12 Amazing Facts About Catherine the Great

Catherine the Great moved to a foreign land as a teenager and became one of the most important leaders in its history. During her 34-year reign, she transformed Russia’s culture while expanding its borders. Here's what you need to know about the unlikely ruler, who is the subject of not one, but two series: HBO's Catherine the Great, which debuts on October 21, 2019, and Hulu's The Great, slated for 2020.

  1. Catherine the Great's name wasn't Catherine.

The woman who would become Catherine the Great was born Sophie Friederike Auguste von Anhalt-Zerbst on April 21, 1729 (Julian Calendar) in Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland). She was the daughter of Christian August, a minor German prince and general in the Prussian army, and Princess Johanna Elisabeth, who had connections to the Russian royal family.

Despite being a princess herself, young Sophie wasn’t exactly a top-tier member of the European nobility. But thanks to her mother’s campaigning, she was chosen to marry Karl Peter Ulrich (later known as Tsar Peter III), heir to the Russian throne. The couple wed on August 21, 1745. Sophie converted to Russian Orthodoxy—despite her Lutheran father’s objections—and took on a new Russian name: Ekaterina, or “Catherine.” Her official title would be Empress Catherine II (Peter the Great's second wife had been Empress Catherine I).

  1. Catherine the Great's marriage to Peter the III was rocky.

Catherine and Peter were an ill-matched pair: Catherine was bright and ambitious whereas Peter, according to Britannica, was "mentally feeble." Catherine didn’t like him: “Peter III had no greater enemy than himself; all his actions bordered on insanity,” she wrote in 1789. Her memoirs portray the Tsar as a drunk, a simpleton, and somebody who “took pleasure in beating men and animals.” Whether these statements are accurate or not, Catherine and her spouse were clearly unhappy, and they both had extramarital affairs. Catherine had at least three affairs, and hinted that none of her children were her husband's.

  1. Catherine the Great overthrew Peter the III so that she could rule.

Peter III assumed the throne on January 5, 1762, and was immediately unpopular. He enraged the military by pulling out of the Seven Years’ War and making big concessions to Russia’s adversaries in the process.

Eventually, Catherine believed that Peter was going to divorce her—so she worked with her lover, Grigory Grigoryevich Orlov, and her other allies to overthrow him and take the throne for herself. In July 1762, just six months after he took the throne, Peter III was deposed in a coup d'état. Eight days later, he was killed while in the custody of one of Catherine's co-conspirators.

With Peter out of the picture, Catherine became the new empress of Russia. She was formally crowned on September 22, 1762. She never married again, and took numerous lovers during her long reign.

  1. Voltaire was basically Catherine the Great's pen pal.

Catherine, a bibliophile, built up a collection of 44,000 books. Early in her reign, she began a correspondence with one of her favorite authors: The great Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire. Russia fascinated Voltaire, who had written a biography of Peter the Great. Catherine would never get the chance to meet him in person, but through these letters, she and Voltaire discussed everything from disease prevention to Catherine's love of English gardens.

  1. Catherine the Great annexed Crimea.

Russian interest in the Crimean Peninsula long predates Vladimir Putin. After the Russo-Turkish War of 1768 to 1774, Catherine seized the landmass, thus strengthening Russia’s presence on the Black Sea. And her conquests didn’t end there. Over 200,000 square miles of new territory was added to the Russian empire during Catherine’s rule. Much of it was acquired when the once-independent nation of Poland was divided between Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Tsarina Catherine’s slice contained portions of modern-day Lithuania, Latvia, and Ukraine.

An illustration of Catherine the Great.
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  1. Great Britain asked for Catherine the Great's help when the Revolutionary War broke out.

In 1775, the Earl of Dartmouth approached Catherine with a request for 20,000 Russian troops to help Britain put down the colonial rebellion in America. She refused. As the war continued, British diplomats kept trying to establish an alliance with Russia, hoping that the Empress would either send military aid or, failing that, pressure France into abandoning the American cause. Catherine did neither. However, out of concern for Russian shipping interests in the Atlantic (and elsewhere), she did attempt to mediate an end to the violence between Britain and its rebellious colonies in 1780.

  1. Alaska was colonized on Catherine the Great's watch.

Russian explorers had been visiting Alaska since 1741, but the empire didn’t set up its first permanent colony there until 1784, when merchant Grigory Shelikhov sailed to Kodiak Island and established the Three Saints Bay Colony. Later, in 1788, he visited Catherine in St. Petersburg and asked if she’d give his company a monopoly over the area’s lucrative fur trade. She denied his request, but thanked the explorer for “[discovering] new lands and peoples for the benefit of the state.” Russia’s colonial presence in North America would continue long after Catherine’s death—and it wasn’t limited to Alaska.

