History Vs. Bonus Episode: Theodore Roosevelt and the Round-Robin Letter Incident

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

Theodore Roosevelt has been in the news lately—not the president, but the ship named for him.

There’s no question that the novel coronavirus has radically changed the lives of millions of people around the globe. As medical professionals fight to save lives in overcrowded hospitals, and as delivery people and grocery store employees head to work every day to make sure we have the supplies we need, many non-essential workers have stopped going into their offices and are instead working from home to try to slow the spread of the virus. I’m recording this episode of the podcast in my closet, because clothes muffle echo, so if things sound a little different or weird, that's why.

Even Navy ships have felt the effects of the virus, perhaps none more so than the USS Theodore Roosevelt, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered aircraft carrier that was launched in 1984. The ship was at sea in the Pacific Ocean with more than 4000 crewmembers on board when COVID-19 began to appear among the sailors. After the outbreak started, the ship was docked in Guam, but the disease continued to spread.

Alarmed by the situation, the ship’s commander, Captain Brett Crozier, wrote a letter to senior military officials. He pointed out that, in the cramped conditions of a Navy ship, social distancing and 14-day quarantines were not possible, which meant, Crozier wrote, that “the spread of the disease is ongoing and accelerating.”

He asked that the USS Theodore Roosevelt’s crewmembers be allowed to disembark in Guam due to the rapidly deteriorating situation, writing, “Removing the majority of personnel from a deployed U.S. nuclear aircraft carrier and isolating them for two weeks may seem like an extraordinary measure. ... This is a necessary risk. Keeping over 4000 young men and women on board the TR is an unnecessary risk and breaks faith with those Sailors entrusted to our care.”

He ended by writing, “We are not at war. Sailors do not need to die. If we do not act now, we are failing to properly take care of our most trusted asset—our Sailors.”

The letter, which Crozier emailed to senior military officials, was leaked to The San Francisco Chronicle and published on March 31. Then-acting secretary of the Navy Thomas B. Modly removed Crozier from command on April 2. As Crozier disembarked the aircraft carrier, sailors cheered him from the decks.

Captain Crozier—who has reportedly tested positive for COVID-19—was forced out because, according to The New York Times, Modly “had lost confidence in Crozier’s ability to command the ship effectively as it dealt with the evolving crisis after Crozier sent the letter on an unclassified email system to 20 to 30 people, [which] Modly said caused unnecessary alarm about the operational readiness of the ship and undermined the chain of command.”

After Crozier’s removal, Modly went to the USS Theodore Roosevelt to assess the situation, where he made disparaging remarks about Crozier which were leaked to the public. Under public pressure, Modly resigned on April 7.

The actions of Crozier, Modly, and the Navy are obviously being hotly debated, and there will probably be more developments between when I record this episode and when it goes out.

I’m not an expert in the Navy, or in the military chain of command, so it doesn’t feel appropriate for me to dig into any of that here. But the current news does give me the opportunity to discuss an interesting historical precedent for this situation—one that involved Theodore Roosevelt himself. I’m your host, Erin McCarthy, and in this bonus episode of History Vs., we’re going to look at the round-robin letter incident of the Spanish-American War.

During and after the Siege of Santiago, one of the last major operations of the Spanish-American War, U.S. troops stationed in Santiago de Cuba were beset by malaria and yellow fever. Thousands of men were sick and dying, but the McKinley administration planned to keep the troops in Cuba until peace talks were over—and until they were healthy. According to some sources, there was a real fear that sick soldiers would come back to the states and start a yellow fever epidemic.

But the situation was growing untenable, and near the end of July, General William Shafter, commander of the Fifth Corps, gathered all of his commanders to discuss it. Roosevelt later recalled in his autobiography that “Although I had command of a brigade, I was only a colonel, and so I did not intend to attend, but the General informed me that I was particularly wanted, and accordingly I went.”

As Edmund Morris wrote in The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, “All agreed that it was critical, and that the War Department’s apparent unwillingness to evacuate the Army was inexcusable. Somebody must write a formal letter stating that in the unanimous opinion of the Fifth Corps staff, a further stay in Cuba would be to the ‘absolute and objectless ruin’ of the fighting forces.”

