History Vs. Bonus Episode: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Christmas Trees

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

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 6:45 a.m. on Christmas morning, 1902, and Theodore Roosevelt’s children—Alice, Ted, Kermit, Ethel, Archie, and Quentin—are pounding at the president’s bedroom door. As per tradition, their stockings, which TR notes are “all bulging out with queer angles and rotundities,” are hanging above the fireplace in their parents’ room. Theodore and his wife, Edith, get up, remove the stockings, light a fire, and let the children in.

The kids eagerly unpack their stockings, and after breakfast, they open bigger presents in the library. Each child’s pile of gifts is on a separate table; among the presents are an electric railroad for Quentin, a rifle and riding boots for Archie, and a pile of books for TR and Edith.

But the day holds an even bigger surprise than the goodies the Roosevelts opened.

Sometime during the festivities, Archie turns to his father. “Just look here for a minute,” he says. “I want you to glance into this old closet.”

He presses a button and opens the closet door to reveal … a Christmas tree.

It’s clear that 8-year-old Archie has been scheming some time. First, he’d drafted a steward to buy the tiny, 2-foot-tall tree for 20 cents at the market and smuggle it into the White House. Then, with the help of the carpenter, he’d rigged it up in a closet his mother rarely used. The building’s electrician had helped him string it with lights, which can be turned on at the push of a button. Gifts for each family member—and for Jack the Dog, Tom Quartz the Kitten, and Algonquin the Pony—adorn the branches.

As Roosevelt friend Robert Lincoln O’Brien will write a year later, “All of the family were there, as was Quentin’s nurse, but none appeared more astonished than Mr. Roosevelt himself at the sight of this diminutive Christmas tree.”

You might be wondering: Why would a Christmas tree be so surprising? Well, the Roosevelts didn’t typically have a Christmas tree, because—according to legend, anyway—Theodore Roosevelt, avid conservationist, had banned them. The stories would have you believe that when Archie revealed his festive stunt, his father gave him a patented TR lecture. But what actually happened?

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, in honor of the upcoming Christmas holiday, we’re doing something a little different—we’re looking at the fact, and fiction, behind a pervasive Theodore Roosevelt Christmas tale. This episode is TR vs. Christmas Trees.

Theodore Roosevelt loved Christmas, which he called “an occasion of literally delirious joy.” That love began in his childhood with the efforts of his parents, Thee and Mittie, who strove to make the holiday special. According to historian Kathleen Dalton, when TR and his siblings were kids, his mother “gloried in piling the Christmas table high with toys for her children, and she loved to watch their glee on Christmas morning.”

TR recalled those days in his autobiography, writing about nabbing big stockings from the grown-ups, hanging them up the night before Christmas, and opening them the morning of on his parents’ bed. After breakfast, Thee and Mittie would throw open the doors of the drawing room, where each child had his or her presents piled on their own table. They kept up the tradition even when they were traveling; and when they spent the holiday in the city, Thee would often go to one of the charitable organizations he supported for dinner—the Newsboys’ Lodging-House, for example—and bring his kids along.

In his autobiography, TR wrote that “I never knew any one else have what seemed to me such attractive Christmases, and in the next generation I tried to reproduce them exactly for my own children.” And he did just that, repeating the stocking-breakfast-presents-on-the-table tradition year after year.

Of one Christmas morning in 1890, when TR was in D.C. serving on the Civil Service Commission, he wrote to his sister Bamie that “the children enjoyed it with the same wild rapture we ourselves felt twenty-five years ago.” In 1903, he wrote to his sister Corinne, “I wonder whether there ever can come in life a thrill of greater exaltation and rapture than that which comes to one between the ages of say six and fourteen, when the library door is thrown open and you walk in to see all the gifts, like a materialized fairy land, arrayed on your special table?”

The family loved snow around Christmas—the kids would have “all kinds of romps in the snow,” TR wrote one year, “coasting, having snow-ball fights, and doing everything—in the grounds back of the White House.” When in Long Island, they’d bundle up and take a sleigh ride to church on Christmas Eve. And there was plenty of physical activity, of course: The Roosevelts finished up their first holiday in the White House by dancing a Virginia Reel in the East Room. According to historian Edmund Morris, TR’s wild dance moves made Edith laugh until she cried. On Christmas 1902, TR and Ted took a three-hour-long horse ride, and the president played a game of single stick with some friends that left him with “a bump over one eye and a swollen wrist.” You know, typical Theodore Roosevelt stuff.

