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The last days: Theodore Roosevelt's death and burial 100 years ago on LI

President Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th U.S. president, at

President Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th U.S. president, at Sagamore Hill in Cove Neck, where he spent most of his life. Credit: National Park Service

Ever since remaking himself as a 12-year-old — when he undertook a strenuous program of exercise to overcome a sickly, asthmatic childhood — Theodore Roosevelt had projected an aura of strength, vitality and invincibility.

But by late 1918, the reality was far different: At the age of 60, the former president was aging rapidly and in failing health. The end of his remarkable crowded life would come early the following year.

News of TR’s death on Jan. 6, 1919, reverberated across the nation and around the world because he still was the most well-known and popular man on the planet a decade after leaving the White House, Edmund Morris, author of a three-volume biography of TR, told Newsday.

“The news of the colonel’s death . . . spread around the world with extraordinary swiftness,” Morris writes in "Colonel Roosevelt." “A common reaction among the millions of Americans who had imagined him to be indestructible, and headed again for the presidency, was a sense of shock …”

Indeed, said Susan Sarna, museum curator at Roosevelt's former home, Sagamore Hill National Historic Site in Cove Neck, “Even in the last couple of months of his life when his health was declining rapidly, there were still people who were rallying behind him to run for president again.

“He was such a major world figure who had accomplished so much and left the country in such a good state that the American public was deeply affected by his passing,” added Sarna, who with her staff has prepared a new exhibit on Roosevelt and his legacy timed to coincide with the centennial of his death.

The beginning of the end for the 26th president stemmed from his need for excitement after leaving the White House after seven and a half years in 1909. Having come in second to Democrat Woodrow Wilson but outpolling Republican incumbent William Howard Taft as the third-party Progressive candidate seeking to regain the presidency in 1912, Roosevelt came up with an adventure that would take his mind off politics and provide him with what he called his “last chance to be a boy.”

But the proponent of the “Strenuous Life” would pay a steep price in 1914 for serving as co-commander of an 800-mile expedition to map the River of Doubt, an Amazon River tributary in Brazil renamed Rio Roosevelt in his honor. Still suffering fevers from his time in Cuba leading the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, Roosevelt became so ill during the four-month expedition that he begged his son Kermit to leave him behind. TR survived but his health never rebounded.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the four Roosevelt sons volunteered. Ted and Archie served as officers under the American commander in France, Gen. John J. Pershing, while Kermit secured a staff position with the British in Mesopotamia (now Iraq). The youngest child, Quentin, 19, enlisted in the Army’s air wing and after his pilot training on Long Island at Hazelhurst Field — later renamed Roosevelt Field in his honor — shipped out for Europe.

Their father’s health continued to decline, exacerbated by his concern for the safety of his children. Already blind in his left eye from an injury in 1904 while boxing at the White House, in February 1918 he was admitted to Roosevelt Hospital in New York for surgery on abscesses in his thigh and ears. Inflammation developed in the left inner ear, prompting fears that the “Colonel,” as he preferred to be addressed since the Rough Rider days, might not survive.

But the fever broke and TR went home in early March.

Theodore and his wife, Edith, continued to fret over the well-being of their four sons. First Quentin developed a severe case of pneumonia. Then Archie was hit by shrapnel that injured his left leg and broke an arm. Ted was gassed and later wounded in the leg.

For the first time in his life, TR’s sleep was troubled.

“I wake up in the middle of the night, wondering if the boys are alright, and thinking how I could tell their mother if anything happened,” he told a friend. Roosevelt returned from a speaking trip in June 1918 with a high fever and erysipelas, a skin infection, in his left foot.

In July 1918, Lt. Quentin Roosevelt shot down his first German airplane. Ten days later the Colonel was in the Library when Associated Press reporter Phil Thompson came to the house with a censored cablegram sent to the New York Sun that read “watch Sagamore Hill for…”

Asked what it meant, Roosevelt told Thompson that “something has happened to one of the boys. It can’t be Ted or Archie, for both are recovering from wounds. It’s not Kermit, since he’s not at the moment in the danger-zone so it must be Quentin. His mother must not be told until there is no hope left.”

Thompson returned to Sagamore Hill the next morning and told Roosevelt on the piazza that he had verified that Quentin’s plane had been attacked by two German fighters and shot down behind enemy lines.

“But Mrs. Roosevelt!” TR gasped. “How am I going to break it to her?”

He went inside and a half-hour later handed Thompson a brief statement: “Quentin’s mother and I are very glad that he got to the front and had a chance to render some service to his country, and show the stuff that was in him before his fate befell him.”

Yet Roosevelt’s spirit was crushed by the death of the child most like him.

“Quentin’s death shook him greatly,” Edith wrote to Kermit. “I can see how constantly he thinks of him . . . Sad thoughts of what Quentin would’ve counted for in the future.”

TR had also entered his sixth decade suffering from crippling attacks of rheumatism. By early November, one foot was so swollen he could not wear a shoe. Three physicians who attended him at Sagamore ordered bed rest.

