To say that Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt was a fascinating and hard-bitten character hardly does him justice. He was a man who truly lived life to the full until his untimely death at the age of 60. Roosevelt was America’s 26th president from 1901 to 1909 and first took charge when William McKinley died in office. Throughout his political career Roosevelt made political capital out of an action-man persona. This image-building included spells as a cowboy, time in armed combat and a spot of mountaineering.
20. A sickly child
Despite his later reputation as a bare-knuckled tough guy, Roosevelt did not enjoy robust health as a child. In fact, he suffered from bouts of asthma so severe that they caused his family and Roosevelt himself much anxiety. Doctors could find no remedy for these devastating night-time attacks, which left Roosevelt gasping for air.
Roosevelt’s reaction to this debilitating condition was to force himself into vigorous physical activities. The punishing exercise program that Roosevelt set himself paid off when he was 10 or 11. The boy was on holiday with his family in the Swiss Alps. Out hiking with his father in the mountains Roosevelt found that he could keep up with his father on the most testing of treks.
19.The young boxer
Once when he was on a camping trip, the young Roosevelt found himself at the mercy of two older boys who roughed him up. He decided that he would do all he could to avoid a repetition of this unpleasant and humiliating experience. Next time any larger boys tried to attack him, he would be ready for them.
Determined to have the skills to defend himself in future, he found a trainer who taught him how to box. Boxing had the added benefit of helping Roosevelt in his determination to achieve physical fitness and to overcome his childhood asthma. And boxing was to play an important part in his life, as we’ll see later.
18. The sheriff tracks down the bandits
Roosevelt was a keen outdoorsman and had a boat moored on the Little Missouri River at his Elkhorn Ranch, North Dakota. Thieves stole the boat in 1886. At the time Roosevelt was a Billings County Deputy Sheriff and he set off downriver in pursuit with two of his ranch hands, Wilmot Dow and Bill Sewall.
As the thieves had taken the only available boat, Roosevelt and his compadres spent a couple of days building an improvised craft. They caught up with and arrested the thieves after a three-day chase. Because of winter ice on the river, it took a further eight arduous days to get the prisoners to the county sheriff to answer for their crime.
17. The cowboy dream
Roosevelt was much enamored by what he saw as the tough glamour of the cowboy life. So much so, in fact, that for a time he toyed with the idea of becoming one himself. He even went as far as to live out his cowherding fantasy in real life at his own ranch, Elkhorn. His ranch hands were roped in to teach him the tricks of the trade.
It seems the real cowboys respected him for trying out the rough life of a cow poke. But they weren’t especially excited by his abilities. Nevertheless, Roosevelt learnt the basic cowboy skills such as western style horse riding and roping steers. But, ultimately the call of public life was too strong to resist, and living his life out as a cowboy was a short-lived passion.
16. The Rough Riders
Roosevelt was nothing if not a patriot. So when America went to war with Spain in 1898, there was no way he was going to sit on the sidelines urging others on to action. He wanted a piece of that action for himself. And as usual he wasn’t about to do things by halves.
Roosevelt quit his job as Assistant Secretary of the Navy and set about the practical task of raising a regiment that could actually fight in the war. His efforts resulted in the formation of the First U.S. Volunteer Cavalry Regiment, quickly nicknamed the “Rough Riders” by an enthusiastic press. Friends beseeched him not to risk combat, but he wouldn’t be dissuaded.
15. Into battle
For an action man like Roosevelt, forming a regiment to fight in the Spanish-American War wasn’t nearly enough. He wouldn’t be content until he led them into battle himself. Now with the rank of colonel, Roosevelt’s chance came in Cuba at the Battle of San Juan Hill in July 1898.
The Spanish were entrenched atop Kettle Hill. The only man mounted, Roosevelt rallied his troops for an uphill charge which, after hand-to-hand fighting, succeeded in dislodging the Spanish force. Long after his death, Colonel Roosevelt was awarded the Medal of Honor in 2001 for his exploits. He remains the only president to have received this highest of military bravery awards.
14. Honeymoon on Matterhorn
Most people probably think of a honeymoon as a time to relax and to experience some romance with your new partner. But that wasn’t the Roosevelt way. He married his first wife, Alice, in 1880 but the honeymoon proper, a European tour, was delayed until the following year because of Roosevelt’s academic commitments.