But though they had many beloved traditions surrounding the holiday, a Christmas tree wasn’t one of them. And while that seems weird to us now, Christmas was celebrated much differently in the 19th century than it is today. In a blog post for the Theodore Roosevelt Center website, Keri Youngstrand notes that, back then, “Christmas was a quiet religious holiday marked by private family traditions brought from the old world.”

As Jamie Lewis writes at The Forest Society’s history blog, up until the late 1840s, many Americans thought Christmas trees were pagan symbols, so they weren’t pervasive in homes. The same held true for the Executive Mansion: Christmas trees wouldn’t become an integral part of the holiday celebration there until the 1920s.

But what makes the Roosevelt case somewhat unusual was that, in the 19th century, Americans often did have a tree if the household had young children. Lewis writes that adults would put presents under or on the tree for the kids. Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison both had trees in the White House.

At home in Oyster Bay, the Roosevelts provided a Christmas tree—which TR cut down himself, in the woods of Sagamore Hill, with the help of an employee—to Cove Neck elementary school, where it was decorated by a teacher. Then, Roosevelt acted as Santa Claus: According to a 1920 article in the New-York Tribune, when the tree was unveiled, TR was “on hand early … his arms full with the store of mysterious packages and bundles and his eyes critically appraising the last minute decorations. … The Colonel, beaming from ear to ear, announced that he had been delegated by Saint Nick to act as his emissary, and began reading from the packages which crowded the foot of the tree the names of the various fortunate recipients.”

He even brought them his favorite hard candy from when he was a kid. In the words of his friend Jacob Riis, “Mr. Roosevelt made a good Santa Claus.”

But still, there was no tree at home.

We’ll be right back.

 

The fact that the Roosevelts, with a household full of young kids, didn’t have a tree in the White House made national news basically every year.

In 1901, The New York Daily Tribune noted that “following an established custom in the Roosevelt household, there will be no Christmas tree this year at the White House.” That same year, The Washington Times said that White House attendees were disappointed about the lack of tree, writing that, “They had supposed that, with so many children, the tree would be indispensable.” The following year, the New York Sun reported the same thing—no tree!—although, thanks to Archie’s surprise, they would be wrong. In 1903, Georgia’s The Brunswick Daily said that “following the custom of last year it has been decided to have no Christmas tree at the White House,” and in 1904—well, you get the idea.

After Archie went rogue, though, Lewis writes that the papers wondered, each holiday season for the rest of TR’s presidency, “what will happen and if Archie will pull a fast one.”

There was much speculation as to why the Roosevelts went treeless on Christmas. The Washington Times reported that the Roosevelt kids didn’t even like trees, and that TR preferred to celebrate according to the customs of Holland. (The Dutch version of Santa, or Sinterklaas, was big on leaving gifts in footwear.)

South Carolina’s Greenville News wrote in 1904 that Santa would visit the White House as he did other homes in the U.S., but he would not “furnish a Christmas tree, and the president and his wife do not bother about providing one. Whether they think Santa Claus would not like for them to do something he had failed to do cannot be officially stated.”

But as soon as 1903, another explanation had emerged: That TR opposed Christmas trees because of environmental concerns. As O’Brien wrote in Ladies’ Home Journal, “The President’s love for the living things of the forest in their own natural setting is so great, it has been suggested, that he prefers not to encourage the wanton slaughter of small trees.”

By December 1909, it was being reported as fact in the press. Gifford Pinchot, Chief of the Division of Forestry, was thrown into the tale for good measure. He supposedly “sided with Santa Claus and showed how Christmas tree cutting did the forests good in many places.”

It’s true that TR was no fan of destructive lumbering practices—after all, this is the guy who created the U.S. Forest Service and established 150 national forests. In 1905, he gave a speech titled “The Forest in the Life of a Nation” in which he noted that things like fire and destructive lumbering practices, combined with legitimate lumbering, “are destroying our forest resources far more rapidly than they are being replaced,” and that if there was nothing done to curb the destruction of forests, a timber famine would be inevitable. “Remember,” he added, “that you can prevent such a timber famine occurring by wise action taken in time, but once the famine occurs there is no possible way of hurrying the growth of the trees necessary to relieve it.”

The guy clearly loved trees. And national sentiment at the time was decidedly anti-Christmas tree. An 1899 editorial suggested that an inventor create a wire Christmas tree “Warranted to bear a gift for every member of the family and to be absolutely fireproof. As wire is durable, a large family of children could be brought up on one Christmas tree and much timber would be saved.”

