced in the dark arts. He played coy, but the truth was that Houdini knew Roosevelt would be on board and asked associates for information about his recent exploits.

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

History Vs. Podcast Bonus Episode: TR vs. Houdini

iHeartMedia
iHeartMedia

It’s June 1914, and illusionist Harry Houdini is hurrying through the crowded, smoggy streets of London, bound for the offices of the Hamburg America Line. He’s on his way to pick up two certificates of passage on a luxurious German steamship called the SS Imperator, which will ferry him and his wife, Bess, home to New York later in the month.

After a series of performances around Britain, Houdini will finally get a glorious break to rest and relax on the high seas before a summer residence at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre in Manhattan. For five whole days, he won’t have to hurry at all.

Houdini skids to a stop in front of the Hamburg America building, strolls in, and gives his name to the man at the front desk. Before the man hands over the tickets, he beckons Houdini closer with a conspiratorial air of secrecy.

“Teddy Roosevelt is on the boat,” the man whispers in Houdini’s ear. “But don’t tell anyone.”

Houdini accepts the tickets with a smile and slowly returns to the dull, cloudy daylight. He has no intention of sharing the secret, but not because loose lips sink ships. Instead, he’s already hatching a plan—a plan to trick everyone’s favorite tough-talking, rough-riding former president.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and in this bonus episode, we’re talking about TR’s rather unlikely maritime friendship with Harry Houdini, who might have been one of the only people to succeed in leaving TR truly dumbfounded. This episode is TR vs. Houdini.

Spring of 1914 was an especially busy time for both TR and Houdini, though neither was ever really not busy. Still reeling from the death of his mother in July 1913, Houdini had embarked on a rigorous tour of England and Scotland, where he captivated crowds by escaping from water tanks, swallowing needles, and making various objects—people included—disappear and reappear.

Meanwhile, Theodore Roosevelt was on a rigorous tour of his own. Fever and infection had almost killed him during his South American expedition along the River of Doubt that year, but even that wasn’t enough to keep him home for long. He returned to New York on May 19 and set sail for Europe just 11 days later. Once there, he spent the first half of June on a whirlwind continental jaunt that included visits to Paris, London, and Madrid, where he attended his son Kermit’s wedding to Belle Willard. Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, who accompanied him, described the trip as “a movie run at several times life speed.”

On June 18, TR left Alice and the newlyweds behind, boarding the SS Imperator in Southampton, England, with his cousin, Philip.

Harry and Bess Houdini boarded the ship, too.

It’s not clear if TR and Houdini had ever actually met each other before the voyage, but they definitely attended the same event on land at least once: the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Officially called the World’s Columbian Exposition, the event was meant to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s so-called discovery of the New World in 1492.

Roosevelt had funded a full-scale architectural reproduction of a hunter’s cabin to commemorate Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, and he attended the fair with his older sister, Bamie, who had served on the organization’s Board of Lady Managers of New York.

A 19-year-old, not-yet-famous Harry Houdini was also there—performing with his brother, Theo, in a magic act called “The Brothers Houdini.” Maybe TR caught the show, or maybe he became familiar with Houdini’s incredible feats later in his career.

Either way, the two men found each other on the SS Imperator and soon became fast friends. They started exercising together in the morning—at least, when both of them were feeling up to it. Houdini was prone to seasickness, and Roosevelt was still suffering bouts of fever from his Brazilian expedition.

One morning while they were taking a walk, a ship’s officer stopped them and asked if Houdini might be willing to perform at a charity concert the following night to benefit the German Sailors Home and the Magicians Club of London.

“Go ahead, Houdini,” Roosevelt goaded. “Give us a little séance.”

Houdini agreed to what seemed like a completely spontaneous séance—but in reality, it was all part of the cunning scheme that Houdini had been concocting ever since he found out TR would be on board.

The story was recounted in full in a 1929 newspaper article by Harold Kellock, which allegedly used Houdini’s own words from unreleased autobiographical excerpts.

Let’s back up to when the ticket teller had divulged that Houdini would be sailing the high seas with Roosevelt. The magician remembered that The Telegraph had plans to publish the harrowing tale of Roosevelt’s recent Amazonian expedition. After promising not to tell a soul that Roosevelt would be on board the Imperator, he wrote that he “jumped into a taxi and went to The Telegraph office to see what [he] could pick up.”