Once the couple did get off on honeymoon, Roosevelt’s idea of relaxation was to scale one of the most challenging Swiss mountains, the Matterhorn. How Alice occupied herself while her husband scaled the peak with two guides we do not know. In fact, a doctor had told him not long before that over-exertion could be fatal. Climbing this notorious Alpine peak was the future president’s response to the warning.
13. Winter skinny dipping
In keeping with his action-man image, Roosevelt enjoyed a dip in the icy waters of the Potomac River during the winter months. Unabashed, he carried on this pursuit while he was president. And although we might think of early 20th-century America as a somewhat prudish place, the president had no hesitation in swimming buck naked.
On one occasion, as he recalled in his 1913 in Theodore Roosevelt, an Autobiography, “…the French Ambassador, Jusserand… was along, and, just as we were about to get in to swim, somebody said, ‘Mr. Ambassador, Mr. Ambassador, you haven’t taken off your gloves,’ to which he promptly responded, ‘I think I will leave them on; we might meet ladies!’”
12. The perils of boxing
As we saw earlier, Roosevelt learnt to box while a youngster. It was a sport he continued in later life, perhaps for a little longer than was wise. He was still boxing while he was in the White House, sparring with youthful military aides. Then in 1908 at the age of 50, he took a blow to the left eye.
This caused acute hemorrhaging which led to a detached retina. The result was that Roosevelt lost sight in that eye. Later, Roosevelt wrote nonchalantly in his autobiography, “Accordingly I thought it better to acknowledge that I had become an elderly man and would have to stop boxing. I then took up jiujitsu for a few years.”
11. Getting Shot
America’s history of assassination attempts on presidents is not a happy one and Roosevelt was another U.S. leader on the wrong end of a bullet. In October 1912, a barkeep called John Schrank shot Roosevelt at a campaign rally in Milwaukee with a .38-caliber Colt. The revolver bullet hit Roosevelt in the chest but its force was dissipated by his steel glasses case and a 50-page speech which Roosevelt had in his jacket.
Instead of being rushed to hospital, the great man continued with his address, speaking for 90 minutes before he let the medics attend to his wound. As reported in the Detroit Free Press newspaper his opening words were, “Ladies and gentlemen, 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.”
10. River of Doubt
In 1913, Roosevelt embarked on a highly ambitious – and as it turned out perilous – expedition through South America. It traced the course of the Rio da Duvida from its source to its confluence with the Madeira and on to the Amazon. In English, Rio da Duvida means River of Doubt, an apt name as it transpired. Roosevelt took a minor cut to his leg. This soon became infected, and Roosevelt was riddled with fever.
Unable to walk and at times delirious, he lost 50 pounds during the remainder of the expedition, which stretched into 1914. When he eventually returned to New York, he told a friend that the trip had taken ten years off his life. He did indeed die five years later at the age of 61. Rio da Duvida was renamed Roosevelt River.
9. The taxidermist
When he was just seven years old, Roosevelt spotted a dead seal at a market. Somehow, he managed to persuade the seller to hack off the animal’s head and give it to him. He then took the grisly trophy home, founding the self-styled “Roosevelt Museum of Natural History” with two of his cousins.
The unfortunate seal’s head presumably formed the centerpiece of the museum’s collection. Roosevelt learned the basics of taxidermy and killed and stuffed a number of creatures for exhibition in his gruesome museum. But rather than being motivated by an unpleasant taste for cruelty, Roosevelt was in fact a keen naturalist, taking the trouble to learn about the animals in his strange collection.
8. The hunter
After his early foray into taxidermy, Roosevelt had a rather bloodthirsty relationship with animals for the rest of his life. When the end of his presidency came in 1909, Roosevelt went on safari to Africa. His expedition had the aim of collecting specimens for the Smithsonian Institution and for New York’s Natural History Museum.
With his colleagues, Roosevelt killed or collected in excess of a staggering 11,000 animals, from insects to elephants. The haul included six white rhinos, rare even back then. The dead animals were preserved in salt and sent to Washington. Many years passed before all of this huge haul of deceased wildlife could be readied for exhibition.
