Theodore Roosevelt was one of the best Presidents in American history, and one of the most boisterous. But a double tragedy on Valentine’s Day in 1884 left Roosevelt shell shocked.
In a horrific twist of fate, Roosevelt’s first wife and mother both died on Feb. 14, 1884 — in the same house in New York City.
A family friend recalled that the losses left Roosevelt “in a dazed, stunned state.” Trying to recover, Roosevelt spent the next two years in present-day North Dakota, raising cattle on his ranch and also serving as a deputy sheriff.
Though robust as an adult, Roosevelt was a sickly child, but his determination helped him gain strength and led to an education at Harvard. He graduated 21st of 177 in the Class of 1880. Early in his junior year, he had met Alice Hathaway Lee, a cousin and neighbor of a classmate.
The couple announced their engagement on Valentine’s Day 1880, and they were married the following Oct. 27, his 22nd birthday. Theodore wrote in his diary that “my happiness now is almost too great. I am living in dreamland. I wish it could last forever.”
The young couple moved into the home of Roosevelt’s mother, Martha, in New York City, and he enrolled in Columbia University’s law school. However, he lasted only a year before dropping out to run for the New York legislature in 1881. Roosevelt won, and he and Alice moved to the state capital of Albany.
By 1883, Theodore and Alice were expecting a child, and she moved back into Martha’s home. Roosevelt was increasingly consumed with the legislature, and after a visit back to New York City, left for Albany on Feb. 11 despite the fact that his wife, now nearing delivery, was ill. His mother was also bedridden with a severe cold.
A baby girl was born the next day, February 12, and named after her mother. Roosevelt received a telegram informing of the joyous news, and requested a leave of absence to begin later that day.
The telegram, however, offered no word of complications, which were substantial. Drained of strength, Alice momentarily held the baby, kissed her, and, in the words of one account, “collapsed into an exhausted slumber.”
A few hours after the telegram of the birth, Roosevelt received a second telegram, calling for him to return to New York City immediately. He arrived in New York by rail early on February 13 and proceeded straight to his mother’s home, where his brother exclaimed, “There is a curse on this house. Mother is dying and Alice is dying, too!”
Alice was in the final stages of Bright’s Disease, a kidney ailment that claimed many prominent people of the era. Among them are former President Chester A. Arthur and James Sherman, who served as Vice-President to William Howard Taft. Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, Ellen, also died of Bright’s Disease.
Theodore cradled Alice, who was semi-conscious, for several hours before being called to his mother’s room, where Martha now lay near death. She passed away at age 49 at 3 a.m. on Valentine’s Day morning. Theodore then returned to Alice’s room, where she lingered until her own death at 2 p.m. that afternoon.
A prolific writer who wrote dozens of books and articles, Roosevelt kept an extensive diary, but his entry for that day was poignantly brief. He simply wrote “the light has gone out of my life.”
Wracked with grief, he walked away from his political career for his new venture in the Dakota Territory, leaving his baby daughter in the care of his sister.
Though he relished his time in the West, his promise was wiped out with the loss of much of his herd in a blizzard in the winter of 1885. He returned to New York and his political career in 1886.
On Dec. 2, 1886, Roosevelt married Edith Carow, his former next-door neighbor as a child and romantic interest in adolescence. The relationship ended while he was at Harvard, and she had never married, possibly because she never got over him. With Edith, Roosevelt would have five more children.
In the nineteen scholarly polls that rank American Presidents, Theodore Roosevelt ranks in the top ten – and often in the top five – in most of them.