  1. Catherine the Great embraced inoculation.

Thomas Dimsdale, an English physician, built upon an existing technique for immunizing people to smallpox. The technique involved finding a carrier of the ailment, then taking a blade dipped in a very, very small amount of "the unripe, crude or watery matter" from that person's pustules and injecting it into the patient’s body. In 18th century Russia, smallpox claimed millions of lives, so Catherine was eager to see if Dimsdale’s strategy worked. At her invitation, he came to Russia and quietly inoculated the empress. The procedure was a success, and with the Tsarina’s encouragement, Dimsdale inoculated about 150 members of the nobility. Before the end of the century, approximately 2 million Russians had received smallpox inoculations.

  1. A rebel claimed to be Catherine the Great's dead husband.

Catherine’s Enlightenment-fueled beliefs didn't lead to the demise of serfdom. According to Marc Raeff in his book Catherine the Great: A Profile, "During her reign it was possible to buy and sell serfs with or without land, buy whole families or individuals, transact sales on the estate or marketplace; contemporaries termed all this ‘veritable slavery.'”

The unjust arrangement triggered 160 documented peasant uprisings in the first 10 years of Catherine’s reign. The best known of them was Pugachev’s Rebellion (1773-1775) [PDF], which was organized by Yemelyan Pugachev, a veteran of the Russo-Turkish wars. To win support, he introduced himself as Catherine’s deposed and deceased spouse, Peter III (even though Pugachev looked nothing like Peter). Pugachev and his followers enjoyed some big military victories early on, but after a crushing defeat in August 1774, their revolution fell apart. Pugachev was captured and executed in Moscow on January 10, 1775.

  1. Catherine the Great's art collection was the basis of St. Petersburg's State Hermitage Museum.

In 1764, Catherine purchased a set of 225 paintings—including works by Rembrandt and Frans Hals—from a Berlin dealer, and founded the Hermitage with those works. Catherine went on to buy or commission thousands of additional pieces for her budding museum. Today, the State Hermitage Museum has more than 3 million items in its collections.

  1. Catherine the Great was Russia's longest-serving female leader.

Thirty-four years after assuming the throne, Catherine passed away on November 6, 1796. The monarch was succeeded by her son, Tsar Paul I.

  1. Wild rumors flew after Catherine the Great's death—including that one about the horse.

A lot of rumors sprung up in the wake of Catherin's death. One said that she had died while on the toilet, while another—the most persistent tale, and a completely unfounded one—claimed that Catherine the Great was crushed to death while attempting to have sex with a stallion. Where exactly the story came from is unknown; an autopsy determined that the empress had actually died of a cerebral stroke.

Take a Virtual Tour of a 17th-Century Dutch Smugglers’ Shipwreck

AndrewJalbert/iStock via Getty Images
AndrewJalbert/iStock via Getty Images

When the wreck of the Dutch smuggling ship Melckmeyt was found off the coast of Iceland in 1992, the only way to explore it was with diving equipment. That's no longer the case: As Live Science reports, shipwreck enthusiasts can now experience the watery ruin at home by taking a virtual tour.

Sunk by a storm on October 16, 1659, the Melckmeyt (Dutch for Milkmaid) is Iceland's oldest shipwreck. Its origins are Dutch, but when it set sail 360 years ago, the vessel flew a Danish flag. That's because it had been illegal for the Netherlands to trade with Iceland, which was ruled by Denmark at the time, so to smuggle goods into Icelandic ports, the Dutch sailors posed as a Danish crew.

The Melckmeyt was one of a fleet of illicit merchant ships meant to travel from the Netherlands to Iceland in 1659. After sinking that year, the wreck spent centuries in the cold, protective waters off the island of Flatey near Iceland's west coast. When it was discovered by local divers in the early 1990s, the lower hull of the ship was still in impressive condition.

The shipwreck remains in its frigid resting place at the bottom of the North Atlantic, but you don't need to book a flight or don a wetsuit to see it. In 2016, researchers from the University of Iceland and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands captured high-resolution scans of site and used them to construct a 3D model. Today, that model is available for anyone to explore on YouTube, either as a virtual reality experience with a headset or an interactive 360° video.

During the three-minute tour, you'll follow virtual divers on a journey into the ship's remains. The video ends with a computer-generated model showing what the ship might have looked like before it was ravaged by time. The video is free for anyone to watch from their computer, but if you find yourself in Iceland, you can view the recreation with a VR headset at the Reykjavik Maritime Museum.

Itching to get in touch with your inner deep-sea explorer? Here are some shipwrecks you can visit in real-life.

[h/t Live Science]

Episode 1: TR Vs. Weakness

iHeartRadio
iHeartRadio

Mental Floss has a new podcast with iHeartRadio called History Vs., about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. Our first season is all about President Theodore Roosevelt. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts here, and for more TR content, visit the History Vs. site.