None of the regular officers wanted to risk his career by writing such a letter, and suddenly, the reason Roosevelt’s presence had been requested became clear. He was a volunteer who had quit his post as assistant secretary of the Navy in order to fight, and he intended to go right back to being a civilian after the war. He had much less to lose by offending his former boss, President William McKinley, and McKinley’s secretary of war, Russell Alger. “To incur the hostility of the War Department would not make any difference to me, whereas it would be destructive to the men in the regular army,” Roosevelt later wrote. “I thought this true, and said I would write a letter or make a statement which could then be published.”

Theodore Roosevelt obviously wasn’t afraid to speak up—Theodore Roosevelt wasn’t afraid of anything, except inaction. As Alfred Henry Lewis would write of Roosevelt in 1910, “Mr. Roosevelt has often shown that it is better to do the wrong thing than do nothing at all. ...The best thing is to do the right thing; the next best is to do the wrong thing; [and] the worst thing of all things is to stand perfectly still.”

We’ll be right back.

 

In an effort to spur the McKinley administration to action, and bring American troops back to the states before they were decimated by yellow fever, a plan was hatched.

Roosevelt would write an initial letter addressed to the general, which would then be followed by a “round-robin” letter—a method typically used to conceal the identity of the ringleaders of a movement—which would be signed by Roosevelt and the other commanders.

Then they would leak those letters to the press.

In his letter, Roosevelt wrote that “To keep us here, in the opinion of every officer commanding a division or a brigade, will simply involve the destruction of thousands. There is no possible reason for not shipping practically the entire command North at once. … All of us are certain that as soon as the authorities at Washington fully appreciate the condition of the army, we shall be sent home.”

Roosevelt noted that, in the cavalry division at least, there were no true cases of yellow fever, but there were 1500 cases of malarial fever. “Hardly a man has yet died from it,” he wrote, “but the whole command is so weakened and shattered as to be ripe for dying like rotten sheep, when a real yellow-fever epidemic instead of a fake epidemic, like the present one, strikes us, as it is bound to do if we stay here at the height of the sickness season, August and the beginning of September. Quarantine against [the] malarial fever is much like quarantining against the toothache. … If we are kept here it will in all human possibility mean an appalling disaster, for the surgeons here estimate that over half the army, if kept here during the sickly season, will die.”

The men were unable to penetrate into the interior, and moving them around the island, Roosevelt said, only sickened them further. To delay sending the men home was “not only terrible from the standpoint of the individual lives lost,” Roosevelt wrote, “but it means ruin from the standpoint of military efficiency of the flower of the American army, for the great bulk of the regulars are here with you.”

He closed by saying that “I write only because I cannot see our men, who have fought so bravely and who have endured extreme hardship and danger so uncomplainingly, go to destruction without striving so far as lies in me to avert a doom as fearful as it is unnecessary and undeserved.”

Roosevelt’s fellow commanders then signed their letter, which noted that they were all in agreement that the army “must be moved at once, or perish,” adding, “As the army can be safely moved now, the persons responsible for preventing such a move will be responsible for the unnecessary loss of many thousands of lives. Our opinions are the result of careful personal observation, and they are also based on the unanimous opinion of our medical officers with the army, who understand the situation absolutely.”

There are differing accounts of what happened next, but according to Roosevelt, he wrote his letter, and an Associated Press reporter tagged along when he went to give it to General Shafter … who promptly pushed it into the hands of the reporter. As Roosevelt later recalled, “I presented the letter to General Shafter, who waved it away and said: ‘I don't want to take it; do whatever you wish with it.’ I, however, insisted on handing it to him, whereupon he shoved it toward the correspondent of the Associated Press, who took hold of it, and I released my hold.”

Something similar happened with the round-robin, and when the letters hit the press, they caused a sensation.

The McKinley administration was incensed by the letters. According to historian Lewis L. Gould, the day after the letters were published, McKinley wrote a letter to Shafter that denounced the round robin as “most unfortunate from every point of view,” adding, “The publication of the letter makes the situation one of great difficulty. No soldier reading that report if ordered to [go to] Santiago but will feel that he is marching to certain death.” According to Morris, some within the administration even suggested court-martialing Roosevelt for his letter.

The administration had reason to be irritated. On August 3, the day before the round-robin hit the press, Alger had issued an order for the Army to be moved back to the U.S.—which meant that many newspapers printed Roosevelt’s letter right next to an announcement that troops were being brought back. To the public, it looked as though Roosevelt’s letter and the round-robin had forced the McKinley administration to act, which wasn’t the case.

