Episode 1: TR Vs. Weakness

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Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

It’s October 14, 1912, and Theodore Roosevelt is standing before a crowd of 10,000 in Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Auditorium. The 53-year-old former president is once again campaigning for the highest office in the land, and he was scheduled to deliver what was supposed to be a typical campaign address. But the speech he’s about to give is anything but typical.

“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot.”

At first, the crowd doesn’t quite believe it. Someone yells “Fake!” But there are gasps and screams as Roosevelt pulls aside his vest, revealing a white shirt marred by a growing blood stain.

Just moments before, Roosevelt had been standing in an open car outside his hotel, waving to the assembled crowd—and a would-be assassin had shot him with a revolver from just 7 feet away.

Roosevelt had dropped momentarily, but it wasn’t long before he was back on his feet. Aides wanted to rush him to the hospital, and most people would have gone, but that is not Theodore Roosevelt’s style. Instead, he said, “You get me to that speech.”

And now, on stage, he assures the shocked crowd, “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose … I give you my word, I do not care a rap about being shot; not a rap.”

And then, although the slug is still inside him, he proceeds to give a nearly 90-minute-long speech.

If this sounds like an extraordinary occurrence, it was. Or, it would have been for anyone but Theodore Roosevelt, a man whose life was full of extraordinary occurrences. This was a guy who charged up Kettle Hill on horseback, bullets whizzing past him, with the Rough Riders; who, when he assumed office, became the youngest president in history, and is still the youngest president we’ve ever had; who helped broker peace between Russia and Japan, and won the Nobel Prize for his efforts; who paved the way for the Panama Canal; who went off the grid to navigate a previously uncharted river in the Amazon; who was immortalized on Mount Rushmore; and who is often ranked as one of the greatest presidents of all time.

But Roosevelt wasn’t always strong enough to stop a bullet. In fact, as a child he was afflicted by asthma so terrible that his parents feared he might not live to see his 4th birthday. How did Roosevelt go from puny, sickly kid to a person capable of giving that incredible, unimaginable 90-minute speech? We’re about to find out.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. For the first season of the show, we’re focusing on Theodore Roosevelt’s incredible life using a convention that he, as a boxer, would have appreciated.

In each episode, we’ll analyze how Roosevelt took on a particular challenge, from conflict within his family and conquering the hours of the day to his tussles with other presidents and preserving the world for the next generation. This episode is "TR vs. Weakness."

But before we get started, I want to tell you a little bit about how I became interested in Theodore Roosevelt. Yes, I’m the editor-in-chief of Mental Floss, so history is kind of my thing. But I didn’t fully appreciate all things TR until I plucked Edmund Morris’s excellent book, Colonel Roosevelt, out of the stacks at The Strand Bookstore. I didn’t realize at the time that it was the third book in a trilogy, so then I had to go back and read the others. But anyway, I came out of it with a huge admiration for TR, and, if I’m being honest, a little bit of an obsession.

OK, a big obsession. My desk at work has more TR stuff on it than it does photos of my cats, husband, and best friends combined. I even have a Theodore Roosevelt action figure! At home, I have an overflowing shelf devoted to books about Roosevelt. When I got married, I tried to convince my husband to go on a TR tour of the Dakotas for our honeymoon, which he did not go for, and you know, fair enough. Also, as a wedding gift, the Mental Floss staff got me some first edition books of TR’s collected speeches, which is way better than a KitchenAid mixer … no offense to KitchenAid. And last year I dressed up as Roosevelt for a Halloween costume contest … and won.

So suffice to say, once you get me started talking about Theodore Roosevelt’s incredible accomplishments, I can’t stop talking about them. Hence this podcast. Which finally allowed me take that TR tour of the Dakotas … but more on that later.

The wonderful people at Sagamore Hill call TR enthusiasts like me TedHeads, and I’m going to borrow that nickname for this podcast. So, just a note to all of the TedHeads out there: This is not an exhaustive, A to Z look at TR’s life. If we tried to do that, well, there would be a million episodes in this podcast, because Roosevelt did a staggering amount of stuff in his 60 years. We’re going to be dipping in and out of his life and we are going to miss some things. But we’re going to be visiting some important Roosevelt sites and talking to really smart Roosevelt experts, so hopefully, you’ll still learn some things along the way.

OK, ready to get started?

Bully.

Today, East 20th Street between Park Avenue South and Broadway on the island of Manhattan is a mix of stores, businesses, and restaurants, and it’s busy with taxis and trucks and cars.

But when Theodore Roosevelt was born in 1858, it was a much more residential neighborhood that featured the clip-clop of horses hooves and the rattle of carriage wheels. Behind the brownstones was a garden, and around the corner, the Goelet family built a mansion in the middle of three lots, which they populated with cows and peacocks and exotic birds.

Theodore Roosevelt, Junior came into the world on the evening of October 27, in a bedroom on the second floor of the brownstone at 28 E. 20th Street. He was the second child of Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, or Mittie, and Theodore Roosevelt Senior, or Thee; their first child, Anna, or Bamie, had been born three years earlier. Later would come brother Elliott and sister Corinne.

Today, the elder Roosevelts’ room is covered with cream-colored wallpaper adorned with flowers and filled with original cherry-stained walnut furniture; a portrait of Mittie hangs over the fireplace. But we don’t know for sure if that’s what the room looked like when the Roosevelt kids were born there. The family owned the home until 1899, and then sold it, and soon after, it was either completely torn down or had the top two stories torn down—sources are a bit unclear on that point.

In 1919, after TR’s death, The Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association repurchased that building, and the one next to it—which had belonged to TR’s uncle—and reconstructed the home as Bamie and Corinne remembered it. It’s now the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

Shortly after he was born, Mittie described TR as a “hideous” baby who looked like a “terrapin,” but Teedie, as he was called as a boy, quickly became the center of his family’s world.