It’s October 14, 1912, and Theodore Roosevelt is standing before a crowd of 10,000 in Wisconsin’s Milwaukee Auditorium. The 53-year-old former president is once again campaigning for the highest office in the land, and he was scheduled to deliver what was supposed to be a typical campaign address. But the speech he’s about to give is anything but typical.

“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot.”

At first, the crowd doesn’t quite believe it. Someone yells “Fake!” But there are gasps and screams as Roosevelt pulls aside his vest, revealing a white shirt marred by a growing blood stain.

Just moments before, Roosevelt had been standing in an open car outside his hotel, waving to the assembled crowd—and a would-be assassin had shot him with a revolver from just 7 feet away.

Roosevelt had dropped momentarily, but it wasn’t long before he was back on his feet. Aides wanted to rush him to the hospital, and most people would have gone, but that is not Theodore Roosevelt’s style. Instead, he said, “You get me to that speech.”

And now, on stage, he assures the shocked crowd, “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose … I give you my word, I do not care a rap about being shot; not a rap.”

And then, although the slug is still inside him, he proceeds to give a nearly 90-minute-long speech.

If this sounds like an extraordinary occurrence, it was. Or, it would have been for anyone but Theodore Roosevelt, a man whose life was full of extraordinary occurrences. This was a guy who charged up Kettle Hill on horseback, bullets whizzing past him, with the Rough Riders; who, when he assumed office, became the youngest president in history, and is still the youngest president we’ve ever had; who helped broker peace between Russia and Japan, and won the Nobel Prize for his efforts; who paved the way for the Panama Canal; who went off the grid to navigate a previously uncharted river in the Amazon; who was immortalized on Mount Rushmore; and who is often ranked as one of the greatest presidents of all time.

But Roosevelt wasn’t always strong enough to stop a bullet. In fact, as a child he was afflicted by asthma so terrible that his parents feared he might not live to see his 4th birthday. How did Roosevelt go from puny, sickly kid to a person capable of giving that incredible, unimaginable 90-minute speech? We’re about to find out.

From Mental Floss and iHeartRadio, this is History Vs., a podcast about how your favorite historical figures faced off against their greatest foes. For the first season of the show, we’re focusing on Theodore Roosevelt’s incredible life using a convention that he, as a boxer, would have appreciated.

In each episode, we’ll analyze how Roosevelt took on a particular challenge, from conflict within his family and conquering the hours of the day to his tussles with other presidents and preserving the world for the next generation. This episode is "TR vs. Weakness."

But before we get started, I want to tell you a little bit about how I became interested in Theodore Roosevelt. Yes, I’m the editor-in-chief of Mental Floss, so history is kind of my thing. But I didn’t fully appreciate all things TR until I plucked Edmund Morris’s excellent book, Colonel Roosevelt, out of the stacks at The Strand Bookstore. I didn’t realize at the time that it was the third book in a trilogy, so then I had to go back and read the others. But anyway, I came out of it with a huge admiration for TR, and, if I’m being honest, a little bit of an obsession.

OK, a big obsession. My desk at work has more TR stuff on it than it does photos of my cats, husband, and best friends combined. I even have a Theodore Roosevelt action figure! At home, I have an overflowing shelf devoted to books about Roosevelt. When I got married, I tried to convince my husband to go on a TR tour of the Dakotas for our honeymoon, which he did not go for, and you know, fair enough. Also, as a wedding gift, the Mental Floss staff got me some first edition books of TR’s collected speeches, which is way better than a KitchenAid mixer … no offense to KitchenAid. And last year I dressed up as Roosevelt for a Halloween costume contest … and won.

So suffice to say, once you get me started talking about Theodore Roosevelt’s incredible accomplishments, I can’t stop talking about them. Hence this podcast. Which finally allowed me take that TR tour of the Dakotas … but more on that later.

The wonderful people at Sagamore Hill call TR enthusiasts like me TedHeads, and I’m going to borrow that nickname for this podcast. So, just a note to all of the TedHeads out there: This is not an exhaustive, A to Z look at TR’s life. If we tried to do that, well, there would be a million episodes in this podcast, because Roosevelt did a staggering amount of stuff in his 60 years. We’re going to be dipping in and out of his life and we are going to miss some things. But we’re going to be visiting some important Roosevelt sites and talking to really smart Roosevelt experts, so hopefully, you’ll still learn some things along the way.

OK, ready to get started?

Bully.

Today, East 20th Street between Park Avenue South and Broadway on the island of Manhattan is a mix of stores, businesses, and restaurants, and it’s busy with taxis and trucks and cars.