By August 7, the first troops were heading back to the states to quarantine in Montauk on Long Island in New York.

Nothing ever came of the suggestion to court martial Roosevelt. Instead, Secretary Alger published a private letter in which TR bragged about the Rough Riders’ performance, saying they were “as good as any regulars, and three times as good as any State troops.”

While Alger might have hoped the letter would threaten TR’s chances at getting the governorship of New York, his tactic failed. Roosevelt returned a war hero. He became governor, and then vice president, and then president. He didn’t, however, get one thing he desperately wanted: the Medal of Honor.

Though some believe he was denied the honor because of the publicity stunt he had pulled, as Mitchell Yockelson writes for the National Archives’ Prologue magazine, there’s no evidence for this. “Exactly why the Brevet Board denied Roosevelt the award is not officially documented,” Yockelson writes. “Certainly no evidence exists to support the contention that Alger held a grudge over the Round Robin affair or Roosevelt's testimony to the congressional committee. On the contrary, letters from the War Department to Roosevelt indicate that they were more than willing to assist him in getting the Medal of Honor. One can only assume that the Brevet Board came to the conclusion that, though Roosevelt's conduct in Cuba was quite admirable, it was not worthy of a Medal of Honor.”

Later, Roosevelt would write that “I was recommended for it by my superior officers in the Santiago campaign, but I was not awarded it; and frankly, looking back at it now, I feel that the board which declined to award it took exactly the right position.” Around a century after his experiences in Cuba, TR would finally be awarded the Medal of Honor.

Back to the present day. We’ve talked before on this podcast about how it’s impossible to know how TR would have reacted to situations today. In this case, however, one of Roosevelt’s descendants has a different opinion.

In a piece for The New York Times, Tweed Roosevelt—TR’s great-grandson, and chairman of the Theodore Roosevelt Institute at Long Island University—wrote about Captain Crozier and the situation on the USS Theodore Roosevelt. “As a descendant of the namesake of Captain Crozier’s former command, I often wonder, in situations like this, what Theodore Roosevelt would have done,” Tweed Roosevelt wrote. “In this case, though, I know exactly what he would have done. In 1898, he found himself in almost the exact same position. … In this era when so many seem to place expediency over honor, it is heartening that so many others are showing great courage, some even risking their lives. Theodore Roosevelt, in his time, chose the honorable course. Captain Crozier has done the same.”

Before we go, I want to say a huge thank you to the medical professionals and the essential workers who are out there risking their lives for us. And to all of the History Vs. listeners: I hope you’re well, and safe, and healthy. Please hang in there.

We’ll be back soon with another bonus episode of History Vs.

Credits

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

The executive producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang. The supervising producer is Dylan Fagan. The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante. If you want to find out more about this episode, and Theodore Roosevelt, visit MentalFloss.com/historyvs.

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

13 Father's Day Gifts for Geeky Dads

Amazon/Otterbox/Toynk
Amazon/Otterbox/Toynk

When in doubt, you play the hits. Watches, flasks, and ties are all tried-and-true Father’s Day gifts—useful items bought en masse every June as the paternal holiday draws near. Here’s a list of goodies that put a geeky spin on those can’t-fail gifts. We’re talking Zelda flasks, wizard-shaped party mugs, and a timepiece inspired by BBC’s greatest sci-fi series, Doctor Who. Light the “dad” signal ‘cause it’s about to get nerdy!

1. Lord of the Rings Geeki Tikis (Set of Three); $76

'Lord of The Rings' themed tiki cups.
Toynk

If your dad’s equally crazy about outdoor shindigs and Tolkien’s Middle-earth, help him throw his own Lothlórien luau with these Tiki-style ceramic mugs shaped like icons from the Lord of the Rings saga. Gollum and Frodo’s drinkware doppelgängers each hold 14 ounces of liquid, while Gandalf the Grey’s holds 18—but a wizard never brags, right? Star Wars editions are also available.

