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The Death of the Old Lion

President Theodore Roosevelt’s energy, charisma, and accomplishments were so legendary that it’s forgotten that he died at the relatively young age of 60, which occurred on this date in 1919. But for a man who only lived for six decades, he had experiences enough to fill several lifetimes.

By the age of 42, Roosevelt had married, gotten elected to the New York State Assembly, written several books, lost his first wife in childbirth, ranched in Dakota Territory, remarried, fathered six children, become Police Commissioner of New York City and governor of New York, served as the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, led the Rough Riders in the Spanish-American War, been elected Vice-President, and had become the youngest president ever after President McKinley’s assassination.

His presidency was one of action in which he practiced “big stick” foreign relations, busted corrupt business trusts, built the Panama Canal, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and created several national parks and monuments.

After leaving office in 1909, his “retirement” proved no less active as he went on safari in Africa, edited a magazine, wrote several more books, created his own political party, ran for president a third time, and got shot during a failed assassination attempt.

So, just what was it that prematurely killed the man who had stared down live gunfire in Cuba, charging rhinos in Africa, and assassin’s bullets on the campaign trail?

A mosquito and a broken heart.

To lick his wounds after his failed presidential run as a third-party candidate in 1912, Roosevelt volunteered to go to Brazil as part of an expedition to discover the source of the 1000-kilometer Rio da Duvida – the River of Doubt – one of the tributaries of the Amazon.

The ill-equipped expedition lasted for several months during the rainy season of 1913-14. Roosevelt spent much of the time delirious from mosquito-borne malaria and eventually lost 50 pounds. At one point, he begged his 24-year-old son Kermit, who was part of the expedition, to leave him in the jungle to die. Kermit carried his father back to civilization, where the elder Roosevelt later wrote about his experiences in a book entitled Through the Brazilian Wilderness.

Roosevelt’s body never fully recovered and he told friends that his time in South America had shaved a decade off of his life. When asked by reporters why he chose to go on the expedition he was quoted as saying, “I had to go. It was my last chance to be a boy.”

The final blow to his health came from grieving the death of his youngest son Quentin, who was killed fighting in France during World War I.

When Roosevelt died on January 6, 1919, his son Archie informed his siblings with the telegraphed message, “The old lion is dead.”

Today, the River of Doubt is known as Rio Roosevelt. One branch of the river is called Rio Kermit, in tribute to Roosevelt’s son, who saved his father in the jungle. Kermit Roosevelt, who battled depression and alcoholism, was ultimately unable to save himself. In 1943, he died in Alaska from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.