7. Invention of the teddy bear
Paradoxically, the man who cut such a deadly swathe through the wildlife of Africa once refused point blank to shoot a bear. Admittedly the creature was past the prime of life, and at the time of the incident, was actually tied to a tree. For Roosevelt, normally happy to pull the trigger on a defenseless animal, this clearly wasn’t sport.
The incident happened after Roosevelt had spent three days hunting in 1902 without spotting a bear. Guides thought it would be a favor to capture one so he could shoot it. His refusal came to the notice of the press and a cartoon resulted. After a slightly tangled tale, involving a New York candy store proprietor and a German toy maker, that cartoon was credited as being the progenitor of the children’s teddy bear.
6. Ever the warrior
When the First World War broke out in Europe in 1914, Roosevelt decided he was the man to lead an expeditionary force of 200,000 U.S. troops to join in on the Allied side against the Germans. This was despite the fact that he was now 58 and not in the best of health after the rigors of the River of Doubt expedition we heard about earlier.
Despite public rallies supporting Roosevelt’s scheme, President Woodrow Wilson declined his offer. Tragically, Roosevelt’s pilot son Quentin was shot down and killed in France during the final year of World War I. Quentin was just 20 years old when he died and it’s said that his father never really got over the tragic loss.
5. Nobel Peace Prize
Despite his warlike reputation – remember his military exploits in Cuba during the Spanish-American War – Roosevelt actually won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1906. He was the first U.S. president to do so. He was awarded the prize for his role as a mediator in the talks that ended the Russo-Japanese War of 1904 to 1905 with the Treaty of Portsmouth.
American historian George E. Mowry commented in The American Mercury magazine that Roosevelt had done an “excellent job of balancing Russian and Japanese power in the Orient, where the supremacy of either constituted a threat to growing America.” So, as always, it seems that Roosevelt had an eye to U.S interests.
4. Clearing out the corrupt
It was the year after Roosevelt assumed the presidency in 1901 when a web of corruption was discovered in government. The Land Office, the Post Office Department and the Indian Service were all implicated. Roosevelt acted against the miscreants with his usual alacrity and determination. He was determined to root out fraud among government agents.
Agents who had swindled Native Americans out of land were prosecuted. Staff at the Land Office had been involved in fraud and Roosevelt compelled the General Land Office Commissioner, Binger Hermann, to resign. At the Post Office, 44 members of staff were charged with corruption. A nest of bribe-takers in the Oregon Land Office was smashed with 146 indictments.
3. Taking on big business
And Roosevelt didn’t just root out corruption in government – he also squared up to big business when he saw what he believed were shady practices. He took a particular interest in bringing anti-trust suits against monopolies. When he believed that big business was acting against the interests of the American people, he did not hesitate to act.
The huge railroad operator, the Northern Securities Company, was broken up on his orders. The massive Standard Oil Company was subjected to new regulation, curbing its perceived abuses of its market dominance. Altogether Roosevelt initiated 44 monopoly busting actions. Although far from being anti-business, Roosevelt abhorred price-fixing and restrictive trade practises.
2. Saloon brawling
It’s not every president that gets involved in a saloon bar brawl and goes on to write about it with evident relish in his autobiography. But that’s exactly what President Theodore Roosevelt did. Sometime around the summer of 1884, Roosevelt walked into a bar in Mingusville, Montana. Presumably his only intention was to buy a drink.
However, as he entered, a man with a pistol in each fist strutted through the bar. He had apparently been shooting at the bar’s wall clock, judging by the bullet holes in its face. He called Roosevelt “four eyes.” The future president was indeed a habitual spectacles-wearer. Using his boxing skills, Roosevelt finished the conversation by laying the man out with a couple of sharp rights and a left jab.
There is absolutely nothing remarkable or particularly risky, unless you happen to be a test pilot, in boarding an airplane in our era. But things were a little different in 1910 at the dawn of aviation. It was less than seven years since the Wright Brothers had made the first powered flight.
When he came across a plane in St. Louis, the ever-adventurous Roosevelt wanted a shot at flying in one of those earliest machines. You only have to see a picture of one of those contraptions, apparently held together by string, to get an idea of how scary it would have been. But, undeterred, Roosevelt took a flight, circling the airfield twice. He was the first U.S. president to go up in a plane.