You often hear Theodore Roosevelt described as “larger than life,” which I think we can all agree is pretty accurate. And, as with many other larger than life characters, there are plenty of myths and misconceptions surrounding TR—some of which were encouraged and perpetuated by Roosevelt himself. As Kathleen Dalton writes in Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, “He sought to keep his inner life and less attractive traits well hidden. He also encouraged his friends and authorized biographers to tell an upbeat, socially acceptable, stiff-upper-lipped version of his life. Many of his friends and biographers obliged him.” Dalton goes on to say that the guardians of his story would edit or destroy letters they deemed embarrassing, and would even hide the family’s secrets to present a better picture of Roosevelt’s life.
Austin Thompson: A lot of this fact checking stuff is to do with his legacy. They really intertwine because these myths and legends are such a part of the story.
That’s Mental Floss’s fact checker, Austin Thompson, who has been taking a magnifying glass to stories on Mental Floss’s website and to our YouTube videos for years, and he looked at every script of this podcast, too. He knows better than many how complicated unraveling the truth behind history can be, so for this final bonus episode of History Vs., I couldn’t wait to get him on the phone to debunk some TR myths and talk fact checking one of the most famous figures in history.
Thompson: I found an absolutely brilliant 1912 New York Times article about Theodore Roosevelt which was saying if you had four experts who swore that he boiled his grandmother and ate her in the 1890s, he would come back with documentary proof that she actually died in the 1880s.
Just a quick break here to say that when Austin was fact checking this script, he realized that he’d misremembered what the article said—it was actually 20 experts, not four. OK, carry on.
Thompson: If you have people who swear under oath that he had a meeting with Standard Oil at this date, he would come back with a dated photograph of him talking to a mother's congress. I think it really has to do with ... that he does come to the White House, and all his history, from a perspective of being a historian. He knows that he's great. He knows his greatness. Everyone his entire life has been clear, he is great. He can produce dated evidence for anything you might say he did. I think it's because he wanted to control his historical view in a way that other people wouldn't, but nowadays we wouldn't think is that weird.
When we were putting these episodes together, the general process went like this: I came up with the themes for each episode, then put together outlines that pulled together a ton of information around those themes. In each outline were sources, quotes, and beats that I wanted to hit, along with pieces of the interviews I conducted that I wanted to include. Then the writer—sometimes me, sometimes another Mental Floss staffer—would use that outline to write the script, which would go through an editing process where myself and members of the production team would weigh in and make tweaks. And finally, before I recorded, the script would go to Austin, and he’d dig in. And I mean really dig in. Not only did he find errors—hey, I’m not perfect—but he would also nearly always find some new piece of information or interesting story that I’d want to include.
Thompson: As I was researching Theodore Roosevelt and looking at all sorts of things, there were two things that struck me about him. One makes fact checking a lot easier, the other one made it basically impossible. He mythologizes, but you can get so much information about him from other sources that aren't him. It'll be like, you spent five minutes with him 10 years ago, you're suddenly writing a book, the time I spent with Theodore Roosevelt. The family he's staying with in Germany who's saying, "Oh he's going to be President." That all exists independent of anything he did. So … he is in control of his image to a certain extent but there's such a world that you can pretty much verify most things he's saying.
And then the other thing that makes this harder, that we've talked about, is the changing views of Theodore Roosevelt. It's like, if you read something from the 1910s, it is a different perspective than if you read something from the 1940s. It's lucky because with Theodore Roosevelt we have so many of his primary documentation, but it's still really hard to sort of sift through all of that to say, well is this person saying this about Theodore Roosevelt because this is actually how it is, or is it just because that was the prevailing view at the time?
Also, socio-culturally we like to think of history as this great monolithic thing. It happened and now we can just kind of go back and look at bits and pieces of it. We as a culture, I don't think we really like to view history as having trends. That there are differences in how history is being viewed from one day to another, one culture to another. We're not taught to think of history in that way.
Erin McCarthy: So when you're fact checking something like the podcast scripts, do you usually try to go for the primary documentation first? Or, in the case of Theodore Roosevelt when you know that he did not like to write about things that were difficult, like, for example, he didn't include his first wife in his autobiography at all, are you looking elsewhere when you're fact checking?
Thompson: Well it depends on the thing. I mean, you know he's there to tell a story. So as long as you read it knowing, read what he says knowing this is the story he wants you to hear, then I always like to go back to primary sources, cause Roosevelt just gave us so many of them. And as I said, so many of the people who even interacted with him briefly would be writing books about the events that happened.
It is when you get into more sort of obscure—especially obscure leaders or figures in history—that it does start to really become a problem of, how much weight are you willing to put on this secondary source? I'm sure if you read some of my podcast suggestions, there are times when it'll be really awkwardly suggesting saying, "This person says this," and that's because it's maybe true but these other sources, say, aren't necessarily as strong.