According to Lewis, President McKinley got letters asking him to forgo a tree—the writers called cutting down trees for Christmas “arboreal infanticide.” And by the time TR became president, opposition to the practice had reached its peak, with the public arguing against cutting trees for reasons ranging from destructive harvesting practices to wastefulness. One paper called the trees “an absurd fad” that were resulting in “the woods … being stripped.”

In his piece for Ladies’ Home Journal, O’Brien noted that if TR disapproved of the practice on conservation grounds, “he has not so informed his closest friends.”

Lewis writes that Theodore Roosevelt never came out specifically against harvesting Christmas trees, and when he spoke with writer Brigit Katz for a Mental Floss piece on this subject, Lewis was emphatic: “Ultimately, [Roosevelt] had no ban on Christmas trees,” he told Katz.

As for why the press was so interested in the Roosevelts’ lack of tree, Lewis had an explanation for us. He said that not only were the Roosevelts “a dynamic, fascinating family that the press loved covering,” but that the papers might have been wanting for content as the holiday approached. Lewis told Katz that “Congress would have adjourned weeks before. So [the media is] desperate for copy, and here we have this fascinating family. I think some of the myth and legend is born out of boredom, frankly.”

Still, despite the lack of evidence, TR’s supposed stance on Christmas trees, and the story about Pinchot stepping in to set him straight, are still reported as fact today. Theodore Roosevelt’s ban on Christmas trees even made it onto an episode of Drunk History.

We’ll be right back.

 

The fact of the matter is, we may never really know why the Roosevelts didn’t have a tree. Perhaps it’s because Bamie had one at her house, and the Roosevelts were there most Christmases. Or perhaps, as O’Brien wrote, it was because that the Roosevelts favored simplicity; the White House wasn’t decorated gaudily for the season, either. Or maybe, as the Baltimore Sun posited in December 1901, with so many children, and so many visitors, there wasn’t room for one—and that Bamie’s tree would just have to suffice.

Or, as Lewis told Atlas Obscura, it could be that Edith put the kibosh on a tree. After all the Roosevelts had six kids and a veritable zoo of pets—which included, at one time or another, opossums, flying squirrels and kangaroo rats, a pig named Maude, a badger named Josiah, a hyena named Bill, a one-legged rooster, guinea pigs with names like Father O’Grady and Fighting Bob Evans, and, of course, Tom Quartz the kitten, Algonquin the pony, and Jack the dog, among many, many others—to worry about.

But the most likely explanation seems to be that Roosevelt loved the Christmas traditions of his childhood, and those traditions didn’t include a tree. So there was no tree—at least not until 1902.

What we do know is that Archie’s antics that year appear to have been met with delight, not a lecture, from the president. And they may even have started a new Roosevelt family tradition: In 1906, TR wrote to Corinne that Archie and Quentin had created “a variant on what is otherwise a strictly inherited form of our celebration, for they fix up (or at least Archie fixes up) a special Christmas tree in Archie’s room.”

While TR and Edith were admiring Archie’s tree, two kids snuck out of the room to set up “a small lighted Christmas tree” in their parents’ room. It had, TR wrote, “two huge stockings for Edith and myself.” The next year, he wrote to Bamie that “there was a Christmas tree of Archie’s.”

In his Forest Society blog, Lewis notes that the casualness of TR’s comment may suggest that by this point, a tree was actually expected—and perhaps that fact is what led the kids to provide a tree for their parents in 1906. They wanted to surprise TR once again.

Today, Archie’s exploits live on in Gary Hines’s children’s book, A Christmas Tree in the White House.

And if this episode has made you wonder whether you should go with a real tree on Christmas, it’s worth noting that, at least these days, Christmas trees are crops grown on farms. According to The New York Times, it takes under a decade for a tree to reach 5 or 6 feet, and it’s replaced with a new tree when a farmer cuts it down. Christmas tree farming practices are sustainable, and the trees do a lot for the environment before they’re cut down. And they have the potential to do more after, too, if you compost them or donate them to a zoo, where they can be used as enrichment toys or snacks for animals.

We’ll be back next week with a regular episode of History Vs. We hope you have a great holiday!

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by me, 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 atmentalfloss.com/historyvs.

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

History Vs. Bonus Episode: Epilogue - The Other Roosevelts

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

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.