But when Theodore Roosevelt was born in 1858, it was a much more residential neighborhood that featured the clip-clop of horses hooves and the rattle of carriage wheels. Behind the brownstones was a garden, and around the corner, the Goelet family built a mansion in the middle of three lots, which they populated with cows and peacocks and exotic birds.

Theodore Roosevelt, Junior came into the world on the evening of October 27, in a bedroom on the second floor of the brownstone at 28 E. 20th Street. He was the second child of Martha Bulloch Roosevelt, or Mittie, and Theodore Roosevelt Senior, or Thee; their first child, Anna, or Bamie, had been born three years earlier. Later would come brother Elliott and sister Corinne.

Today, the elder Roosevelts’ room is covered with cream-colored wallpaper adorned with flowers and filled with original cherry-stained walnut furniture; a portrait of Mittie hangs over the fireplace. But we don’t know for sure if that’s what the room looked like when the Roosevelt kids were born there. The family owned the home until 1899, and then sold it, and soon after, it was either completely torn down or had the top two stories torn down—sources are a bit unclear on that point.

In 1919, after TR’s death, The Women’s Roosevelt Memorial Association repurchased that building, and the one next to it—which had belonged to TR’s uncle—and reconstructed the home as Bamie and Corinne remembered it. It’s now the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

Shortly after he was born, Mittie described TR as a “hideous” baby who looked like a “terrapin,” but Teedie, as he was called as a boy, quickly became the center of his family’s world.

As a child, he had a ton of energy, but from the age of 3 he was, in his own words, “a sickly, delicate boy” who “suffered much from asthma.” He also had what the family called cholera morbus, a type of nervous diarrhea.

As a result of his illness, he was largely home schooled by his Aunt Annie. When out and about in the city, his younger brother, Elliot, had to defend him against bullies. TR spent a lot of time indoors, and passed the time by reading voraciously.

According to historian Kathleen Dalton, author of Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life, when he was sick—and he often was—the adults “put the needs of the other children second because Theodore’s life was at stake.”

Alyssa: If you watch some of the documentaries, they describe him lying in the family crib, which you still see today in the nursery, barely being able to blow out his candle, from suffering that bad from asthma.

That’s Alyssa Parker-Geisman, the lead ranger at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

She says that the family tried almost everything to treat TR’s asthma. Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography that one of his memories was “of my father walking up and down the room with me in his arms at night when I was a very small person, and of sitting up in bed gasping, with my father and mother trying to help me.” Sometimes, in an attempt to force air into his son’s lungs, Thee would take young Teedie in the family buggy and race up and down Broadway.

But they also tried many remedies that, although standard at the time, would raise eyebrows today.

Alyssa: David McCullough in his book Mornings on Horseback describes laudanum being used, which is opium mixed with wine. He also describes what is called Indian hemp; we call it marijuana today. Vinegar of squills was used, which was a plant, I believe, used for rat poison. Whiskey and gin were used. Kids were given enemas.

TR’s parents weren’t exactly feeding him rat poison, though—supposedly, the vinegar and processing would mitigate some of the plants’ side effects. Later, TR would recall having to smoke cigars and drink black coffee to keep his asthma at bay.

Alyssa: And I think that it boggles the mind when you think about it in today's standards. Hindsight is always 20 20. But I'm sure that was kind of cutting edge technology of the day, or medicinal treatment of the day, perhaps. If you see your child suffering, you're going to try to alleviate that in any way possible, which they could afford to do.

The Roosevelts were an affluent family, and that fact is key: Theodore Roosevelt’s story may have been very different if he hadn’t been born into a life of privilege. It not only ensured he could get the care he needed when he was ill, but it also meant that his parents could show him the world. The Roosevelts spent summers outside of the city, and they took family trips to Europe, where Mittie and Teedie would visit health resorts.

Alyssa: You go to these health resorts for treatment. You sit in hot baths, you soak in the hot waters. You might be prescribed literally a walk in the woods, as part of the treatment. So, this was all kind of that time period and the health treatment, back in the day.

This is probably a good place for a break. We'll be right back.

 

Following their first European tour, which occurred when TR was around 12, a doctor recommended he get “plenty of fresh air and exercise” with the goal of expanding his chest to give his lungs room and to ease the strain on his heart.

Afterward, Thee issued his son a challenge: “You have the mind but not the body,” he told his son, “and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. You must make your body.” Through gritted teeth, TR responded that he would do just that.

It was not a promise that he took lightly—TR worshipped his father, whom he called “the best man I ever knew.” Thee’s children called him Great Heart, and he was a huge influence on Roosevelt, who would, later in life, tell a journalist, “The thought of him now and always has been a sense of comfort. I could breathe, I could sleep when he had me in his arms. My father—he got me breath, he got me lungs, strength—life.”

