The Mystery of Sagamore Hill Library

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Theodore Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill home Library

Like everyone else, I often find myself heading down rabbit trails in the vast Internet ocean of information. Just the other day I was doing my morning scan of my Twitter feed when I noticed a Tweet debunking “fake library photos.” In actuality, the photos are of real libraries, it was simply the attributions were in error. I would probably have missed the post altogether if it had not been for the library photo in the first post of the thread. The library was wrongly attributed to Umberto Eco’s library. Anyone that has a library fetish the way I do would know that Umberto Eco’s library was really not that impressive. But the library wrongfully attributed to Umberto Eco was clearly that of, the now deceased, Richard Macksey. Any libraryphile would recognize Macksey’s library instantly. It is not only impressive; it is probably one of the most interesting personal libraries in existence.

Richard Macksey’s library (left) and Umberto Eco’s library (right)

Of course, my interest was piqued, and I began to sift through this thread of library photos. The most interesting photo in the thread came into view wedged between Ernest Hemingway’s Finca Vigía library in his Cuban home and Elton John’s home library in Woodside, England. Two black and white photos of a late 19th century library came into view. This was the Sagamore Hill home library (pictured at the top of the page) of the rough riding, trust busting, 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt, or, more affectionately named, Teddy on the campaign trail.

Portrait of Thomas More

In general, the turn of the century library was on par with other turn of the century home libraries. But in both photos is a picture hanging on the wall that caught my eye. The black and white images were small and hard to get detail on, but I was pretty sure that was the renowned Tudor Catholic, now a saint – patron saint of statesman and politicians, Thomas More. As you might recall from your high school history, or perhaps a 2007 Showtime drama called The Tudors, Thomas More was an advisor to the infamous Henry VIII and a defender of Catholicism at a particularly awkward time to be Catholic in England. I suspect you are right now asking yourself, “So what? A picture of a saint hanging on a wall is not uncommon.” Certainly, you would be correct except for one important detail – Theodore Roosevelt was not Catholic.

Still not seeing what makes this interesting? Let me unpack this a little further.

I felt compelled to tug on this little thread of historical interest. I had to locate a better photo so that I can more clearly see the picture. Off to Google I went and stumbled upon a virtual tour of the room on the Google Arts & Culture site. The picture on the wall was much clearer. Unfortunately, despite the clearer picture, the mystery deepened. Hanging on the wall separated by the mounted head of a Big Horn Sheep was another photo.

I didn’t recognize this photo, but it clearly depicted someone of the same time period in ecclesiastical dress. I took a screen shot and uploaded it to Google photos in hope of it being recognized, but with no luck. Google thought it was a depiction of wood grain and returned other pictures of wood grains. Since that didn’t pan out, I decided to try my hand at searching Google for an inventory of the art in the entire room. Who knows, it might contain more mysteries or maybe more clues. No luck.

I did what any burgeoning historian would do when they hit a wall – I contacted the museum staff. I quickly fired up a search and discovered that Sagamore Hill is run by the National Park Service. I found a list of the Sagamore Hill staff and shot an email off to the Chief of Cultural Resources who quickly brushed my request for information off to a very helpful museum technician. The museum technician emailed me back almost immediately with useful links and a listing of all the portraiture hanging on the walls of the library. And, thus, the mystery deepened.

The second portrait, technically they are both stipple engravings by an artist named Francesco Bartolozzi – it’s okay, I had to look up what a stipple engraving is too, is a portrait of William Warham the 68th Archbishop of Canterbury – another Catholic! William Warham’s relationship to Catholicism can be characterized best by saying, it’s complicated. I say his relationship with the Catholic church is complicated because he was Archbishop of Canterbury while attempting to navigate the division of the Church of England from Rome all while trying not to lose his head under King Henry VIII.

To recap the story so far; hanging in the very Protestant Theodore Roosevelts Sagamore Hill home library are two portraits of rather prominent Roman Catholics. I suspect by this point you may see this as odd but maybe not the mystery that I do. That is okay. Let me explain a bit further.

Theodore Roosevelt, by all accounts, was deeply religious. He was a Calvinist and a member of the Reformed Church in America. The Reformed Church in America is often referred to as the Dutch Reformed Church in America and they are a particularly conservative sect of Reformed Christianity. As with most turn of the century Reformed churches, the Reformed Church in America saw the Pope in Rome as an Antichrist. The emotion behind the term is different today than it was then, and most Reformed churches no longer subscribe to this idea, suffice it to say anti-Catholic sentiment in America was high at the turn of the century and even higher for members of the Reformed denominations.

I had exhausted my resources outside of the academic library, so I turned there next. I ran a number of searches across a number of different archives and databases until I turned up one reference to the Thomas More portrait hanging on the wall.

The reference was in an academic publication called Moreana in which, they state, they publish academic research “about the person, historical milieu, and writing of the English humanist, Thomas More.” The title of the article is Theodore Roosevelt and Thomas More. Aha! Pay dirt, at least that is what I thought until I began to read the article written by Professor Melvin J. Tucker of State University of New York at Buffalo.

Professor Tucker had visited the Sagamore Hill home in 1976 when he noticed the same two engraved portraits on the wall. Taken aback, much as I have been, he began to research how those two portraits came to hang on that library wall. In this two page article in Moreana he concludes that, after spending a short time researching the topic, he came up empty but felt compelled to publish something about it in the hope that “a more knowledgeable student of Thomas More and Theodore Roosevelt will discover the attraction that our man for all seasons held for the 26th President of the United States.”

This article was published in 1982 so I felt certain someone would have researched it and would have an answer by now. I thought that I would try to contact Professor Tucker to see if anything happened with this mystery. Unfortunately, I discovered that Professor Melvin J. Tucker died on February 15, 2019. I found myself at another dead end (no pun intended).

The mystery remains and I will have to dig deep into the primary and secondary sources surrounding Theodore Roosevelt. I will report back if anything turns up.