McCarthy: So we often go back and forth and play a little bit of like, is this OK? What do you think about this phrasing? 'Cause we don't want to mislead anybody, right? We want to make sure that we're being accurate.
Thompson: I have spent ages, like I don't even know how long, debating whether a single word is correct. 'Cause it does make a difference.
McCarthy: Do you want to get into some myths now or do you … do you have other thoughts?
Thompson: I think so. I don't think I have anything else I wanted to talk about with the process of fact checking. It's just kind of like, you go through documents and try to decide is this reasonable? Is this accurate? Does this person say what this person says? Is this person correct? Is this person citing some lost documentation that was found at the top of a monastery in Outer Uzbekistan and then the monastery burned down so you're relying entirely on them? It's hard.
TR myths, coming up after the break.
In the course of making this podcast, we came across a number of TR myths and misconceptions, some of which we touched upon briefly in the regular episodes, and some we just didn’t have time to get to. So we figured we’d finish up this season by digging deeper into a few of them. And if you’re going to take on TR myths and misconceptions, you might as well start at the beginning.
Everyone knows that Theodore Roosevelt was a sickly, asthmatic kid, who, after a directive from his father, built his body to the point where he had cured himself of asthma. Right?
Well … not so fast.
Thompson: According to Theodore Roosevelt, that is what happened. But there's a really interesting paper from a couple years ago, "The Misunderstood Asthma of Theodore Roosevelt." What makes the article interesting, so it says no, the asthma went away when he was somewhere between 12 to 15. And that's about the age you'd expect the asthma to lighten itself up, even if he was doing absolutely nothing.
As the paper notes, “[This] phenomenon is well recognized by clinicians today but was unknown in TR's time. Looking back at TR's inference, it is tempting to speculate about how his misplaced sense of accomplishment may have influenced his thinking about what else he might achieve if he set his mind to solving new problems.”
In reality, his asthma didn’t fully go away and, in fact, it sometimes reared its ugly head later on in his life.
Thompson: When Edith was in labor, Alice—his daughter Alice—remarked something like "the train and my father came in wheezing as he rushed to be by her side." He had asthma attacks throughout his entire life, but they were not as bad. According to the article, at the time and for all of Theodore Roosevelt's life, asthma was thought to be psychosomatic.
The idea that they thought at the time asthma was psychosomatic, I think probably was a really big part of why Theodore Roosevelt wanted to proclaim himself as having cured his asthma. I mean, this was a guy who thinks basically everything is weaker than he is. So if he's truly feeling that his asthma is entirely in his head, it makes sense to me why he would then pretend that it wasn't. That's my opinion on the matter, but yeah.
McCarthy: OK, this is one of my favorites. So there is a photo floating around on the internet in which Theodore Roosevelt is riding a moose. So … did Theodore Roosevelt ever ride a moose?
Thompson: Well not that we know of. He spent a lot of time in Maine, so … but no. The picture is definitely fake. But it was never supposed to be viewed as real. It was from a 1912 New York Tribune. If you just take the picture by itself it's "whoa, manly, that's awesome." But the whole triptych is Taft riding an elephant, Theodore Roosevelt riding a moose, and Woodrow Wilson riding a donkey. It's for the president, and they were whatever the 1912 version of Photoshopped was onto the animal of the respective party. And then I can only imagine someone found a copy of that picture and thought "Theodore Roosevelt, manly!" and went with it.
What I think is kind of interesting about that picture, though, is since it was debunked several years ago, there’s a secondary myth that has since emerged, that the New York Tribune made up that picture as a way to help Roosevelt. When that's not true either—there's no evidence. I mean, yes in the picture, Theodore Roosevelt is bigger than the other two but there's nothing in the New York Tribune to suggest that it's being done to support Roosevelt at the expense of the other candidates. But it's just this sort of weird secondary myth that emerged after the first myth was debunked.
It says a lot about a president by what kinds of myths surround them as we go back. So George Washington, he's not telling a lie. Abraham Lincoln, he's beating 300 people in a wrestling match. It's a myth, but we still want to attach because it's truthfulness and ruggedness on the frontier.
Meanwhile, the great myth about William Howard Taft is he gets stuck in the bathtub. So I think it says a lot about Roosevelt's misconceptions, almost all of the misconceptions we're going to be going through they have to do with how manly he is. By force of will, he punks his asthma. He rode a moose. I think that says a lot not about Theodore Roosevelt, but about how our view of Theodore Roosevelt is shaped.
McCarthy: So one thing that you will often see floating around has to do when TR was sworn in after William McKinley was assassinated. So TR was on vacation in the mountains. McKinley takes a turn for the worse. He barrels down to Buffalo to try to make it to the President's side. The President dies and TR is sworn in, in some guy's house in Buffalo on not a bible. And so the myth is, or the popular conception is, that TR is the first president who was not sworn in on a bible.
