History Vs. Episode 10: Theodore Roosevelt Vs. Death

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

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.

CREDITS

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.

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History Vs. Bonus Episode: The Statue

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

One thing that happens when you make a Theodore Roosevelt-themed podcast is that whenever there’s TR-related news, you get a ton of messages about it. Which is exactly what happened to me when news broke that the American Museum of Natural History had asked for the equestrian statue of TR that stands outside its Central Park West entrance to be removed.

The request comes at a time when hundreds of thousands of people are taking to the streets to protest police brutality and systemic racism. Statues of historical figures, including those of the Confederacy and monuments dedicated to figures who owned or sold enslaved people, are being defaced, removed, or pulled down entirely—and not just here in the States, but all around the world as well.

Although the museum’s request to remove the statue—which features TR on horseback, flanked on the ground by one Native American and one African figure—was made in light of the current movement, this particular statue of TR has been controversial for a very long time. In 1971, activists dumped a can of red paint on Roosevelt’s head in what a paper at that time called “the latest incident against the Roosevelt statue.” In 1987, former New York City parks commissioner Gordon Davis said he would support the statue being blasted away from where it stood—“unless,” he noted, “Roosevelt got off and walked with them.” Beginning in 2016, activists have protested the statue by organizing marches, covering it with a parachute, and splashing red paint on the base.

Removing the statue was considered as recently as 2017. The Mayoral Advisory Commission on City Art, Monuments, and Markers—which was, according to a report issued in January 2018 [PDF], “committed to a process of historical reckoning, a nuanced understanding of the complicated histories we have inherited”—was split about what to do with the statue.

Ultimately, the city decided to keep the statue where it was, and asked the museum to add context to the work—which the museum did in its exhibit “Addressing the Statue.” We touched briefly on the statue and on the exhibit in a larger discussion of Roosevelt’s views on race in the episode “History Vs. TR.”

Why was the city involved in the decision, you ask? Because even though many associate the statue directly with the museum thanks to its location, Roosevelt’s own history with the institution, and things like the Night at the Museum movies, it’s actually part of a public memorial to Roosevelt located on public land.

While some have issues with the statue because of Roosevelt himself, the museum has said that its request to move it isn’t about Roosevelt but rather because of the statue’s composition and what it implies.

So, in this bonus episode of History Vs., we’re going to talk about the statue—why it’s there, what the artists intended, and why it’s viewed as controversial today. And we’ll dive into Roosevelt’s own views on legacy.

The statue’s story begins in 1920, when the New York State Legislature established the Roosevelt Memorial Commission. Nine years later, construction began on a memorial within the museum that, according to the prospectus of the competition, should “express Roosevelt’s life as a nature lover, naturalist, explorer, and author of works of natural history.”

The memorial may have ended up at AMNH because of Henry Fairfield Osborn, who was then both president of the museum and the head of the New York State Roosevelt Memorial Commission. Osborn had also known Roosevelt—who contributed specimens to the museum, and whose father was one of the founding members—personally.

The memorial was designed by architect John Russell Pope and included the museum’s Central Park West entrance, its Theodore Roosevelt rotunda, and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Hall. In 1925, the Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt was commissioned to become a part of that larger memorial.

In 1928, Pope wrote that the statue would sit on a granite pedestal “bearing an equestrian statue of Roosevelt with two accompanying figures on foot, one representing the American Indian and the other the primitive African. This heroic group … will symbolize the fearless leadership, the explorer, benefactor and educator.”

Sculptor James Earle Fraser—who had created, among other things, a bust of Roosevelt, a statue of Ben Franklin, and the Buffalo nickel—was chosen to create the sculpture, which was based on a statue by Andrea del Verrocchio.

The statue was completed in 1939 and unveiled in 1940. Fraser said that the figures beside the former president “are guides symbolizing the continents of Africa and America, and if you choose may stand for Roosevelt’s friendliness to all races.” The figures have no names, and are below, and trail behind, Roosevelt.

So, we’ve talked about what the artists intended when they created the statue. Now, let’s talk about how the statue is viewed today.

