History Vs. Bonus Episode: Theodore Roosevelt and the Perdicaris Affair
The villa on the hill of Djebal Kebir, to the west of Tangier in Morocco, looks more like a palace than a home. Built in the Spanish style, it has white-clad stone walls, and turrets, and looks over the Strait of Gibraltar. The inside is resplendent: Rooms overflow with fine art, pristine porcelains, damasks, and Oriental rugs. There are many, many servants, and a menagerie of animals roam the grounds and the halls, among them dogs, cranes, pheasants, and two monkeys that jump into the owners’ laps and eat orange blossoms from their hands.
The villa is known as Aidonia, or the Place of Nightingales. It’s May 18, 1904, and inside the villa, 64-year-old globetrotter Ion Perdicaris, along with his wife, Ellen Varley, and her son, Cromwell, are sitting down to dinner, attended to by a servant in knee-length scarlet pants and a jacket embroidered with gold.
Ion is the son of Gregory Perdicaris, a Greek-American who made his fortune in the gas industry, and he has reaped the benefits of his family’s immense wealth by buying residences all around the world before he built the Place of Nightingales in 1877. Tonight, as every night, they dine lavishly, then retreat to the drawing room to relax—at least until the peace is shattered by the sound of screams coming from the servants’ quarters.
What happens next will soon become an international incident that garners the intervention of none other than President Theodore Roosevelt.
From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. In this bonus episode, we’ll take a look at how TR used his big stick diplomacy to make the most of an international incident in an election year. This episode is TR and the Perdicaris Affair.
When Ion and Cromwell sprint to source of the commotion, they come upon armed men standing in their home. The villa is under siege.
The bandits have given the butler a swift clubbing with their rifle butts, and Ion and Cromwell are bound and brought to meet the man in charge of this operation.
He introduces himself simply: “I am the Raisuli.”
Alternately described as a bandit, murderer, and folk hero, depending on who’s asking, the man known in English as Raisuli is a charismatic political idealist and insurgent, ruling over groups of bandits dedicated to disrupting the European influence in Morocco and waging war against the sultans who allowed it. And if you know Morocco—as Perdicaris does—you know his handiwork.
But bloodshed isn’t the motivator tonight. Raisuli has political demands he’ll soon reveal.
Ion, his stepson, and an attendant are whisked away on their own horses, leaving the staff and Mrs. Perdicaris to absorb what had just happened.
Word of the incident got out as it was happening—the phone lines to the villa had not been cut, and as Raisuli’s men tore through the Perdicaris home, one of the women of the house placed a call to the central office in Tangier alerting them to the attack and kidnapping. It wasn’t long before Samuel Gummere, the Consul General at Tangier, got involved. He became the point of contact between Mrs. Perdicaris and Washington.
The first cable from Morocco went straight to the State Department on May 19. Gummere described the situation as “most serious” and requested a Man-of-War—basically, the biggest battleship available.
The cable was received by Assistant Secretary of State Francis B. Loomis, who informed President Roosevelt. This was the era of “Big Stick” diplomacy, and Roosevelt ordered that seven warships head immediately to Tangier. But it wasn’t an act of war—it was more like an aggressive flex.
Days after the kidnapping, Raisuli contacted Sultan Abdelaziz of Morocco with his demands to let Perdicaris and Varley free. He wanted political immunity for himself and his followers, the release of all political prisoners connected with his movement, the firing of a local official who had chained him years earlier, 70,000 Spanish silver dollars, and he wanted tax-free control over two of Morocco’s wealthiest districts.
The sheer extravagance of the demands, especially in exchange for the release of a foreigner like Perdicaris, was a non-starter for the sultan. When a messenger from the sultan informed Raisuli there would be no deal, Raisuli had one of his men slit the messenger’s throat.
By May 28, Roosevelt had finally read Raisuli’s demands, which Secretary of State John Hay described as “preposterous.” And while ships were on their way to speed up the talks, in reality, the men knew their hands were tied. The president couldn’t really force the sultan to accede to Raisuli’s outlandish list—he could only make strong suggestions. And he couldn’t just send troops into Morocco to retrieve Perdicaris by force—Gummere knew Raisuli would kill Ion and Varley long before they could reach him.
“I hope they may not murder Mr. Perdicaris, but a nation cannot degrade itself to prevent ill-treatment of a citizen,” Hay said.
Still, TR’s brand of pressure could be very persuasive, and early on the morning of May 30, the imposing USS Brooklyn was first seen near Tangier harbor. It would soon be joined by six other ships. Roosevelt biographer Edmund Morris wrote that “some 30,000 tons of American gunmetal should soon persuade the sultan to start negotiating.”
Upon hearing the news of the arrival of American warships, Raisuli actually showed relief—with this type of pressure on the sultan, those “preposterous” demands were more likely to become a reality.
Once the fleet was settled in the harbor, Hay cabled Gummere:
“President wishes everything possible done to secure the release of Perdicaris. He wishes it clearly understood that if Perdicaris is murdered, this government will demand the life of the murderer.”
In America, the press and public were outraged at the situation and wanted action. Any crime against an American on foreign soil was seen as a crime against the country as a whole. For Roosevelt—a president both adored and criticized for his overt imperialist intentions—this was a prime opportunity to show the world what this so-called “American century” was all about.
As Barbara W. Tuchman wrote at American Heritage, “The president’s instant and energetic action on behalf of a single citizen fallen among thieves in a foreign land made Perdicaris a symbol of America’s new role on the world stage.”