Buy it: Toynk

2. Space Invaders Cufflinks; $9

'Space Invaders' cufflinks on Amazon
Fifty 50/Amazon

Arcade games come and arcade games go, but Space Invaders has withstood the test of time. Now Pops can bring those pixelated aliens to the boardroom—and look darn stylish doing it.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Legend of Zelda Flask; $18

A 'Legend of Zelda' flask
Toynk

Saving princesses is thirsty work. Shaped like an NES cartridge, this Zelda-themed flask boasts an 8-ounce holding capacity and comes with a reusable straw. Plus, it makes a fun little display item for gamer dads with man caves.

Buy it: Toynk

4. AT-AT Family Vacation Bag Tag; $12

An At-At baggage tag
ShopDisney

Widely considered one of the greatest movie sequels ever made, The Empire Strikes Back throws a powerful new threat at Luke Skywalker and the Rebellion: the AT-AT a.k.a. Imperial Walkers. Now your dad can mark his luggage with a personalized tag bearing the war machine’s likeness.

Buy it: ShopDisney

5. Flash Skinny Tie; $17

A skinny Flash-themed tie
Uyoung/Amazon

We’ll let you know if the Justice League starts selling new memberships, but here’s the next best thing. Available in a rainbow of super-heroic colors, this skinny necktie bears the Flash’s lightning bolt logo. Race on over to Amazon and pick one up today.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Captain America Shield Apron; $20

A Captain America themed apron
Toynk

Why let DC fans have all the fun? Daddy-o can channel his inner Steve Rogers when he flips burgers at your family’s Fourth of July BBQ. Measuring 31.5 inches long by 27.5 inches wide, this apron’s guaranteed to keep the cookout Hydra-free.

Buy it: Toynk

7. Doctor Who Vortex Manipulator LCD Leather Wristwatch; $35

A Doctor Who-themed watch
Toynk

At once classy and geeky, this digital timepiece lovingly recreates one of Doctor Who’s signature props. Unlike some of the gadgets worn on the long-running sci-fi series, it won’t require any fancy chronoplasm fuel.

Buy it: Toynk

8. Wonder Woman 3-Piece Grill Set; $21

Wonder Woman three-piece gill set
Toynk

At one point in her decades-long comic book career, this Amazon Princess found herself working at a fast food restaurant called Taco Whiz. Now grill cooks can pay tribute to the heroine with these high-quality, stainless steel utensils. The set’s comprised of wide-tipped tongs, a BBQ fork, and a spatula, with the latter boasting Wonder Woman’s insignia.

Buy it: Toynk

9. Harry Potter Toon Tumbler; $10

Glassware that's Harry Potter themed
Entertainment Earth

You can never have too many pint glasses—and this Father’s Day, dad can knock one back for the boy who lived. This piece of Potter glassware from PopFun has whimsy to spare. Now who’s up for some butterbeer?

Buy it: EntertainmentEarth

10. House Stark Men’s Wallet; $16

A Game of Thrones themed watch
Toynk

Winter’s no longer coming, but the Stark family's propensity for bold fashion choices can never die. Manufactured with both inside and outside pockets, this direwolf-inspired wallet is the perfect place to store your cards, cash, and ID.

Buy it: Toynk

11. Mr. Incredible “Incredible Dad” Mug, $15

An Incredibles themed mug
ShopDisney

Cue the brass music. Grabbing some coffee with a Pixar superhero sounds like an awesome—or dare we say, incredible?—way for your dad to start his day. Mom can join in the fun, too: Disney also sells a Mrs. Incredible version of the mug.

Buy it: ShopDisney

12. Star Wars phone cases from Otterbox; $46-$56

Star Wars phone cases from OtterBox.
Otterbox

If your dad’s looking for a phone case to show off his love of all things Star Wars, head to Otterbox. Whether he’s into the Dark Side with Darth Vader and Kylo Ren, the droids, Chewbacca, or Boba Fett, you’ll be able to find a phone case to fit his preference. The designs are available for both Samsung and Apple products, and you can check them all out here.

Buy it: Otterbox

13. 3D Puzzles; $50

3D Harry Potter puzzle from Amazon.
Wrebbit 3D

Help dad recreate some of his favorite fictional locations with these 3D puzzles from Wrebbit 3D. The real standouts are the 850-piece model of Hogwarts's Great Hall and the 910-piece version of Winterfell from Game of Thrones. If dad's tastes are more in line with public broadcasting, you could also pick him up an 890-piece Downton Abbey puzzle to bring a little upper-crust elegance to the homestead.

