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The Roosevelts, Part 2: TR

Updated: Sep 4, 2023

As I usually do when talking about famous relatives, I will pass along information that may not be common knowledge.

(For Part 1, click here.)

Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt was a member of the "Oyster Bay Roosevelts." He was born on 27 October 1858 in Manhattan.

As a child, Teddy witnessed Abraham Lincoln's funeral procession. There is a photo of the young Roosevelt perched in a window watching the procession in New York City in April 1865 that surfaced in the 1950's. Young TR and his brother were at his grandfather’s mansion.

While Teddy graduated from Harvard, he left law school at Columbia without receiving a degree. Roosevelt had become focused on local politics and lost interest in a legal career.

On Valentine's Day in 1884, Roosevelt’s mother passed away from typhoid fever. One floor above in the same house, his first wife, Alice, died less than 12 hours later from Bright’s disease and complications from giving birth to the couple’s first child just two days before. "The light has gone out of my life," Roosevelt wrote in his diary that night.

Teddy's White House was no place for anyone skittish over animals. He began his Presidency in 1901, along with six children and more animals than the White House had ever seen. The Roosevelt children's family of pets included a small bear named Jonathan Edwards; a lizard named Bill; guinea pigs named Admiral Dewey, Dr. Johnson, Bishop Doane, Fighting Bob Evans, and Father O'Grady; Maude the pig; Josiah the badger; Eli Yale the blue macaw; Baron Spreckle the hen; a one-legged rooster; a hyena; a barn owl; Peter the rabbit; Algonquin the pony; and what Teddy described as a "friendly and affectionate" rat.

President Roosevelt loved the pets as much as his children did. Algonquin was so beloved that when the President's son Archie was sick in bed, his brothers Kermit and Quentin brought the pony up to his room in the elevator. But Algonquin was so captivated by his own reflection in the elevator mirror that it was hard to get him out.

Quentin once stopped in a pet store and bought four snakes. He then went to show them to his father in the Oval Office, where the President was holding an important meeting. Senators and party officials smiled tolerantly when the boy barged in and hugged his father. But when Quentin dropped the snakes on the table, the officials scrambled for safety. The snakes were eventually captured and promptly sent back to the pet shop. Alice, Quentin's sister, also had a pet garter snake that she named Emily Spinach ("because it was as green as spinach and as thin as my Aunt Emily").

The Roosevelts were dog lovers as well. Among their many canines were Sailor Boy the Chesapeake retriever, Jack the terrier, Skip the mongrel, and Pete, a bull terrier who sank his teeth into so many legs that he had to be exiled to the Roosevelt home in Long Island. Alice had a small black Pekingese named Manchu, which she received from the last empress of China during a trip to the Far East. Alice once claimed to have seen Manchu dancing on its hind legs in the moonlight on the White House lawn.

At age 9, Archie Roosevelt was granted a pet badger named Josiah, "whose temper was short but whose nature was fundamentally friendly." The boy would carry him about, holding him in his arms, "clasped firmly around what would have been his waist." When it was suggested by his father that the badger might take advantage of his situation to bite his face, Archie, seeing this as an "unworthy assault on the character of Josiah," replied: "He bites legs sometimes, but he never bites faces." Unfortunately, as time passed, Josiah’s temper seemed to sour. It could be that the bustle of the White House was just too much for him. His nips grew less friendly and the Roosevelt family found him a new home at the Bronx Zoo in New York City.

Archie Roosevelt and Josiah the Badger

Eli Yale, a Hyacinth Macaw, lived in the White House greenhouse (later torn down to make way for the West Wing, which today houses the Oval Office).

As the world learned about the family’s love of animals, diplomatic leaders began to send exotic animals as gifts. Among them was a hyena named Bill. Bill was a gift to President Roosevelt from Emperor Menelik II of Ethiopia. According to a report in the New York Times on 13 March 1904, the captain of the vessel that brought Bill to the U.S. stated that Bill "laughed all the time" and conceded that TR would certainly have his hands full. However, Teddy was not overly fond of hyenas, more than once expressing his opinion that the animals were cowardly at best. Some sources say that he eventually did grow fond of this particular hyena and allowed him to live in the White House for a time, begging for scraps from the dinner table and even teaching Bill tricks. In the end though, Bill was sent to the National Zoo to live out the remainder of his days.

