History Vs. Episode 10: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Death


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.

In 1914, when Theodore Roosevelt trekked into the Brazilian jungle to explore a previously uncharted tributary of the Amazon River, it must have seemed like just another adventure on a very long list of adventures—one that would briefly get him out of the public eye after his disappointing loss in the 1912 election.

The loss stung, and his reputation had taken a hit. But none of that would matter in the jungle.

Of course, Roosevelt knew this adventure wouldn’t be easy—if it were, it wouldn’t be appealing. And he knew it would be dangerous, which only made it more enticing for the 55-year-old former president.

“If it is necessary for me to leave my remains in South America,” he wrote to a friend, “I am quite ready to do so.”

And now, a month and a half into his trek down the River of Doubt, it looked like he might do just that.

From the outset, the journey had been besieged by calamities—malaria and dysentery had cut through many of the men on the expedition, not to mention the dwindling food supply and the lingering threat of South American tribes who didn’t take kindly to armed strangers showing up uninvited.

Roosevelt had lost 50 pounds. A few days ago, he’d bashed his leg open on a rock, and it became infected. Now, as thunderstorms raged, he was in the throes of a severe malaria fit. Convulsively shivering, with a 104-degree fever, he recited the same poem over, and over, and over:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea ...

Though no one expected him to live the night, he did. By morning, he had regained his senses—and he had reached a decision.

He gathered the team—his son Kermit, co-captain Candido Rondon, and naturalist George Cherrie among them—and told them, “The expedition cannot stop. On the other hand, I cannot proceed. You go on and leave me.”

But TR’s journey wasn’t over. Ultimately, the Amazon wouldn’t claim Roosevelt. In fact, after countless brushes with death over the five previous decades, it was starting to look like nothing could.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and in this round, we’re pitting Theodore Roosevelt against the greatest opponent of all: Death. It’s a foe that Roosevelt fought his entire life—in family tragedies, on the battlefield and on the hunting ground, and during run-ins with assassins.

But for TR, death wasn’t something to fear—it was just the opposite. “[The] worst of all fears,” he wrote in his autobiography, “is the fear of living.”

So how did he take on the grim reaper time and time again? We’re about to find out.

To understand Roosevelt’s life, you have to understand how death colored his formative years.

His first real encounter with death came on February 9, 1878, when his father, Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., passed away while TR was still a student at Harvard. It was a loss he wrote about often, detailing his devastation in his journals. He threw himself into his schoolwork to cope. For the rest of the semester, he was “grinding like a Trojan,” according to historian Edmund Morris, scoring high marks on exams, teaching Sunday school, and obsessively exercising.

During this tornado of productivity, he continued to grieve privately in his diaries.

Alyssa Parker-Geisman: Theodore doesn't know what he's thinking, what he's doing. He's kind of in a … zone. You know, it seems, my impression of what I've read is that he kind of just turns off to the world, maybe internally he's struggling. I don't know. I mean, I'm thinking of the way that I would react if I lost a very important person in my life. You know, the type of person that you later call the best man I ever knew and the only man I was ever afraid of.

That’s Alyssa Parker-Geisman, lead ranger at Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site in New York City.

Parker-Geisman: So it heavily impacted him, and I think it just follows with him. When he's president and he's facing a difficult decision, he usually asks himself, "What would my father do in this case?" So, it's kind of ever-present, the impact of losing his father.

Roosevelt would go on to experience many tragedies in his life, but the torrent of grief, the outpouring of emotion he wrote in his diary after his father’s death, never really happened again.

Six years later, when Roosevelt was a young assemblyman in New York, he lost his first wife, Alice, and his mother, Mittie, on the same day. He was back to work in Albany just four days later, where, Morris writes, “his activities … were so prodigious that one gropes … for an inhuman simile. Like a factory ship in the whaling season, he combined the principles of maximum production and perpetual motion.”

Roosevelt’s strategy for beating his depression was to outwork it. Whenever he encountered tragedy, he followed the same pattern: Work to the point of exhaustion; exert yourself until you can no longer feel; repeat as necessary. As he once wrote, “Black care rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.”

