16 Savage Teddy Roosevelt Insults

George C. Beresford, Hulton Archive/Getty Images
George C. Beresford, Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Theodore Roosevelt had a way with words. Over his lifetime, the eminently quotable president and author popularized many witty turns of phrase. And though he wasn’t fond of swearing, Roosevelt didn't always speak softly, either—he was capable of delivering a savage insult when he felt it was appropriate (though usually he saved his irritation for letters and didn't deliver the insult to his enemy’s face). Here are just a few of them.

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1. “An amiable old fuzzy-wuzzy with sweetbread brains.”

This insult was leveled at an anonymous Supreme Court Justice who dared to cross Roosevelt.

2. “A well-meaning, pin-headed, anarchistic crank, of hirsute and slab-sided aspect.”

Said of the Populist Senator from Kansas William Alfred Peffer, who was indeed hairy, tall, and lean.

3. “The shifty, adroit, and selfish logothete in the White House.”

According to historian Edmund Morris, in 1915 Edith Wharton had asked Roosevelt to visit Europe and report on what was happening to the French in World War I. But Roosevelt proclaimed that he would only go when he could fight, which he considered unlikely under President Woodrow Wilson, who Roosevelt said "cannot be kicked into war." The former president didn't have kind words for Wilson's supporters, either; he called them "flubdubs and mollycoddles."

4. “A cold-blooded, narrow-minded, prejudiced, obstinate, timid old psalm-singing Indianapolis politician.”

When he wrote this, Roosevelt was insulting President Benjamin Harrison, who had appointed Roosevelt as a reform commissioner because he owed TR a favor. Harrison quickly came to regret it: Soon after Roosevelt was appointed, he investigated Indianapolis Postmaster William Wallace … Harrison’s best friend. 

5. “[A] little emasculated mass of inanity.”

Roosevelt said this of novelist Henry James. James, for his part, said that Roosevelt was “dangerous,” and “the mere monstrous embodiment of unprecedented and resounding Noise.”

6. “The most intolerably slow of all men who ever adored red tape.”

This isn’t the nicest thing to say about one of your colleagues—in this case, one of TR’s fellow Civil Service Commissioners (and Civil War veteran), Charles Lyman. According to Lyman’s Men of Mark in America entry, published in 1906, “While Mr. Roosevelt's work and attention were largely given to the investigation of abuses and violations of the law and rules, and to the education of public opinion in favor of the reform, through public addresses and the press, Mr. Lyman's work was almost wholly administrative and constructive, his purpose and effort being to establish the reform on a sound and conservative basis and to develop it according to the more obvious and pressing needs of the public service.”

7. “A professional yodeler, a human trombone.”

Said of William Jennings Bryan, then Secretary of State to Woodrow Wilson.

8. “That leprous spot upon our civilization.”

Roosevelt didn’t have kind words for William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal, who dared “[portray] me as attacking labor when I enforce the law as regards Miller in the Printing Office,” Roosevelt wrote to Harrison Gray Otis in 1903. Earlier, the paper had published an interview in which Roosevelt supposedly called the paper’s coverage of the lead up to the Spanish-American War “most commendable and accurate.” The paper’s coverage was actually full of inaccuracies, and according to Roosevelt, he never gave that interview—and loudly denied those words of praise.

9. “Puzzlewit,” “Fathead,” “Brains less than a guinea pig.”

Roosevelt reserved some of his harshest words for his hand-picked successor. Roosevelt and William Howard Taft had a falling out; eventually, after challenging Taft for the Republican nomination (saying, "I'll name the compromise candidate. He'll be me. I'll name the compromise platform. It will be our platform”) Roosevelt ran against Taft in 1912 as a member of the Progressive party, a.k.a. the Bull Moose Party, and that’s when the gloves came off.

And in case the guinea pig reference seems random, Roosevelt once explained that “Just as machinery can be expressed in terms of horsepower, so some intellect can be expressed in terms of guinea pig power,” and that certain accusations against him “can only be heeded by men with brains of about three-guinea-pig power.” After which the St. Louis Dispatch opined, "Col. Theodore Roosevelt has further enriched the language which so many of his phrases now adorn by producing the following conjunctive description: ‘Three-guinea-pig-power brain.’ This is considered vastly superior to Woodrow Wilson’s ‘single track mind’ phrase, which had a brief vogue.”

10. “A flubdub with a streak of the second-rate and the common in him."

Another insult aimed at Taft.

11. “The true old-style Jeffersonian of the barbaric blatherskite variety.”