When he ignored them and traveled into Oyster Bay to vote Nov. 5, he felt even worse. Six days later he returned to Roosevelt Hospital in Manhattan for treatment of inflammatory rheumatism contracted in Brazil and abscesses. Edith remained at his hospital bedside for 44 days.

Roosevelt returned home on Christmas Day, still weak and suffering from vertigo from inflammation in the inner ear. Three of the children — Alice, Ethel and Archie — were waiting with Christmas dinner. In the following days TR ate breakfast in bed but was able to come downstairs for lunch and then lay on the sofa in the library, reading and dictating letters.

On Dec. 29 and 30, Edith took her husband for an hour’s drive that seemed to improve his condition. But rainy weather on New Year’s Day 1919 again gave him severe pain in his leg and hand.

He began to spend most of his time upstairs on the sofa in the Gate Room, which faced south and was the warmest space in the house.

On the first Sunday of the year, Jan. 5, Roosevelt remained in bed reading aloud to his wife or listening while she read, writing to Kermit or just relaxing. TR worked for 11 hours on a magazine article and newspaper editorial. Friends who came to the house were informed the Colonel was too weak to see them.

When Edith finished playing solitaire at the table beside TR’s bed around 10 o’clock, Roosevelt asked his wife to help him sit up because he felt as if his heart or lungs were about to stop working. Edith called for the nurse staying with the family, and she sent for a local doctor. The nurse gave him morphine so he could sleep through the night.

About midnight, valet James Amos arrived to help watch Roosevelt during the night and helped put him to bed in the Gate Room. Amos turned off the light and napped in front of the fire. Edith came in to look at her husband around 12:30 a.m. and 2 a.m.

At 4 o’clock, the nurse woke Edith and told her TR had stopped breathing. Rushing to her husband of 32 years, she leaned over him and exclaimed, “Theodore, darling!” Edith wrote in her diary that he had stopped breathing and “had a sweet, sound sleep.”

Theodore Roosevelt had died from an embolism at the age of 60. Archie cabled his brothers with a terse message: “The old lion is dead.”

Sculptor James E. Fraser, who had previously sculpted Roosevelt’s bust for the U.S. Capitol, arrived at Sagamore Hill to take plaster casts of Roosevelt’s face and hands. Fraser applied grease to the deceased president’s face and hands and layered cloth bandages dipped in plaster over them to form molds. When they had dried, Fraser removed them and took them to his studio in Connecticut. The artist cast a bronze version of the death mask and presented it to Edith Roosevelt, who kept it in the North Room.

Roosevelt’s coffin, draped with Rough Rider flags, lay in the North Room before his funeral Jan. 8. Quentin’s favorite prayer was read, and the cortège headed to Christ Church in Oyster Bay, where 500 mourners waited. Among them were former President William Howard Taft and future President Warren G. Harding, Vice President Thomas Marshall and New York Gov. Al Smith.

Following the custom of the era for widows, Edith had remained behind at Sagamore Hill with her daughters and other Roosevelt women to read through the funeral service that would be given at the church.

From the church, the procession retraced its route east toward Cove Neck. It stopped at Youngs Memorial Cemetery in Oyster Bay Cove. There the 26th president was buried 26 steps up the hillside, a short distance from his beloved Sagamore Hill.

Celebrating TR's legacy

Sagamore Hill National Historic Site’s new exhibit, “Theodore Roosevelt, A Man for the Modern World,” was prepared for the centennial of TR’s death, but it doesn’t dwell on that event.

“The exhibit is really a celebration of Theodore Roosevelt’s legacy tied in with the changes in the world with technology and how that affected his ability to do his job as successfully as he did,” said Susan Sarna, Sagamore Hill’s museum curator. “We already have an entire exhibit on Theodore Roosevelt from his birth to his death, so we figured we needed to bring in a new twist, which is that Theodore Roosevelt was the first modern president. He was the first president to be able to leave the country while in office to go to Panama because the communications and transportation had become so sophisticated.”

The exhibit showcases documents, photographs and many never-before-seen artifacts. These include family sporting equipment and the license plate from the Roosevelts’ automobile.

The objects relating to TR’s passing are plaster and bronze death masks and a plaster cast of TR’s right hand — purchased in 2015 from the sculptor’s collection by the Friends of Sagamore Hill — along with an original watercolor of the funeral painted by Navy Lt. Cmdr. H. Reuterdahl and published in The Outlook magazine.

Some familiar artifacts from the Roosevelts’ home will be on display for close-up viewing: an etched silver ceremonial cup given to TR and his wife, Edith, after their trip to see construction of the Panama Canal. The installation will include a collection of rarely seen historic films showing footage from various periods of Roosevelt’s life, including international travel.

WHEN I WHERE The exhibit is scheduled through 2019 at Sagamore Hill’s Old Orchard Museum, but with the U.S. government shutdown affecting national parks, visitors should call ahead.

INFO 516-922-4788, nps.gov/sahi.

— Bill Bleyer

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