Valentine’s Day is a day to celebrate romance, love, and devotion, a day when many Americans exchange cards, and gifts with their romantic loved ones. While for many people, Valentine’s Day is the happiest day of their lives, for others Valentine’s Day brings sadness. To few has it brought more heartache than to Theodore Roosevelt, whose wife and mother died within hours of one another on February 14, 1884.
Just four years earlier, February 14 was one of the happiest days of his life. On that day in 1880, Roosevelt announced his engagement to Alice Hathaway Lee. The couple met in 1878, at the home of Richard Saltonstall – Alice’s neighbor and Roosevelt’s friend.
From the moment he saw her, Roosevelt was fascinated by her. Later writing of their first encounter, Roosevelt said, “As long as I live, I shall never forget how sweetly she looked, and how prettily she greeted me”.
Alice refused Roosevelt’s first marriage proposal, but she finally accepted to marry him in late January 1880. They got married on Roosevelt’s twenty-second birthday, October 27, 1880, in Brookline’s First Parish Unitarian Church and spent their honeymoon at the Roosevelt home in Oyster Bay, New York.
The couple participated in the social world of elite New York, going to fancy parties and the opera, and in 1881 they spent 5 months traveling throughout Europe. The same year Roosevelt ran for public office and was elected to the New York State Assembly. Roosevelt was only 23-years-old and was the youngest member of the New York State Assembly.
In October 1882, Theodore and Alice moved to Albany and in the summer of 1883, Alice became pregnant. She moved back to New York City to live with Roosevelt’s mother, Martha “Mittie” Bulloch Roosevelt, and his sisters, Corinne Roosevelt Robinson and Anna “Bamie” Roosevelt Cowles.
Everything was going well for Roosevelt and his family until February 1884, when he received word in Albany that his mother was ill. On February 12, while Roosevelt was in the middle of an assembly debate in Albany, a telegram sent by his sister notified him of the birth of his baby girl and then a second telegram arrived later, with the news that his wife, Alice, wasn’t feeling well after the birth. That same afternoon, Roosevelt left Albany and rushed back to New York City.
He arrived home and found out that Alice was gravely ill. His mother was feverish with typhoid and his wife was suffering from Bright’s disease or nephritis of the kidney. Shortly after he arrived, his mother died and eleven hours later, Alice died too. Roosevelt was devastated. His diary entry for Valentine’s Day was a black “X” and bellow he wrote: “the light has gone out of my life”.
He wrote a private memorial and tribute for Alice:
“…She was beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit; as a flower, she grew and as a fair young flower, she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine; there had never come to her a single great sorrow; and none ever knew her who did not live and revere her for the bright, sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure, and joyous as a maiden; loving, tender, and happy as a young wife; when she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her – then, by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever”.
He named his daughter Alice, after her mother, but he never mentioned his wife again.