Inauguration Connection — Abe, Teddy and Franklin

I have a love affair with old photos. When I get old (and believe me I can see it from here) I plan on whiling away my days in a rocking chair incessantly flipping through books full of old photos. For my money, nothing tells a story better than an old photo. Historic old photos instantly transport the viewer back to a time, long before they were born, to witness a scene from the past with fresh unblinking eyes. Since we just passed another historic inauguration of a U.S. President, I’d like to share with you one of my favorite historic photos, connected to three of our nation’s most famous Presidents. All in the same photo.
The photograph portrays an overhead view of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession as it passed an impressive looking mansion perched on the southwest corner of 14th St. and Broadway in New York City. Upon closer examination, the building, pictured just left of center in the photo, reveals the image of two young boys. These lads can be seen peering down at the street below from their open second story window perch as Lincoln’s casket travels slowly past them.
In the 1950s, photo historian Stefan Lorant was researching a book on Abraham Lincoln when he came across the image. The photo, dated April 25, 1865, at first looked like any one of a number of photographs of Lincoln’s funeral procession. That is until he recognized the house on the corner as that of Cornelius van Schaack Roosevelt, the grandfather of future President Theodore Roosevelt and his brother Elliot. Cornelius was a fourth-generation Dutch New Yorker, founder of the family’s plate-glass importing business known as “Roosevelt and Son” and one of New York City’s wealthiest citizens.
A happy accident of fate? Coincidence? Perhaps. Lorant took a closer look and wondered to himself, wouldn’t it make sense that a proud grandfather would want his grandsons to witness this historic event? He examined the faces of the two little fellows, and determined that he was indeed looking at the Roosevelt boys; 6 1/2-year-old Teddy and 5-year-old Elliott.
Later, by pure chance, Lorant had the rare chance to interview Theodore Roosevelt’s widow at Teddy’s beloved Sagamore Hill Estate. Aware that she had known her husband since earliest childhood, and hoping that she might have some recollection of the event, he brought the photograph along and asked Mrs. Roosevelt about the image. When she saw it, she confirmed what he had suspected, “Yes, I think that is my husband, and next to him his brother,” she exclaimed. “That horrible man! I was a little girl then and my governess took me to Grandfather Roosevelt’s house on Broadway so I could watch the funeral procession. But as I looked down from the window and saw all the black drapings I became frightened and started to cry. Theodore and Elliott were both there. They didn’t like my crying. They took me and locked me in a back room. I never did see Lincoln’s funeral.”
Their grandfather’s wealth and influence aside, there was another reason that the Roosevelt boys should be watching with sad awe as the funeral procession passed; the boy’s father knew the dead man. Theodore Roosevelt, Sr. served the Union by using his considerable resources on behalf of of the war effort, perhaps assuaging a guilty conscience for not serving in the war himself. (Theodore Sr. hired a replacement to fulfill his draft obligation in the Army of the Potomac.) He designed a government aid program that encouraged soldiers to send home their pay to ease the sufferings of their families back home — a task which kept him in Washington for months at a time and involved frequent meetings with President Lincoln.
Roosevelt Sr. was a noted New York City philanthropist. He helped found the New York City Children’s Aid Society, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, and the New York Children’s Orthopaedic Hospital. A participant in the dazzling New York society life, he was described by one historian as a man of both “good works and good times.” He became somewhat of a fixture at the White House due in large part to his close friendship with Lincoln’s young personal secretary John Hay.
Later, Theodore Sr. would regale his boys with stories of how, although physically shorter then the President, the bearded Roosevelt was often mistaken for Lincoln while walking the streets near the White House alongside Hoosier John Hay. It was said that the cultured Theodore Sr. became a favorite of Mrs. Lincoln, who often asked him to escort her and offer fashion advice while shopping for bonnets. With a clear and definite connection to the White House, Lincoln became a hero to little “Tee-dee” as his parents called him. So it’s easy to imagine how, on April 24, 1865, the future president watched with tears in his eyes from the second story window of his grandfather’s brownstone as the funeral cortège of the martyred president passed slowly through Union Square.