According to Merriam-Webster, a blatherskite is “a person who blathers a lot.” In this case, Roosevelt was referring to Mississippi Congressman John Sharp Williams, who served as the Minority Leader of the United States House of Representatives from 1903 until 1908. In The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Morris noted that Roosevelt's "contempt for Jefferson was matched only by his worship of the autocratic Alexander Hamilton."

12. “He is evidently a maniac, morally no less than mentally.”

TR was a man of morals, and he used these harsh words in reference to his brother, Elliott Roosevelt, who had an affair out of wedlock that resulted in a pregnancy. In his autobiography, Teddy wrote, “Moreover, public opinion and the law should combine to hunt down the ‘flagrant man swine’ who himself hunts down poor or silly or unprotected girls.”

13. “[A] hypocritical haberdasher … An ill-constitutioned creature, oily, but with bristles sticking up through the oil.”

Said of Postmaster General John Wanamaker, after Wanamaker refused to intervene when Milwaukee Postmaster George H. Paul (more on him in a bit!) had “dismissed Hamilton Shidy for treachery and insubordination,” according to Morris. Shidy had testified against Paul in corruption proceedings.

14. “About as thorough-paced a scoundrel as I ever saw. An oily-Gammon, church-going specimen.”

Here, Roosevelt was calling Milwaukee Postmaster George H. Paul a fatty ham in addition to a scoundrel. (Paul would eventually resign in 1889.)

15. "Too small game to shoot twice."

Roosevelt leveled this dig at William J. Long, after the Wilderness Ways author attacked the president for giving an interview in which Roosevelt had accused Long of being a “nature faker.”

16. “He seems to have a brain of about eight-guinea-pig-power ... it is useless to have a worthy creature of mutton-suet consistency like the good Sir Mortimer.”

Written in a letter to Whitelaw Reid. Sir Mortimer Durand was a shy and formal British Ambassador to the United States from 1903-1906 (he also lent his name to the Durand line between Pakistan and Afghanistan). The diplomat was a huge fan of Roosevelt; Cecil Spring Rice wrote that “My chief (Durand) thinks Teddy R. the greatest man in the world and has treated me with immense respect since I let on that I correspond with Teddy. I tell him stories and he listens open-mouthed.” But Durand couldn’t keep up with Roosevelt, either in conversation or physically. Once, when the two went for a walk, Durand recounted in his diary that Roosevelt “made me struggle through bushes and over rocks for two hours and a half, at an impossible speed, till I was so done that I could hardly stand.” Yup, that sounds like Teddy!

How to Baffle a Bull Moose: The Time Harry Houdini Tricked Theodore Roosevelt

Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt aboard the SS Imperator.
Harry Houdini and Theodore Roosevelt aboard the SS Imperator.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

When the SS Imperator set sail for New York City in June 1914, it had on board bigwigs of both politics and entertainment—namely, former president Theodore Roosevelt and acclaimed illusionist Harry Houdini. Houdini was returning from a performance tour across the UK, and Roosevelt had been busy with a tour of his own: visiting European museums, meeting ambassadors, and then attending the wedding of his son, Kermit, in Madrid. Though the two men hadn’t crossed paths before, they soon became fast friends, often exercising together in the morning (at least, whenever Houdini wasn’t seasick).

The ocean liner hadn’t booked Houdini to perform, but when an officer asked Houdini if he’d give an impromptu performance at a benefit concert on the ship, he agreed, partially at the insistence of his new companion.

Little did Roosevelt know, Houdini had spent weeks plotting an elaborate ruse especially for him.

Houdini Hatches a Plan

ss imperator in 1912
The SS Imperator circa 1913.
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Earlier in June, when Houdini was picking up his tickets for the trip, the teller divulged that he wouldn’t be the only celebrity on the SS Imperator.

“Teddy Roosevelt is on the boat,” the teller whispered, “but don’t tell anyone.”

Houdini, knowing there was a good chance he’d end up hosting a spur-of-the-moment show, started scheming immediately. 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.

Having heard that The Telegraph would soon publish details about Roosevelt’s recent rip-roaring expedition through South America, Houdini paid his editorial friends a surprise visit.

"I jumped into a taxi and went to The Telegraph office to see what I could pick up," he said. They readily obliged his request for information, and even handed over a map of Roosevelt’s journey along the Amazon.

What followed was a combination of spectacular cunning and good old-fashioned luck.

Houdini hatched a plan to hold a séance, during which he would employ a particular slate 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 blank slates, where spirits then “write” the answer and the performer reveals it.