In this quest to avoid and dull his grief, TR didn’t just face death—he seemingly invited it. In Wilderness Warrior, historian Douglas Brinkley discusses Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison’s book, Exuberance, which features TR as a prime example of the emotion. Brinkley writes that, “His set of symptoms—propulsive behavior, deep grief, chronic insomnia, and an all-around hyperactive disposition—demonstrate both the manic and the depressive phases of bipolar disorder.”

While some manic-depressive patients—which is Jamison’s preferred term—withdraw from life, Brinkley writes that “those afflicted with exuberance … go in the opposite direction; behaving as relentless human blowtorches … unable to turn down their own flame … Only by exhausting oneself in physical activity … could an exuberant maniac like Roosevelt turn himself off.”

This kind of energy allowed Roosevelt to achieve incredible things, but, as Jamison notes, exuberance has its downsides. Working so hard and sleeping so little was detrimental to TR's health. But if doctors had tried to get him to take better care of himself, or slow down a little, he probably would have responded as he did when a Harvard doctor told him that his bad heart meant he needed to live a sedentary life—by disregarding their advice entirely.

TR also faced death as a big game hunter. In pursuit of a target, he could be relentless. Take, for example, his first bison hunt. Roosevelt insisted on pursuing his goal even when the weather conditions became horrendous, even when his guide, Joe Ferris, wanted to give up. (As a friend recalled, “He nearly killed poor Joe. He would not stop for anything.”) Roosevelt pushed himself hard—and sometimes took risks—to bag a quarry, whether it was a bison, a lion, or a hippopotamus.

His closest call during a hunt came during a trip out West in 1889. TR, then a Civil Service Commissioner, had just come out on the losing end of a political clash over a postmaster in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and decided a hunting trip was just the thing he needed to clear his head. On this particular trip, he was, he said, “especially hot for bear.”

He found one in Montana at twilight.

The grizzly was in the valley, 60 yards away. TR fired a round, but the bear did not fall; instead, the wounded animal “uttered a loud, moaning grunt,” in Roosevelt’s words, and took off. He followed the wounded animal, which Roosevelt would later say was making “a peculiar, savage kind of whine,” and in the confusion of the trees and thicket, the two were suddenly upon each other. “He turned his head stiffly toward me; scarlet strings of froth hung from his lips; his eyes burned like embers in the gloom,” Roosevelt wrote.

He fired another round, again hitting the bear—and again, it wouldn’t go down: “Instantly the great bear turned with a harsh roar of fury and challenge, blowing the bloody foam from his mouth, so that I saw the gleam of his white fangs; and then he charged straight at me, crashing and bounding through the laurel bushes so that it was hard to aim.”

The animal charged at Roosevelt, and, as he would later recall, he fired again, and then once more, and leapt out of the way of the approaching animal. Through the smoke, he could see its huge paw as it took a swipe at him … and, finally, dropped to the ground. It would be the closest he’d come to death at the hands of a big game animal—and the bear’s pelt quickly became one of his favorite trophies.

The danger Roosevelt threw himself into didn’t just involve wild hunting trips. In the Dakotas, he clashed with the Marquis de Mores, a French aristocrat with eyes on establishing a cattle empire in the area. (He founded the town of Medora, which was named after his wife.) The Marquis’s domineering personality made him an obvious foil for someone with a presence as strong as Roosevelt’s, and the two soon found themselves at odds.

Andes: And somehow, the Marquis decided that Theodore Roosevelt wanted to kill him, which wasn't the case.

That’s Eileen Andes, the Chief of Interpretation and Public Affairs at Theodore Roosevelt National Park in Medora, North Dakota.

Andes: They not only had strong personalities, but they were both aristocrats that were probably both used to being the alpha male.

McCarthy: The big boss man.

Andes: And then there's the story about when Theodore Roosevelt was in Wibaux. Wibaux is a little town, let's see, six miles on the other side of the Montana border, and it's really small. And he was there in a saloon, and some guy challenged him to a fight, because, you know, men who wore glasses were weak.