Theodore Roosevelt, Sr., whom Teddy adored, died in 1878 at the age of 46 from a gastrointestinal tumor which caused him great pain and kept him from eating for weeks at a time. He hid the illness from his oldest son, who was away attending Harvard. With his father on his deathbed, at last, 19-year-old Theodore Jr. was informed of the devastating illness. Distraught, Teddy immediately took a train from Cambridge to New York, but missed his father’s death by a few hours. In 1894, Cornelius Roosevelt’s house was torn down and an eight-story terra cotta and brick structure put in its place. Called the “Roosevelt Building,” it stands at 13th and Broadway today. The building may have disappeared, but his father’s connection to his old friend John Hay, Lincoln’s personal secretary, never waned.
Hay, from Salem, Indiana, would serve as William McKinley’s and T.R.’s Secretary of State. At the time of Teddy Roosevelt’s swearing-in as president on March 4, 1905, Hay, gave the new president a ring containing a strand of hair taken from the head of the dead Lincoln. After his mentor’s death, the bereaved young Hay paid $100 for six strands of hair from Lincoln’s head taken during his autopsy — performed in the upstairs living quarters of the White House that T.R. and his family now called home. Nearly 40 years after the assassination, Hay sent Roosevelt a ring with one of those beloved strands encased inside it as a special gift for him to wear while taking his oath of office.
The relic was accompanied by a letter from Hay reading: “Dear Theodore: The hair in this ring is from the head of Abraham Lincoln. Dr. Taft cut it off the night of the assassination, and I got it from his son — a brief pedigree. Please wear it tomorrow;  you are one of the men who most thoroughly understand and appreciate Lincoln. I have had your monogram and Lincoln’s engraved on the ring. Longas, O utinam, bone dux, ferias, Praestes Hesperia. Yours affectionately, John Hay”
The quote, in Latin, is from the Roman poet Quintus Horatius Flaccus, known to the English as “Horace” and is a reference to Caesar, Odes, IV, V. Translated, it reads: “May the holiday you confer on Hesperia last long, brave commander! We say, dry at daybreak, when the morning is new, and say again, wine–soaked, when the sun is under Ocean.” It may also be translated to read “Mayest thou, Good Captain, give long holiday to Hesperia!”.
Regardless of how he read it,  Roosevelt was deeply touched by this gesture and responded: “Dear John, Surely no other President, on the eve of his inauguration, has ever received such a gift from such a friend. I am wearing the ring now; I shall think of it and you as I take the oath tomorrow. I wonder if you have any idea what your strength and wisdom and sympathy, what the guidance you have given me and the mere delight in your companionship, have meant to me these three and a half years?  With love and gratitude, Ever yours, Theodore Roosevelt.”  Historians have observed that this was the first time TR used the word “love” in his male non-family correspondence.
The impact President Lincoln had on TR was profound. On his desk at Sagamore Hill was an inkwell and pen stand topped by a bust of Lincoln.  On the wall near a portrait of his beloved father hung an engraving of Lincoln, and down the hall in his North Room was another bust of Lincoln. There are many traits the two men shared. Both men loved nature. Both were great story-tellers. As for political ideas, both men understood the need in a democracy for a strong central government, and both men believed that human rights took priority over property rights.
The line from Lincoln through Teddy Roosevelt continued to Franklin Delano Roosevelt. FDR described “Cousin Theodore” as the greatest man he ever knew. FDR’s career paralleled TR’s. Both were rich men, both served as Governor of New York and as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. Both men strengthened the central government, believed the government should regulate the excesses of big business and big unions. They both believed the government could be a positive force for good in the environment, and both believed in the primacy of human rights over property rights.
It would’ve been difficult to find any two Americans more devastated by the death of Abraham Lincoln than young John Hay and the even younger Teddy Roosevelt. Hay had lost a father figure and Teddy had lost an uncle figure. Little did they know at the time that they would both be connected to each other for the rest of their lives. Years later Hay would be instrumental in Roosevelt’s receiving the Nobel Prize, the first American ever to receive it.  John Hay died on July 1, 1905 at his home in Newbury, New Hampshire at the age of 66. He was Theodore Roosevelt’s Secretary of State.
Oh, did I mention, Elliott Roosevelt, the other boy seen gazing from the window sill alongside young Teddy, was the father of future first lady Eleanor Roosevelt? On March 17, 1905, acting as stand-in for his deceased brother Elliott, President Theodore Roosevelt gave away his niece Eleanor at her wedding to her fifth cousin once removed, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, in New York City. No doubt, Teddy was wearing a special ring of his own that day. Sometimes, truth is stranger than fiction.