Admiral William Sheffield Cowles and his wife, Anna "Bamie" Roosevelt Cowles, must have slipped into Union Station quietly, without being recognized.
Had the mid-day travelers in the lobby noticed them, they would certainly have put two and two together and known what was soon to come. The elderly Cowles walked up the stairs to the platform in the calm before the commotion.
But a New Haven Railroad freight handler, in a switch tower south of Hartford, picked up the information and passed it to a friend at Union Station: The next train to arrive would be carrying Bamie's brother, Theodore Roosevelt.
"The rumor swept through the crowd like an electric shock," The Courant reported, "as the voice of the announcer rolled out the train's approach, little knots of excited people, curious men and craning women, clustered near the platform doorway at the top of the stairs."
As Theodore Roosevelt, the former president who wished now to be referred to as "Colonel Roosevelt," prepared to get off his train, one might imagine the speech he was soon to deliver at the State Armory was folded and stuffed into the breast pocket of his overcoat, along with his eyeglass case.
Five years earlier, his life was saved when the papers of a speech and his eyeglass case slowed an assassin's bullet in Milwaukee. Roosevelt spoke despite his wound that day, and though his throat was ailing him now and the acoustics, the Courant noted, were less than ideal, he would speak to 15,000 people who would jam every nook and cranny of The Armory for the "Roosevelt War Rally" on this night, Nov. 2, 1917, as Americans were beginning to fight and die in Europe in World War I.
"Not a trace of discouraging gray brushed his temples," The Courant said, "he seemed in excellent health and spirits. The same old Colonel, vigorous and still youthful."
Dinner At The Twain House
Roosevelt, who had come many times to Hartford, had been in politics 35 years and was a household name since he led a regiment of cavalry, recklessly but victoriously, up San Juan Hill during the war with Spain in 1898.
Elected governor of New York, he was too independent for the Republican bosses of the time and, hoping to sent him to oblivion, they maneuvered him into the vice presidency. When William McKinley was assassinated, Roosevelt became president at age 42 in September 1901 and led the nation on a 7 ½-year progressive ride.
He moved to break up monopolies, regulate big business, conserve the nation's natural resources and endangered species. He took control of the isthmus of Panama and started to cleave a great canal, and brokered peace between Russia and Japan, garnering the Nobel Peace Prize.
Roosevelt then campaigned tirelessly to elect his chosen successor, William Howard Taft, and went big-game hunting after his inauguration.
There has been no president quite like Teddy Roosevelt, and no ex-president like him, either.
Breaking with Taft, Roosevelt tried to get the presidential nomination in 1912. When he failed, he ran as a third party candidate, splitting the party and assuring the election of Democrat Woodrow Wilson.
When war broke out in Europe, Roosevelt derided Wilson's policy of neutrality and called stridently for America to get involved as more U.S. ships were sunk by German U-Boats. When Wilson and the Congress declared war in April 1917, Roosevelt, now 58, his health damaged by the malaria he had contracted during an exploration of the Amazon in 1914, wanted to form four divisions and lead them in Europe. Wilson, with no desire to let Roosevelt, whom he considered a demagogue, garner that kind of publicity, had coldly refused.
So the Colonel was left to fight the war with his rhetorical gifts, as all four of his sons entered the armed services. Roosevelt's voice and speaking manner were well-known, thanks to recordings of his speeches.
"His teeth snap shut between the syllables," author Julian Street wrote, "biting them apart. Each accented syllable is emphasized with a sharp, forward thrust of the head that seems to throw the word clattering into the air."
When Roosevelt meant to be sarcastic, as he often did, his voice would curl up in pitch almost to a squeak. He would point, pound his right fist into his left palm, and he would raise his arms triumphantly as he battered opponents verbally. His audiences couldn't get enough.
Roosevelt's train pulled in and stopped on the elevated platform at 5:27 p.m. The day was fair, but chilly as he stepped to greet his older sister and her husband. Exuberantly, he fought through the crowd that jammed the stairwell and out to a waiting automobile for the short drive up Farmington Ave to the home of R.M. Bissell of the Connecticut State Council of Defense.
The Bissells, who had purchased the mansion from Mark Twain, had Roosevelt and his party to dinner. Twain, who died seven years earlier, would not have been pleased — he and Roosevelt had a well-documented animus for one another.
Now that the U.S. was in World War I, Roosevelt was speaking nearly every day. He gave speeches at Princeton, N.J., and in New York City on Nov. 1. Whether by grand design or because he could live no other way, speeches like the one he was about to give in Hartford were pushing Roosevelt back to the middle of the political arena and talk of yet another run for the presidency in 1920 was starting.
Today, speeches like the one he was about to give in Hartford would all but eliminate a man as a political candidate. In outrageous terms and imagery, Roosevelt lambasted foreign-born, or "hyphenated" Americans who gave any loyalty to their homelands, political leaders who objected to America's involvement in the war and conscientious objectors.