The man called him four-eyes—which he would quickly come to regret: Roosevelt, in his own words, stood up and “struck quick and hard with my right just to one side of the point of his jaw.”

Andes: Roosevelt pummeled him. And I think TR was the kind of person who never would back down ... In his life, there were very few things that he ever regretted, and he didn't believe in backing down.

Take, for example, an encounter Roosevelt had with a man named E.G. Paddock, who was working closely with the Marquis de Mores on his cattle business. Paddock had spread word around the area that Elkhorn Ranch was his property, not Roosevelt’s, and that if TR wished to have it, he’d have to pay for it in dollars or in blood. Once Roosevelt got wind of the threat, he immediately sought out Paddock at his home. Here’s Clay Jenkinson, founder of the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota.

Jenkinson: So Roosevelt gets on his horse and goes 35 miles into Medora and knocks at the guy's door and says, "Hey, I hear you want to shoot me. When do you want to start?" The guy essentially goes, hubba, hubba, hubba, hubba. "I didn't mean it. I've been misquoted,” and then they work it out. But Roosevelt always confronted the problem. He never ducked or tried to elude it. He always went straightforward and said, "Here I am. Ich bin hier." I think that's one of his greatest qualities.

Perhaps the most legendary story of TR’s days in the Dakotas occurred when his boat was stolen from Elkhorn ranch in March 1886. From the start, Roosevelt knew the crime was likely the work of a man named Mike Finnegan and his gang, who, Roosevelt would write, had previously been implicated in cattle killing and horse-stealing in the area.

Instead of alerting the authorities, or just letting the three armed and potentially dangerous men go, he had his ranch hands, Bill Sewall and Wilmot Dow, build a new boat so they could all go after the thieves. TR grabbed a camera and a couple of books (including Anna Karenina), and the trio headed down the icy Little Missouri River, as temperatures dropped to zero degrees.

Despite the fact that the thieves had a head start of several days, Roosevelt had an advantage: The thieves had stolen what TR said was “the only craft there was on the river” and would never suspect a chase was even possible. On the third day of the pursuit, Roosevelt spotted the stolen boat and ambushed one of the thieves, who surrendered immediately. Soon after, the other two returned, and Roosevelt and his party aimed their rifles at them and ordered their surrender, which they did without a drop of blood being shed. It was then up to TR to hike the thieves back to face justice in Dickinson.

Today, by car, the trip from Elkhorn Ranch to Dickinson is more than 80 miles and would take around two hours. Roosevelt and company were north of the Elkhorn, and it wasn’t just distance that made the trip challenging. Here’s Andes.

Andes: It was hiking through badlands, and then over the prairie. So, it was … not only distance, it was really rugged country. And the boat thieves, no doubt, were not happy about the situation.

McCarthy: Like obviously he needed the boat to get across the river to check on his cattle, but if it's easy enough for your farmhands to build you another boat, why go after your first boat? What is it? Is it just the principle of the thing?

Andes: I think so, yeah. Theodore Roosevelt, I think, had a very acute sense of right and wrong. And he felt that he had been wronged. And the boat didn't belong to them, it belonged to him, and he wanted it back. Roosevelt wanted things to be done the right way and the honorable way, and that's part of his character. I'm sure that people thought he was kind of a pain, but that's part of his charm. I'm not sure that Roosevelt thought about going after boat thieves as being dangerous. It was just something he did because he felt he should and he had to. He was impulsive, we know that.

A sense of bravado also seemed to be at play when it came to TR and the Spanish-American War. He had been loudly and publicly beating the war drum as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy. He believed that it was the country’s duty to intervene in the war for Cuban independence, which sometimes made him act against the wishes of his superiors. Once the U.S. became part of the war in 1898, Roosevelt resigned from his post, forming the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry—the Rough Riders—and heading to Cuba to get in on the action himself.

TR’s fearlessness in the face of physical danger would become the stuff of legend in June 1898, when Roosevelt and the Rough Riders took part in the Battle of Las Guasimas. There, in the sweltering jungle, a newly discovered Spanish stronghold blocked a military advancement.