According to Dalton, when his father was away during the Civil War, TR’s health would crater. It’s important to note that Thee was not away fighting—he paid a substitute to fight for him, at least in part because Mittie, a Southerner, couldn’t stand the thought of her husband fighting her brothers. Instead, Thee was on a mission to get troops at the front to sign up for what author Deborah Davis describes as a “payroll savings program” that would allow soldiers to “put aside money for their families while they were off fighting the war.”

It was just one more expression of Thee’s lifelong commitment to philanthropy. He would take his son with him on trips to visit missions like the Newsboys’ Lodging House, giving TR, in Dalton’s words, “a loving example of how one man can use his privilege to make society better.”

A proponent of what was known as Muscular Christianity—which has been defined as “a Christian life of brave and cheerful physical activity”—Thee told his son, “sickness is always a shame, and often a sin.”

Alyssa: His father was an example to his son. Always trying to instill in his son good moral character, strength, virility. I think Thee was seeing around the city that there's a lot of vice happening. And seedy characters, seedy places to visit in the city. He doesn't want his son to succumb to that. He has this strong sense of morality. So, he's going to instill that in his son, of this idea of muscular Christianity. So he challenges his son, right, in this belief of overcoming your weakness, overcoming your fragility and really building up your body and making sure that you're maintaining strong morals as well.

And so Teedie began to build his body. Corinne would later write of often seeing him working out on the piazza overlooking the back garden, “between horizontal bars, widening his chest by regular, monotonous motion.”

Alyssa: He would work out there, keeping a journal of how big his biceps are getting, how big his chest size is getting.

But two years into his efforts, he learned that he wasn’t progressing as quickly as he would have liked.

In 1872, when Teedie was almost 14, he had a bad asthma attack, and his father sent him away—by himself for the first time—to Maine’s Moosehead Lake. It was a life-changing experience.

In his autobiography, Roosevelt wrote that, on the stage coach ride to the lake, he met two boys his own age, and rather than making friends, they found him to be an easy victim—and quickly made his life miserable:

“The worst feature was that when I finally tried to fight them I discovered that either one singly could not only handle me with easy contempt, but handle me so as not to hurt me much and yet to prevent my doing any damage whatever in return. … I made up my mind that I must try to learn so that I would not again be put in such a helpless position.”

And so, with his father’s encouragement, Teedie began to learn how to box, with ex-prize fighter John Long as his coach. Much to their surprise, Teedie was tough—he could take hit after hit and keep fighting.

Later that year, the Roosevelts took off on another Grand Tour. There, Mittie and Thee deposited Teedie, Elliott, and Corinne with a family in Dresden, Germany. And though TR was much healthier than he had been, he still never quite conquered his illnesses.

During one attack of the mumps, he wrote to his mother that he resembled “an antiquated woodchuck with his cheeks filled with nuts” and that “your unhappy son had his third attack of asthma, accompanied by a violent headache.” To his father, he said that an asthma attack rendered him unable to speak “without blowing up like an abridged edition of a hippopotamus.”

According to Edmund Morris, Roosevelt’s tutors “openly admired his ability to concentrate on his books and his specimens to the exclusion of physical suffering.” (One of those tutors was the first to predict that he’d be president, by the way.)

The Roosevelts returned to the states in 1873, and the next summer, they headed out to a place that would come to hold a huge significance for Roosevelt: Oyster Bay, New York, where his grandfather and other Roosevelt families vacationed.

Tyler: TR, the president, is 15 years old when he starts coming out to Oyster Bay.

That’s Tyler Kuliberda, education technician at Sagamore Hill National Historic Site on Long Island.

Tyler: Wealthy New Yorkers are spending their summers out here. It's a place to escape New York City. For the family that's coming out here, this is the country. We don't think about Long Island as the country any longer, but it was for this family. It was an escape from the heat of New York City, disease in New York City, and it was a place to come out and enjoy themselves.

There might have been another benefit as well: The air may have been cleaner than the air in the city, which would have been better for TR’s asthma.

Tyler: TR senior would have brought him out of the city as frequently as he could have, especially when he was undergoing those really terrible asthma attacks. I think that's probably part of it, for the family to come and spend time outside of New York.

So the family spent a lot of time swimming. Roosevelt loved to row. He would row all over Long Island Sound and the various coves and necks around on the north shore of Long Island. He would explore them. And Roosevelt is as a young boy interested in taxidermy and learning about natural history. The way that you do that in their day is by shooting birds. So Roosevelt is going all over and trying to find different specimens and collecting them for his Roosevelt Museum of Natural History that he kept in his parents' house in New York. Horseback riding, hiking, and just enjoying the outdoors.

Roosevelt loved Oyster Bay so much that he would eventually buy land to build a house on—the house that would come to be named Sagamore Hill. There's a story behind that name, by the way.