Theodore Roosevelt was many things: a writer, a rancher, a president. But above all, he was a family man. TR was exceptionally close to, and dearly loved, his family. As he wrote in his autobiography, “A household of children, if things go reasonably well, certainly makes all other forms of success and achievement lose their importance by comparison. It may be true that he travels farthest who travels alone; but the goal thus reached is not worth reaching.”

TR wasn’t one to continually gush about his family members, but he made it clear that they truly were the most important part of his life. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and in this bonus episode of History Vs.—a podcast from Mental Floss and iHeartRadio about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes—we’ll be covering all the other Roosevelts that we didn’t get to talk about in detail in season 1.

Let’s start with TR’s older sister, Anna Roosevelt Cowles—or, as she’s more commonly known, Bamie.

Bamie was born on January 18, 1855, and had a curvature of the spine that caused a small hump; she required years of therapy in order to walk.

According to historian Betty Boyd Caroli, Bamie was so often on the go that her family gave her yet another nickname, “Bye,” as in “Bye, Bamie!”

With her endless energy, keen mind, and outstanding work ethic, Bamie was a steadying force for her family to rally around and rely on throughout her entire life. As soon as she was old enough, she managed the Roosevelt household and was sort of a third parent to her younger siblings, Theodore, Elliot, and Corinne. According to the Theodore Roosevelt Center, Bamie’s “maturity made her seem like one of the grown-ups when they were all young.”
That impression never really wore off for TR, and Bamie continued to advise and assist him when he was a grown-up himself. She decorated his room in the boarding house at Harvard and even had a hand in planning his first honeymoon. When TR and his first wife, Alice, spent a few days after their marriage at the Roosevelts’ rented Long Island estate, Kathleen Dalton writes that “Bamie had ordered all their meals ahead of time and arranged everything with the three servants who cared for them.”

When TR began his career in politics, Bamie lent an ear, doled out advice, and helped him make political connections. And when his brother Elliott’s maid, Katy Mann, said that Elliott had gotten her pregnant—a scandal that, if exposed, TR believed would threaten his political chances—it was Bamie who helped TR avoid a lawsuit.

Bamie married late in life, to a Navy officer named William Sheffield Cowles, and moved to Washington around the same time her brother was elected Vice President. There, her home became what TR would call “the other White House.” He visited often and consulted with Bamie on political appointments and maneuvers.

Bamie’s health declined as she aged, and she spent her final years with her husband in Connecticut, plagued by arthritis, backaches, deafness, and deteriorating eyesight. She passed away in 1931 at the age of 76, but there was one vital bit of TR’s legacy that she saw to before she died.

In 1899, Bamie sold the house where she, TR, and their other siblings had been born, and various stores and restaurants would go on to occupy the site. After he died in 1919, younger sister Corinne led the Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association in raising funds to buy back the site and transform it into a memorial. Together, Bamie and Corinne had it reconstructed exactly as they remembered it, complete with family portraits, heirlooms, and original furniture or replicas.

“The Roosevelt House” opened on TR’s birthday in 1923, and the National Park Service took it over 40 years later, renaming it the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site. Today, the house that Bamie so skillfully ran in her youth stands as a monument not only to TR’s legacy, but Bamie’s, too.

TR’s younger sister, Corinne, was a high-spirited, mercurial woman who devoted herself to him unwaveringly. While TR looked up to Bamie as an advisor and a role model, Corinne was more of a buddy.

According to Dalton, TR sought out Corinne’s company “when he felt soulful, or needed unambivalent praise or just playfulness.”

Corinne’s education consisted of private tutoring and a stint at Miss Comstock’s School in Manhattan, much of which she attended with her neighbor, Edith Kermit Carow. Edith, of course, would later become TR’s second wife.

Corinne herself married a boisterous, wealthy Scottish-born real estate broker named Douglas Robinson, a relative of former President James Monroe. Corinne sobbed through her engagement, but she didn’t dare break it off—and the energetic, socially active couple turned out to be surprisingly well-matched. They had four children: Two served in politics, and one authored a book that talked about his childhood at Sagamore Hill. The family was not without tragedy: Their youngest son, Stewart, died at 19 years old when he accidentally fell from a window at Harvard.

Throughout her adult life, Corinne split her time between poetry, politics, and parties.

Her first poem, “The Call of Brotherhood,” was published in Scribner’s Magazine in 1911, and she followed it up with several poetry books. Her friend and fellow writer Edith Wharton encouraged and edited some of her work.

