It was just before midnight, and Glen DeSalvo of Port Washington was digging through a collection of documents he'd purchased at an online auction years earlier. A faded blue envelope caught his eye.
Inside the envelope, addressed to Edward Jones of Cold Spring Harbor, was a handwritten letter from then-President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 while at the "Summer White House" at Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay.
In the previously unpublished letter, Roosevelt thanks Jones, who had property near Sagamore, for allowing his son, Theodore Jr., to swim in his pond. Years earlier, Roosevelt wrote, he gathered water lilies at that pond with his childhood sweetheart Edith Carow, who later became his second wife and served as first lady from 1901 to 1909.
"I almost fell off my chair," said DeSalvo, 68, a retired law firm director who studied Roosevelt for decades. "I had no idea that there was any correspondence from Teddy Roosevelt in this collection. I just stood there staring at it for 15 minutes."
DeSalvo, who discovered the letter roughly a year ago, said he has no immediate plans to donate the letter or to seek its official authentication.
But several Roosevelt experts contacted by Newsday said the letter, which was written on Sagamore imprinted stationary and signed by the nation's 26th president, appears authentic and provides a unique window into his personal life.
"It is nice to see the personal nature of this letter, especially the part about Edith and TR visiting the pond in their teenage years before they were married to pick water lilies," said Laura Cinturati, acting museum curator at the Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. "It's an intimate window into the family and local life that TR lived outside of his official presidential duties."
Erik Johnson, digital collections cataloger at the Theodore Roosevelt Center at Dickinson State University in North Dakota, said the signature in DeSalvo's letter appears authentic. The note, he said, also lines up with another letter in their collection from Roosevelt to Jones dated three days later.
In that letter, Roosevelt, a noted outdoorsman and hunter, turns down Jones' offer to go fishing together. "You are very kind and I greatly appreciate it," the letter reads. "I wish I were a fisherman, but unfortunately I am not. My boy will be delighted to try again."
A historical find
A Long Island historian and collector, DeSalvo said he purchased the estate papers of the Jones family five years ago for about $500.
The Joneses were influential figures on Long Island's North Shore, donating land to build St. John's Episcopal Church, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory and LaGuardia Airport. Jones Beach State Park is named for Maj. Thomas Jones, the family's original Long Island descendant.
It took DeSalvo several years to go through the Jones collection, which included more than 100 personal and legal documents from the early 1800s through the start of the 20th century.
But the Roosevelt letter, which was double folded and placed in a 3½-inch by 4½-inch envelope, stood out.
The letter, dated July 12, 1902, reads: "Permit me to thank you very heartily for your courtesy to my son, Theodore Roosevelt Jr., who will present this letter to you. Long ago I gathered water lilies on your pond, with my wife, then Miss Carow, and I thank you for letting our boy fish in them now. With regard, very sincerely yours, Theodore Roosevelt."
It is unclear, DeSalvo said, what pond Roosevelt is referencing, but it appears close enough for Theodore Roosevelt Jr. to walk, row or travel to by horseback.
The former president's namesake carved out his own impressive career as a New York State assemblyman, assistant Navy secretary and Army brigadier general who was 56 years old when he famously became the highest-ranking officer on the beaches during the Invasion of Normandy.
"It's very exciting because I am a student of Roosevelt," DeSalvo said. "I read most of his books that he wrote or were written about him. I was always a fan of TR and what he accomplished as president. He fought everyone who tried to get rid of him. Everyone tried to sweep him under the carpet, but he stood up and fought."
Sharon Kilzer, project manager at the Theodore Roosevelt Center, said DeSalvo's letter confirms much of what we know about Roosevelt while adding some personal and yet unknown details.
"It's an example that we have not seen the entire oeuvre of Roosevelt, or any other historical figure for that matter," Kilzer said. "These kinds of discoveries pop up not infrequently. And so it's clear there's more of the story to be told and to be delved."