“There is a curse on this house! Mother is dying and Alice is dying too.”
These were the foreboding words with which Elliot Roosevelt greeted his sister Corrine as she reached the home on 57’th Street in New York City at 10:30 p.m. on February 13, 1884. Their brother, State Assemblyman Theodore Roosevelt would arrive an hour later to this heartbreaking scene – his mother and his young wife, Alice (above) who had just the day before given birth to their daughter Alice both on their deathbeds.
Alice and Mittie Both Were Dying
Only the previous day, Theodore’s beautiful young wife, Alice Hathaway Lee had given birth to a girl whom they named Alice. Telegrams had been sent announcing to all the birth and the good health of both the baby and the mother, leaving Theodore “full of life and happiness.” However an hour later, a more ominous telegram arrived which sent him on a hurried journey back to the home which he and Alice occupied. He arrived to find her, age 22
dying of Bright’s Disease (a chronic inflammation of the kidneys) and barely sensible to his presence, and his mother (left), Martha Bulloch Roosevelt (known to the family as “Mittie”) dying of typhoid fever. He held Alice in his arms until a little before 3:00 a.m. when he was told that his mother’s end was near. He went to her side to see her die at about 3:00 a.m. He then returned to take his wife in his arms, wherein he remained until she too died eleven hours later at 2:00 that afternoon………. February 14, Valentines Day, 1884.
Theodore Was Crushed….
In his superb book about the young Theodore Roosevelt, “Mornings on Horseback”, author David McCullough writes of what happened the next at the State Capitol in Albany:
“The first man to rise when the Assembly convened the next day said that he had never in all his years in Albany stood in the presence of such sorrow. Six others spoke, including three of Theodore’s most hostile opponents, all visibly shaken. In an unprecedented gesture of respect, The Assembly voted to adjourn until the following Monday.”
“He does not know what he does or says.” wrote one family friend of Theodore as he sat through the double funeral that Saturday. But with characteristic energy, he fought his sorrow by diving right back (Pictured above, T.R. and Alice, circa 1882) into his work at the State Assembly in Albany. He worked at a blistering pace, not wishing to discuss the tragedy with anyone. Later that year, leaving the baby in the care of his sister Bamie he traveled to the Badlands of the Dokatas, wherein he penned the following words about his lost young bride for a privately published memorial:
“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. Her life had always been in the sunshine; and there had never come to her a single great sorrow; and none ever knew her who did not love her and revere her for her bright sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. 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 but just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her — then, by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her.
“And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went out from my life forever.”
Theodore Roosevelt was then a young man, barely 23 years old. He would go on with his life, re-marry to Edith Carow with whom he would have a large and adoring family. He would go on to command a brigade known as “the Rough Riders” during the Spanish American War. He would also tackle the offices of New York City Police Commissioner, Governor of New York, Vice President and ultimately President of the United States. His daughter Alice (above) would develop into quite a character, having inherited her mother’s beauty, and her father’s feisty temperament. Her headstrong ways – for example, she dared to smoke a cigarette in public – became the subject of much public comment. When told that he must do something to bring his daughter under control, President Roosevelt replied “Sir, I can run the country, or I can control Alice. I cannot do both.”
But those sad words written by the grieving young State Assemblyman sitting alone at his table in a cabin in the Badlands of the Dakotas were the last that he would ever speak of his first wife. He never mentioned her name again for the rest of his life to anyone. Not even to their daughter.
“Mornings on Horseback” by David McCullough, Simon & Schuster, New York, 1981
“The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt” by Stefan Lorant, Doubleday & Co. Inc., New York, 1959