As a child, he had a ton of energy, but from the age of 3 he was, in his own words, “a sickly, delicate boy” who “suffered much from asthma.” He also had what the family called cholera morbus, a type of nervous diarrhea.

As a result of his illness, he was largely home schooled by his Aunt Annie. When out and about in the city, his younger brother, Elliot, had to defend him against bullies. TR spent a lot of time indoors, and passed the time by reading voraciously.

According to historian Kathleen Dalton, author of Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, when he was sick—and he often was—the adults “put the needs of the other children second because Theodore’s life was at stake.”

Alyssa: If you watch some of the documentaries, they describe him lying in the family crib, which you still see today in the nursery, barely being able to blow out his candle, from suffering that bad from asthma.

That’s Alyssa Parker-Geisman, the lead ranger at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

She says that the family tried almost everything to treat TR’s asthma. Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography that one of his memories was “of my father walking up and down the room with me in his arms at night when I was a very small person, and of sitting up in bed gasping, with my father and mother trying to help me.” Sometimes, in an attempt to force air into his son’s lungs, Thee would take young Teedie in the family buggy and race up and down Broadway.

But they also tried many remedies that, although standard at the time, would raise eyebrows today.

Alyssa: David McCullough in his book Mornings on Horseback describes laudanum being used, which is opium mixed with wine. He also describes what is called Indian hemp; we call it marijuana today. Vinegar of squills was used, which was a plant, I believe, used for rat poison. Whiskey and gin were used. Kids were given enemas.

TR’s parents weren’t exactly feeding him rat poison, though—supposedly, the vinegar and processing would mitigate some of the plants’ side effects. Later, TR would recall having to smoke cigars and drink black coffee to keep his asthma at bay.

Alyssa: And I think that it boggles the mind when you think about it in today's standards. Hindsight is always 20 20. But I'm sure that was kind of cutting edge technology of the day, or medicinal treatment of the day, perhaps. If you see your child suffering, you're going to try to alleviate that in any way possible, which they could afford to do.

The Roosevelts were an affluent family, and that fact is key: Theodore Roosevelt’s story may have been very different if he hadn’t been born into a life of privilege. It not only ensured he could get the care he needed when he was ill, but it also meant that his parents could show him the world. The Roosevelts spent summers outside of the city, and they took family trips to Europe, where Mittie and Teedie would visit health resorts.

Alyssa: You go to these health resorts for treatment. You sit in hot baths, you soak in the hot waters. You might be prescribed literally a walk in the woods, as part of the treatment. So, this was all kind of that time period and the health treatment, back in the day.

This is probably a good place for a break. We'll be right back.

 

Following their first European tour, which occurred when TR was around 12, a doctor recommended he get “plenty of fresh air and exercise” with the goal of expanding his chest to give his lungs room and to ease the strain on his heart.

Afterward, Thee issued his son a challenge: “You have the mind but not the body,” he told his son, “and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body.” Through gritted teeth, TR responded that he would do just that.

It was not a promise that he took lightly—TR worshipped his father, whom he called “the best man I ever knew.” Thee’s children called him Great Heart, and he was a huge influence on Roosevelt, who would, later in life, tell a journalist, “The thought of him now and always has been a sense of comfort. I could breathe, I could sleep when he had me in his arms. My father—he got me breath, he got me lungs, strength—life.”

According to Dalton, when his father was away during the Civil War, TR’s health would crater. It’s important to note that Thee was not away fighting—he paid a substitute to fight for him, at least in part because Mittie, a Southerner, couldn’t stand the thought of her husband fighting her brothers. Instead, Thee was on a mission to get troops at the front to sign up for what author Deborah Davis describes as a “payroll savings program” that would allow soldiers to “put aside money for their families while they were off fighting the war.”

It was just one more expression of Thee’s lifelong commitment to philanthropy. He would take his son with him on trips to visit missions like the Newsboys’ Lodging House, giving TR, in Dalton’s words, “a loving example of how one man can use his privilege to make society better.”

A proponent of what was known as Muscular Christianity—which has been defined as “a Christian life of brave and cheerful physical activity”—Thee told his son, “sickness is always a shame, and often a sin.”

Alyssa: His father was an example to his son. Always trying to instill in his son good moral character, strength, virility. I think Thee was seeing around the city that there's a lot of vice happening. And seedy characters, seedy places to visit in the city. He doesn't want his son to succumb to that. He has this strong sense of morality. So, he's going to instill that in his son, of this idea of muscular Christianity. So he challenges his son, right, in this belief of overcoming your weakness, overcoming your fragility and really building up your body and making sure that you're maintaining strong morals as well.

And so Teedie began to build his body. Corinne would later write of often seeing him working out on the piazza overlooking the back garden, “between horizontal bars, widening his chest by regular, monotonous motion.”

Alyssa: He would work out there, keeping a journal of how big his biceps are getting, how big his chest size is getting.

But two years into his efforts, he learned that he wasn’t progressing as quickly as he would have liked.

In 1872, when Teedie was almost 14, he had a bad asthma attack, and his father sent him away—by himself for the first time—to Maine’s Moosehead Lake. It was a life-changing experience.

In his autobiography, Roosevelt wrote that, on the stage coach ride to the lake, he met two boys his own age, and rather than making friends, they found him to be an easy victim—and quickly made his life miserable:

“The worst feature was that when I finally tried to fight them I discovered that either one singly could not only handle me with easy contempt, but handle me so as not to hurt me much and yet to prevent my doing any damage whatever in return. … I made up my mind that I must try to learn so that I would not again be put in such a helpless position.”

