Teddy Roosevelt’s darkest day did not occur while he was President of the United States, but rather 17 years earlier! On 13 February 1884, a young Roosevelt was toiling away in the New York state legislature in Albany, attempting in his usual energetic fashion to get a reform bill passed. He had found his niche in politics and was Bull-in-the-China-Shop of the state assembly. A day earlier, his darling wife, Alice, had just given birth to their first child in Manhattan, a daughter whom they named Alice Lee. Roosevelt could not have been more fulfilled or happy.
Only 25 years old, the thrilled new father intended to return home the next day. That is, until he received an urgent telegram summoning him back at once! Alice and his widowed mother were both gravely ill. Roosevelt did not even pack. He rushed to the train station, arriving in New York City by midnight. He was greeted at the door of his family home by his brother, Elliott, who ominously proclaimed,
“Theodore, there is a curse on this house!”
His widowed mother, Mittie, had developed typhoid and was burning with fever downstairs. And just upstairs, his beloved Alice was in a semi-comatose state, barely able to recognize her husband. In addition to all this, he had a newborn child crying in the basinet next to her. With the family doctor hovering, Roosevelt settled in for what proved to be sleepless night.
At three in the morning of the 14th, his mother succumbed to the fever and passed away. Leaving his siblings, a distraught Roosevelt then staggered upstairs to be with Alice. At 2in the afternoon, his wife of four years died in his arms of Bright’s disease, a severe kidney ailment. One can only imagine the grief and disbelief the future president went through that dreadful day. That evening Roosevelt, though possessing a new daughter in the nursery, wrote a single sentence in his diary:
The light has gone out of my life ...
This double tragedy devastated the usually sanguine young Teddy. Burdened by grief, he left the infant Alice Lee in the care of his older sister Bamie and abandoned his political career. So distressed following his wife’s death, he rarely spoke of her again, even to their daughter as she grew, and ordered those around him not to utter her name again. Instead, he struck out as far from New York as he could get -to the wild and untamed Dakota Territories. There he bought a ranch and lived as a cattleman, though he had no experience doing so.
The stark isolation from his former life slowly helped heal the man. After two years in the Dakotas, Roosevelt decided it was time to return home and resume his life. Once back in New York, he again took up politics, remarried, and took over raising his high–spirited and precocious daughter, Alice Lee, who later became a national celebrity. After a famous stint with the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, he became Governor of New York.
It was then, a still young Roosevelt was selected as William McKinley’s Vice President. When McKinley was assassinated barely a year into his second term, Roosevelt became President of the United States in 1901. He was only 43. He went on to achieve many great accomplishments including building the Panama Canal, starting the National Park Service, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, and breaking up powerful corporate monopolies. He had five more children with his second wife, Edith.
Of his first wife Alice, TR wrote the last words he ever spoke of her for a private memorial at the funeral: “She was beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit; as a flower she grew, and as a fair young flower she died. Fair, pure, and joyous as a maiden; loving, tender, and happy as a young wife; when she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her – then, by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her.”