Thompson: Yeah, most of those facts are fine until you get right to the end with the bible fact.
The story is that they were in such a rush they couldn't grab a bible. But the guy whose house it was, Ansley Wilcox, he commented later that there were loads of bibles around the house it just didn't occur to anyone to use the bible because that was not the tradition in the area they were in at the time. So you do have earlier that definitely didn't do a bible. John Quincy Adams says explicitly in his diary it was on a book of law. And then later it's sort of hit or miss who's on the bible because most people weren't explicit in recording that until later. What I think the interesting one is after Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, when he's inaugurated after the death of Harding, he did the exact same thing. That they had a bible at hand but it wasn't used because that wasn't the tradition of the area. So it just would not have occurred to anyone that, "Oh yeah we need to use this bible," until later. So yes Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in without a bible. No, he wasn't the first. And despite what some seem to think, no, there's absolutely zero meaning to such a thing, other than nobody thought of it at the time.
McCarthy: But then, you know, like when he was actually elected of his own accord, wasn't he sworn in on a bible at that point?
Thompson: Yes. See, he wasn't making any point. In Upstate New York, they didn't use bibles, and nobody thought anything of it until afterwards, and they're like, “oh yeah, that's how you do it in the rest of the country. Huh.”
McCarthy: OK, I have one more note here for something that ... It's just a question mark. Tattoo? Question mark?
Thompson: Oh god.
McCarthy: And I feel like we have to talk about it because we've talked about it before.
Thompson: Yes. It's like, tattoos and judicial recall. Those are the two stories I'd been hoping to avoid.
McCarthy: OK, so the rumor goes that Theodore Roosevelt had a tattoo on his chest of the Roosevelt Family crest. And it's everywhere. But, dot dot dot, and I'll let you take it from there.
Thompson: Probably not but maybe—is that enough? So I spent, I don't even want to think how long, trying to figure out, like ... did he have a tattoo? And in the end, my guess is probably not, because there are clear descriptions of him doing things bare chested when a tattoo would have been notable, but nobody commented on it. That being said, they might just not have commented on it. And there aren't many pictures of, like, a shirtless Roosevelt during the time period where he's said to have the tattoo. I was really hoping that I could find his autopsy report, but turns out that he didn't have an autopsy after he died, so ...
McCarthy: This got dark.
Thompson: That's the kind of thing you have to look at. Yeah.
McCarthy: It just goes to show the lengths that you will go to ... to figure something out.
Thompson: Yeah. And so, I then tried to trace the myth back, and I don't think I was able to get the myth before the 1970s. So there's like a 50-year gap where there's no mention of Theodore Roosevelt having a tattoo, then it just kind of appears. And I've never, despite lots and lots of looking, been able to close that gap. So ... that is not proof that he didn't have a tattoo, but I'm pretty confident he didn't because, as I said, there were times when people are describing his bare chest and a tattoo would have been noteworthy, and they didn't comment on it.
McCarthy: Yeah. So we end where we began: tattoo, question mark?
Thompson: Yeah, basically.
McCarthy: Are you sick of Theodore Roosevelt yet?
Thompson: No, I'm not sick of Theodore Roosevelt because he's just interesting. I mean, he's definitely such a good person for the first season of this podcast ‘cause I was thinking: There aren't that many people who have reinvented themselves so many times. Most people are fairly consistent in their lives. Theodore Roosevelt, he was like, never more than five, six years at any one thing in his entire career, which makes him a very interesting person to research. And you just keep learning new things about him.
I mean one of the things I find amazing about Theodore Roosevelt is that his entire life he just kind of … he just kind of overshadowed everyone around him. People at the time were saying William McKinley was essentially the next Lincoln. He was viewed as a truly great president. And now: William McKinley who?
Thompson: He makes lists of the most forgotten president and that's because Theodore Roosevelt is just this force of nature that everything around him is dimmed by his incredible Theodore Roosevelt-ness.
Yeah, a very bright light.
A huge thanks to Austin Thompson for hopping on the phone to chat and for fact checking every episode of this podcast. I truly could not have done it without him.
And with that, we’re wrapping up this first season of the podcast. I have to be honest, we did not intend to stick with TR this long. We had initially planned to launch a new season in June, and then COVID-19 happened and messed up all of our best-laid plans.
But I’m happy to announce that we’ll be back in early 2021 with a brand new season of the podcast, although it’s going to be slightly different than what we did for this first season.
First, we’re going to be changing the name of this feed so that we can put all of our Mental Floss podcasts here, though we’ll only be doing one season at a time, so don’t worry, we won’t be spamming you.
Also, rather than bring you another season of History Vs., we’re going to explore a different topic with a different host—but I promise it’s incredibly compelling, and the host is someone you’ve heard on this podcast before. And there is a bit of a TR connection. So stay tuned!
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.
For transcripts, photos, and even more about Theodore Roosevelt, check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs.
History Vs. is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.