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TR’s Health Draws a Large Crowd

Still a Star After All These Years

The topic of TR’s health brought out a good number of people to the Christ Church parish hall to hear Mark J. Koziol, author, former Erie Canal Museum curator and presently a museum technician at Sagamore Hill recount “Theodore Roosevelt: His Life, Health and Death” of the 26th  president. It was the second John Gable Lecture in the series sponsored by the Friends of Sagamore Hill on Tuesday, April 27. Gerry Alfani, chair of the lecture series, introduced the topic of presidential health by naming many presidents who served in less than excellent health. When it came to TR, he is famous for having battled asthma in his formative years.

Mr. Koziol said TR was 2 years old when his asthma and stomache aches began – at the same time as his brother Elliot was born. He said it was a possible reason in that suddenly, he had to share the spotlight with his sibling. His father took him on late night carriage rides through the streets of New York City to help his breathing.

Mr. Koziol mentioned the book The Asthmatic Child, by Norman Kiell, of which Chapter 7, The Effects of Asthma on the Character of Theodore Roosevelt, was very useful. He said, “I think David McCullough used it in his book, too. It said TR spent many sleepless nights because of asthma.” He was teased about his weak body by other children and when he told his father, he said, “You have to build your body to be as strong as your mind.” That began TR’s body improvement regime which included boxing lessons. He was committed to “The Vigorous Life,” which included rowing a boat; hiking and riding horseback when in Oyster Bay.

Mr. Koziol said there was a misconception that TR overcame asthma in his adult life, but that what he did was learn to manage it.

TR went through a few years of great challenge: his father died in 1878; he became a NYS Legislator in 1880; his mother and wife Alice died in 1883. He went to Dakota after the death of the women from 1884 to 1886. In letters to home, he talked about struggling with asthma. It came up but he ignored it as he had during all those earlier difficult years.

Mr. Koziol said that while at Harvard, TR was diagnosed as having a weak heart. TR’s response was to go hiking in the Maine woods and survived the exertion. Jim Foote, TR impersonator (and expert) said during the Q&A, that he took heart medicine all his life and that one of his servants noted “he’s chewing his heart medicine again.”

Trolley Accident

Another great challenge to TR’s health was a trolley car accident on Sept. 3, 1902, when on route to the Pittsfield Country Club. The trolley loaded with people who wanted to see TR, tried to get ahead of the car he was in. The road narrowed and the driver of TR’s carriage was forced to turn in front of the trolley. TR was thrown 20 feet and was badly bruised in his face; and had a deep cut in his leg. His favorite secret service man William Craig was killed by the trolley.

Mr. Koziol said TR was on a speaking tour and didn’t have the leg wound treated correctly or in a timely fashion. The result was it developed abscesses. He went to St. Vincent hospital in Indianapolis about a week after the accident - for the first operation; with a second in Washington, D.C. with five surgeons working on the leg. They drained the wound and scraped away the infection – at a time when there were no antibiotics. He was in a wheelchair for eight weeks.

In 1905, TR was boxing with a friend while he was at the White House and he was injured in his left eye, his vision was blurry at first and then he lost it. His wife Edith knew but they kept it quiet. Mr. Koziol said he was impressed because when TR was hunting in Africa, he did so with only one eye functioning.

Gun Shot Wound

On Oct. 14, 1912, TR was shot by John Schrank in an assassination attempt, but TR went on to make his speech in his bloody shirt. He refused to go to the hospital but stood there bleeding. An aide was behind the curtain in case he fainted backward during the 90 minute speech where he spoke so softly only those close could hear him. The bullet stopped within an inch of his heart and the surgeons determined to leave it there because of the danger of an operation.

On Oct. 22, 1912 he was back at Sagamore Hill.

His next great health challenge came with his trip down the River of Doubt in the Amazon forest of Brazil. He was 56 years old, overweight, blind in one eye, had an injured left leg and malaria. But TR had to take the trip because – it was the last time he could be a boy. On April 8, he re-injured the left leg which became infected. He had dysentery and malaria to add to his woes. On April 15, he was being carried because of a high fever, weakness and vomiting. He lost 56 pounds on the trip but gained about 15 pounds on the return trip to New York, by ship.

From 1914 to 1918 he was encouraging the Army to rearm itself; and in 1917 when the U.S. entered WWI, he tried to join the Army, but President Wilson said no. Instead he made speeches and sold war bonds.

By now rheumatism was added to his list of illnesses.

Mr. Koziol said TR was used to big meals from his physically active days on the ranch, and continued to eat a half-dozen eggs, a side of bacon cooked in butter or lard, fried chicken, toast and 10 to 12 cups of coffee for breakfast. But he had slowed down his activity and gained weight so that he was between 220 to 250 pounds, a lot for a man, 5’ 8” and Edith was worried about him.  In a telephone interview, Howard Ehrlich, TRA interim executive director, said about those humongous breakfasts, “Remember, his mother Martha Bullock was from the South. His favorite meal was mashed potatoes with gravy and fried chicken, a Southern meal with a lot of carbohydrates.”

In 1918, he had stomach pains and a throat infection that radiated to both ears. Doctors punctured his ear drums to drain the infection. After surgery he was left deaf in his left ear, and with vertigo.

The death of Quentin in 1918 was another blow to the man, said Mr. Koziol, adding TR said to someone that he felt Quentin’s death especially hard since he had inspired his son to be active in the military.