He prepared the slates so that one bore the map of Roosevelt’s entire trail down Brazil’s River of Doubt, along with an arrow and the words “Near the Andes.” In London, Houdini had also acquired old letters from W.T. Stead, a British editor (and spiritualist) who had perished on the RMS Titanic in 1912. Houdini forged Stead’s signature on the slate to suggest that the spirit of Stead knew all about Roosevelt’s unpublicized escapades.

Upon boarding the ship, Houdini faced only two obstacles. First, he had to finagle his way into performing a public séance with Roosevelt in attendance. Second, he would have to ensure that the question his “spirit” answered was “Where was I last Christmas?” or something very similar.

Houdini cleared the first hurdle with flying colors, saying he “found it easy to work the Colonel into a state of mind so that the suggestion of séance would come from him.” Though the master manipulator doesn’t elaborate on what exactly he said about spiritualism during their conversation—later in his career, Houdini would actually make a name for himself as an anti-spiritualist by debunking popular mediums—it sufficiently piqued Roosevelt’s interest. When the ship’s officer requested that Houdini perform, Roosevelt apparently goaded, “Go ahead, Houdini, give us a little séance.”

Just like that, Houdini had scheduled a séance that Roosevelt wouldn’t likely miss—and the illusionist wasn’t going to leave a single detail up to chance.

A Back-Up Plan (Or Two)

theodore roosevelt on the ss imperator
Roosevelt relaxes aboard the SS Imperator.
George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Rather than bank on the shaky possibility that Roosevelt himself would pen the perfect question, Houdini prepared to stuff the ballot, so to speak. He had copied the question "Where was I last Christmas?" onto several sheets of paper, sealed them in envelopes, and planned to make sure that only his own envelopes ended up in the hat from which he’d choose a question. (It seems like a problematic plan, considering the possibility that Roosevelt would speak up to say something like "Wait, that wasn't my question," but Houdini doesn't clarify how he hoped this would play out.)

The morning of the séance, Houdini devised yet another back-up plan. With a razor blade, he sliced open the binding of two books, slipped a sheet of carbon paper and white paper beneath each cover, and resealed them.

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—meaning that even after Roosevelt had sealed his question in an envelope, Houdini could sneak a glance and alter his performance accordingly.

A Little Hocus Pocus

Theodore Roosevelt poses with a map of the roosevelt-rondon expedition
Sometime after his voyage on the SS Imperator, Roosevelt posed with a map of his expedition through the Amazon.
Library of Congress // No Known Restrictions on Publication

That night, Houdini kicked off the show with a series of card tricks, where he let Roosevelt choose the cards. “I was amazed at the way he watched every one of the misdirection moves as I manipulated the cards,” he said, according to Kellock’s article. “It was difficult to baffle him.”

Then, it was time for the séance.

"La-dies and gen-tle-men," Houdini 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."

Houdini distributed the slips of paper, gave instructions, and then solicitously passed Roosevelt one of the books when he saw him start to use his hand as a surface. As Roosevelt began to write, composer Victor Herbert, also in attendance, offered a few shrewd words of caution.

"Turn around. Don't let him see it," Houdini heard him warn Roosevelt. "He will read the question by the movements of the top of the pencil."

"The Colonel then faced abruptly away from me and scribbled his question in such a position that I could not see him do it," Houdini said, adding, "Of course that made no difference to me."

After Roosevelt finished, 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’s question read “Where was I last Christmas?” Houdini wouldn’t need to slip one of his own envelopes between the slates after all.

"Knowing what was in the Colonel's envelope, I did not have to resort to sleight of hand, but boldly asked him to place his question between the slates himself," Houdini said. "While I pretended to show all four faces of the two slates, by manipulation I showed only three."

Then, after Roosevelt stated his question aloud to the audience, Houdini revealed the marked-up map, bearing the answer to Roosevelt’s question signed by the ghost of W.T. Stead.

In a 1926 article from The New York Times, Houdini describes Roosevelt as “dumbfounded” by the act.

“Is it really spirit writing?” he asked.

“Yes,” Houdini responded with a wink.

In Kellock’s account, however, Houdini confessed that “it was just hocus-pocus.”

Either way, it seems that Houdini never explained to Roosevelt exactly how he had duped him, and Roosevelt died in 1919, a decade before Kellock’s detailed exposition hit newsstands.

To fully appreciate the success of Houdini’s charade, you have to understand just how difficult it would’ve been to pull one over on a sharp-witted guy like Theodore Roosevelt. Dive into his life and legacy in the first season of our new podcast, History Vs. podcast, hosted by Mental Floss editor-in-chief Erin McCarthy.

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