And so, with his father’s encouragement, Teedie began to learn how to box, with ex-prize fighter John Long as his coach. Much to their surprise, Teedie was tough—he could take hit after hit and keep fighting.

Later that year, the Roosevelts took off on another Grand Tour. There, Mittie and Thee deposited Teedie, Elliott, and Corinne with a family in Dresden, Germany. And though TR was much healthier than he had been, he still never quite conquered his illnesses.

During one attack of the mumps, he wrote to his mother that he resembled “an antiquated woodchuck with his cheeks filled with nuts” and that “your unhappy son had his third attack of asthma, accompanied by a violent headache.” To his father, he said that an asthma attack rendered him unable to speak “without blowing up like an abridged edition of a hippopotamus.”

According to Edmund Morris, Roosevelt’s tutors “openly admired his ability to concentrate on his books and his specimens to the exclusion of physical suffering.” (One of those tutors was the first to predict that he’d be president, by the way.)

The Roosevelts returned to the states in 1873, and the next summer, they headed out to a place that would come to hold a huge significance for Roosevelt: Oyster Bay, New York, where his grandfather and other Roosevelt families vacationed.

Tyler: TR, the president, is 15 years old when he starts coming out to Oyster Bay.

That’s Tyler Kuliberda, education technician at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site on Long Island.

Tyler: Wealthy New Yorkers are spending their summers out here. It's a place to escape New York City. For the family that's coming out here, this is the country. We don't think about Long Island as the country any longer, but it was for this family. It was an escape from the heat of New York City, disease in New York City, and it was a place to come out and enjoy themselves.

There might have been another benefit as well: The air may have been cleaner than the air in the city, which would have been better for TR’s asthma.

Tyler: TR senior would have brought him out of the city as frequently as he could have, especially when he was undergoing those really terrible asthma attacks. I think that's probably part of it, for the family to come and spend time outside of New York.

So the family spent a lot of time swimming. Roosevelt loved to row. He would row all over Long Island Sound and the various coves and necks around on the north shore of Long Island. He would explore them. And Roosevelt is as a young boy interested in taxidermy and learning about natural history. The way that you do that in their day is by shooting birds. So Roosevelt is going all over and trying to find different specimens and collecting them for his Roosevelt Museum of Natural History that he kept in his parents' house in New York. Horseback riding, hiking, and just enjoying the outdoors.

Roosevelt loved Oyster Bay so much that he would eventually buy land to build a house on—the house that would come to be named Sagamore Hill. There's a story behind that name, by the way.

Tyler: Sagamore Hill, Sagamore Mohanis was essentially a chief or a sachem. Sachem is the Algonquin word for chief, and then sagamore is a lesser sachem or a lieutenant sachem. And this was apparently a place where they had meetings. Mohanis apparently is the native that signed the land away. Roosevelt decides to name it Sagamore Hill. This is the highest point on Cove Neck, so this is where they would have met.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Before any of that could happen, Roosevelt had to go to college. He entered Harvard in 1876, where he chose to study the natural sciences.

Tyler:
His first couple of years at Harvard, he was the biggest nerd. He was just this person who you'd see and he'd only be in his room, he'd be doing essentially taxidermy. He'd have animals in drawers, and things like that, and you can imagine this didn't make him very popular with people. But then all of a sudden he broke out of it. Eventually he starts joining all these clubs. He becomes friendly with people all over campus.

When he wasn’t in class, or studying, or in his clubs, TR kept up with his boxing and rowing, and he took up wrestling, too. Every spare moment was filled with some kind of activity.

That was doubly true when Roosevelt was experiencing some kind of trauma. In his sophomore year, Thee passed away, and when Roosevelt went back to school, he threw himself into his work, a frenzy of activity, as if to dull his pain.

According to historian Douglas Brinkley, TR wasn’t scared of catching pneumonia and seemed to relish spending hours in the cold: Instead of taking a streetcar, TR would walk three or four miles, and he’d still be ice skating in frigid temperatures long after everyone else went home. A friend from Harvard, Richard Welling, believed that TR was overcompensating for his weakness: "Roosevelt … had neither health nor muscle,” he would later write. “But he had a superabundance of a third quality, vitality, and he seemed to realize that this nervous vitality had been given in order to help him get the other two things."

In between years at Harvard, Roosevelt would spend as much time as possible outdoors, often in Oyster Bay and in Maine. There he lived with backwoodsman Bill Sewall, who would become a lifelong friend. But his initial opinion of Roosevelt wasn’t glowing: He called him a “thin, pale youngster with bad eyes and a weak heart” and said he was “mighty pindlin’.”

But Roosevelt quickly changed Bill’s mind. One day that summer, they walked 25 miles, and Bill would later recall that “I do not think that I ever remember him being ‘out of sorts.’ He did not feel well sometimes, but he would never admit it.”

On later trips to Maine, Roosevelt would pursue caribou in the snow without tents or blankets for 36 hours. With Sewall and his nephew, Wilmot Dow, he’d summit the 5268-foot-tall Mount Katahdin, the tallest peak in the state, making the trip partially in moccasins after he lost one shoe in a stream—after which TR wrote in his journal, “I can endure fatigue and hardship pretty nearly as well as these lumbermen.”

That wasn’t the end of the excursions: He, Sewall, and Dow also took a six-day trip up a river in a dugout canoe through a number of rapids, and then marched 100 miles in pouring rain for three days.

Back at Harvard for his senior year, Roosevelt became engaged to his first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, and eventually decided on a career in politics.

That year he also had an appointment with a doctor at the university, and the news was not good: The doctor informed him that his heart was dangerously strained. The only way to live a long life, the doctor said, was to live a quiet, sedentary life.