The situation stretched into early June, and the number of countries involved kept growing. Now, a British warship, the Prince of Wales, had come to Tangier, and Hay had contacted the French foreign minister, Théophile Delcassé, to put more pressure on the sultan. France had been increasing its presence in Morocco, so this tactic carried plenty of weight.
Soon after, there seemed to be a breakthrough: The Moroccan government had apparently accepted all of Raisuli’s demands, outside of the ransom, which still needed to be “reasonably negotiated,” according to Morris.
But once Raisuli was close to getting what he asked for, he simply came back with more demands: He now wanted additional districts to control.
Secretary of State John Hay, clearly frustrated with Raisuli’s games, wrote to Roosevelt, “I feel that it would be most inexpedient to surrender to him. We have done what we can for Perdicaris.”
And something else was emerging at this time that may have weakened Hay’s already questionable enthusiasm for the whole episode: Evidence was mounting that Perdicaris might not actually be a U.S. citizen.
We’ll be right back.
In June 1904, with Ion Perdicaris and his stepson still being held hostage by Raisuli in Morocco, President Theodore Roosevelt was putting pressure on the sultan to acquiesce to the ransom demands to bring them back home.
But the president was about to learn that the man at the center of a potential international incident might not be a U.S. citizen at all.
This information first came to light on June 1, when Hay received a letter from a cotton broker named A.H. Slocomb who had read about the Moroccan crisis in the news. He claimed that he had met Perdicaris in Greece as the Civil War raged in America. Ion had apparently told Slocomb that he had renounced his U.S. citizenship for Greek citizenship during the war—likely in an effort to avoid being drafted by the Confederacy and have his property confiscated by the government.
Within days of the initial claims, Slocomb’s information was confirmed by Greek officials.
According to Morris, Hay sent the news to Roosevelt, who was apparently unaware of the initial whispers about Perdicaris’s citizenship … or lack thereof. Right away, everyone knew that the information simply couldn’t get out—the president had ordered American warships to Tangier, news of the kidnapping was filling newspapers, and even the French and British were involved in exerting pressure on the sultan to make a deal.
TR couldn’t just turn his back on the whole affair now—the political embarrassment would be terrible. It was also an election year, and quite frankly, backing down wasn’t an option.
As this crisis was unfolding, TR was dealing with the start of the Republican National Convention in Chicago. While TR was a no-brainer to secure the nomination, he still had plenty of enemies in his own party, and the last thing he needed was Perdicaris’s citizenship controversy coming out.
As Morris explains in Theodore Rex, Roosevelt chose to rationalize things. Since Raisuli had believed Perdicaris to be a U.S. citizen, he had, in Roosevelt’s mind, taken action against an American, whether it was technically true or not.
Hay recommended that the United States give Raisuli and the sultan one last warning before any real military action needed to be taken. Roosevelt agreed—despite these new findings, Roosevelt knew this was an issue of both pride and politics at this point.
It was up to Hay to write the ultimatum to the sultan, and it needed to be an aggressive one. The result was seven words that hit the exact right note:
“We want Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”
Of course, there was more to the cable than just that one chilling warning. But that single sentence so perfectly captured the mood of the message that no one needed to read any further than that. TR, through the words of Hay, was dispatching a concise warning to the sultan, to Raisuli, and to anyone else who dared bring harm to an American citizen—even if they were only American in spirit.
As he prepared to send the wire to Gummere in Tangier, Hay read the draft to Edwin Hood, a news correspondent at the State Department, who loved it so much that he took a copy and sent it over the newswires right as Hay sent it to Morocco.
The warning soon made its way into the public, and it didn’t take long for Republican National Convention chairman Joseph Cannon to get a copy. At approximately 3 p.m. on June 22, he made his way near the convention stage, where Henry Cabot Lodge had just finished a vague spiel on the party’s stances on riveting topics like tariffs and the civil service.
Cannon took his copy of the cable and gave it to a clerk to read to the crowd. At the words “We want either Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead,” the crowd went nuts.
Supporters stood on their chairs. The cheers were deafening. One Republican from Kansas exclaimed, “Our people like courage. We’ll stand for anything those two men do,” while another described it as “Good, hot stuff.”
The message showed action, it showed excitement, it showed that the American people had a president that meant business.
If it wasn’t already set in stone, it was now clear that Roosevelt’s nomination was secure—but over in Morocco, the cable was a moot point.
The sultan of Morocco had already agreed to Raisuli’s demands—paying a $70,000 ransom for the release of Perdicaris and his stepson. On top of that, an extra $4000 was sent to the U.S. for its expenses.
Perdicaris later wrote that “the memory of that evening is … associated with an ineffaceable sense of horror.” Still, he wasn’t terribly traumatized by the ordeal—in fact, he and Raisuli had struck up a friendship. Perdicaris would recall that he was treated more like an honored guest, rather than a prisoner. And upon parting, Raisuli told Ion that if anyone tried to harm him in the future, “I … will come with all [of] my men to your rescue.”
Later, the incident would serve as the basis for a movie starring Sean Connery and Candice Bergen called The Wind and the Lion. Brian Keith, who you may know as the dad in The Parent Trap, played TR.
As for the truth behind Perdicaris’s Greek citizenship? It would remain a secret for another 30 years.
History Vs. is hosted by me, Erin McCarthy. This episode was written by Jay Serafino, 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.