Corinne also hosted lavish parties at the family’s estate in West Orange, New Jersey. It was at one of these parties that Franklin Roosevelt asked a girl to dance: His distant cousin, Eleanor, who was Corinne’s niece, and would later become Franklin’s wife.

In September 1918, Corinne’s husband passed away unexpectedly of heart disease at age 63, and she lost Theodore just a few months later, in January 1919. The sudden death of her beloved brother shook Corinne to her core.

“Life would always have glamour, enchantment, inspiration and delight as long as he lived,” she said, “And now he is gone.”

From that point until her own death in 1933 from pneumonia, Corinne’s life was essentially a tribute to TR. She worked with the Roosevelt Memorial Association, penned many heartfelt poems about him, and published a memoir titled My Brother Theodore Roosevelt in 1921.

Corrine threw herself into politics, backing presidential candidates whom she felt would uphold TR’s vision for the country. In 1920, she endorsed General Leonard Wood at the Republican National Convention. She also served on President Calvin Coolidge’s advisory committee during his 1924 campaign.

TR’s son, Ted Jr., summarized his aunt’s dedication to TR in his diary: “She has talked so much … about him that I really believe that she is more or less convinced that she is he now.”

While Corinne had processed her grief over TR’s death very publicly, his second wife, Edith, did her best to bury hers for the sake of her remaining family.

“I am dead, but no one but you dearest Corinne must know that,” she wrote in March 1919, just a few months after TR’s death. “I am fighting hard to pull myself together and do for the family not only my part but also Theodore’s.”

Edith kept busy by volunteering for the Women’s National Republican Club and the Needlework Guild, and took trips to Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. She wasn’t exactly a political activist, but she did encourage women to vote after the 19th Amendment passed, and she spoke out in support of Herbert Hoover when he ran against Franklin Roosevelt. (According to the Theodore Roosevelt Center, this was partly to clarify that Roosevelt wasn’t her son, as some Americans had assumed.)

As Sylvia Jukes Morris writes in her biography of Edith, the former First Lady was “by nature reclusive and sedentary,” and “she had to fight all the harder to be socially and culturally active—but fight she did, with courage that Theodore himself would have admired.”

She frequently attended parties in Oyster Bay, and even braved Manhattan for concerts and operas. Between all her traveling, volunteering, and keeping up with friends and family, Edith guided how TR was remembered in the eyes of the public. Not only did she destroy many of their love letters, she also had a lot of say in deciding which documents got passed on to historians. It’s for this reason that some scholars—including Michael Cullinane, who we spoke to in previous episodes of this podcast—consider Edith the true gatekeeper of TR’s legacy.

She was the gatekeeper of Sagamore Hill, too. After TR died, his eldest son, Ted, had intended to take over the estate and raise his family there. Edith, however, didn’t plan on moving. She wanted Sagamore Hill to be a center for the whole family, and eventually allotted a few acres of land to Ted so he could build his own home. He did, and these days, it’s known as the Old Orchard Museum.

Edith lived at Sagamore Hill for the rest of her life, and died there on September 30, 1948, at the age of 87. She’s buried at Youngs Memorial Cemetery with her husband.

Now let’s move on to the Roosevelt kids.

Edith and Theodore’s oldest son, Theodore III, or Ted Jr., technically followed his father into politics. But his path there was roundabout, and his defining legacy was mostly a military one.

After graduating from Harvard in 1909, Ted worked for a carpet company and then an investment banking firm. After World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, he planned for the inevitability of U.S. involvement by helping to organize a training program in Plattsburg(h), New York, which marked the beginning of his lifelong passion for military service.

In April 1917, the U.S. entered the war, and Ted, immediately commissioned major, was among the first soldiers sent to France. His wife, Eleanor Butler Alexander, left their children with Edith and set off for France as well, where she ran a YMCA, organized volunteers, and taught French to American soldiers.

The press lauded Ted as an adept, heroic leader—and so did his father.

“Our pride even surpasses our anxiety,” TR wrote. “I walk with my head higher because of you.”

A bullet to the knee during a 1918 battle would keep Ted away from the front lines for the rest of the war, and he soon set his sights on public service. Throughout the 1920s and ’30s, Ted held a number of positions, including New York Assemblyman, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of Puerto Rico, and Governor General of the Philippines. He also spearheaded the establishment of the American Legion, ran for Governor of New York (but didn’t win), and eventually settled into a vice presidency at the publishing house Doubleday, Doran.