It was here that Roosevelt faced live fire for the first time. Hails of bullets peppered his position, and the Rough Riders suffered their first casualties of the campaign. Roosevelt himself was said to be so excited by the action that he made no effort to take cover; instead, he frantically moved about as he awaited orders. Once, a bullet missed him by mere inches, piercing a tree right next to him and spraying his face full of bark.

Days later came the famous charge up Kettle Hill, during what’s now known as the Battle of San Juan Heights. The Rough Riders were tasked with helping to capture Kettle Hill as part of a larger campaign by the U.S. to take Santiago de Cuba. On this day, time was not a luxury—the Americans were firing artillery by 6:30 in the morning. Soon after, the Spanish responded with explosions that rocked the Rough Rider camp, leaving four dead and Roosevelt himself with a shrapnel wound on his wrist.

Orders to charge the hill were slow to come from General Sumner, and Roosevelt, growing impatient to see action, was on the verge of unilaterally sending his men up the hill on his own just before he was given official word to make his move: “I sprang on my horse, and then my ‘crowded hour’ began.”

Roosevelt gleefully powered through on horseback with his men running behind him, bullets flying at them from all sides. TR himself would take down a Spanish soldier using a pistol. He doubled up as “neatly as a jackrabbit,” Roosevelt would proudly proclaim.

The Rough Riders suffered the most casualties of any regiment in the cavalry division on that day; Roosevelt himself dodged death on numerous occasions. Bullets always seemed to be just missing him—sometimes whizzing by in the scenery, sometimes hitting fellow Rough Riders just feet away. During one early-morning bombardment by the Spanish, Roosevelt found cover under a tree as a shell exploded overhead. Five men directly behind him were killed or wounded; Roosevelt came away unscathed.

“I really [firmly believe] now they can’t kill him,” family friend and fellow soldier Bob Ferguson wrote in a letter to TR’s wife, Edith. But TR himself saw it all through a boy’s eyes: "The charge itself was great fun," he said. "Oh, but we had a bully fight!"

The Rough Riders helped secure a victory for the U.S. that day, and the image of Roosevelt charging up the hill on horseback, sneering at death, would become a part of American folklore and help turn him into one of the most popular men in the country upon his return to the States in August 1898.

Tyler Kuliberda: This is what propels his career. He becomes famous, nationally famous, becomes a household name after the Rough Riders win the battle of San Juan Heights, and he becomes so popular that the New York political machine, or Republican party they want him to run for governor, they run him for governor, he's successful.

That’s Tyler Kuliberda, education technician at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site, who explains that Republican machine Boss Thomas Platt—who had clashed with Roosevelt before, and probably should have known that he would not fall in line as governor—was fed up with TR’s reform policies. So they “kicked him upstairs,” according to Kuliberda, to be McKinley’s running mate.

Not everyone was pleased with that development. When TR was chosen as McKinley’s running mate, Mark Hanna, McKinley’s right-hand man, said, “Don’t any of you realize that there is only one life between that madman and the presidency?”

Roosevelt was hiking on the New York-Vermont border when McKinley was hit by an assassin’s bullet. At first he went to Buffalo to be by the president’s side, but when it looked like McKinley would recover, TR went back to the mountains. He was on Mount Marcy—the highest point in New York State—when word reached him that McKinley had taken a turn for the worse … and was dying. Roosevelt took off flying down the mountain.

Here’s Clay Jenkinson.

Jenkinson: Roosevelt made this heroic journey and [was] reckless. Could have himself been killed. Urging the stage rider, "Faster, faster. Don't hold back." And they were going on these really dangerous paths in the darkness and he's trying to get to a train that was waiting for him. And so he gets to the train and goes to Buffalo and then when he arrives, he already knows that the president is dead. And now he's in this really strange position because he has wanted to be president. He has intended to be president, but he certainly didn't think it would come this soon. You have to tread very, very carefully in the wake of an assassination. You can't be gleeful, but you have to assume control. You have to make sure that the people who are McKinley's aides and insiders will accept you and not flee and yet you have to establish your own administrative mastery and control of the leaders of power pretty quickly. And he did it beautifully.

