Chances are, we’ve all had a lousy Valentine’s Day or two in our lives. But it’s pretty good odds that none of us have had to suffer through a worse one than that endured by future 26th U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in 1884.
It was on that fateful day that the 25-year-old Roosevelt, already a member of the New York state legislature, suffered his own personal Valentine’s Day Massacre with the near simultaneous deaths of his mother and his first wife in the same house.
One of American history’s ironies is that Theodore Roosevelt, the most “yankee” of presidents, had an antebellum Southern belle for a mother. Martha “Mittie” Bulloch, as Roosevelt later wrote, “was a sweet, gracious, beautiful Southern woman, a delightful companion and beloved by everybody.”
Mittie had grown up at Bulloch Hall, a few miles north of Atlanta in Roswell, Georgia. Her family owned slaves and two of her brothers fought gallantly for the Confederacy. Roosevelt’s father wanted to fight for the Union, but because he had promised never to take up arms against his wife’s family, he ended up hiring a substitute soldier to take his place in uniform, an act that young Teddy considered a grave error.
Mittie and her sister Annie, who was living with the Roosevelts during the war, would often send care packages to their relatives in the South through blockade runners.
After Mittie died in the early morning of February 14, 1884 from Typhoid Fever, Roosevelt would write that she was entirely ‘unreconstructed’ to the day of her death.
Alice Hathaway Lee was called ‘Sunshine’ by her family, and young Teddy fell in love with her on first sight. He met the beautiful Alice while attending Harvard, where he was a classmate of her cousin. Alice was at first cool to the advances of the tenacious TR, but eventually accepted his proposal of marriage, which they announced on Valentine’s Day, 1880 (exactly four years prior to her death).
19-year-old Alice married Roosevelt on his 22nd birthday in October, 1880. After the ceremony, the couple went to live with Roosevelt’s recently-widowed mother.
In the early afternoon of Valentine’s Day, 1884, eleven hours after the tragic death of his mother, Roosevelt’s beautiful wife died of kidney failure, only two days after giving birth to their first child, who was also named Alice.
Roosevelt dealt with his grief by turning his young daughter over to his sister’s care, and headed west to swallow his grief in the rigors of ranching in the Badlands of the Dakota Territory.
His diary entry for February 14, 1884 reflects his anguish. Under a large “X” he wrote “The light has gone out of my life.”
Roosevelt would soon remarry and eventually sire several children, but was so distraught over the death of his first wife that he hardly ever spoke of her again. This silence would create a rift between TR and his spirited daughter Alice, whose exploits often found their way into the papers after Roosevelt became president. He was once quoted as saying, “I can run the country, or I can control my daughter. But I can’t do both.”