When the U.S. got involved in World War II, a middle-aged Ted was undeterred by his heart problems or the arthritis that forced him to walk with a cane. He enlisted, was promoted to brigadier general, and fought in Algeria and Italy. He was accompanied by his son Quentin, named for Ted’s younger brother who had died during World War I and had been buried in France.

Then came D-Day. Ted led the troops onto Utah Beach, earning a Medal of Honor for his valor. He survived, but a month after the battle, while still in France, Ted died of a heart attack. He was buried in the Normandy American Cemetery in France. In 1955, at the request of the Roosevelt family, his brother Quentin’s remains were relocated to rest there, too.

We’ll be right back.

In 1929, Ted Jr. published All in the Family, a memoir with many colorful anecdotes from the Roosevelts’ childhood. One of them really captures the spirit of his younger brother Kermit.

“When Father read to us we all interrupted him continually with questions, but Kermit was by far the worst offender,” Ted wrote. “One ‘why’ bred another so quickly in his mind that soon reading almost stopped.”

Kermit’s insatiable curiosity only strengthened as he got older, and in a way, his whole life was a quest to learn as much as he possibly could.

He accompanied his father on both the legendary African safari of 1909 and the life-threatening journey along Amazon’s River of Doubt in 1913 and ‘14. Without his father, he globe-trotted around places like Asia, the Indies, and the Galapagos Islands, exercising his penchant for picking up languages along the way. He could speak or read almost 10, including Portuguese, Swahili, Arabic, and Greek.

Kermit built an impressive resume: He authored several books and countless articles about his adventures, and he also wrote book reviews and essays about his father. He also worked at a bank in Buenos Aires and founded his own steamship company. He commanded British forces during World War I, and later helped bring about the modern U.S. Merchant Marine. He fathered four children with his wife, Belle Wyatt Willard. He was president of the National Association of Audubon Societies, what would later become the Audubon Society, and he even rubbed shoulders with Gertrude Stein and William Butler Yeats.

But, as Edmund Morris wrote in his book Colonel Roosevelt, “[Kermit’s] nomadic nature and marvelous talent for languages fought against the confinements of marriage and work. Depression steadily claimed him. He became a philanderer and insatiable drinker and, as his body thickened, developed a startling resemblance to his father.”

Kermit fought with British forces again at the beginning of World War II, but he was soon sent home because of his weak heart. He started drinking again. Thinking military service would do him good, his wife and younger brother, Archie, asked then-President Franklin Roosevelt to commission him in the American army.

He was sent to Alaska, where he helped to organize a militia, but the assignment wasn’t the steadying force his family had hoped for. In June 1943, Kermit took his own life. His mother, 81 at the time, was told that he had died of a heart attack. Kermit is buried at the Fort Richardson National Cemetery in Anchorage, Alaska.

In TR’s own words, his fourth child, Ethel, was “a jolly naughty whacky baby too attractive for anything, and thoroughly able to hold her own in the world.”

Ethel wasn’t too attractive to rough-house with her siblings, though. As Edward J. Renehan Jr. writes in his book The Lion’s Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War, Ethel was a “wild tomboy” who spent her early years “swinging from trees with her brothers, running relay races, rowing on Oyster Bay, and riding a succession of favorite horses.”

But as she got older, Ethel became the reserved, responsible daughter that her impulsive older sister, Alice, never was. While TR called Alice his “liability child,” he praised Ethel as the “asset child.” She stood beside her mother on White House receiving lines. She taught Sunday School to less fortunate children.

In 1914, World War I gave Ethel the opportunity to devote herself to volunteer work full-time. She had just married surgeon Richard Derby in 1913, and the two both treated wounded soldiers at the American Ambulance Hospital in France, years before the United States officially entered the fray.

Much like her grandfather, Thee, Ethel was committed to humanitarianism. After the war, she supported a number of causes, many of which were based in or around Oyster Bay, where she lived with her husband and children.

She volunteered for the Red Cross, and pushed for affordable housing for African Americans in the area. She was an active member of both her church and the local nursing service, and she also became a trustee of New York’s American Museum of Natural History—an institution her grandfather had helped found.

Though Ethel pursued her own charitable passions, she still made time to further her father’s conservation efforts and solidify the Roosevelt legacy in Oyster Bay. And we can thank Ethel for the preservation of Sagamore Hill, too. She helped establish the house as a National Historic Site after her mother died there in 1948.

