On this day in 1884, future President Theodore Roosevelt’s wife and mother die, only hours apart.
Roosevelt was at work in the New York state legislature attempting to get a government reform bill passed when he was summoned home by his family. He returned home to find his mother, Mittie, had succumbed to typhoid fever. On the same day, his wife of four years, Alice Lee, died of Bright’s disease, a severe kidney ailment. Only two days before her death, Alice Lee had given birth to the couple’s daughter, Alice.
The double tragedy devastated Roosevelt. He ordered those around him not to mention his wife’s name. Burdened by grief, he abandoned politics, left the infant Alice with his sister Bamie, and, at the end of 1884, struck out for the Dakota territories, where he lived as a rancher and worked as a sheriff for two years. When not engrossed in raising cattle or acting as the local lawman, Roosevelt found time to indulge his passion for reading and writing history. After a blizzard wiped out his prized herd of cattle in 1885, Roosevelt decided to return to eastern society. Once back in New York in 1886, he again took up politics and took over raising his precocious daughter, Alice, who later became a national celebrity.
After stints in the Spanish-American War and as governor of New York, Roosevelt won a spot as William McKinley’s vice-presidential running mate in 1896. When McKinley died at the begnning of his second term in 1901, Roosevelt moved into the White House, where he and his family would spend the next eight years.
Alice grew to admire and respect her father yet, according to her memoirs and friends, she harbored resentment toward him for having abandoned her as a baby. Not long after he married his second wife, Edith, in 1886, Alice found herself competing not only with her father’s political cronies and new wife for his attention, but also with her five half-siblings who arrived in quick succession. The high-spirited Alice perhaps took to scandalous behaviour in retaliation.
The Roosevelt era coincided with a repressive time in women’s history, but the outspoken and independent Alice flouted acceptable behavior and revelled in the spotlight as first daughter. Alice’s activities as a young adult, such as smoking and staying out late with boys, irked her father, who nevertheless indulged her. In one instance when she repeatedly burst into a White House meeting, Roosevelt shrugged apologetically, I can either run the country or I can control Alice, but I cannot possibly do both.
After Roosevelt left office, Alice maintained a high profile in Washington society. She was banned from visiting the Taft White House after a voodoo doll of Mrs. Taft was found buried (by Alice) in the front lawn. President Wilson also banned her from White House society in retaliation for her making a lewd comment about him in public. Wilson was not her only target–she once remarked that her friend, Warrern Harding’s Vice President Calvin Coolidge, looks as though he’s been weaned on a pickle.