Theodore 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. He was attempting in his usual energetic fashion to get a reform bill passed. He had found his niche in politics and was the Bull-in-a-China-Shop of the state assembly, admired by some and ridiculed by others. 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 to see his wife and new child. That is, until he received an urgent telegram summoning him back at once! He was shocked to read that both Alice AND his widowed mother were gravely ill. A panicked Roosevelt did not even pack a bag and rushed to the Albany train station. He arrived in New York City well after midnight, and took a handsome cab to their townhouse on East 57th Street. He was greeted at the door of his family home by his younger brother. Elliott looked pale and ominously proclaimed to him,
“Theodore, there is a curse on this house.”
His widowed mother, Mittie, had developed typhoid and was burning with fever on a couch downstairs. His younger sister Corinne sat next to her, applying a cold compress to their mother’s forehead. And just upstairs in their bedroom, his beloved Alice lay in a semi-comatose state. She was barely able to recognize her husband. He sat on the bed next to her and squeezed her hand in his, “Alice, my darling, it is I, Theodore.” In addition to all this, he had a newborn child, Alice Lee, crying in a bassinet at the foot of the bed. His older sister Barnie was attempting to comfort the newborn baby. With the family doctor hovering between patients, Roosevelt settled in for what proved to be very long and sleepless night.
At three in the morning of the 14th, his mother succumbed to her high fever and passed away. Leaving her with his three siblings, a distraught Roosevelt then staggered upstairs to be with Alice. At 2 pm in the afternoon, his wife of four years died in his arms of Bright’s Disease, a severe kidney ailment that had gone undiagnosed. She was only 22 years old. One can only imagine the grief and disbelief the future president went through that dreadful day. That evening, though possessing a healthy new daughter in the nursery, Roosevelt wrote a large X and a single sentence in his diary:
‘The light has gone out of my life ...’
This double tragedy devastated the usually optimistic young Teddy. Burdened by grief, he felt he could not yet be a father to his new child. He left the infant Alice Lee in the care of his older sister Bamie. Then he resigned as state assemblyman and abandoned his political career. Instead, he struck out as far from New York City as he could get – travelling to the wild and untamed Dakota Territories. There he bought a small ranch which he named Elkhorn, built a log cabin, and lived as a cattleman, though as he had no experience doing so. In typical fashion, he threw himself into learning to ranch and gradually earned the respect of real cowboys.
The stark isolation from his former life slowly helped heal the future president. After two years in the Dakotas, Roosevelt decided it was time to return home, become a father to Alice and resume his life. So distressed by his wife’s death, he rarely spoke of her again, even to their daughter as she grew up. He ordered those around him not to utter his wife’s name again, and did not write of her in is autobiography year later.
Once back in New York, he again took up politics, as New York City’s Police Commissioner, enacting a series of reforms in the notoriously corrupt department. He married his second wife, a childhood friend Edith Carow, and together they raised his high–spirited and precocious daughter, Alice Lee, who later became a bit of a national celebrity. He eventually had five more children with Edith. President McKinley appointed him Assistant Secretary of the Navy next, beginning his Washington career. After a famous stint with the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War in Cuba, he became Governor of New York in 1898.
It was around then, a still young Roosevelt was selected by the Republicans as President William McKinley’s Vice President. When McKinley was assassinated in 1901, barely a year into his second term, Theodore Roosevelt suddenly rose to become President of the United States. 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. TR, as he was called, easily won a second term and became one of America’s most beloved presidents, eventually earning a place on Mount Rushmore.
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.”Theodore Roosevelt