TR remained active in spite of the cold weather on Nov. 2, 1918, when he spoke at Carnegie Hall; and voted in the election in spite of the cold winter weather. On Nov. 11, he had a fever and his health was deteriorating. He was told he would be in a wheelchair for a year to which he said, “I can fight as well from a wheelchair.”

He died on Jan. 6, 1919 in the Gate Room at Sagamore Hill. He was given morphine. He told his valet to get Edith, sleeping in their bedroom, but she arrived at 4:15 a.m. to find him dead of a coronary embolism. It was probably from a blood clot from his leg, said Mr. Koziol.

There was a funeral service at Christ Church and TR was buried at Youngs Cemetery with a 21 gun salute.

Comments and Questions

The audience had comments and questions. There were comments on whether TR’s lifestyle and attitude to illness hastened his death or was the length of his life similar to others of that time.

Amy Verone, Sagamore Hill chief of curatorial services, said, “No. He was wealthy and in his early life he had a good diet, and slept comfortably, and for a member of his class to die at 50 or 60, was not to be expected.”

Someone asked if Edith Roosevelt had not attended the funeral. Mr. Koziol said yes, it was customary at that time for the widow not to attend the funeral service or burial. President Woodrow Wilson, the standing president who would have been expected to attend the funeral of a former president (as questioned by an audience member) was in France and missed the ceremony, too, said Mr. Koziol.

Psychological State

There was some comment on the lecture held in August 2009 at Sagamore Hill by Douglas Brinkley, author of the Wilderness Warrior that mentioned TR’s psychological state, and the question of whether TR was depressed. Both his uncle and son committed suicide, someone commented.

Mr. Koziol said there was disappointment and depression in the family and that both his parents died in their 40s.

A woman spoke out to say that TR is responsible for playgrounds; and was instrumental in the start of the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts; and pushed food and drug laws, and later someone added that he tried to start a national health insurance program that has just today begun.

Oyster Bay Town Historian John Hammond questioned a photograph Mr. Koloil had credited  as TR coming back to Oyster Bay on Oct. 22, 1912. He said it was actually TR getting off the train at Syosset, which was done to have him avoid the crowds waiting in Oyster Bay – for reasons of his health.

Mr. Koziol said the photo came to him captioned from the Library of Congress and added, “There are so many historians here – you should all join the Friends of Sagamore Hill.” Another historian attending was Natalie Naylor, Ph.D., professor emerita, Hofstra University.

Nick LaBella, who is another TR expert said in his job as a guide at Youngs Cemetery he has met many people. One of them was a woman who said of the trolley car accident, “The motorman was my grandfather,” who spent six months in jail for the accident.

Mr. Koziol cleared up the issue of what happened when President Roosevelt was under an anesthetic. He said at the time there was no constitutional mention of what to do, so he was president, and that today, the office is signed over to the vice president at a similar time.

An audience member said that in David McCullough’s book Mornings on Horseback he talked about TR’s childhood asthma.

TR’s family attended Christ Church and the author said that TR’s most severe asthma attacks were on Saturday evenings. He implied that the boy might not have been happy about spending a long Sunday morning in church listening to a long sermon.

Was there an emotional element to TR’s asthma? Today that is often considered a part of the ailment.  

Last Words        

Nick LaBella had the “last word” of the evening. He said TR’s last words are not those presented to the world. His actual last words on Jan. 12 were, “Turn out that light.” That it was “white-washed” for history into his famous words to Edith, on how much he loved Oyster Bay.

Mr. Ehrlich said it was true, TR’s last words were “turn out the lamp” - by his bed.” The last words, quoted on the Friends of Sagamore Hill website are: “On the eve of his unexpected death, Theodore Roosevelt told his wife, ‘I wonder if you will ever know how I love Sagamore Hill.’” Which were his last words to his wife, although, as Mr. LaBella said – not his last words.

Philip Blocklyn, who is co-curator of the Theodore Roosevelt Association art exhibits created around TR’s interests said of the discussion, “I think people over psychologize public figures. Take them the way they are.” Mr. Blocklyn is a rare book dealer, and very knowledgeable in his own right.

Mr. Koziol has a similar stance. He said, “Unless you actually talk to the person yourself it is hard to make a judgment on their state of mind. A psychologist has said that in one of the books on presidents - you can’t do a psychological biography. There is only so much information in the letters or speeches.”

He said, “The genesis of the talk is my lifelong interest in studying the presidents and how their health has affected them publicly and in their private lives. TR is just one of many presidents to study. He had accidents, and got ill; and how he reacted reflected his character and outlook on life and had consequences on his life and the public.

“Within the past 25 years – for each of the 43 presidents, someone interested can go online and find many interesting books available.

“TR had a busy life and didn’t seem to care for himself for many reasons like the trolley car accident – an event that is often glossed over,” he said.

The last of the series is on May 25, when Robert R. McMillan, author, T.V. host and former chairman of the Panama Canal Commission will present “Theodore Roosevelt, Panama and the Panama Canal,” discussing an insider’s look at the history (including the construction of the canal under Theodore Roosevelt), and the future of Panama and the Panama Canal.

The lecture series is free to the public. Doors open at 7 p.m. and the programs begin at 7:15 at the Christ Church Parish Hall located at 61 East Main Street. Light refreshments will be served.  For additional information: consult The Friends of Sagamore Hill website at