Ethel lived in Oyster Bay until her death in 1977 at age 86. She’s buried in Youngs Memorial Cemetery.

While all the Roosevelt children treated the White House as their playground in one way or another, a few of Archibald’s antics were especially memorable. It was Little Archie who smuggled a Christmas tree into the White House in 1902, and his Shetland pony, Algonquin, reportedly rode the White House elevator to visit him while he was recovering from the measles the following year.

Archie, TR’s second youngest son, had inherited his father’s sense of adventure and uncanny lack of fear. His younger brother, Quentin, was his sidekick in the White House and beyond.

As Morris wrote in Colonel Roosevelt, the two brothers were “as different as Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer.” Quentin was “easygoing and uncompetitive,” whereas TR’s aide called Archie “the pugnacious member” of the family. “He takes up the cudgel at every chance,” the aide wrote.

Archie’s favorite companion may have been Quentin, but his personality mirrored his older brother Ted Jr.’s. In many ways, so did his career. Like Ted, Archie worked for a carpet company after graduating Harvard, and was wounded in France during World War I.

After the war, Archie spent a few years in the oil industry before founding his own investment firm. His success kept his wife, Grace, and their four children from feeling the worst of the Great Depression.

But Archie abandoned the comfort of his office to join the American effort in World War II. He fought in New Guinea, and suffered wounds to the same arm and leg that had been shattered in World War I. Though Archie survived the war, he never completely recovered. He had always been politically conservative, but his post-war years were characterized by paranoia and conspiracy theories about communism.

He eventually retired to Florida, where he died in 1979 after a stroke. Archie was 85 years old. During his last days, at least, it seems like the ravages of war fell away, and he returned instead to happy memories of his boyhood in New York.

“I’m going to Sagamore Hill,” he kept repeating.

And, finally, we have Alice—or, as she was known in D.C., The Other Washington Monument.

In the end, Alice Roosevelt Longworth, whom we covered at length in a previous episode, outlived all of her half-siblings. She was TR’s oldest and arguably wildest child, the only one from his first marriage. She died in 1980 at age 96, and she’s buried in Washington, D.C., with her daughter, Paulina.

We’ll be back in a couple of weeks with another bonus 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.

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When Theodore Roosevelt Refused Geronimo's Plea

Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Portrait of Geronimo (Guiyatle), Apache
Frank A. Rinehart, Wikimedia // Public Domain

On March 4, 1905, Theodore Roosevelt settled in to watch his first inaugural parade. Though he'd been president since the 1901 assassination of William McKinley, this was the first time Roosevelt would get to enjoy the full pomp and ceremony, as Army regiments, West Point cadets, and military bands streamed down Pennsylvania Avenue in the warm March air. Standing in the president's box with his guests, Roosevelt at times clapped and swung his hat in the air to show his appreciation.

Suddenly, six men on horseback appeared in the procession. They were Native American leaders and warriors, "arrayed in all the glory of feathers and war paint," according to The New York Times report the next day. According to Herman J. Viola, they were “Little Plume, Piegan Blackfoot; Buckskin Charley, Ute; ... Quanah Parker, Comanche; Hollow Horn Bear, Brulé Sioux; and American Horse, Oglala Sioux.” The eldest man, leading the group, was "the once-feared Geronimo," as the Times put it.

The inclusion of the Apache elder was not without controversy. For a quarter-century, Geronimo had attacked Mexican and American troops and civilians, putting up a fierce resistance to settler encroachment. That bloody history—though often sensationalized by press reports—still loomed large during the parade: According to Smithsonian, a member of the 1905 inaugural committee asked Roosevelt, “Why did you select Geronimo to march in your parade, Mr. President? He is the greatest single-handed murderer in American history.”

Roosevelt replied, “I wanted to give the people a good show.”

But unlike the other parade participants, Geronimo wasn't there entirely willingly. He was a prisoner of war. And a few days later, he'd beg Roosevelt for his release.

A Bitter Legacy

Theodore Roosevelt was no friend of America's First Nations. During his childhood, he read books that contained stereotypes of Native Americas, and he and his siblings would, as he wrote in his autobiography, "[play] Indians in too realistic manner by staining ourselves (and incidentally our clothes) in a liberal fashion with poke-cherry juice.” He carried what he had read into adulthood, saying at a lecture in New York while away from his ranch in the Dakotas in the late 19th century that, "I don’t go so far as to think that the only good Indians are the dead Indians, but I believe nine out of every ten are, and I shouldn’t like to inquire too closely into the case of the tenth.”