Roosevelt’s response was unequivocal. “Doctor, I’m going to do all the things you tell me not to do. If I’ve got to live the sort of life you’ve described, I don’t care how short it is.”

For decades, he kept quiet about the doctor’s advice, and continued to live as if he’d never heard it. The only reason we know about it is that the doctor wrote about the encounter, which is confirmed by Harvard’s records.

Later that year, he married Alice on his birthday. And on their honeymoon, he climbed Pilatus, the Rigi-Grindelwald, and the Jungfrau in the span of 10 days. After that, TR—an amateur—summited the Matterhorn, a mountain so deadly that many skilled mountaineers have died in the attempt. Why’d he do it? He told Sewell that it was to prove to some snobby English climbers he’d met in the lobby of his hotel that “a Yankee could climb just as well as they could.”

Roosevelt never fully conquered his asthma—in fact, his sister Corinne once said that he “suffered from it all his life, though in later years only at long separated intervals.” But his active lifestyle, what he would come to call the strenuous life, built his stamina and helped him manage his illness.

And he never quit being active: When he was governor of New York, he had a wrestling mat installed in the governor’s mansion. (Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography that the comptroller put up a fuss about the purchase: “[He] refused to audit a bill I put in for a wrestling-mat, explaining that I could have a billiard-table, billiards being recognized as a proper Gubernatorial amusement, but that a wrestling-mat symbolized something unusual and unheard of and could not be permitted.”) When he got word that President William McKinley was dying, Roosevelt, then vice president, had just summited Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York state.

In the White House, he continued to box, at least until a hard hit took the vision in his left eye … after that, he picked up jiu jitsu. And then he had a tennis court installed, though his playing style was … unconventional.

Tyler: His method of playing tennis was interesting. He would take the handle and propel it into the ball.

According to Michael Cullinane, author of Theodore Roosevelt’s Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon, TR wasn’t actually all that good at tennis … or sports in general.

Michael: He was terrible at sports. I mean, there's a really funny story about this kid who was playing tennis with the ... He was, TR was then president, he was playing tennis at Sagamore Hill, I think, or maybe it was the White House, I can't recall, but this kid, who's like a teenager, like, "This guy is terrible at tennis and he's the president and I admire him so much but he is, like, the worst tennis player in the world."

Erin: What he lacked in skill, he made up for in energy.

Michael: That's right.

He’d also engage in other physical pursuits—which his daughter Alice called endurance tests—at Sagamore Hill.

Tyler: It was a place to go on these long point-to-point walks, where Roosevelt would ask the children to walk in a perfectly straight direction toward a certain place that was their goal. In that path, no matter what was in your way you had to go either over, through it, or around it. So if it was a thorn bush, you had to go through it. If it was a body of water like a pond, you'd have to wade through it. If it was a wall, you had to climb over it.

This was his living "the strenuous life." Their idea of recreation wasn't what most other people would think, sitting and drinking lemonade on the porch and being taken care of by your servants. For Roosevelt, it was going out and really exhausting yourself. Most people who didn't know him well, I think they didn't understand what they were getting into when they were coming here to Sagamore Hill.

Let's take a quick break, and we’ll be right back.

 

For Roosevelt, working up a sweat wasn’t just a way to stay healthy—it was also a key part of his life philosophy, “of bodily vigor as a method of getting that vigor of soul without which vigor of the body counts for nothing,” as he described it in his autobiography.

He credited his hard work for his successes, writing that, “I never won anything without hard labor and the exercise of my best judgment and careful planning and working long in advance. Having been a rather sickly and awkward boy, I was as a young man at first both nervous and distrustful of my own prowess, I had to train myself painfully and laboriously not merely as regards my body but as regards my soul and spirit.”

But again, the fact that he was born into wealth and privilege also had a lot to do with his success.

Roosevelt didn’t just advocate the strenuous life for himself, but for others. At the end of his second term, he ordered that military officers be able to walk 50 miles or ride around 100 miles on horseback in three days, later declaring it “a test which many a healthy middle-aged woman would be able to meet.” When the officers and the press balked at the requirement, he demonstrated how easy it was by doing it himself.

And in his autobiography, TR advised that “A man whose business is sedentary should get some kind of exercise if he wishes to keep himself in as good physical trim as his brethren who do manual labor. When I worked on a ranch, I needed no form of exercise except my work, but when I worked in an office the case was different.”

He also expected his children to live the strenuous life. Especially his children. “I would rather one of them should die than have them grow up weaklings,” he once said.

He was especially tough on his oldest son, Ted, who, like his father, had asthma, and later would suffer from headaches and depression. Eventually he had what TR called “kind of a nervous breakdown.”

Alyssa: The doctors say, "Theodore, you know, he was overstressed or he had a breakdown. And maybe it's because you're pushing too hard.”

TR was contrite, telling the doctor “I’ll never push Ted again.” He said he had been so hard on the boy because Ted could have been “all the things I would like to have been and wasn’t, and it has been a great temptation to push him.”

But Dalton writes that he never could quite let up as he promised. Later, Edith would write to Ted, “As I look back you fared worst, because Father tried to ‘toughen’ you, but happily was too busy to exert the same pressure on the others!”

According to Dalton, the weakling TR had been as a child made him uncomfortable and ashamed: Because “he detested the invalid he had been,” Dalton writes, he looked back on his childhood “with a sense of detachment.” Roosevelt hated weakness.

It’s not hard to trace a line from this back to his father, whom Roosevelt adored and who put so much emphasis on being strong and manly; Roosevelt would always feel inferior to Great Heart. And he never wanted his children to be the kind of weakling he had been.