"If he merely objects to killing someone else," Roosevelt would shout that night. "I would say, put him on a mine sweeper. If he is on a mine sweeper, he is not in any danger of killing someone else, but he is plumb liable to go skyward himself."
Bedlam At The Armory
As Roosevelt dined at the Bissell home, bedlam was growing at The Armory, where thousands of seats had been unfolded and jammed together in a semicircle around the speakers' platform, and 23 "boxes" had been set up on the balconies for dignitaries. An enormous American flag hung over the speakers' platform, with numerous smaller flags hung from other points in the rafters.
The speech was to be given to defense workers, and many had passes in advance. But beginning at 6 p.m., crowds had flooded the driveway and when the doors opened at 7, they overwhelmed the ushers and filled the seats. At least 5,000 people could not get in, The Courant estimated.
The Governor's Foot Guard band led 1,000 singers from local high schools in patriotic songs, including the recent hit, "Three Cheers for Your Uncle Sam," as the crowd waited for Roosevelt. When he arrived, he saw what had happened and asked the crowd inside The Armory for a little more patience.
He walked back out, stood up in his car and gave a thumbnail version of his speech to those who were unable to get in.
Gov. Marcus Holcomb accompanied Roosevelt to the rostrum and gave short, introductory remarks. Then the drama reached its peak — "the men and women stamped, yelled and whistled," The Courant wrote — as Roosevelt began to speak.
"I only state the truth when I say that Connecticut, under your leadership, Governor, has taken the lead among the states of this country in preparing to do and in doing its duty in this great war. …"
The world was changing, and defining America's role in it would soon require more subtlety and sophistication than Roosevelt's familiar phrase, "speak softly and carry a big stick." But this was a war rally, and Roosevelt was there to motivate. He was bringing his best fastball.
"If my speech needs a keynote, it is this: We are in this war to a finish and we will put it through at no matter what cost of men and money, no matter what time is necessary in order that we may win the peace of overwhelming victory."
Much of Roosevelt's speech, which ran several thousand words and was printed in full in The Courant the next day, was devoted to the subject of "loyalty."
"[There] must be but one standard of loyalty in this country. We have, all of us, been more or less blind until this war came, to the fact that there were a good many people in this country who treated it not as a nation, but as what I have called a polyglot boarding house in which dollar-hunters of twenty different nationalities shouldered one another out of the trough, and reserved all their real loyalty for some other land across the sea."
One can only imagine the outrage at such a speech today, but Roosevelt was just getting warmed up.
"Again and again," The Courant reported, "his voice was interrupted by the howls of enthusiasms that seemed to rock the huge building."
"We have no more room in this country for the fifty-fifty type of citizen. We have no more room in this country for the man who says he is an American, and says it with the qualification that he is an American with a hyphen that connects him with somewhere else. … If you find a man of such affectionate nature that he attempts to persuade you that he loves his wife, and that he loves some other women as well as his wife, I think that the quality of his husbandly devotion is negligible."
Roosevelt went on to attack Germany, America's chief enemy in the war.
"The deeds for which we rightfully declared our independence and went to war in 1776 are utterly trivial compared to the infamous cruelty and wrong inflicted upon us by Germany today. And the wrongs she has done to us are utterly trivial compared to the wrongs she has done to other peoples. … She counted upon the cowardice of the rest of mankind."
The pacifists in America, some of whom had voted against the declaration of war, were Germany's best allies, he said. Anyone unwilling to fight for his country should not be allowed to vote.
"Universal suffrage can only be justified by universal service," he said.
He reiterated an earlier attack on an old political rival, Sen. Robert La Follette, who was against the war, suggesting that La Follette and the Industrial Workers of the World, which was anti-capitalism, be sent to Germany.
"They would shoot him before morning. Any man who preached the doctrines he would preach, any men who did in Germany what the I.W.W. has done here, would be shot out of hand. … Now I do not advocate our behaving that way, but I do most emphatically advocate our making men understand that treason to the United States is not to be preached with impunity. "
Roosevelt went on to tell his audience to support the war effort in various ways, to buy bonds, pay taxes willingly, adhere to Herbert Hoover's rationing policies.
"We will not rest until we have established the right of every well-behaved people to enjoy its freedom under whatever government it chooses."
Roosevelt left to "one long, thunderous roar" and was driven to Farmington, to stay the night with his sister and her family.
His words in Hartford made headlines across the country. On his way back to New York the following morning, he stopped in Bridgeport to speak to munitions factory workers there.
Three of Roosevelt's sons returned safely when World War I ended a year later, but Quentin, the one the family thought most like his father, did not. One of America's first flying aces, he was shot down and killed over France on July 14, 1918, a few weeks after the Colonel had again spoken in Hartford, at Trinity College.
Theodore Roosevelt, it has been said, was never the same after the death of his youngest son, the depression adding to the lingering effects of malaria, weakening him. He died, unexpectedly, in his sleep when a blot clot detached from a vein and entered his lung, on Jan. 6, 1919.
"Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping," said Thomas R. Marshall, Wilson's vice president, "for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight."Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun