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.

7 Top-Rated Portable Air Conditioners You Can Buy Right Now

Black + Decker/Amazon
Black + Decker/Amazon

The warmest months of the year are just around the corner (in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway), and things are about to get hot. To make indoor life feel a little more bearable, we’ve rounded up a list of some of the top-rated portable air conditioners you can buy online right now.

1. SereneLife 3-in-1 Portable Air Conditioner; $290

SereneLife air conditioner on Amazon.
SereneLife/Amazon

This device—currently the best-selling portable air conditioner on Amazon—is multifunctional, cooling the air while also working as a dehumidifier. Reviewers on Amazon praised this model for how easy it is to set up, but cautioned that it's not meant for large spaces. According to the manufacturer, it's designed to cool down rooms up to 225 square feet, and the most positive reviews came from people using it in their bedroom.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Black + Decker 14,000 BTU Portable Air Conditioner and Heater; $417

Black + Decker portable air conditioner
Black+Decker/Amazon

Black + Decker estimates that this combination portable air conditioner and heater can accommodate rooms up to 350 square feet, and it even comes with a convenient timer so you never have to worry about forgetting to turn it off before you leave the house. The setup is easy—the attached exhaust hose fits into most standard windows, and everything you need for installation is included. This model sits around four stars on Amazon, and it was also picked by Wirecutter as one of the best values on the market.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Mikikin Portable Air Conditioner Fan; $45

Desk air conditioner on Amazon
Mikikin/Amazon

This miniature portable conditioner, which is Amazon's top-selling new portable air conditioner release, is perfect to put on a desk or end table as you work or watch TV during those sweltering dog days. It's currently at a four-star rating on Amazon, and reviewers recommend filling the water tank with a combination of cool water and ice cubes for the best experience.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Juscool Portable Air Conditioner Fan; $56

Juscool portable air conditioner.
Juscool/Amazon

This tiny air conditioner fan, which touts a 4.6-star rating, is unique because it plugs in with a USB cable, so you can hook it up to a laptop or a wall outlet converter to try out any of its three fan speeds. This won't chill a living room, but it does fit on a nightstand or desk to help cool you down in stuffy rooms or makeshift home offices that weren't designed with summer in mind.

Buy it: Amazon

5. SHINCO 8000 BTU Portable Air Conditioner; $320

Shinco portable air conditioner
SHINCO/Amazon

This four-star-rated portable air conditioner is meant for rooms of up to 200 square feet, so think of it for a home office or bedroom. It has two fan speeds, and the included air filter can be rinsed out quickly underneath a faucet. There's also a remote control that lets you adjust the temperature from across the room. This is another one where you'll need a window nearby, but the installation kit and instructions are all included so you won't have to sweat too much over setting it up.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Honeywell MN Series Portable Air Conditioner and Dehumidifier; $400

Honeywell air conditioner on Walmart.
Honeywell/Walmart

Like the other units on this list, Honeywell's portable air conditioner also acts as a dehumidifier or a standard fan when you just want some air to circulate. You can cool a 350-square-foot room with this four-star model, and there are four wheels at the bottom that make moving it from place to place even easier. This one is available on Amazon, too, but Walmart has the lowest price right now.

Buy it: Walmart

7. LG 14,000 BTU Portable Air Conditioner; $699

LG Portable Air Conditioner.
LG/Home Depot

This one won't come cheap, but it packs the acclaim to back it up. It topped Wirecutter's list of best portable air conditioners and currently has a 4.5-star rating on Home Depot's website, with many of the reviews praising how quiet it is while it's running. It's one of the only models you'll find compatible with Alexa and Google Assistant, and it can cool rooms up to 500 square feet. There's also the built-in timer, so you can program it to go on and off whenever you want.

Buy it: Home Depot

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

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.