Follow @listofsurprises Ten Tales of our Toughest POTUS
Someone should start a blog called ‘A List of Surprising Teddy Roosevelt Anecdotes.’ I have been putting off writing about one of my favorite presidents since I started this thing. It has just been too hard to narrow down the potential posts. Overburdened with awesomeness, I have decided to just share with you a tiny sampling of bully TR stories. It takes a heck of a long post to even scratch the surface.
1) Tiny Teedie Climbs the Pyramids
Theodore Roosevelt was born to a wealthy New York family in 1858. Nicknamed Teedie, young Teddy suffered from terrible asthma in the days before inhalers. He was so sick he had to be home-schooled. Hyperactive and desperate for the excitement his health didn’t allow him, he read up a storm and became absorbed in science. In fact, the frail kid started a natural history museum in his bedroom. He made his first acquistion from New York Harbor in 1867, begging a local guy for the skull of a seal that had washed up on shore. His collections grew from there, with Teddy hunting small game and doing the taxidermy himself. His father had been one of the co-founders of the Museum of Natural History, and now Teedie was running what he called The Roosevelt Museum of Natural History out of his bedroom.
It only got easier for young Theodore to build his collections once his father encouraged him to make a major lifestyle change. The elder Roosevelt urged his son to “make his body,” pushing himself beyond his illness into physical strength. They built a gym and Teedie started to hike, box, and lift weights every day. It started a lifelong passion for physical exertion that TR called "the strenuous life." The family took the show on the road, making trips to Syria, Germany, Rome, and Egypt. Teedie climbed to the top of a pyramid, making him cooler than all of us at age twelve. On the trip, he hunted a ton of birds, stuffed them, and donated some to the American Museum of Natural History when he got back.
2) Knock Out
When he went off to Harvard, Teddy only got cooler. He set up his collections in his off-campus apartment, and took up competitive rowing and boxing. A tough guy with a heart of gold, Teddy both impressed and weirded out his classmates with his superhuman energy, intense academic interests, and chivalrous ways. During a 1879 Harvard boxing match, Teddy threw down his hands as soon as the ref called time on the first round, but took an intense blow to the face by his opponent. The crowd hissed and booed until Teddy told them to shut it, standing up for the other fighter. "Hush!” he yelled. “He didn't hear." Be still my heart.
2) Go West, Young Man
While a junior at Harvard, Teddy met the beautiful, quiet Alice Lee. He was immediately and determinedly smitten, but Alice was not having it. “See that girl?” he once yelled across a room. “I am going to marry her. She won’t have me, but I am going to have her!”
After two years of courtship, Alice gave in to Teddy’s considerable charms. They got married and moved in with his widowed mother. Three years into their blissful marriage, Alice went into labor with their daughter. She didn’t make it. On Valentine’s Day, 1884, she died in their New York home. Hours later, Teddy’s mother died in the same house. He was, understandably, devastated. A coworker in the Albany assembly described him as a broken man. “You could not talk to him about it…you could see at once the grief was too deep.” His journal marks the day with a black X.
While you or I would have cried for a couple years, Teddy mourned by moving to the Bad Lands and becoming a cowboy, otherwise known as the coolest form of mourning ever. He bought himself some spurs, a fringed shirt, and pearl-handled revolver and went west. At first, the other cowboys made fun the highly educated, four-eyes who said things like “By Godfrey” instead of cursing. That ended when he proved himself a tireless worker. Oh, and when he punched out a much larger man who made fun of him at a bar. That helped. For the next two years, he healed his wounds through sheer awesomeness.
I think this story sums things up well. Roosevelt had a small boat tied up on the banks of the Missouri River and wanted to take it out to go hunting for mountain lions. One morning, he realized someone had stolen it and left only a cut rope and a single mitten behind on the barely thawed river. Instead of just, you know, getting a new boat, TR decided to go all action movie on the situation. With a blizzard approaching, Roosevelt and his men carved out a new boat, load it with provisions, and took off after the thieves. Three days later, they found, apprehended, and disarmed them.
Now all they had to do was travel with them 200 miles down the river to the nearest authorities. When that snowstorm hit, it became impossible to move for days and they started to run out of food. Roosevelt decided to forget the boat and march his captives back to town. The team made unleavened bread out of river mud to keep everyone nourished, and Roosevelt and his pals stayed up in shifts so the thieves wouldn’t have a chance to escape. Roosevelt stayed alert by reading the copy of Anna Karenina he happened to have on him. Who doesn’t carry 1,000 page Russian novels with them on a wilderness expedition? When he finished it, he borrowed a dime novel from one of the crooks. Along the way they acquired a horse, a wagon, and some supplies. Roosevelt walked behind the wagon carrying his gun, at one point staying awake for 48 hours at a stretch.
Close to two weeks later, Roosevelt turned in the crooks and received his reward: $50. Even the thieves were impressed. One of them wrote to Teddy from jail years later, closing his letter ““P.S. Should you stop over at Bismarck this fall make a call to the Prison. I should be glad to meet you.” Two years after Teddy’s Bad Land adventure started, he returned to the East Coast and got married to the second love of his life, Edith Carrow, with whom he would have five more kids. Take that, sorrow!
3) Undercover Brother
Roosevelt served for a while as New York City’s police commissioner. While previous commissioners had generally stayed behind their desks, Teddy liked to take his work to the streets, both to help control crime and to crack down on police corruption.