As president, he supported the allotment system, which broke up reservations and forced Native peoples onto smaller, individually-owned lots—essentially remaking traditional land practices in the dominant white image. In his first message to Congress, Roosevelt called the General Allotment Act “a mighty pulverizing engine to break up the tribal mass.” Roosevelt also favored programs like Pennsylvania's Carlisle Indian Industrial School, established in 1879 to forcibly assimilate Native American children. Students were given new names and clothes, baptized, and forbidden to speak their languages. "In dealing with the Indians our aim should be their ultimate absorption into the body of our people,” Roosevelt said in his second message to Congress.

For most of his life, Geronimo aggressively resisted such attempts at assimilation. Born in the 1820s and named Goyahkla—"One Who Yawns"—near what is now the Arizona-New Mexico border, his life changed forever after his wife, mother, and small children were murdered by Mexican soldiers in the 1850s. Afterwards, Geronimo began attacking any Mexicans he could find; conflict with American settlers soon followed. It is said that his nickname, Geronimo, may have come about after one of his victims screamed for help from Saint Jerome, or Jeronimo/Geronimo in Spanish.

In the 1870s, the Chiricahua Apache were forced onto a reservation in Arizona, but Geronimo and his men repeatedly escaped. Eventually, as Gilbert King writes for Smithsonian, "Badly outnumbered and exhausted by a pursuit that had gone on for 3000 miles ... [Geronimo] finally surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles at Skeleton Canyon, Arizona, in 1886 and turned over his Winchester rifle and Sheffield Bowie knife."

The next chapter of Geronimo's life included being shuffled from Florida to Alabama to Fort Sill in the Oklahoma Territory while watching his fellow Apaches die of one disease after another. He was also repeatedly turned into a tourist attraction, appearing at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair and even joining Pawnee Bill’s Wild West show (according to King, under Army guard), where he was billed as "The Worst Indian That Ever Lived."

Geronimo's Tearful Request

The 1905 meeting between Roosevelt, Geronimo, and some of the other Native American men took place a few days after the inauguration, once the crowds had thinned out and things had calmed down a little. Geronimo addressed Roosevelt through an interpreter, calling him "Great Father." According to one contemporary account, Norman Wood’s Lives of Famous Indian Chiefs, he began, "Great Father, I look to you as I look to God. When I see your face I think I see the face of the Great Spirit. I come here to pray to you to be good to me and to my people."

After describing his youthful days on the warpath, which the septuagenarian Geronimo now called foolish, he said, "My heart was bad then, but I did not know it." Now, however, he said, "My heart is good and my talk is straight."

With a tear running down his cheek, he got to the heart of the matter: "Great Father, other Indians have homes where they can live and be happy. I and my people have no homes. The place where we are kept is bad for us. Our cattle can not live in that place. We are sick there and we die. White men are in the country that was my home. ... I pray you to cut the ropes and make me free. Let me die in my own country, an old man who has been punished enough and is free."

According to a March 1905 New York Tribune article, Roosevelt said, “I cannot do so now ... We must wait a while and see how you and your people act. You must not forget that when you were in Arizona you had a bad heart; you killed many of my people; you burned villages; you stole horses and cattle, and were not good Indians.” But it seems at some point, Roosevelt softened—according to Wood, Roosevelt said, “Geronimo, I do not see how I can grant your prayer. You speak truly when you say that you have been foolish. I am glad that you have ceased to commit follies. I am glad that you are trying to live at peace and in friendship with the white people.

"I have no anger in my heart against you," Roosevelt went on. But, he said, "You must remember that there are white people in your old home. It is probable that some of these have bad hearts toward you. If you went back there some of these men might kill you, or make trouble for your people. It is hard for them to forget that you made trouble for them. I should have to interfere between you. There would be more war and more bloodshed. My country has had enough of these troubles."

The president reminded Geronimo that he was not confined indoors in Fort Sill, and allowed to farm, cut timber, and earn money. He promised, "I will confer with the Commissioner and with the Secretary of War about your case, but I do not think I can hold out any hope for you. That is all that I can say, Geronimo, except that I am sorry, and have no feeling against you."

Geronimo's request was never granted. Four years later, in 1909, he died after falling from a horse and developing pneumonia. The Chicago Daily Tribune printed the headline: “Geronimo Now [a] Good Indian."

At least, he was finally free.

Mental Floss has a 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.

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