Still, Theodore Roosevelt was Theodore Roosevelt. TR—who came into office thanks to an assassin’s bullet—was the first president to have formal protection by the Secret Service, but he wouldn’t make it easy on them. According to historian Kathleen Dalton, “He resisted Secret Service protection at first, preferring to carry his own gun.” TR did, eventually, accept their protection … but, as Dalton writes, only begrudgingly.

And when Roosevelt wished to observe the capabilities of one of the Navy’s earliest submarines, the USS Plunger, he didn’t do so from the safety of the presidential yacht; instead, he joined the crew of the vessel as it dove under water for hours. This despite the fact that submarine technology was still in its infancy. "Never in my life have I had such a diverting day nor can I ever recall having so much enjoyment in so few hours as today," he said.

Danger seemed to find Roosevelt even when he wasn’t looking for it. On September 3, 1902, the president was heading to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, in a horse-drawn carriage. With him were Winthrop Crane, governor of Massachusetts, future Secretary of the Treasury George Bruce Cortelyou, and Secret Service agent William Craig.

As the carriage crossed some trolley tracks on the way into town, it was hit by an electric trolley. The carriage flew 40 feet; Roosevelt was thrown, landing on his face and bruising his leg. Crane and Cortelyou were OK, but Craig had been run over by the trolley. He was dead—the first Secret Service agent to die on presidential duty.

Roosevelt had barely escaped. John Hay, Roosevelt’s Secretary of State, later said that “Had the trolley car struck the rear hub … Crane and the president would have been tossed to the left and under the wheels just as poor Craig was.”

How close a call was it? According to Morris, a mere two inches.

In true TR form, he soldiered on, campaigning in the Midwest—at least until the trip was cut short when the bruise on his shin developed into an abscess that required emergency surgery.

One of Kuliberda’s favorite TR stories is an anecdote of Edith’s casual reaction to seeing her bloodied husband come inside one day at Sagamore Hill after colliding with the blades of the windmill that still stands on the property.

Kuliberda: Apparently, Edith tells him very calmly, "Theodore, I wish you'd do your bleeding in the bathroom." For me, it gives me a sense that she was used to this ... She [had] experienced him hurting himself, and she knew that he would be fine and everything would be OK. She's worried about: just … don’t bleed here.

Just because she was accustomed to it doesn’t mean she didn’t worry, and even after he was out of office, Edith still couldn’t shake the fear that McKinley’s fate would also befall her husband.

And it almost did on October 14, 1912, during a campaign stop in Milwaukee when TR was running for president for a potential third term, not as a Republican but as the candidate for the Progressive Party.

It’s one of the most famous pieces of the Roosevelt mythology: He was shot by John Flammang Schrank, a deranged would-be assassin who claimed the ghost of McKinley was guiding him to gun down Roosevelt right before he was set to deliver a speech.

With a bullet lodged in his chest and death closer to his front door than ever, TR handled the situation in trademark “Bull Moose” fashion, powering through a roughly 90-minute speech as blood continued to escape the wound. Only after he was done with his work would Roosevelt go to the hospital.

Edith wasn’t by her husband’s side for this trip—instead, she was back home in New York, watching a production of Johann Strauss’s The Merry Countess at the Casino Theater in Manhattan. When she got the news, a weeping Edith bolted from the theater and was heard to demand, “Take me to where I can talk to him or hear from him at once.”

She was taken to the Progressive National Headquarters at the Manhattan Hotel and spoke over the phone with TR’s doctors, who informed her that the wound had been X-rayed and dressed, and they were in the process of determining if the bullet could be safely removed or not.

After midnight, she received a telegram from her husband that attempted to downplay the situation. It read: “I am now in the American Hospital. The bullet did not hit anything vital and I think they will find it somewhere around. It is no more serious than the injury the boys received. My voice is holding out well and I will go on with the trip. Don't worry. Love to all.”

The doctors did, indeed, find the bullet around somewhere—it was lodged in Roosevelt’s rib, and the doctors decided to leave it where it lay.