Tyler: Sagamore Hill, Sagamore Mohanis was essentially a chief or a sachem. Sachem is the Algonquin word for chief, and then sagamore is a lesser sachem or a lieutenant sachem. And this was apparently a place where they had meetings. Mohanis apparently is the native that signed the land away. Roosevelt decides to name it Sagamore Hill. This is the highest point on Cove Neck, so this is where they would have met.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Before any of that could happen, Roosevelt had to go to college. He entered Harvard in 1876, where he chose to study the natural sciences.

Tyler:
His first couple of years at Harvard, he was the biggest nerd. He was just this person who you'd see and he'd only be in his room, he'd be doing essentially taxidermy. He'd have animals in drawers, and things like that, and you can imagine this didn't make him very popular with people. But then all of a sudden he broke out of it. Eventually he starts joining all these clubs. He becomes friendly with people all over campus.

When he wasn’t in class, or studying, or in his clubs, TR kept up with his boxing and rowing, and he took up wrestling, too. Every spare moment was filled with some kind of activity.

That was doubly true when Roosevelt was experiencing some kind of trauma. In his sophomore year, Thee passed away, and when Roosevelt went back to school, he threw himself into his work, a frenzy of activity, as if to dull his pain.

According to historian Douglas Brinkley, TR wasn’t scared of catching pneumonia and seemed to relish spending hours in the cold: Instead of taking a streetcar, TR would walk three or four miles, and he’d still be ice skating in frigid temperatures long after everyone else went home. A friend from Harvard, Richard Welling, believed that TR was overcompensating for his weakness: "Roosevelt … had neither health nor muscle,” he would later write. “But he had a superabundance of a third quality, vitality, and he seemed to realize that this nervous vitality had been given in order to help him get the other two things."

In between years at Harvard, Roosevelt would spend as much time as possible outdoors, often in Oyster Bay and in Maine. There he lived with backwoodsman Bill Sewall, who would become a lifelong friend. But his initial opinion of Roosevelt wasn’t glowing: He called him a “thin, pale youngster with bad eyes and a weak heart” and said he was “mighty pindlin’.”

But Roosevelt quickly changed Bill’s mind. One day that summer, they walked 25 miles, and Bill would later recall that “I do not think that I ever remember him being ‘out of sorts.’ He did not feel well sometimes, but he would never admit it.”

On later trips to Maine, Roosevelt would pursue caribou in the snow without tents or blankets for 36 hours. With Sewall and his nephew, Wilmot Dow, he’d summit the 5268-foot-tall Mount Katahdin, the tallest peak in the state, making the trip partially in moccasins after he lost one shoe in a stream—after which TR wrote in his journal, “I can endure fatigue and hardship pretty nearly as well as these lumbermen.”

That wasn’t the end of the excursions: He, Sewall, and Dow also took a six-day trip up a river in a dugout canoe through a number of rapids, and then marched 100 miles in pouring rain for three days.

Back at Harvard for his senior year, Roosevelt became engaged to his first wife, Alice Hathaway Lee, and eventually decided on a career in politics.

That year he also had an appointment with a doctor at the university, and the news was not good: The doctor informed him that his heart was dangerously strained. The only way to live a long life, the doctor said, was to live a quiet, sedentary life.

Roosevelt’s response was unequivocal. “Doctor, I’m going to do all the things you tell me not to do. If I’ve got to live the sort of life you’ve described, I don’t care how short it is.”

For decades, he kept quiet about the doctor’s advice, and continued to live as if he’d never heard it. The only reason we know about it is that the doctor wrote about the encounter, which is confirmed by Harvard’s records.

Later that year, he married Alice on his birthday. And on their honeymoon, he climbed Pilatus, the Rigi-Grindelwald, and the Jungfrau in the span of 10 days. After that, TR—an amateur—summited the Matterhorn, a mountain so deadly that many skilled mountaineers have died in the attempt. Why’d he do it? He told Sewell that it was to prove to some snobby English climbers he’d met in the lobby of his hotel that “a Yankee could climb just as well as they could.”

Roosevelt never fully conquered his asthma—in fact, his sister Corinne once said that he “suffered from it all his life, though in later years only at long separated intervals.” But his active lifestyle, what he would come to call the strenuous life, built his stamina and helped him manage his illness.

And he never quit being active: When he was governor of New York, he had a wrestling mat installed in the governor’s mansion. (Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography that the comptroller put up a fuss about the purchase: “[He] refused to audit a bill I put in for a wrestling-mat, explaining that I could have a billiard-table, billiards being recognized as a proper Gubernatorial amusement, but that a wrestling-mat symbolized something unusual and unheard of and could not be permitted.”) When he got word that President William McKinley was dying, Roosevelt, then vice president, had just summited Mount Marcy, the highest peak in New York state.