Buy it: Hogwarts (Amazon), Winterfell (Amazon), Downton Abbey (Amazon)

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

History Vs. Podcast Bonus Episode: TR vs. Houdini

iHeartMedia
iHeartMedia

It’s June 1914, and illusionist Harry Houdini is hurrying through the crowded, smoggy streets of London, bound for the offices of the Hamburg America Line. He’s on his way to pick up two certificates of passage on a luxurious German steamship called the SS Imperator, which will ferry him and his wife, Bess, home to New York later in the month.

After a series of performances around Britain, Houdini will finally get a glorious break to rest and relax on the high seas before a summer residence at Hammerstein’s Victoria Theatre in Manhattan. For five whole days, he won’t have to hurry at all.

Houdini skids to a stop in front of the Hamburg America building, strolls in, and gives his name to the man at the front desk. Before the man hands over the tickets, he beckons Houdini closer with a conspiratorial air of secrecy.

“Teddy Roosevelt is on the boat,” the man whispers in Houdini’s ear. “But don’t tell anyone.”

Houdini accepts the tickets with a smile and slowly returns to the dull, cloudy daylight. He has no intention of sharing the secret, but not because loose lips sink ships. Instead, he’s already hatching a plan—a plan to trick everyone’s favorite tough-talking, rough-riding former president.

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 bonus episode, we’re talking about TR’s rather unlikely maritime friendship with Harry Houdini, who might have been one of the only people to succeed in leaving TR truly dumbfounded. This episode is TR vs. Houdini.

Spring of 1914 was an especially busy time for both TR and Houdini, though neither was ever really not busy. Still reeling from the death of his mother in July 1913, Houdini had embarked on a rigorous tour of England and Scotland, where he captivated crowds by escaping from water tanks, swallowing needles, and making various objects—people included—disappear and reappear.

Meanwhile, Theodore Roosevelt was on a rigorous tour of his own. Fever and infection had almost killed him during his South American expedition along the River of Doubt that year, but even that wasn’t enough to keep him home for long. He returned to New York on May 19 and set sail for Europe just 11 days later. Once there, he spent the first half of June on a whirlwind continental jaunt that included visits to Paris, London, and Madrid, where he attended his son Kermit’s wedding to Belle Willard. Roosevelt’s daughter Alice, who accompanied him, described the trip as “a movie run at several times life speed.”

On June 18, TR left Alice and the newlyweds behind, boarding the SS Imperator in Southampton, England, with his cousin, Philip.

Harry and Bess Houdini boarded the ship, too.

It’s not clear if TR and Houdini had ever actually met each other before the voyage, but they definitely attended the same event on land at least once: the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893.

Officially called the World’s Columbian Exposition, the event was meant to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s so-called discovery of the New World in 1492.

Roosevelt had funded a full-scale architectural reproduction of a hunter’s cabin to commemorate Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett, and he attended the fair with his older sister, Bamie, who had served on the organization’s Board of Lady Managers of New York.

A 19-year-old, not-yet-famous Harry Houdini was also there—performing with his brother, Theo, in a magic act called “The Brothers Houdini.” Maybe TR caught the show, or maybe he became familiar with Houdini’s incredible feats later in his career.

Either way, the two men found each other on the SS Imperator and soon became fast friends. They started exercising together in the morning—at least, when both of them were feeling up to it. Houdini was prone to seasickness, and Roosevelt was still suffering bouts of fever from his Brazilian expedition.

One morning while they were taking a walk, a ship’s officer stopped them and asked if Houdini might be willing to perform at a charity concert the following night to benefit the German Sailors Home and the Magicians Club of London.

“Go ahead, Houdini,” Roosevelt goaded. “Give us a little séance.”

Houdini agreed to what seemed like a completely spontaneous séance—but in reality, it was all part of the cunning scheme that Houdini had been concocting ever since he found out TR would be on board.

The story was recounted in full in a 1929 newspaper article by Harold Kellock, which allegedly used Houdini’s own words from unreleased autobiographical excerpts.

Let’s back up to when the ticket teller had divulged that Houdini would be sailing the high seas with Roosevelt. The magician remembered that The Telegraph had plans to publish the harrowing tale of Roosevelt’s recent Amazonian expedition. After promising not to tell a soul that Roosevelt would be on board the Imperator, he wrote that he “jumped into a taxi and went to The Telegraph office to see what [he] could pick up.”