Following the assassination attempt and his loss in the 1912 election, a familiar Roosevelt pattern reemerged. He decided to overcome the post-election melancholia by shaking off the modern world and going on his famed trip down the Amazon’s River of Doubt.

It shouldn’t have come as a shock to Edith that, even after surviving runs-ins with grizzly bears, a carriage accident, and a bullet to the chest, TR was still willing to take enormous risks, tempt fate, and set off on boyish adventures, even at the age of 55. Here’s Andes.

Andes: Who could make this up? He went for the adventure, but he also went to be the first to do this. That was a big thing. But that was a big thing among the explorer class back then. I'm sure Edith looked at him like, "That's dangerous," but Edith knew him really well. But I don't think the thought of danger ever stopped him from doing anything. He almost died on that trip, and he never really recovered his health after that. And Kermit almost died, too.

With the malaria, a bacterial infection, the gash on his leg—Roosevelt wasn’t just close to death during his Amazon trip, he was also growing concerned that his condition would spread and endanger the other men in his group. He had brought along morphine on the trip, as he always did on expeditions like these, in case things got bad.

As he later told a friend, who recounted the story in 1925:

“One never knows what is going to happen, and I did not mean to be caught by some accident where I should have to die a lingering death. I always meant that, if at any time death became inevitable, I would have it over with at once, without going through a long-drawn-out agony from which death was the only relief. I have had a very full life, and am not at all afraid to die.”

On the Amazon trip, things got bad, and Roosevelt told his friend that “when I found myself so ill that I was a drag on the party, and it began to look as if we could not all get out alive, I began to think it might be better for me to take my morphine and end it.”

But then it occurred to Roosevelt that Kermit wouldn’t abandon him—not even if he died. He would insist on bringing his father’s body back, which TR knew would be impossible. “So there was only one thing for me to do, and that was to come out myself,” he said. “It was a hard fight, but I made it.”

The River of Doubt is now known as the Roosevelt River, in honor of the expedition that TR was all too ready to sacrifice himself for. But his penchant for cheating death was suffering from diminishing returns. His body was broken down, he’d lost much of his formidable size, and he was looking more mortal than ever.

Over the next few years, TR faced failing health and even more tragedy when his son, Quentin, died after his plane was shot down in Germany during World War I. TR faced his grief quietly: “There is no use writing about Quentin,” he wrote to novelist Edith Wharton, “for I should break down if I tried.”

The Roosevelt routine of plunging into adventure to combat the loss of a loved one had run its course. Even before Quentin’s death, it was becoming clear that TR’s body simply wouldn’t allow him to be the “Bull Moose” anymore—by 1918 he was suffering from rheumatism, lumbago, anemia, and vertigo, which made it difficult to walk or even stand at times. Various infections would put him in and out of the hospital, and illnesses he faced on the Amazon would still affect him—something he called his “old Brazilian trouble.”

In November 1918, Roosevelt was brought to the hospital to treat the recurring abscesses in his legs. He came home around Christmastime, though he was still suffering from worsening pain due to his rheumatism.

By this point, Edith had his bed moved to the chamber adjacent to their room—one with corner windows facing south and west, the warmest room in the house. The coal fire was kept lit all day and night, keeping Roosevelt comfortable as he rested in his mahogany sleigh bed.

Despite the litany of ailments, he was still working: Morris writes that on January 3, TR dictated an editorial to the Kansas City Star on the proposed League of Nations, and on January 5, he dictated an article for the Metropolitan voicing his support for a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. And, he wrote a long letter to his son, Ted, with a draft of his Metropolitan article enclosed.

Around midnight, Roosevelt’s caretaker, James Amos, helped the Colonel get into bed. After watching the fire for a while, Roosevelt asked, "James, will you please turn out the light?” before closing his eyes to go to sleep.

Just a few hours later, early in the morning on January 6, 1919—after decades of dodging it physically, mentally, and emotionally—death finally came for Theodore Roosevelt.

Here’s Kuliberda.

Kuliberda: He dies quietly. It's kind of the opposite of how I think he thought he would die. It's kind of ironic to die quietly in your family home in your sleep, whereas Roosevelt I think was somebody who I think would have seen himself as somebody who’d die in battle, or somebody who would die giving himself to a great cause.

