By Brad Dison
In October, 1878, nineteen-year-old Teedie, as his parents called him, met seventeen-year-old Alice Hathaway Lee while he was a student at Harvard University. He was smitten immediately. Teedie, an avid diarist, later wrote about their first meeting: “As long as I live, I shall never forget how sweetly she looked, and how prettily she greeted me.” Teedie and Alice wrote to each other often. She began calling him Teedie, just as his parents did.
Speaking of his parents, earlier in the year, Teedie’s father, everyone called him Thee, had died at the young age of forty-six. He was a wealthy philanthropist who had helped found the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, and several aid societies and hospitals for children. Teedie wrote, “My father…was the best man I ever knew. He combined strength and courage with gentleness, tenderness, and great unselfishness.” Teedie’s father left him a sizeable inheritance worth over $3 million in today’s money. Teedie andhis forty-two-year-old mother, Martha “Mittie” Bulloch, wereheartbroken.
Teedie found solace in Alice, and their relationship blossomed. Within nine months of their first meeting, Teedie proposed to Alice in a letter and eagerly awaited a response. They continued writing letters to each other, but Alice avoided mentioning the proposal. Etiquette of the era prevented Teedie from askingAlice a second time. He had to be patient.
The days turned into weeks, weeks turned into months. Finally, after eight uneasy months, Teedie received an answer from Alice. She said yes! Teedie was jubilant. On February 14, 1880, Teedie and Alice announced their engagement and were wed on October 27. Teedie remained enamored by Alice. An entry in Teedie’s diary read, “I do not think ever a man loved a woman more than I love her. For a year and a quarter now, I have never (even when hunting) gone to sleep or waked up without thinking of her.”
Things were going well for Teedie. Although his large inheritance could have sustained his family for the rest of their lives, Teedie’s ambitious nature would not allow him to reamainidle. In 1881, he was one of 128 people elected to the New York Assembly. At just twenty-two years old, Teedie was the youngest member elected into the Assembly, but he quickly earned the friendship and respect of the other assemblymen for his straightforward and trustworthy temperament.
In the Summer of 1883, Alice became pregnant, much to Teedie’s and his mother’s delight. Near the end of the pregnancy, Alice developed Bright’s disease, a kidney disease now known as Nephritis. Although most physicians considered Bright’s disease incurable, the doctor who aided Alice reassured Teedie and Alice that it was nothing to worry about. At about the same time, Teedie’s mother, Mittie, became ill. Her temperature rose, she had headaches, a rash of rose-colored spots spread across her body, and she grew weaker with each passing day. Her doctor diagnosed her as having Typhoid fever, a bacterial infection for which there was no cure or vaccination. Doctors could only treat the symptoms and hope her condition would improve.
On February 12, 1884, Alice went into labor and delivered a healthy baby girl. Teedie and Alice had not yet settled on a name for the child. Alice, however, was not recovering from childbirth as her doctor expected. On the following day, her condition worsened. Teedie’s mother’s condition deteriorated as well. At about 3 a.m. on February 14, 1884, Teedie’s mother, Martha “Mittie” Bulloch, died from Typhoid fever. She was forty-eight years old. Teedie later wrote, “My mother, Martha Bulloch, was a sweet, gracious, beautiful Southern woman, a delightful companion and beloved by everybody.”
Teedie was devastated by the loss of his mother, and was distraught by Alice’s worsening condition. Three hours after Teedie’s mother died, his wife died as well. Alice was just twenty-two years old. That night, in his diary, Teedie drew an X followed by a single sentence: “The light has gone out of my life.” Teedie was devastated.
Upon learning of the deaths, the New York Assembly paid Teedie an “unusual compliment,” when it “adopted resolutions of condolence and adjourned out of sympathy for his sudden and sever domestic affliction.” Fellow assemblyman James Husted decreed to the Assembly, “When such a man as we know him to be has been thus stricken down, we feel that every heart in this room swells responsive to his own, and while the teardrops may not fall, it nevertheless rests beneath the eyelid of every member of this body.” Most of the assemblymen, regardless of political affiliation, fought back tears. Some wept openly.
Two days later, family, friends, and high-ranking politicians paid their respects to Mittie and Alice at their double funeral and burial. Later that night, Teedie recorded another diary entry about Alice: “We spent three years of happiness, greater and more unalloyed than I have ever known fall to the lot of others.” On the day after the double funeral, Teedie recorded in his diary that he named the baby Alice Lee as a tribute to his wife. Speaking the name Alice brought Teedie so much pain that he always called his daughter “Baby Lee.”
Teedie lost both his mother and wife on the same day, a day set aside for the celebration of love, Valentine’s Day. Teedie rarely spoke of his mother or wife following their deaths, and he refused to be called Teedie any longer. Twenty-five years later, the man formerly known as Teedie became the President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt.
The Brooklyn Union, February 15, 1884, p.1.
Buffalo Evening News, February 15, 1884, p.9.
New York Times, February 15, 1884, p.4.
The Brooklyn Union, February 16, 1884, p.1.
The New York Times, February 17, 1884, p.3.
Library of Congress, Theodore Roosevelt Papers: Series 8: Personal Diaries, 1878-1884; Vol. 7, 1884, Feb. 14-Dec. 17