Because a white man is ahead of and above an Indigenous American person and an African person, many see a clear picture of racial hierarchy and white supremacy. Others see a monument to colonialism and conquest.

Not only that, but the unnamed figures seem to be a hodgepodge of stereotypes and poor research. The Native American figure appears to be a Plains Indian, but it’s a generic and stereotypical rendering. According to the museum’s exhibit about the statue, the shield on the African figure appears to be based on the Maasai people, whom Roosevelt met during his time in East Africa. But the museum explains that “the hairstyle and facial scarification on the figure do not accurately reflect Maasai traditions,” and the cloth draped around the body is more akin to a Greek or Roman sculpture.

In 1999, James Loewen wrote in his book Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong that “some authorities claim the flanked figures are ‘guides’ or ‘continents,’ but visitors without such foreknowledge internalize the monument without even thinking about it, as a declaration of white supremacy. When the statue went up the museum was openly racist.”

At that time, the museum had strong ties to eugenics. Under Osborn’s tenure, two conferences about eugenics were held there. Roosevelt himself also supported certain aspects of eugenics, especially later in his life.

Now … about TR’s quote-unquote “friendliness to all races.” If you listened to the “History Vs. TR” episode of this podcast, you’ll remember just how complicated and sometimes contradictory TR’s views on race were. But simply put, TR held white supremacist and racist views that were shaped by his childhood, the books he read, his education, and his correspondence with scientists. Roosevelt developed a theory of the stages of civilization, a racial hierarchy that put the white, English-speaking man on top.

According to historian William S. Walker in Controversial Monuments and Memorials: A Guide for Community Leaders, Fraser’s statue is basically a visual representation of the prevalent thinking about race at the time—a “troubling hierarchy of human groups that places whites above Indigenous peoples and other people of color on a universal scale of human civilization,” he writes. “The statue’s symbolism corresponds with overtly racist statements Roosevelt made in his writings … and actions he took, such as his wrongful condemnation and punishment of Black soldiers after the Brownsville affair in 1906. Moreover, the racial imagery of Fraser’s statue matches the dominant paternalistic attitudes that many whites, including Roosevelt, displayed toward people of color in the early 20th century.”

We’ve covered a lot of the frankly horrible things Roosevelt said about other races in previous episodes of the podcast, but right now, I want to look at just a few examples of what he said about Black people, to show just how contradictory his thinking could be.

The first is from remarks he made in February 1905: “Our effort should be to secure to each man, whatever his color, equality of opportunity, equality of treatment before the law. As a people striving to shape our actions in accordance with the great law of righteousness we cannot afford to take part in or be indifferent to the oppression or maltreatment of any man who, against crushing disadvantages, has by his own industry, energy, self-respect, and perseverance struggled upward to a position which would entitle him to the respect of his fellows, if only his skin were of a different hue."

Sounds pretty good, right? But. In 1906, Roosevelt wrote in a letter to Owen Wister that Black people “as a race and as a mass … are altogether inferior to the whites.” And in 1916, he wrote to Henry Cabot Lodge, “I believe that the great majority of Negroes in the South are wholly unfit for the suffrage.” Extending them that right, he said, could “reduce parts of the South to the level of Haiti.”

Historian Thomas Dyer breaks down TR’s thoughts on a number of races in depth in his book, Theodore Roosevelt and the Idea of Race, and if you want more information than I’ll ever be able to deliver here, you should definitely pick it up.

Dyer notes that while Roosevelt didn’t support segregation or disenfranchisement of Black Americans, and while he championed specific Black individuals, like Minnie Cox, there’s no question that Roosevelt felt that Black people as a whole were inferior to white people. And he believed it was the white man’s job to help the Black man become as civilized as the white man—a process that he believed would take an extremely long time.

However, according to Dyer, Roosevelt shouldn’t be lumped in with the deeply racist politicians of the Deep South, but instead was “associated with the group of theorists who promoted the vision of racial equipotentiality and with those politicians who publicly deplored the oppression of American Blacks yet opposed ‘social equality,’” Dyer writes. “Thus, although Roosevelt may have been a moderating force in an age of high racism, he nevertheless harbored strong feelings about the inferiority of Blacks, feelings which suggest the pervasiveness of racism and the harsh character of racial ‘moderation’ in turn-of-the-century America.”

