The Funeral of Theodore Roosevelt

When Theodore Roosevelt died on January 6, 1919, the world was stunned.

TR Dies

Not only was the world stunned at the death of former President Theodore Roosevelt, who was only sixty, but perhaps TR himself would have also been surprised, had he not succumbed to a heart attack, or perhaps an embolus – in his sleep. No pain. He had plans for his future, which included (maybe) becoming the Republican candidate for President (again) in 1920. 

Actually, TR had been in declining health for some time, but mostly precipitated by his Amazon adventures in 1913-14, and the tropical disease/infection that nearly cost his life. He recovered, but never completely. Tropical diseases have a nasty way of recurring periodically. 

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Older TR

The Great War in 1918 had been one of the roughest years for the old “Colonel.” President Woodrow Wilson had adamantly refused to allow his predecessor to raise a voluntary army and “lead it over there.” Instead, TR sent his cubs. All four of his sons saw service in the Great War, as it was then called. 

His eldest, Theodore Jr., had been severely wounded, and was still recovering. His second son, Kermit, was attached to the British Army, fighting in Mesopotamia (Iran, today). His third son, Archie, had been grievously wounded, and shipped home for further treatment and slow recuperation. But perhaps the greatest blow for the family happened six months earlier with the death of their youngest, Quentin, who at twenty was in the air service, flying little more than box kites with motors. 

Theodore was proud of all his boys, but Quentin’s death totally devastated him and subverted what remained of his health. He had continued his active schedule, but had been hospitalized for nearly two months for inflammatory rheumatism “with complications.” Nevertheless, he returned home to spend Christmas with his family. The doctors were seriously concerned, and advised him to return to the hospital after the holidays. But TR was optimistic, and the devotee of the strenuous life was happy to deceive himself that he was recovering.

TR’s last Christmas
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TR’s favorite place: Sagamore Hill

On his last night he remarked to his wife how much he loved their home at Sagamore Hill. He asked his valet to turn off the bedroom light so he could sleep. And then he died in the wee hours. 

State Funerals

State funerals are awash in tradition, pomp and ceremony, protocol and procedure, an A-list of invited guests, and a White House and/or Capitol Building lying-in-state. The military brass are heavily involved, along with high officialdom. No detail escapes their attention. 

Prior to ex-President Roosevelt’s death, only five Presidents had been afforded State Funerals: William Henry Harrison, President for a Month (DIO); Zachary Taylor, President for about 18 months (DIO); Abraham Lincoln, who set the benchmark for the state funeral (DIO); James Garfield, assassinated President for 6 months (DIO), and William McKinley, assassinated President six months into his second term (DIO). There was a pattern: they all Died In Office. Other POTUSES, from the august figure of George Washington on down, had private funerals, although well attended memorial services were frequently held in various locations.

The first non-sitting President to be honored with a state funeral (in 1930) was TR’s immediate successor, William Howard Taft, ex-President and recently retired (due to health) Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

The Private Funeral; The Public Mourning

“The old lion is dead,” was the telegram TR’s son Archie sent to his brothers overseas. 

It had been barely two months since the Armistice, the formal end of the Great War, where literally millions of young men had given their lives. President Woodrow Wilson was in France to take part in the peace processes, determined to create a new world order. In his absence, Vice President Thomas Marshall was dispatched to represent “the country” at TR’s funeral, held two days later (January 8) in the little village of Oyster Bay, on Long Island. The entire town was stunned. Their flags were immediately lowered to half mast, and public buildings, businesses and private homes were draped in crepe. Extra telegraphers had to be engaged at the Oyster Bay telegraph office to handle the thousands of wires pouring in. 

It was a private funeral

TR’s son Archie, his daughters Alice Longworth and Ethel Derby, and their spouses immediately came. Cousins and nieces and nephews came. Following a private service in the Great North Room at Sagamore Hill, an additional service was held at Christ Episcopal Church in Oyster Bay, filled to overflowing.

Cabinet members from both the Wilson Administration, and TR’s Administration marched in the procession. Senior military officers marched. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, TR’s closest friend for nearly 40 years marched. Charles Evans Hughes, the 1916 Republican candidate marched. Senator Warren G. Harding, who would win the Republican nomination in 1920 marched. 

Contingents of Rough Riders who had followed their “Colonel” up San Juan Hill two decades earlier came to pay respects. Mounted policemen from New York City rode in to honor their former Commissioner.

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Old friends

Squadrons of pilots from the recently re-named Quentin Roosevelt Airfield in Mineola, NY circled the area and dropped wreaths.

And former President William Howard Taft, who had been one of TR’s closest friends for more than twenty years, also marched. It was a bittersweet memory. Their long attachment had been severed in 1912, although there had been a reconciliation in 1918. After the burial at Young’s Memorial Cemetery, Taft was seen remaining at the gravesite for several minutes of private introspection. 

And dozens of children from the local school, and even now-grown former “students” lined the streets of town, to say goodbye to their friend and neighbor, the man who was their Santa Claus every year. 

“Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for had he been awake, there would have been a fight.”

– VP Thomas Marshall

Perhaps the way he would like to be remembered.


Brands, H.W. – T.R.: The Last Romantic – Basic Books, 1997

Millard, Candice – The River of Doubt – Random House/Doubleday – 2005

Morris, Edmund – Colonel Roosevelt – Random House -2010

This entry was posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, Theodore Roosevelt and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Funeral of Theodore Roosevelt

  1. sheafferhistorianaz says:

    Reblogged this on Practically Historical.

  2. Bruce says:

    Reblogged this on History and Hobby and commented:
    Great reporting on Teddy Roosevelt’s funeral and what affected his health. TR is one of my favorite Presidents.

  3. Bruce says:

    Great reporting. Bully!

  4. rickmarschall says:

    Wonderful account.

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