His editorial friends readily obliged his request for information. They even handed over a map that charted Roosevelt’s exact path along the river. That’s when Houdini decided to hold a séance, where he’d act like spirits were revealing the details of Roosevelt’s trip, as yet undisclosed to the public.

Houdini’s scheme didn’t stop there. A less committed magician might have thought that any old spirits would do, but Houdini wasn’t the best in the business for nothing. In his opinion, the ruse would be more convincing if the secrets were conveyed by one spirit in particular: W.T. Stead, a British editor and known spiritualist who had died on the Titanic in 1912. Houdini had acquired some of his letters while in London.

He planned for the séance to center around a certain trick common among mediums at the time. In it, a participant jots down a question on a piece of paper and slips it between two supposedly blank slates. Then, a spirit “writes”—heavy air quotes around that word, by the way—a response, and the performer reveals it to the audience.

On the slates, Houdini had drawn the map of Roosevelt’s trail and written the words “Near the Andes.” He then forged Stead’s signature on it to suggest that the message was sent straight from the afterlife.

There was definitely still a lot up in the air when he left the Southampton harbor, but Houdini had a plan for just about every detail. The fact that he wasn’t scheduled to perform on the SS Imperator was sort of a non-issue. According to Houdini, he always staged impromptu shows during voyages, so it was probably no surprise when the crew member asked him to do one. And was it luck that TR happened to be standing there when the crew member asked, or had Houdini orchestrated the whole encounter?

As for TR’s suggestion that Houdini conduct a séance, well, that wasn’t exactly a coincidence.

“I found it easy to work the Colonel into a state of mind so that the suggestion for the séance would come from him,” Houdini wrote. Though he didn’t elaborate on what exactly he said about spiritualism during their conversation, he apparently convinced Roosevelt that a séance was a spectacle worth seeing.

Interestingly enough, Houdini would make a name for himself as an anti-spiritualist later in his career by debunking popular mediums, demonstrating that they were frauds by mimicking their techniques and revealing their trickery.

Houdini’s next and most daunting hurdle was not only to guarantee that the question Roosevelt wrote on his slip of paper during the séance was “Where was I last Christmas?” but also to ensure that it was Roosevelt’s slip of paper that he chose.

So the master manipulator prepared to stuff the ballot, so to speak. Houdini copied “Where was I last Christmas?” onto several sheets of paper, sealed them in envelopes, and planned to make sure that only those envelopes ended up in the hat that he’d choose a question from. He was, after all, an absolute expert when it came to sleight of hand tricks.

But this is where Houdini’s plan gets a little questionable. If Roosevelt didn’t write “Where was I last Christmas?,” yet that’s the question Houdini’s spirit answered, it seems like there would be a pretty strong possibility that Roosevelt would say something like “Wait, that wasn’t my question.”

Maybe Houdini realized his strategy wasn’t quite foolproof, because he devised yet another back-up plan. On the morning of the performance, Houdini noticed two books lying on a table in the salon where the performance would take place. After smuggling them back to his room, he sliced open their bindings with a razor blade and slipped a sheet of carbon paper and white paper beneath the cover. Then, he carefully resealed the books and returned them to the salon.

As long as Roosevelt used one of the books as a flat surface to write on, the carbon paper would transfer his question to the white sheet below it. That way, Houdini could sneak a glance at the question even after the envelope was sealed and alter his performance accordingly.

Would everything work out according to Houdini’s plan? We’ll find out after this quick break.

 

The evening of the séance, the ship’s occupants gathered in the Grand Salon and enjoyed the musical talents of the Ritz Carlton Orchestra and opera singer Madame A. Cortesao.

Then, Houdini took the stage. He conjured silk handkerchiefs. He turned water into wine. He even let TR choose the cards during a series of card tricks.

“I was amazed at the way he watched every one of the misdirection moves as I manipulated the cards,” Houdini recounted. “It was difficult to baffle him.”

Under the watchful gaze of a very astute bull moose, Houdini turned to the audience.