His editorial friends readily obliged his request for information. They even handed over a map that charted Roosevelt’s exact path along the river. That’s when Houdini decided to hold a séance, where he’d act like spirits were revealing the details of Roosevelt’s trip, as yet undisclosed to the public.

Houdini’s scheme didn’t stop there. A less committed magician might have thought that any old spirits would do, but Houdini wasn’t the best in the business for nothing. In his opinion, the ruse would be more convincing if the secrets were conveyed by one spirit in particular: W.T. Stead, a British editor and known spiritualist who had died on the Titanic in 1912. Houdini had acquired some of his letters while in London.

He planned for the séance to center around a certain trick common among mediums at the time. In it, a participant jots down a question on a piece of paper and slips it between two supposedly blank slates. Then, a spirit “writes”—heavy air quotes around that word, by the way—a response, and the performer reveals it to the audience.

On the slates, Houdini had drawn the map of Roosevelt’s trail and written the words “Near the Andes.” He then forged Stead’s signature on it to suggest that the message was sent straight from the afterlife.

There was definitely still a lot up in the air when he left the Southampton harbor, but Houdini had a plan for just about every detail. The fact that he wasn’t scheduled to perform on the SS Imperator was sort of a non-issue. According to Houdini, he always staged impromptu shows during voyages, so it was probably no surprise when the crew member asked him to do one. And was it luck that TR happened to be standing there when the crew member asked, or had Houdini orchestrated the whole encounter?

As for TR’s suggestion that Houdini conduct a séance, well, that wasn’t exactly a coincidence.

“I found it easy to work the Colonel into a state of mind so that the suggestion for the séance would come from him,” Houdini wrote. Though he didn’t elaborate on what exactly he said about spiritualism during their conversation, he apparently convinced Roosevelt that a séance was a spectacle worth seeing.

Interestingly enough, Houdini would make a name for himself as an anti-spiritualist later in his career by debunking popular mediums, demonstrating that they were frauds by mimicking their techniques and revealing their trickery.

Houdini’s next and most daunting hurdle was not only to guarantee that the question Roosevelt wrote on his slip of paper during the séance was “Where was I last Christmas?” but also to ensure that it was Roosevelt’s slip of paper that he chose.

So the master manipulator prepared to stuff the ballot, so to speak. Houdini copied “Where was I last Christmas?” onto several sheets of paper, sealed them in envelopes, and planned to make sure that only those envelopes ended up in the hat that he’d choose a question from. He was, after all, an absolute expert when it came to sleight of hand tricks.

But this is where Houdini’s plan gets a little questionable. If Roosevelt didn’t write “Where was I last Christmas?,” yet that’s the question Houdini’s spirit answered, it seems like there would be a pretty strong possibility that Roosevelt would say something like “Wait, that wasn’t my question.”

Maybe Houdini realized his strategy wasn’t quite foolproof, because he devised yet another back-up plan. On the morning of the performance, Houdini noticed two books lying on a table in the salon where the performance would take place. After smuggling them back to his room, he sliced open their bindings with a razor blade and slipped a sheet of carbon paper and white paper beneath the cover. Then, he carefully resealed the books and returned them to the salon.

As long as Roosevelt used one of the books as a flat surface to write on, the carbon paper would transfer his question to the white sheet below it. That way, Houdini could sneak a glance at the question even after the envelope was sealed and alter his performance accordingly.

Would everything work out according to Houdini’s plan? We’ll find out after this quick break.

 

The evening of the séance, the ship’s occupants gathered in the Grand Salon and enjoyed the musical talents of the Ritz Carlton Orchestra and opera singer Madame A. Cortesao.

Then, Houdini took the stage. He conjured silk handkerchiefs. He turned water into wine. He even let TR choose the cards during a series of card tricks.

“I was amazed at the way he watched every one of the misdirection moves as I manipulated the cards,” Houdini recounted. “It was difficult to baffle him.”

Under the watchful gaze of a very astute bull moose, Houdini turned to the audience.

"La-dies and gen-tle-men," he proclaimed. "I am sure that many among you have had experiences with mediums who have been able to facilitate the answering of your personal questions by departed spirits, these answers being mysteriously produced on slates. As we all know, mediums do their work in the darkened séance room, but tonight, for the first time anywhere, I propose to conduct a spiritualistic slate test in the full glare of the light."