Though these may have been prevalent views at the time, and while one could try and justify Roosevelt’s racist views by saying that he was a product of his time, there were plenty of people at that time, like Jane Addams and William English Walling, who did not agree with these views, who were much more progressive on this particular issue than Roosevelt was.

We’ll be right back.

 

Right around the time the museum’s “Addressing the Statue” exhibit went up in July 2019, I spoke with David Hurst Thomas, curator of North American Archaeology, Division of Anthropology at AMNH. Here’s what he had to say about the statue and the exhibit:

David Hurst Thomas: It was put up by the state of New York, memorializing a governor who went on to become a president. Our entire western facade is dedicated to the career of Theodore Roosevelt. And as you walk along there, you know, there are sculptures, there are all sorts of things, but the standalone one of Roosevelt on the horse with the African and the Native American walking along sent one message in the 1930s when it was put up and it sends a different message today to many people. So we're trying to come to grips with that. What are the different points of view here? What does that tell us about where we were then and where we are now?

In the exhibit, the museum grappled with what it called Roosevelt’s “troubling views on race” and its “own imperfect history,” saying that “Such an effort does not excuse the past but it can create a foundation for honest, respectful, open dialogue.”

In a recent statement, the museum said it was proud of the exhibition, “which helped advance our and the public’s understanding of the statue and its history and promoted dialogue about important issues of race and cultural representation, but in the current moment, it is abundantly clear that this approach is not sufficient. While the statue is owned by the city, the museum recognizes the importance of taking a position at this time. We believe that the statue should no longer remain and have requested that it be moved.”

Theodore Roosevelt IV, TR’s great-grandson and a museum trustee, supports the statue’s removal, as does New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio, who said in a statement that "the city supports the museum's request. It is the right decision and the right time to remove this problematic statue."

It hasn’t yet been decided when the statue will be removed, or where it will go. And the museum isn’t completely cutting ties with TR. Instead, it will name its Hall of Biodiversity for Roosevelt “in honor of [his] role as a leading conservationist.”

It’s possible that Roosevelt would have preferred this memorialization to any statue. Michael Cullinane, the historian and author of Theodore Roosevelt’s Ghost who I interviewed for this podcast, wrote in a recent op-ed for The Washington Post that “Theodore Roosevelt never wanted a statue. Long before he died, he left strict instructions to his wife and children that no likeness of himself—equestrian or otherwise—appear in stone or bronze. He even fought a memorial group that sought to preserve his birthplace in New York City. … As a historian Roosevelt knew that the past necessarily gets rewritten. He anticipated an ever-changing legacy.”

Clay Jenkinson, who I interviewed for several episodes, also emphasizes this point in a new book of essays he co-edited, called Theodore Roosevelt, Naturalist in the Arena. He points out that, in 1910, when North Dakotans wanted to erect a statue to TR, Roosevelt suggested that a pioneer or pioneer family would be more appropriate.

And in 1916, Roosevelt wrote a letter against building monuments to the dead, saying, “There is an occasional great public servant to whom it is well to raise a monument; really not for the man himself, but for what he typified. A monument to Lincoln or Farragut is really a great symbolic statue to commemorate such qualities as valor and patriotism and love of mankind, and a willingness to sacrifice everything for the right … As for the rest of us who, with failures and shortcomings, but according to our lights, have striven to lead decent lives, if any friends of ours wish to commemorate us after death the way to do it is by some expression of good deeds to those who are still living. Surely a dead man or woman, who is a good man or woman, would wish to feel that his or her taking away had become an occasion for real service for the betterment of mankind, rather than to feel that a meaningless pile of stone, no matter how beautiful, had been erected with his or her name upon it in an enclosure crowded with similar piles of stone—for such a tomb or mausoleum often bears chief reference not to the worth, but to the wealth of the one who is dead.” In fact, after TR’s own death, Jenkinson notes that “his family was lukewarm, sometimes outright negative, about commemorative statues.”