Both Roosevelt and his father had worried about American society becoming weaker due to “over-civilization.” The idea was that men were so used to modern comforts that they lost touch with some of the things that made them manly. In an 1899 speech, delivered at the Hamilton Club when he was governor of New York, Roosevelt laid out his plan for making his country, and its people, as strong as it could be.

He used the speech, which he would later call “The Strenuous Life,” to argue for U.S. militarism and imperial expansion—which we’ll cover in another episode—and to argue against a life of “ignoble ease.”

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife,” Roosevelt said.

He urged the wealthy fathers at the event to encourage their sons to devote time to non-remunerative work, as his father had done with him, and noted that, “In this life we get nothing save by effort. Freedom from effort in the present merely means that there has been stored up effort in the past.”

Men should use that freedom to explore different kinds of work, whether it be in politics or exploration. But if a man used that freedom just for enjoyment, “he shows that he is simply a cumberer of the earth’s surface … A mere life of ease is not in the end a very satisfactory life, and, above all, it is a life which ultimately unfits those who follow it for serious work in the world. … As it is with the individual, so it is with the nation.”

He finished by saying that living that life of ease, and seeking peace when war was called for, would doom America to be left behind:

“The 20th century looms before us big with the fate of many nations. If we stand idly by … then the bolder and stronger peoples will pass us by, and will win for themselves the domination of the world. Let us therefore boldly face the life of strife, resolute to do our duty well and manfully; resolute to uphold righteousness by deed and by word; resolute to be both honest and brave, to serve high ideals, yet to use practical methods. Above all, let us shrink from no strife, moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided we are certain that the strife is justified, for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.”

According to one of Roosevelt’s friends, he had a “policy of forcing the spirit to ignore the weakness of the flesh,” and I think there’s no better example of that than when he was shot in 1912.

Alyssa: John Schrank was the man who fired the bullet.

Schrank would later say that he was against a third-term president, but that wasn’t his only reason for pulling the trigger as TR stood outside the Gilpatrick Hotel.

Alyssa: He was advised by the ghost of William McKinley to avenge McKinley's death, while pointing to a picture of Theodore Roosevelt. So, Schrank followed Roosevelt on the campaign trail from New Orleans to Milwaukee. When Schrank fired at Roosevelt, he was tackled to the ground. Roosevelt didn't bring Schrank up. But the gentlemen around him did. And he actually asked Schrank, "Why did you do it?" And obviously realizing, there's not going to be an answer to that. He's like, okay, fine. Cops, take him away.

Later, Schrank would be examined and deemed insane; he spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital and died there in 1943.

After Schrank was hauled away, Roosevelt went on to give his speech.

Alyssa: As a hunter he knew to check yourself, and if you're coughing up blood that probably means a lung is punctured and you're in trouble. But he checked, and he was like, "You know, OK, it doesn't hurt to breathe this way, so I'm going to go on."

According to Morris, the whole right side of Roosevelt’s body had turned black, but the wound was bleeding slowly. So TR slapped a handkerchief over the bullet hole and went out on stage. He didn’t realize until after he pulled out his speech, unfolded it, and began to read that the bullet had gone through it, at which point he joked, “You see, I was going to make quite a long speech.”

And make a long speech he did.

Alyssa: Who gets shot, point blank, and can then go on to carry out about an approximately 90 minute speech? Wow.

But it wasn’t as though Roosevelt was unaffected. He spoke in a voice Morris writes was “no longer husky but weak … a knifelike pain in his ribs forced him to breathe in short gasps. Two or three times, he appeared to totter.” Party aides stood below the footlights in case he fell.

But Roosevelt didn’t fall. Still, by the time he was finished speaking, he had lost a lot of blood, and was taken to Milwaukee’s Emergency Hospital.

Doctors there did an X-ray and found that the bullet had hit his fourth rib on the right side. It had been headed straight for the heart, but had been slowed by Roosevelt’s speech and his eyeglasses case before it hit, and cracked, his rib.

Today, you can see the speech, eyeglasses case, and shirt TR wore on the day he was shot on display at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

Alyssa: I mean, they did the X-ray. They saw that the bullet was lodged into his rib. And they decided not to take it out.

Erin: So he carried that bullet with him for the rest of his life?

Alyssa: Yup. To his death.

Even more incredibly, Roosevelt gave his next speech at Madison Square Garden a mere 16 days later. Ultimately, weakness was no match for TR.

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by Erin McCarthy.

This episode was written by Erin McCarthy, with additional research by Michael Salgarolo and fact checking by Austin Thompson.

Field recording by Jon Mayer.

Joe Weigand played Theodore Roosevelt in this episode.

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.

Special thanks to Alyssa Parker-Geisman, Tyler Kuliberda, and Michael Cullinane.

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

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

History Vs. Episode 5: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Language

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iHeartRadio

Have you ever looked at a word—like although, for example—and thought: There are just too many letters in this word? If so, congratulations: You have a little something in common with Theodore Roosevelt, author of more than 30 books and 150,000 letters.

You know who else thought there were just too many letters in English words? Philanthropist and steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.

In 1906, Carnegie created, and financially supported, the Simplified Spelling Board. According to The New York Times, Carnegie thought that English had the potential to be “the world language of the future,” and that would help lead to world peace.

But according to the Board, English was “handicapped by one thing and one only—its intricate and disordered spelling, which makes it a puzzle to the stranger within our gates and a mystery to the stranger beyond the seas.”

The Board decided to pursue a course of reform by omission: Drop letters that were unpronounced or deemed unnecessary. Teaching would be made easier, written correspondence would be faster, printing would be more efficient, not to mention cheaper. One publisher estimated that using Simplified Spelling in the publishing business would save up to $40 million—which is over a billion dollars in today’s money.