He distributed the slips of paper and instructed the audience to jot down their questions. Seeing that Roosevelt was about to use his hand as a writing surface, Houdini generously passed him a book.

TR wasn’t the only quick-witted gentleman in the audience that night. Broadway composer Victor Herbert surveyed the scene and offered a few shrewd words of caution to his companion.

“‘Turn around. Don't let him see it,’" Houdini heard Herbert warn Roosevelt. “‘He will read the question by the movements of the top of the pencil.’” TR took his advice, turning his back to Houdini so he couldn’t be tricked … or so he thought.

“That made no difference to me,” Houdini wrote. Because, of course, the book he had passed to TR was one of the books he’d prepared, with carbon paper hidden under the cover.

After Roosevelt finished writing, Houdini took the book and slyly extracted the paper from the inside cover while returning it to the table. In an almost unbelievable stroke of luck, Roosevelt had written the very question Houdini had hoped for. So Houdini wouldn’t need to slip one of his own envelopes between the slates, after all. In fact, he didn’t even pick a question from the hat.

“I am sure that there will be no objection if we use the Colonel’s question,” he said, to general assent from the audience.

They all watched as Houdini flashed what appeared to be four blank sides of the slates. This was another little trick: Houdini had really only shown them three sides, obscuring the fourth so they wouldn’t see the map. Then, Houdini asked TR to place his envelope between the slates and tell his question to the audience.

“Where was I last Christmas?” TR said.

Houdini revealed the map to an utterly astonished audience.

“By George, that proves it!” TR roared over thunderous applause.

The next morning, TR interrupted their customary walk along the upper deck with a question he had probably been pondering since the stunt.

“How did you do it last night?” he asked Houdini. “Was that really spiritualism?”

Houdini later recounted that he grinned and responded, “No Colonel; it is all hocus pocus.”

According to a 1926 article from The New York Times, however, Houdini claimed that he maintained the charade and told TR that it really was spirit writing. Regardless, it doesn’t seem like TR ever got the full explanation. He died in 1919, years before newspapers shared these behind-the-scenes secrets with the public.

Houdini’s hijinks aboard the SS Imperator did make an immediate splash in the papers. The ship’s radio operator recounted the story to operators in Newfoundland, who then relayed it to journalists in New York.

Oddly, though, those early news reports give a slightly different question—that Houdini did actually choose from a hat—which was: “Can you draw a map tracing the recent journey made by our most famous passenger?”

So are those reports wrong, or was Houdini playing one last trick on everyone? The world may never know the truth. Regardless, news of the renowned magician’s latest trick hit stands before the ship even reached the harbor.

The rest of the voyage passed without any more magic, unless you count the magic of being in love. On June 22, the night after the performance, the Houdinis celebrated their 20th anniversary by hosting a delicious dinner of caviar and several fine French dishes.

Considering his close companionship with Houdini, TR might have attended the event. But it’s also possible he was busy with other things.

“I have been working hard finishing my book on Africa and writing my Pittsburgh speech,” he told The New York Times on June 23, shortly before the ship arrived in New York. He had also made time on June 22 for what he called a “thorough inspection” of the Imperator with its commander.

The bosom buddies parted ways when they reached New York, and it doesn’t seem like they ever got a chance to hang out again. But Houdini, for one, always made it clear that he was proud of his friendship with TR. During the voyage, he had arranged to have their photograph taken together by his assistant. Five other men ended up in the photo, including TR’s cousin, Philip, and Houdini later produced several copies of the photo without the other men. He also called TR “our beloved Colonel” in one letter and referred to himself as “a close personal friend of the Colonel’s for years” in another.

Houdini would eventually go on to perform for TR’s grandchildren at a party in February 1925, six years after TR died. Ted Jr.’s son—who was also named Theodore Roosevelt, and had been born just days before the legendary séance in 1914—proved just as difficult to baffle as his namesake.

Houdini said in a newspaper article, “He was not satisfied with seeing the tricks. He had to know how they were done.”

We’ll be back soon with another episode of History Vs.

Credits

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Ellen Gutoskey, with fact-checking by Austin Thompson.

The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs.

History Vs. is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.