"La-dies and gen-tle-men," he proclaimed. "I am sure that many among you have had experiences with mediums who have been able to facilitate the answering of your personal questions by departed spirits, these answers being mysteriously produced on slates. As we all know, mediums do their work in the darkened séance room, but tonight, for the first time anywhere, I propose to conduct a spiritualistic slate test in the full glare of the light."

He distributed the slips of paper and instructed the audience to jot down their questions. Seeing that Roosevelt was about to use his hand as a writing surface, Houdini generously passed him a book.

TR wasn’t the only quick-witted gentleman in the audience that night. Broadway composer Victor Herbert surveyed the scene and offered a few shrewd words of caution to his companion.

“‘Turn around. Don't let him see it,’" Houdini heard Herbert warn Roosevelt. “‘He will read the question by the movements of the top of the pencil.’” TR took his advice, turning his back to Houdini so he couldn’t be tricked … or so he thought.

“That made no difference to me,” Houdini wrote. Because, of course, the book he had passed to TR was one of the books he’d prepared, with carbon paper hidden under the cover.

After Roosevelt finished writing, Houdini took the book and slyly extracted the paper from the inside cover while returning it to the table. In an almost unbelievable stroke of luck, Roosevelt had written the very question Houdini had hoped for. So Houdini wouldn’t need to slip one of his own envelopes between the slates, after all. In fact, he didn’t even pick a question from the hat.

“I am sure that there will be no objection if we use the Colonel’s question,” he said, to general assent from the audience.

They all watched as Houdini flashed what appeared to be four blank sides of the slates. This was another little trick: Houdini had really only shown them three sides, obscuring the fourth so they wouldn’t see the map. Then, Houdini asked TR to place his envelope between the slates and tell his question to the audience.

“Where was I last Christmas?” TR said.

Houdini revealed the map to an utterly astonished audience.

“By George, that proves it!” TR roared over thunderous applause.

The next morning, TR interrupted their customary walk along the upper deck with a question he had probably been pondering since the stunt.

“How did you do it last night?” he asked Houdini. “Was that really spiritualism?”

Houdini later recounted that he grinned and responded, “No Colonel; it is all hocus pocus.”

According to a 1926 article from The New York Times, however, Houdini claimed that he maintained the charade and told TR that it really was spirit writing. Regardless, it doesn’t seem like TR ever got the full explanation. He died in 1919, years before newspapers shared these behind-the-scenes secrets with the public.

Houdini’s hijinks aboard the SS Imperator did make an immediate splash in the papers. The ship’s radio operator recounted the story to operators in Newfoundland, who then relayed it to journalists in New York.

Oddly, though, those early news reports give a slightly different question—that Houdini did actually choose from a hat—which was: “Can you draw a map tracing the recent journey made by our most famous passenger?”

So are those reports wrong, or was Houdini playing one last trick on everyone? The world may never know the truth. Regardless, news of the renowned magician’s latest trick hit stands before the ship even reached the harbor.

The rest of the voyage passed without any more magic, unless you count the magic of being in love. On June 22, the night after the performance, the Houdinis celebrated their 20th anniversary by hosting a delicious dinner of caviar and several fine French dishes.

Considering his close companionship with Houdini, TR might have attended the event. But it’s also possible he was busy with other things.

“I have been working hard finishing my book on Africa and writing my Pittsburgh speech,” he told The New York Times on June 23, shortly before the ship arrived in New York. He had also made time on June 22 for what he called a “thorough inspection” of the Imperator with its commander.

The bosom buddies parted ways when they reached New York, and it doesn’t seem like they ever got a chance to hang out again. But Houdini, for one, always made it clear that he was proud of his friendship with TR. During the voyage, he had arranged to have their photograph taken together by his assistant. Five other men ended up in the photo, including TR’s cousin, Philip, and Houdini later produced several copies of the photo without the other men. He also called TR “our beloved Colonel” in one letter and referred to himself as “a close personal friend of the Colonel’s for years” in another.

Houdini would eventually go on to perform for TR’s grandchildren at a party in February 1925, six years after TR died. Ted Jr.’s son—who was also named Theodore Roosevelt, and had been born just days before the legendary séance in 1914—proved just as difficult to baffle as his namesake.

Houdini said in a newspaper article, “He was not satisfied with seeing the tricks. He had to know how they were done.”

We’ll be back soon with another episode of History Vs.

Credits

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

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 iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.