The Board’s proposed reforms were published and somehow found their way to President Theodore Roosevelt, who thought that what the board was proposing made a lot of sense.

He threw his support behind their reforms, which included chopping although from A-L-T-H-O-U-G-H to A-L-T-H-O and knocking the extra S’s and ED’s from words like missed and kissed so that they were spelled M-I-S-T and K-I-S-T, respectively. P-H-A-N-T-O-M became F-A-N-T-O-M. Cats wouldn’t P-U-R-R, they’d P-U-R. And so on.

But on August 27, 1906, when TR signed an Executive Order that made the Board’s spelling reforms required in government documents, he never could have predicted how controversial his actions would be.

Simplified Spelling wasn’t the only way TR took on language in his life—he warped the pronunciation of words to get noticed, coined iconic phrases, and used the English language as a political tool. Just how did he use language to achieve his desired ends? We’re about to find out.

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 this week’s episode is TR vs. Language.

By the time he became president, Theodore Roosevelt was a master of many languages: He could read in French, German, Italian, and Latin (though he called reading in Latin “dreary labor”). He also spoke French and German, although his French was, in the words of his Secretary of State John Hay, “lawless as to grammar.”

He also had a very unusual speaking style—so unusual that, according to Edmund Morris, it “has the effect of burying his remarks, like shrapnel, in the memory of the listener.” Once they hear what he’s said to them, they don’t forget it.

Arika Okrent: It seems like he did have a very distinctive way of talking since it was remarked upon by people who wrote about it, and they noticed it. So it must've been … seemed a little odd or strange.

That’s Arika Okrent, linguist and Mental Floss contributor, and the person I call whenever I have a question about language.

There are some recordings of Roosevelt speaking, but as Okrent notes, most of what we know about how he spoke is through other people writing about it. And whenever they talked about how he spoke, they also usually talked about his teeth, so we’ll continue that fine tradition here.

According to Morris, Roosevelt’s “white and even” teeth would “chop every word into neat syllables, sending them forth perfectly formed but separate, in a jerky staccatissimo that has no relation to the normal rhythms of speech.”

One of TR’s colleagues summed it up by saying, “I always think of a man biting tenpenny nails when I think of Roosevelt making a speech.”

His manner of speaking led some to believe that he’d had a speech impediment as a kid. A college classmate noted that when they deliberately riled him up, he would “sometimes lose altogether the power of articulation,” and according to a colleague in the New York State Assembly, “he would open his mouth and run out his tongue and it was hard for him to speak.” Morris notes that his diction was “syncopated … sibilants hiss out like escaping steam; plosives drive the lips apart with an audible pfft.”

Okrent: Plosive P, I imagine would be like an extreme build up. So a Ppp, a lot of air coming out, maybe some spit, very forceful. P-Powerful.

Whatever the reason for how he spoke, Roosevelt leaned into it. As a young assemblyman, he’d warp the pronunciation of the word speaker, yelling “MR. SPEE-KAR, MR. SPEE-KAR!” over and over, sometimes for 40 minutes, to get the speaker’s attention.

Okrent: “This is what everyone else in Congress sounds like,” or, “This is what everyone else in New York high society sounds like.” I guess he would be picking up on that, but he used these devices to get attention, and maybe he also bristled against the elocution training that they did back then. If you went to school, and they did this at Harvard, you had elocution lessons where they taught you how to pronounce things, and do public speaking, and the right gestures to make when you do public speaking, and the right way to breathe and hold your body. And maybe he bristled against that, or maybe thought it was too British, or I don’t know...

Interestingly, when he was out in the Dakotas in the mid-1880s, TR changed his way of speaking, too. In his book Theodore Roosevelt in the Badlands, Roger L. Di Silvestro quotes the Pioneer Press as writing that “The slow exasperating drawl and the unique accent the New Yorker feels he must use when visiting a less blessed portion of civilization have disappeared, and in their place is a nervous, energetic manner of talking with the flat accent of the West.”

Whether or not Roosevelt was a good public speaker is up for debate. In the 1940s, a grad student named William Auburn Behl put that question to those who had known him, and the reviews were … not favorable. Jeremy C. Young, author of the book The Age of Charisma, put these reviews together in a blog post.

One person called TR’s gesticulations and his high-pitched voice “terrible,” while another said he “wasn’t a great speaker but one felt the force and magnetism of his personality and … his great honesty and genuineness.” As one journalist noted in 1900, “Theodore Roosevelt is a marvel as a campaigner, more from his tremendous strength, energy, force, and endurance than from finish and grace of delivery or diction.”

Young notes that, in Roosevelt’s era, most public figures, like William Jennings Bryan, used an emotional style of speaking called “personal magnetism.” But this was precisely the opposite of what Roosevelt learned at Harvard from his rhetoric teacher, Adams Sherman Hill, who said that “our feelings ought to be regulated by the facts which excite them.”

Young says that Roosevelt’s speeches “were often dry, equivocal, and monotonous,” because he’d revise them over and over and then read the typed speeches rather than speaking off the cuff, as Bryan did.

But make no mistake: Even if his speeches could be dull, TR definitely had a way with words. He coined terms and phrases that we still use today, like “bully pulpit,” “nailing jelly to a wall”—he actually said “They might just as well ask me why I do not nail currant jelly to the wall”—and the political usage of “my hat is in the ring.”

Supposedly he’s the one who called Maxwell House coffee “good to the last drop.”

One phrase we all think of when we think of TR is “Speak softly and carry a big stick, you will go far.” He said it was a West African proverb he was fond of, but according to the Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs, there doesn’t seem to be evidence that it was actually a West African proverb.