A newspaper article in the World summed up Teddy’s managerial style by saying, “When he asks a question, Mr. Roosevelt shoots it at the poor trembling policeman as he would shoot a bullet at a coyote…he shows a set of teeth calculated to unnerve the bravest of the Finest…They seem to say: ‘Tell the truth to your Commissioner, or he’ll bite your head off.” Sometimes Teddy’s tactics involved him going around the city in disguise, catching crooked cops in the act. Seriously.
4) Presidential Playhouse
After serving as Secretary of the Navy, leading up the famous Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, and finishing up two years as the governor of New York (nbd!) Teddy became William McKinley’s VP. Less than a year later, McKinley was assassinated and, at 42, TR became out youngest president. He had six kids under 17 when he took up residence in the White House, and they turned it into the Capitol of Good Times.
His kids rode their tricycles down the halls of the house, played hide and seek in the Oval Office and in conference rooms, and pulled pranks on staffers. Roosevelt had breakfast with them every morning and was their favorite playmate.
They had an awesome menagerie of White House pets, including a lizard named Bill, guinea pigs named Admiral Dewey, Dr. Johnson, Bishop Doane, Fighting Bob Evans, and Father O'Grady, a pig named Maude, a badger named Josoah, Sailor Boy the Chesapeake Retriever, a zebra, a blue macaw named Eli Yale, Spreckle the hen, a one-legged rooster, a hyena, a barn owl, a bunch of snakes, Peter the rabbit, a baby bear named John Edwards, and a pony named Algonquin. People knew how much Roosevelt and his kids loved animals, so officials presented him with all sorts of exotic creatures. Some of them were at the White House or their home at Sagamore Hill only briefly before they were donated to zoos, but others stuck around for years. When Roosevelt kid Archie was sick, his brothers took Algonquin up the White House elevator to visit him in his bedroom.
Roosevelt loved his kids enormously, and the fact that he was a kid at heart endeared him to his brood. “You must always remember the president is about six,” commented a British official. TR liked to take official visitors skinny-dipping in the Potomac, lead them on strenuous hikes, and regale them with adventure stories from his travels. His joviality made him one of the kids. They exchanged a lifetime of adorable letters. When Roosevelt was away from the White House on a trip, his kids sent him a letter that read: "Good morning, Mr. President, how are you today? We have obeyed your orders, we're very glad to say. We went around the White House a raisin' up a row, and if you want to know about it, then we'll tell you now. We went into the East Room, we went into the Red, and frightened everyone who was not in his bed. We want to have a piller fight with you this very night, and if you do not play with us, we'll squeeze you very tight."
In other words, TR was the Commander in Cute.
5) No, Not Demi Moore
Roosevelt hunted some crazy stuff. In 1919, Roosevelt killed a cougar in Colorado. By stabbing it through the heart. This story is mentioned as kind of a humorous afterthought in the third paragraph of a letter to his son.
His totally amazing New York home, Sagamore Hill, is like my version of the Barbie Dream House. He had 7 foot tall elephant tusks, leopard throws, and a polar bear rug. His ink well was made out a rhinoceros foot, and he tossed his trash in an elephant foot waste bin.
6) Take a Look, It’s In A Book
Teddy read like a maniac, going through a book a day while he was serving as president. If he was free in the evening, he might go through a couple more. Over the course of his lifetime, he read tens of thousands of books, and wrote more than thirty of his own, on everything from naval strategy to birds. I will eventually get around to reading the first two Twilight Books.
7) Up and Away
TR was the first president to own a car, go in a submarine, or fly in an airplane. He was also the first president and the first American to ever win a Noble prize, in any category.
7) Shot Through the Heart
After serving two terms as president, TR decided to run for a third term with the newly formed Bull Moose Party. He was giving a campaign speech in Milwaukee when a mentally ill man shot him. Teddy was saved by the glasses case and folded-up speech he had in his coat pocket. Still, he was bleeding from the chest. So what did he do? Finish his speech. Duh.
“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible,” he said. “I don't know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet - there is where the bullet went through - and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.” Teddy went on to give a more than 3,800 word speech. I, on the other hand, almost stopped typing this post because my wrist was sore.
8) In the Jungle, the Mighty Jungle
After losing that bid for a third term, Roosevelt mourned in style yet again. He had previously traveled all over Africa, gathering specimens for scientific study. This time, he was even more ambitious. He decided to navigate the River of Doubt, an enormous Amazonian waterway in Brazil. No one had ever charted its course. He and his crew, including his 24-year old son Kermit, planned a 900 mile trek through some of the most inhospitable jungles in the world.
Unfortunately, the supplies guy did terrible work. They ran out of food quickly, and the boats he had ordered were poorly equipped for the narrow rapids. They had to dump half their existing supplies, trade with native Brazilians for heavy dugout canoes, and make do. They had a terrible time catching food, relying mostly on found Brazil nuts to survive. One of their paddlers fell into the rapids and died, and another one became so desperate for provisions that he shot another man for his food before running off on his own.
Roosevelt came down with malaria, and a gash on his leg quickly became infected in the swampy conditions. At one point, he was in such bad condition that he was prepared to take the emergency cyanide pill he carried with him as a measure of last resort. His son and companions wouldn’t let him go through with it. Five months after the journey began, the surviving members of the team made it back with over 2,000 previously undiscovered species of birds and 500 new species of mammals. The Brazilian government renamed the waterway Roosevelt River.
Teddy died not long after his return to the states, partially due to the hits his health had taken in the Amazon and also probably from an overdose of awesome. A friend memorialized him like this: "Death had to take him sleeping, for if Roosevelt had been awake there would have been a fight.” His son Archie telegrammed his siblings the news.“The old lion is dead.” By Godfrey, what a guy.
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