As President, Teddy adopted an aggressive foreign policy, but he also saw America as deserving a role as a global peacemaker. In 1906, he convinced Japan and Russia to attend a peace conference in Portsmouth, New Hampshire to end the Russo-Japanese War. He was the first American to capture the award, and he used the prize money to fund a trust to promote international peace. Teddy also settled a dispute between France and Germany over the division of Morocco.

In November 1906, Teddy made presidential history by becoming the first chief executive to leave the United States. He sailed aboard the U.S.S. Louisiana to personally inspect the construction of the Panama. He had petitioned for its construction for years and could not resist an opportunity to see the site for himself when plans were finally underway. The workers even let him operate a steam shovel.

A lover of the outdoors, Roosevelt made protecting the natural wonder of American territory a priority. Over his tenure in the White House, he reserved 200 million acres of land for national forests and wildlife refuges; previous presidents combined had only done a fifth of that. "We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources and we have just reason to be proud of our growth," he said in 1908. "But the time has come to inquire seriously what will happen when our forests are gone, when the coal, the iron, the oil and the gas are exhausted, when the soils have been still further impoverished and washed into the streams, polluting the rivers, denuding the fields, and obstructing navigation. "These questions do not relate only to the next century or to the next generation. It is time for us now as a nation to exercise the same reasonable foresight in dealing with our great natural resources that would be shown by any prudent man in conserving and widely using the property which contains the assurance of well-being for himself and his children."

Teddy's reputation as a "bull moose," his term to describe anyone made of sturdy stuff, was never on better display than 14 October 1912, when the former president was giving a speech in Milwaukee and announced he had just been shot by a would-be assassin named John Schrank. A shocked crowd looked on as Teddy revealed a bloody shirt and a stack of prepared remarks with a bullet hole in them. He spoke for 90 minutes before allowing his aides to take him to a hospital. The bullet had lodged itself near his ribs and would remain there for the rest of his life.

An avid boxer, he continued the hobby well into his presidency. He suffered a detached retina in a bout in 1908 and became blind in one eye as a result. He stopped boxing and switched to jiu-jitsu instead.

Not known as a vain man, Teddy was still disappointed in his official presidential portrait. Artist Théobald Chartran, TR claimed, had made him look like a "mewing cat." Even his children teased him about it. After being displayed in Chartran’s home country of France, the painting returned to the White House, where Roosevelt burned it as one of his final acts in office.

At the outbreak of World War I, the 58-year-old ex-president was eager to return to the front lines. Teddy vehemently lobbied President Woodrow Wilson to send him to France at the head of a 200,000-man expeditionary force. Around the country, supporters of the hero of San Juan Hill staged rallies of support, but Roosevelt would not get called to fight in the war that eventually claimed his son Quentin, who was killed in action when his plane was shot down over France in 1918.

He was in declining health for several years. Then, on the night of 5 January 1919, Teddy suffered breathing problems. After receiving treatment from his physician, Dr. George W. Faller, he felt better and went to bed. His last words were "Please put out that light, James" to his family servant James E. Amos. Between 4:00 and 4:15 the next morning, Teddy died at the age of 60 in his sleep at Sagamore Hill after a blood clot detached from a vein and traveled to his lungs. Upon receiving word of his death, his son Archibald telegraphed his siblings: "The old lion is dead." Woodrow Wilson's vice president, Thomas R. Marshall, said that "Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight."

Theodore Roosevelt is widely regarded as one of the greatest U.S. Presidents of all time. During his time in office, he was able to restore the power and prestige of the presidency, which had been waning in the years prior to his election. His accomplishments included the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act, the establishment of the National Park System, and the negotiation of the Panama Canal Treaty. He also championed progressive reforms such as the regulation of big business and the protection of the environment. Teddy's legacy continues to be felt today, and his impact on the American presidency is undeniable.

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