He popularized many other words and phrases, like "strong as a bull moose," "lunatic fringe," "mollycoddle," and "pussyfooting." He also popularized the phrase “weasel words,” which originally referenced the legend that a weasel can suck the contents out of an egg while leaving the shell intact. He said he heard a friend’s brother use it in reference to another person who could, in the brother’s words, “take a word and weasel it around and suck the meat out of it like a weasel sucks the meat out of an egg, until it don't mean anything at all, no matter what it sounds like it means.”

It’s a favorite phrase of Okrent’s.

Okrent: It's a metalinguistic look at language. This person is speaking this way, and the things they're doing with their words are weaselly, or the words aren't bearing meaning in the way they should. That's interesting in a sort of the pre-Orwell way of looking at what people do with words, and how they work with words, and manipulate with words.

We’ll be right back.

 

TR also used language to craft devastatingly colorful insults: One supreme court justice was “an amiable old fuzzy-wuzzy with sweetbread brains,” while frequent presidential candidate and Woodrow Wilson’s Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan was “a professional yodeler, a human trombone.”

Roosevelt called novelist Henry James a “little emasculated mass of inanity” while Mississippi Congressman John Sharp Williams was a “true old-style Jeffersonian of the barbaric blatherskite variety.” A blatherskite, by the way, is someone who talks a lot without making a lot of sense. Burn.

This mastery of language may not have been evident in all of TR’s speeches, but it was definitely present in some of them. There’s a reason why his 1910 speech “Citizenship in a Republic” or, as it’s more commonly known, “The Man in the Arena,” is still quoted more than a century after it was delivered:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

But it can’t all be eloquent speeches and dee-lightful insults and catchy phrases. In his correspondence, Roosevelt used derogatory language and slurs in regards to other races and nationalities. Thomas G. Dyer addresses TR’s use of language like this in his book Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race, noting that, “While TR seemed to derive considerable pleasure from the frequent private use of racial and ethnic epithets, he rarely used the terms in public … The extent of this language and the frequency of its usage indicates the preoccupation with racial differences that Roosevelt and his contemporaries had, but it also suggests Roosevelt’s professed objectivity in matters of race should not always be taken at face value.”

Henry Cabot Lodge, TR’s mentor, sometimes scrubbed that language, along with some of TR’s insults, from their published correspondence, so Lodge must have known that its use would not have painted TR in the best light.

Roosevelt also felt, in his words, that “We have room for but one language here, and that is the English language.” He believed that immigrants loyal to America should assimilate completely and be required to learn English, and that only English should be taught in schools.

In a 1916 speech to the National Americanization Committee, Roosevelt said that immigrants should become fully Americanized by learning English. This, he said, would give them more opportunities in America, and they wouldn’t be seen “only as an industrial asset.”

“Let us say to the immigrant not that we hope he will learn English, but that he has got to learn it,” Roosevelt said. “Let the immigrant who does not learn it go back.”

This type of attitude, according to Okrent, doesn’t reflect the reality of what actually happens when immigrants come to America.

Okrent: It does look kind of scary I guess when there's a lot of immigrants coming in at once, which there was at the turn of the century, and you go to neighborhoods where everyone's speaking Italian, or you go to towns in Wisconsin, everyone's speaking German and you think, “Oh no, what is this going to do to our national identity?” But looking at one snapshot like that doesn't show the whole picture, which is from generation to generation, things change very rapidly, and it's in the direction toward English. You don't have to do much to make that happen.

The first generation, the old folks, they might never really learn English, and then their kids will be bilingual, and then their kids will be fully English speakers and even forget the original language. These days, that's even frustrating for families that their kids, their grandkids don't keep up the old language, and then they lose it. The pressures of English are so great, and kids are so adept at learning language and giving over to whatever the majority culture is that they learn it, and it seems unnecessary to mandate it or make it some sort of requirement or law.

Um, even today it’s a great thing about our country that we have access to a lot of people who speak a lot of languages, and that's useful. When we need native speakers of a language, we have them, they're citizens. And there's no reason to try to stamp that out.

Not to mention the fact that English is a frequent borrower of words from other languages.

Okrent: English is not picky about what it will let in or accept. We don't have an academy. We don't have … you know, we don’t have to vote on whether we want to let this word in or not. People just start using it, and that makes the language really robust.

In fact, one TR’s favorite words was borrowed from another language. We’re talking, of course, about bully.

Okrent: That apparently comes from a Dutch word originally meaning, like, mate or brother, my buddy, my friend. It was first this term of endearment, and then it meant sort of a ruffian, and then it was specifically the guy who protects prostitutes, and eventually to what we have today. But it didn't come from English.

And then there are languages like German, which has so many words for which there’s no English equivalent. My favorite is kummerspeck, a term for the weight you gain from emotional overeating that literally translates to grief bacon.

Okrent: Yeah, and angst, and all of that schadenfreude, all the things we totally make good use of.

McCarthy: Yeah. We’ve just got to keep letting those words come in.

Okrent: Mm Hmm.

Before we get back to Simplified Spelling— the system by which words are reduced to their most basic expression in spelling, a system that TR championed—I want to take one quick diversion.

In May 1918, TR went to Springfield, Massachusetts, on a mission: To honor those Boy Scouts of Troop 13 who had sold $1000-worth of war bonds. It was there that he—a current titan of language—had an encounter with a future titan of language.

There were 10 boys being honored that May afternoon in the town’s municipal auditorium. As Donald E. Pease writes, “Roosevelt went down the line congratulating each of the young men, repeating a laudatory statement praising each boy’s accomplishment and pinning a medal on the honoree’s chest. … Each presentation was met with thunderous applause.”

There was a problem, though. TR had only nine medals.

So when Roosevelt came upon the 10th boy on stage, and had no medal to pin to his lapel, the understandably confused former president bellowed to the scoutmaster, “What’s this little boy doing here?”

