4. The Frail Child Who Grew Up to Become a Tough POTUS
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt (1858 – 1919), America’s 26th president, was a sickly child whose frequent bouts of ill health made his parents fear that he would never make it to adulthood. The son of a Manhattan socialite and a businessman philanthropist father, young Teddy often suffered severe nighttime asthma attacks that the best doctors could do little about. As he described the bouts in later years, they felt as if somebody had sat on his chest and tried to smother him with pillows.
However, TR was a born fighter who did not despair. Instead, he discovered a way to help him keep down the asthma and simultaneously keep up his spirits: vigorous exercise. When he was eleven-years-old, Teddy traveled with his family to Europe. As they hiked in the Alps, the frail child discovered that he could keep pace with his father. It felt pretty good, and from then on, TR adopted a regimen of strenuous exercise and outdoors activities. He also took up boxing in order to learn how to fight, after he got bullied by two older boys on a camping trip.
As a young man, Theodore Roosevelt went to Harvard, where he boxed and rowed. He was good enough at the former to make it to second place in a Harvard boxing tournament. After Harvard, he spent a year at Columbia Law School, before he dropped out in 1881 to serve in the New York State Assembly. His political career showed early promise, and he made a name for himself, especially in his efforts against corporate corruption. Then came 1884, a truly terrible year for the future president.
Valentine’s Day, February 14th, 1884, was extremely tragic for TR. That day, two days after she gave birth to their daughter Alice, his wife died. His mother died a few hours later. The only entry on his diary that day was an ‘X’, and the notation “The light has gone out of my life“. That summer, he attended the GOP National Convention in Chicago, but his candidate lost. The personal and political setbacks in quick succession caused TR to feel burned out, so he decided to quit politics and move out West. He had visited the Dakota Territory in 1883 to hunt buffalo, and fell in love with the western lifestyle. So he invested $14,000 – a significant amount in those days – to become a rancher.
Theodore Roosevelt was not just a rich East Coast dude who went out west to play cowboy. In the summer of 1884, he established the Elkhorn Ranch on the banks of the Little Missouri River in the Badlands, about 35 miles north of what is now Medora, North Dakota. He enthusiastically embraced his new occupation as a rancher, and set out to learn the ropes – literally – of the profession. He learned to ride, rope cattle, and hunt, and wrote three books about his experience. Later that year, he went on a days-long horseback ride to clear his head and take in the scenery, and eventually came across the Nolan Hotel in Mingusville, Montana.
The place looked like a seedy dive, and TR was reluctant to enter – especially after he heard a pair of gunshots coming from the bar. However, nightfall was near, and it and it was cold outside, so he went in. He saw a “shabby individual in a broad hat with a cocked gun in each hand was walking up and down the floor talking with strident profanity. He had evidently been shooting at the clock, which had two or three holes in its face“. As soon as he saw TR, who wore glasses, the bar bully hailed him as “Four Eyes”, and announced to all that “Four Eyes is going to treat!” The future president tried to play it off as a joke, but the lout followed him around. As seen below, it did not end well – for the lout.
Theodore Roosevelt described his encounter with an armed bully in a Montana bar: “As soon as he saw me he hailed me as ‘Four Eyes,’ in reference to my spectacles, and said, ‘Four Eyes is going to treat.’ I joined in the laugh and got behind the stove and sat down, thinking to escape notice. He followed me, however, and though I tried to pass it off as a jest this merely made him more offensive, and he stood leaning over me, a gun in each hand, using very foul language… In response to his reiterated command that I should set up the drinks, I said, ‘Well, if I’ve got to, I’ve got to,’ and rose, looking past him.
As I rose, I struck quick and hard with my right just to one side of the point of his jaw, hitting with my left as I straightened out, and then again with my right. He fired the guns, but I do not know whether this was merely a convulsive action of his hands, or whether he was trying to shoot at me. When he went down he struck the corner of the bar with his head… if he had moved I was about to drop on my knees; but he was senseless. I took away his guns, and the other people in the room, who were now loud in their denunciation of him, hustled him out and put him in the shed“. The next day, the humiliated loudmouth left town on a freight train.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading