Theodore Roosevelt’s mother and first wife died just hours apart on February 14, 1884. Each loss was an unexpected shock. His 48-year-old mother, Martha “Mittie” Roosevelt, had been taken ill with what was initially considered a cold, and his 22-year-old wife, Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt, had just given birth to their first child, a daughter. During her pregnancy, she hadn’t been diagnosed with the kidney ailment that would take her life. That night in his diary Roosevelt marked an “X” and wrote, “The light has gone out of my life.” He had once noted of his wife, “I do not think ever a man loved a woman more than I love her,” and was so affected by her death that he refrained from mentioning her name for the remainder of his life.

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Roosevelt fell in love with Lee at first sight

Roosevelt met Lee on October 18, 1878. Roosevelt, then a 19-year-old Harvard student, was immediately and forcefully captivated by the beautiful Bostonian, who was two years his junior. The young Roosevelt began courting Lee with devotion. At one point, he even arranged for his horse to be sent from New York so he could more easily travel the six miles to Lee’s home. Yet Lee, whose family felt she wasn’t yet ready for marriage, resisted Roosevelt.

Roosevelt’s feelings persisted, and as time progressed he became desperate to secure Lee’s love. In the fall of 1879, as part of his campaign for her heart, his mother, Mittie, made Lee and her family feel welcome while they visited New York. Lee made her debut in society still uncommitted to Roosevelt, but he was undeterred. At one gathering he gestured across the room at Lee and declared, “I am going to marry her. She won’t have me, but I am going to have her!”

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By 1880, Roosevelt’s ardor had won Lee over. On January 25, he noted in his diary, “I had been nearly crazy during the past year; and after much pleading my own sweet, pretty darling consented to be my wife.” Their engagement was officially announced on February 14, 1880, and they wed on October 27, 1880, which was Roosevelt’s 22nd birthday. Before the wedding he wrote, “My happiness is so great it makes me almost afraid.”

Martha "Mittie" Roosevelt and Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt

Martha “Mittie” Roosevelt and Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt; Photos: Public Domain; ©CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The couple had different interests but were happy together

Roosevelt and Lee established themselves in New York City, where she enjoyed the social whirl. In 1881 Roosevelt was elected to the New York State Assembly and found a new career that took up much of his time and energy. However, Lee didn’t care for life in the state capital of Albany. She wasn’t interested in politics, and she missed being in the same city as her mother-in-law and her husband’s sisters, with whom she’d grown close.

By the end of 1882, Lee was again situated in New York City and Roosevelt was commuting to Albany. However, despite the distance, their marriage remained content.

Lee was pregnant by the summer of 1883, but Roosevelt wasn’t around for much of the pregnancy as he traveled west in the fall to hunt buffalo. After his return, he was once again consumed by politics and often in Albany. On February 6, 1884, he wrote her a note that said, “How I did hate to leave my bright, sunny little love yesterday afternoon!” Fortunately, Lee was living in the Roosevelt family home with her husband’s mother and sisters, so she had their support.

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Roosevelt was in Albany when he learned his wife and mother were dying

Roosevelt was in Albany on February 13, 1884, when he learned Lee had given birth to their daughter the day before. But his happiness evaporated when another telegram was delivered a few hours later. He hurried back to the family home where both his wife and his mother were at death’s door. Roosevelt was present when a 48-year-old Mittie died from typhoid fever in the early morning on February 14. Lee, aged 22, died that afternoon, just four years after the Valentine’s Day announcement of their engagement.

Both deaths were a shock. When Roosevelt had last left for Albany, Mittie was thought to have a bad cold. She had a history of health complaints but they had never been life-threatening. The realization that she was actually suffering from deadly typhoid fever came only shortly before her death. Lee’s death resulted from kidney failure, known as Bright’s disease. She hadn’t been diagnosed with the ailment until after giving birth, possibly because any prior symptoms she experienced were attributed to her pregnancy.

If anything, Roosevelt might have expected his own health to separate him and his loved ones. During his senior year at Harvard, a physician had informed him he had a weak heart and recommended sedentary living in order to prolong his life. But Roosevelt, who valued adventure and physical activity, reportedly vowed, “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 have described, I don’t care how short it is.”

Theodore Roosevelt with Alice Hathaway Lee and her cousin.

Theodore Roosevelt with Alice Hathaway Lee (left) and her cousin; Photo: Courtesy Everett Collection

Roosevelt refused to discuss his first wife for the rest of his life

A funeral for Lee and Mittie was held on February 16 in New York City. “Theodore is in a dazed, stunned state,” a former tutor commented of Roosevelt. “He does not know what he does or says.” The loss of his mother, whom he’d called “darling motherling,” came almost exactly six years after his father’s death and made him an orphan. The death of his young wife, with whom he’d started to build a home, extinguished his hopes for the future and left him reeling.

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After the funeral, Roosevelt left his newborn daughter, who was named Alice Lee Roosevelt after her mother, in the care of his older sister and returned to Albany. He wrote to a friend, “I have never believed it did any good to flinch or yield for any blow, nor does it lighten the pain to cease from working.” Roosevelt attended the Republican convention in June but did not run for re-election. Instead, he headed west to a ranch in the Dakota Territory. He referred to his daughter as “Baby Lee” (she would later be known to the family as “Sister”). He admitted to a friend, “There can never be another Alice to me, nor could I have another, not even her own child, bear her name.”

After the deaths, Roosevelt wrote a remembrance of his mother and wife. He said of Lee, “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 but 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.” Roosevelt remained otherwise unwilling to talk about his first wife for the rest of his life, even after he embarked upon what would be a successful second marriage with childhood friend Edith Carow in 1886.