The boy’s scoutmaster didn’t stop to explain the situation, just whisked young Theodor Geisel off-stage. The incident gave the future Dr. Seuss terrible stage fright, and honestly, who can blame him?

TR wasn’t the first person to support a phonetic spelling system—Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster, and Brigham Young had all advocated for spelling reform. Noah Webster, for example, is probably the main reason the letter U was removed from spellings of American words and the Cs were replaced with Ses, which are distinguishing features between American and British English. Then again, he also suggested we spell machine M-A-S-H-E-E-N and women W-I-M-M-E-N, so, you know, they can’t all be winners.

So when Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order in August 1906 directing the Government Printing Office to use the board’s proposed spelling system—what he called an effort to “make our spelling a little less foolish and fantastic”—he was in pretty good company.

The Simplified Spelling board was thrilled for sure: They even released a “Roosevelt Fonetic Spelling Book”—that’s phonetic with an F—after the order.

And here’s the thing: The Simplified Spelling Board, Webster, Roosevelt—they all may have been onto something … kind of.

Okrent: You know, if you ever meet Dutch people, or German people, they speak such good English, it can't be that difficult cause people do manage it. But it does have a reputation of certain parts of it being difficult, and a big one is the spelling. You have to learn it. You can't just get a few rules of thumb and then follow that like you can with most other languages. You just have to memorize all these spellings. Your engineering mind goes, like, “We could do this over, we could make this so much better. Why not?”

Well … here’s why not: Simplified Spelling looks ridiculous.

Okrent: If you already know how to read and write, you're just … you’re never going to accept these simplified spellings. It looks so funny. It looks like … you know, like a cat wrote it or something. Our spelling is just embedded in our education, and we're used to it. And sure, you know, 4-year-olds and 5-year-olds might be able to do better with phonetic spelling, they probably would. But our educational process is the process of bringing children into what we already do. And um, it's really hard to get over just the comic look of it.

And that’s exactly what the press and critics latched onto after Roosevelt signed the executive order. The backlash was immediate.

We’re going to take a quick break.

 

After Roosevelt signed his executive order mandating simplified spelling in government documents, everyone freaked out.

A paper in Kentucky wrote, in barely legible spelling, “Nuthing”—N-U-T-H-I-N-G—“escapes Mr. Rucevelt”—R-U-C-E-V-E-L-T. “No subject is tu hi fr”—that’s T-U H-I F-R—“him to takle”—T-A-K-L-E—“nor tu lo”—that’s T-U L-O—“for him tu notis”—spelled T-U N-O-T-I-S. “He makes tretis”—T-R-E-T-I-S—“without the consent of the Senit,” S-E-N-I-T. “He enforces such laws as meet his approval, and fales”—F-A-L-E-S—"to se”—S-E—"those that du not soot”—do spelled D-U, suit spelled spelled S-O-O-T— “him … He now assales”—A-S-S-A-L-E-S—“the English langgwidg”—“L-A-N-G-G-W-I-D-G”— “constitutes himself as a sort of French academy, and will reform the spelling in a way tu soot”—T-U S-O-O-T—"himself.”

The reaction overseas wasn’t any better. One English paper wrote, “Here is the language of 80 million suddenly altered by a mere administrative ukase”—that’s a Russian word for arbitrary command, by the way, and it’s usually reserved to describe the actions of a czar. The paper went on to say, “Could any other ruler on earth do this thing?” while another raged, “How dare this Roosevelt fellow … dictate to us how to spell a language which was ours while America was still a savage and undiscovered country!”

Amidst the brouhaha, The New York Times said that, “Roosevelt’s spelling order has done him more harm than perhaps any other act of his since he became president.”

Okrent: It's actually harder to read a long text in simplified spelling because you have to stop and sound it out, and we don't do that when we read after, you know, first, second grade. And that makes it actually harder.

It’s no wonder TR wanted to simplify spelling. Though he supposedly had a photographic memory, he was a notoriously bad speller—in fact, his wife, Edith, joked that he supported the system because he didn’t know “how to spell anything.”

Roosevelt spun the order as an experiment, writing that if the “slight changes” to the 300 words garnered popular approval, they would “become permanent without any reference to what public officials or individual citizens may feel.” If they were not popular, he said the spellings would be dropped—spelled D-R-O-P-T—concluding, “and that it all there is about it.”

But in the end, what Roosevelt wanted didn’t really matter—no one was having his strange spellings. The Supreme Court refused to follow his order, and in December 1906, Congress voted to get rid of simplified spelling, writing—in normal spelling—that the government’s documents “should observe and adhere to the standard of orthography prescribed in generally accepted dictionaries of the English language.”

Clearly defeated, TR withdrew his executive order, writing to simplified spelling proponent Brander Matthews, “I could not by fighting have kept the new spelling in. And it was evidently worse than useless to go into an undignified contest when I was beaten … But I am mighty glad I did the thing anyhow.”

Spelling finally returned to normal.

But if you think about it, in a way, Roosevelt was ahead of his time—the proof is in your text messages, where T-H-O-U-G-H is almost certainly shortened to T-H-O.

So if you’re looking to get noticed, here’s a TR pro-tip: Play around with pitch, punch those plosives, and instead of a demure “excuse me” to get someone’s attention, a loud “ex-skwas-me!” might do. And on that note … TTYL!

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy.

This episode was written by me, with fact checking by Austin Thompson. Joe Weigand voiced Theodore Roosevelt in this episode.

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.

Special thanks to Arika Okrent.

To learn more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, visit MentalFloss.com/HistoryVs. That’s MentalFloss.com slash H I S T O R Y V S.

History Vs. is a production of iHeartRadio and Mental Floss.

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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