Theodore Roosevelt: The Taxidermist

Theodore Roosevelt, Age 7 via The National Park Service

In November of 1872, Theodore Roosevelt had just turned 14 years old. He was small for his age, but — as was proven many times over — he had more than enough personality and determination to make up for his bad eyesight and weak lungs.

His father once told him, “Theodore you have the mind but you have not the body, and without the help of the body the mind cannot go as far as it should. I am giving you the tools, but it is up to you to make your body.”

Young Roosevelt was a person of acute single-mindedness. This was best demonstrated in his avid collecting (killing) and preserving (skinning and stuffing) animals, and in 1872 he was most particularly fascinated by birds.

That year, his father announced a grand family tour of Egypt and the Middle East. At first, young Roosevelt was disappointed that his plans for a personal museum would be put on hold, but his excitement grew at the prospect of capturing all a manner of exotic specimens.

Roosevelt’s father supported his efforts to become a “naturalist”, and even paid for him to take lessons in taxidermy. When the time came to board the ship to Egypt, Roosevelt had an extensive array of prepared labels, containers, a gun, and a variety of other support equipment required for your on-the-go 14-year-old taxidermist.

At a stopover in Liverpool, Roosevelt realized that despite his meticulous packing, he’d forgotten a key ingredient to his kit: arsenic. As far back as the 18th century, taxidermists used arsenic to preserve their specimens. (The older poison-soaked specimens floating around in today’s natural history museums give the practice an entirely new level of creepiness. Let’s hope everyone at the Smithsonian washes their hands before lunch.)

Label from Roosevelt’s childhood museum via The Smithsonian Institution

Immediately, Roosevelt left the ship in search of an apothecary where he might obtain the stuff. Along with being small for his age, young Teddy Roosevelt had very little in common with the 14-year-old boys of 1870’s Liverpool. His manner emanated the privileges of the well-to-do and well-cared for. And, he was a Yankee.

As he made his way to the shop, young Liverpudlians heckled and called him names. If Theodore Roosevelt is known for anything, it’s not his moderate temper. He was so angry, that by the time he got to the drugstore, “he demanded a full pound of the deadly poison with such force that the druggist refused to sell it to him.”

Eventually, after convincing someone to vouch for him, Roosevelt did get the arsenic and continued onto Egypt with his family where he caught many birds. He then preserved them in his cabin, which even his little brother refused to share as he “revolted at sharing a room with someone who frequently filled the washbasin with the guts of the animals he was dissecting.”

The family returned to their home in New York City, where Roosevelt catalogued and placed all of his finds in his personal “museum”. He continued to both capture and preserve his own finds. In fact, several can be found today at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.

Further Reading
The Naturalist by Darrin Lunde
Arsenic in Taxidermy Collections by Fernando Marte, Amandine Péquignot, and David Von Endt
Theodore Roosevelt Timeline via National Park Service
Theodore Roosevelt Diaries and Notebooks via Harvard Library
Theodore Roosevelt’s Diaries of Boyhood and Youth by Theodore Roosevelt