Roosevelt’s battle with death was probably best summed up by Vice President Thomas Marshall, who, upon hearing that the Colonel had passed away, said, “Death had to take him in his sleep, for if Roosevelt had been awake, there would have been a fight.”

Roosevelt’s death was a shock to the nation, and to the world—there had been talks of him running again for president in 1920, and to the public at large, he had always been a figure that seemed invulnerable.

Within hours of the news, the Senate and the House of Representatives were adjourned, U.S. flags were ordered to half-mast around the globe, and military planes made ceremonial flights over Oyster Bay, dropping laurel wreaths onto the lawn of the Roosevelt family home. Mourners swarmed through Oyster Bay—leaving Edith and son Archie to direct traffic and console the very people who had come to comfort them.

The tributes to TR poured in. Aimara Sato, former Japanese ambassador to Washington, reflected on Roosevelt’s legacy and his efforts to bring about peace during the Russo-Japanese war, saying TR was “perhaps the only great American who understood us.”

Georges Clemenceau, the French Prime Minister, wrote to Edith, saying “France loses in him an excellent friend.” British Prime Minister David Lloyd George remarked, “Mr. Roosevelt was a great and inspiring figure far beyond his own country’s shores and the world is poorer for his loss.”

Later, a memorial service was held at Westminster Abbey, where a choir sang Roosevelt’s favorite hymn, “How Firm a Foundation,” followed by a rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner” on the church organs.

Theodore Roosevelt’s funeral was held on January 8, 1919. His body lay in a coffin in the North Room of Sagamore Hill, resting on a prized lion’s skin, adorned with flags for both the United States and the Rough Riders. His daughter Ethel said that “He looked as if he were asleep—and weary. But not stern.”

Roosevelt was laid to rest in Young’s Memorial Cemetery, just about a mile away from Sagamore Hill, at the top of a hill looking out over the bay. The weather, and the hike to the site, were pure Roosevelt: The mourners—who included mentor and senator Henry Cabot Lodge and friend-turned-rival William Howard Taft—had to make a 45-degree trek up the hill while trudging through a layer of wet snow that had fallen that morning.

It’s a humid July day when Jon, one of Mental Floss’s video editors, and I make the trek out to Sagamore Hill and to Young’s Memorial Cemetery. The hill is no joke—we are sweating buckets by the time we reach the steps to Roosevelt’s grave.

McCarthy: It’s 26 steps up.

Jon Mayer: Did you just know that?

McCarthy: No, I looked it up ahead of time. But, you know, 26th president, so 26 steps. Makes sense. ... This place is called Youngs Memorial Cemetery, and that's because this used to be the Youngs' farm. They were longtime Long Island residents, and they started burying their own family members here in ... 1658? Yeah. And then later on, they made it available to their neighbors. And so TR and Edith bought plots here, according to this pamphlet, "some years before the President's death. His simple country grave, reached by 26 steps signifying that he was the 26th President, soon became the focus for pilgrimages by groups and individuals," like me.

At the top of the hill is TR’s gravesite. It’s a simple tombstone, adorned with the Great Seal, surrounded by a wrought iron fence.

There’s a small concrete pathway around the grave, which is covered with plants. There are two small American flags and one blue flag that reads “medal of honor recipient.” Roosevelt was awarded the medal of honor posthumously in 2001. He was the first—and only—president to receive the distinction.

The site is tranquil. The trees rustle in the wind; the bay glitters in the sun. And above the distant sound of screaming kids and the drone of a lawnmower and the whooshing of cars going by, you can hear what Theodore Roosevelt thought was the sweetest sound in the whole world.

McCarthy: He loved birds.


History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Jay Serafino, with research by Erin McCarthy, and fact checking by Austin Thompson. Field recording by Jon Mayer. 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 Alyssa Parker-Geisman, Eileen Andes, Tyler Kuliberda, and Clay Jenkinson.

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

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

History Vs. Bonus Episode: Epilogue - The Other Roosevelts


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.


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

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

The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

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

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

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.