In the White House, he continued to box, at least until a hard hit took the vision in his left eye … after that, he picked up jiu jitsu. And then he had a tennis court installed, though his playing style was … unconventional.

Tyler: His method of playing tennis was interesting. He would take the handle and propel it into the ball.

According to Michael Cullinane, author of Theodore Roosevelt’s Ghost: The History and Memory of an American Icon, TR wasn’t actually all that good at tennis … or sports in general.

Michael: He was terrible at sports. I mean, there's a really funny story about this kid who was playing tennis with the ... He was, TR was then president, he was playing tennis at Sagamore Hill, I think, or maybe it was the White House, I can't recall, but this kid, who's like a teenager, like, "This guy is terrible at tennis and he's the president and I admire him so much but he is, like, the worst tennis player in the world."

Erin: What he lacked in skill, he made up for in energy.

Michael: That's right.

He’d also engage in other physical pursuits—which his daughter Alice called endurance tests—at Sagamore Hill.

Tyler: It was a place to go on these long point-to-point walks, where Roosevelt would ask the children to walk in a perfectly straight direction toward a certain place that was their goal. In that path, no matter what was in your way you had to go either over, through it, or around it. So if it was a thorn bush, you had to go through it. If it was a body of water like a pond, you'd have to wade through it. If it was a wall, you had to climb over it.

This was his living "the strenuous life." Their idea of recreation wasn't what most other people would think, sitting and drinking lemonade on the porch and being taken care of by your servants. For Roosevelt, it was going out and really exhausting yourself. Most people who didn't know him well, I think they didn't understand what they were getting into when they were coming here to Sagamore Hill.

Let's take a quick break, and we’ll be right back.

 

For Roosevelt, working up a sweat wasn’t just a way to stay healthy—it was also a key part of his life philosophy, “of bodily vigor as a method of getting that vigor of soul without which vigor of the body counts for nothing,” as he described it in his autobiography.

He credited his hard work for his successes, writing that, “I never won anything without hard labor and the exercise of my best judgment and careful planning and working long in advance. Having been a rather sickly and awkward boy, I was as a young man at first both nervous and distrustful of my own prowess, I had to train myself painfully and laboriously not merely as regards my body but as regards my soul and spirit.”

But again, the fact that he was born into wealth and privilege also had a lot to do with his success.

Roosevelt didn’t just advocate the strenuous life for himself, but for others. At the end of his second term, he ordered that military officers be able to walk 50 miles or ride around 100 miles on horseback in three days, later declaring it “a test which many a healthy middle-aged woman would be able to meet.” When the officers and the press balked at the requirement, he demonstrated how easy it was by doing it himself.

And in his autobiography, TR advised that “A man whose business is sedentary should get some kind of exercise if he wishes to keep himself in as good physical trim as his brethren who do manual labor. When I worked on a ranch, I needed no form of exercise except my work, but when I worked in an office the case was different.”

He also expected his children to live the strenuous life. Especially his children. “I would rather one of them should die than have them grow up weaklings,” he once said.

He was especially tough on his oldest son, Ted, who, like his father, had asthma, and later would suffer from headaches and depression. Eventually he had what TR called “kind of a nervous breakdown.”

Alyssa: The doctors say, "Theodore, you know, he was overstressed or he had a breakdown. And maybe it's because you're pushing too hard.”

TR was contrite, telling the doctor “I’ll never push Ted again.” He said he had been so hard on the boy because Ted could have been “all the things I would like to have been and wasn’t, and it has been a great temptation to push him.”

But Dalton writes that he never could quite let up as he promised. Later, Edith would write to Ted, “As I look back you fared worst, because Father tried to ‘toughen’ you, but happily was too busy to exert the same pressure on the others!”

According to Dalton, the weakling TR had been as a child made him uncomfortable and ashamed: Because “he detested the invalid he had been,” Dalton writes, he looked back on his childhood “with a sense of detachment.” Roosevelt hated weakness.

It’s not hard to trace a line from this back to his father, whom Roosevelt adored and who put so much emphasis on being strong and manly; Roosevelt would always feel inferior to Great Heart. And he never wanted his children to be the kind of weakling he had been.

Both Roosevelt and his father had worried about American society becoming weaker due to “over-civilization.” The idea was that men were so used to modern comforts that they lost touch with some of the things that made them manly. In an 1899 speech, delivered at the Hamilton Club when he was governor of New York, Roosevelt laid out his plan for making his country, and its people, as strong as it could be.

He used the speech, which he would later call “The Strenuous Life,” to argue for U.S. militarism and imperial expansion—which we’ll cover in another episode—and to argue against a life of “ignoble ease.”

“I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife,” Roosevelt said.