That’s not to say he was against being honored altogether. Jenkinson notes that Roosevelt was thrilled when, in 1911, a dam in Arizona was named after him. “I do not know if it is of any consequence to a man whether he has a monument: I know it is of mighty little consequence whether he has a statue after he is dead,” Roosevelt said. “If there could be any monument which would appeal to any man, surely it is this. You could not have done anything which would have pleased and touched me more than to name this great dam, this reservoir site, after me.”

“The unmistakable sense one gets from reading Roosevelt on this subject is that he wanted his historical memory to be tied to civic, even civilizational achievement,” Jenkinson writes, “and that the giant cyclopean dam in the Arizona desert—named in his honor for his vision, his Americanism, his legislative mastery, and his love of the American West—appealed to him as the right way to pay tribute to his life and work."

If the Theodore Roosevelt Facebook group I’m in is any indication, opinions about the statue’s removal are heated. To be frank, most people in there are quite angry. But I, for one, think it could be a good thing.

Hear me out. Though I’m fascinated by TR, it’s probably clear by now that he was not without his flaws. He was obsessed with his image and wasn’t above asking his friends to gloss over the facts to paint his life and his accomplishments in the best light. He felt he knew what was right and did not often want to admit when he’d been wrong. He could be as bitter and as nasty as he could be kind. And his views on race ranged from deeply paternalistic to openly racist. But understanding those views is important.

As historian and assistant professor at the University of Virginia Justene Hill Edwards said when I interviewed her:

Dr. Justene Hill Edwards: We live in a country, that from the very beginning, has been polarized along issues of race. And so, yes, it is important to understand our public figures and political figures' perspectives on race because it's such an important part, in my mind, of what it means to be American, thinking about these questions because it's an indelible part of the American story. It would be like not understanding, you know, the Civil War, or the American Revolution, or our participation in World War I or II.

Like many historical figures, TR was a person—an incredibly complex person. He did both good things and bad things, and those things should be considered together. Here’s Edwards again:

Edwards: He did amazing things for idealizing and realizing the beauty of America's natural landscapes, right, for ideas of conservation, that's really important. And we don't have to denigrate that legacy with his more problematic legacy on race. And so I think it's important to view historical figures as they were. They're complex people with complex inner-workings of their lives, and it's just important to understand that human complexity.

In order to even get close to a full picture of TR, we need to consider all of the sides of him rather than picking the parts that support the vision of him that we prefer. History, like TR, is complicated. I think the statue’s removal spurs us to grapple with all of that, as well as with America’s own racist history, and that’s important. Which is why I hope that, even if the statue will one day be gone, AMNH will keep its exhibit about the work around so visitors can learn from it for decades to come.

As Cullinane wrote, the statue “indicates nothing of Roosevelt’s environmental legacy. Rather, it symbolizes the least appealing aspect of his natural history philosophy.” I think Cullinane nailed it when he said, “If we honor complex figures, we should make sure we do so in ways that emphasize their enduring contributions, not their worst failures.”

As Jenkinson points out, TR’s legacy isn’t in a single statue—in fact, it’s all around us. “Theodore Roosevelt’s monumental footprint can be found in nearly every state in America,” Jenkinson writes. “While some of it is appropriately visible … still more is quietly enshrined in the U.S. Navy, in the National Park Service, in the modern identity of the American presidency, and in countless landscapes, parks, and forests across the Western Hemisphere. No other president has such a legacy. No other president even comes close.”

I’ll leave you with something TR expressed to Cecil Spring Rice in 1905, on the occasion of his Secretary of State John Hays’s death: “It is a good thing to die in the harness at the zenith of one’s fame, with the consciousness of having lived a long, honorable, and useful life,” he wrote. “After we are dead, it will make not the slightest difference whether men speak well or ill of us. But in the days and hours before dying it must be pleasant to feel that you have done your part as a man and have not yet been thrown aside as useless, and that your children and children’s children, in short all those that are dearest to you, have just cause for pride in your actions.”

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by me, with fact checking and additional research 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.