He urged the wealthy fathers at the event to encourage their sons to devote time to non-remunerative work, as his father had done with him, and noted that, “In this life we get nothing save by effort. Freedom from effort in the present merely means that there has been stored up effort in the past.”

Men should use that freedom to explore different kinds of work, whether it be in politics or exploration. But if a man used that freedom just for enjoyment, “he shows that he is simply a cumberer of the earth’s surface … A mere life of ease is not in the end a very satisfactory life, and, above all, it is a life which ultimately unfits those who follow it for serious work in the world. … As it is with the individual, so it is with the nation.”

He finished by saying that living that life of ease, and seeking peace when war was called for, would doom America to be left behind:

“The 20th century looms before us big with the fate of many nations. If we stand idly by … then the bolder and stronger peoples will pass us by, and will win for themselves the domination of the world. Let us therefore boldly face the life of strife, resolute to do our duty well and manfully; resolute to uphold righteousness by deed and by word; resolute to be both honest and brave, to serve high ideals, yet to use practical methods. Above all, let us shrink from no strife, moral or physical, within or without the nation, provided we are certain that the strife is justified, for it is only through strife, through hard and dangerous endeavor, that we shall ultimately win the goal of true national greatness.”

According to one of Roosevelt’s friends, he had a “policy of forcing the spirit to ignore the weakness of the flesh,” and I think there’s no better example of that than when he was shot in 1912.

Alyssa: John Schrank was the man who fired the bullet.

Schrank would later say that he was against a third-term president, but that wasn’t his only reason for pulling the trigger as TR stood outside the Gilpatrick Hotel.

Alyssa: He was advised by the ghost of William McKinley to avenge McKinley's death, while pointing to a picture of Theodore Roosevelt. So, Schrank followed Roosevelt on the campaign trail from New Orleans to Milwaukee. When Schrank fired at Roosevelt, he was tackled to the ground. Roosevelt didn't bring Schrank up. But the gentlemen around him did. And he actually asked Schrank, "Why did you do it?" And obviously realizing, there's not going to be an answer to that. He's like, okay, fine. Cops, take him away.

Later, Schrank would be examined and deemed insane; he spent the rest of his life in a mental hospital and died there in 1943.

After Schrank was hauled away, Roosevelt went on to give his speech.

Alyssa: As a hunter he knew to check yourself, and if you're coughing up blood that probably means a lung is punctured and you're in trouble. But he checked, and he was like, "You know, OK, it doesn't hurt to breathe this way, so I'm going to go on."

According to Morris, the whole right side of Roosevelt’s body had turned black, but the wound was bleeding slowly. So TR slapped a handkerchief over the bullet hole and went out on stage. He didn’t realize until after he pulled out his speech, unfolded it, and began to read that the bullet had gone through it, at which point he joked, “You see, I was going to make quite a long speech.”

And make a long speech he did.

Alyssa: Who gets shot, point blank, and can then go on to carry out about an approximately 90 minute speech? Wow.

But it wasn’t as though Roosevelt was unaffected. He spoke in a voice Morris writes was “no longer husky but weak … a knifelike pain in his ribs forced him to breathe in short gasps. Two or three times, he appeared to totter.” Party aides stood below the footlights in case he fell.

But Roosevelt didn’t fall. Still, by the time he was finished speaking, he had lost a lot of blood, and was taken to Milwaukee’s Emergency Hospital.

Doctors there did an X-ray and found that the bullet had hit his fourth rib on the right side. It had been headed straight for the heart, but had been slowed by Roosevelt’s speech and his eyeglasses case before it hit, and cracked, his rib.

Today, you can see the speech, eyeglasses case, and shirt TR wore on the day he was shot on display at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace National Historic Site.

Alyssa: I mean, they did the X-ray. They saw that the bullet was lodged into his rib. And they decided not to take it out.

Erin: So he carried that bullet with him for the rest of his life?

Alyssa: Yup. To his death.

Even more incredibly, Roosevelt gave his next speech at Madison Square Garden a mere 16 days later. Ultimately, weakness was no match for TR.

CREDITS

History Vs. is hosted by Erin McCarthy.

This episode was written by Erin McCarthy, with additional research by Michael Salgarolo and fact checking by Austin Thompson.

Field recording by Jon Mayer.

Joe Weigand played Theodore Roosevelt in this episode.

The Executive Producers are Erin McCarthy, Julie Douglas, and Tyler Klang.

The Supervising Producer is Dylan Fagan.

The show is edited by Dylan Fagan and Lowell Brillante.

Special thanks to Alyssa Parker-Geisman, Tyler Kuliberda, and Michael Cullinane.

To learn more about this episode check out our website at mentalfloss.com/historyvs

History Vs. Is a production of iHeart Radio and Mental Floss.

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