I’ve always held that it is unfair to judge historical figures, acts, and events through the lens of 21st century morality. The taking of underaged concubines of either gender was de rigueur for centuries amongst potentates of the Orient, Middle East, and African continent. Bear-baiting was a wholly accepted sporting event during the Stuart Restoration. Some of our Founding Fathers owned slaves, and there’s that mess with Jefferson and Sally Hemings with which to contend. ‘Idiot,’ ‘Imbecile,’ and ‘Moron’ were professionally-employed psychiatric terms. It has only been within a few decades that the Ottoman murders of Armenians have been referenced as genocide. Remember poll taxes? Until recently, disenfranchising the poor was considered appropriate (wait, it still is). Children’s toys of the turn-of-the-century were often overtly racist, depicting minorities as contemptible buffoons. And blackface vaudeville was common in early 20th century America.
Openly advocating such improprieties today would be unconstitutional and immoral at best, and a matter for the International Criminal Court at worst.
But societal mores do change, and there are few if any absolute constants.
Marketing and the almighty dollar? Well, that’s a whole ‘nuther subject.
You may think you know the story below, but trust me, you don’t.
It begins in the autumn of 1902. Mississippi Governor Andrew Longino was up for reelection, facing a primary challenge from a rabid white supremacist, one James Vardaman. Longino, though a Democrat, had invited the sitting President, Republican Theodore Roosevelt, to come south for some recreational bear hunting, knowing the chief executive’s proclivity for outdoor activities. TR, sensing an opportunity to help a moderate politician-in-need, even if a Democrat, and get away from the Capitol at the same time, enthusiastically accepted.
[sidebar: Vardaman saw this as a wholly political ploy, calling out Roosevelt with racial epithets and adding that he was nothing but a miscegenationist hell-bent on destroying the last vestiges of Confederate culture. And you think Obama has it rough?]
Included in the Roosevelt-Longino party were two local celebrities, Robert Bobo and Holt Collier. Bobo was a renowned breeder and trapper who brought with him fifty of his prized bear hounds. Collier was a former slave and scout for none other than Nathan Forrest’s cavalry, and said to possess the best nose for bear in the delta. Roosevelt, to the consternation of the white Southerners present, interacted with Collier as an equal and comrade-in-arms, being particularly impressed with Collier’s accuracy with his Winchester M1894 using either hand.
[sidebar: Collier’s service for General Forrest has often be used by Lost Cause apologists to illustrate that there were, in fact, black Confederates. Whether Collier’s time with Forrest was volitional in nature or not, we may never fully know, but see the above opening statement re: judging history by the lens of 21st century expectations, and proceed]
Anyway, the vast undeveloped tract on which the Roosevelt-Longino party decided to hunt – in Outward, MS, 30 miles north of Vicksburg along what is now state highway 61 – was then owned by railroad magnate W.W. Magnum, the man also known to having once imported monkeys to Mississippi in a failed effort to train them to pick cotton. But that’s a tale for another post.
This hunting preserve was thick with tangled underbrush, stunted pines, and canebrake. Progress on foot was slow. It was Collier with Bobo’s hounds who first picked up the scent of bear early on Saturday, November 15th. They tracked but found nothing at first. The party, having no other leads, and tired from traversing the demanding terrain that morning, returned to camp for a late lunch. But Collier persevered, and at 3:30 p.m., cornered an old 235lb female black bear. Sounding his bugle to alert the president’s party back at camp, Collier and the dogs surrounded the bear near a watering hole. The bear may have been old, but still had some fight in her, killing one of the dogs with a swipe from her claws, and maiming several others. Collier smashed the bear’s skull with the butt of his Winchester, and while dazed, he was able to lasso the beast and tie it to a tree trunk awaiting his colleagues.
Roosevelt, upon arriving at the watering hole, was disgusted. He found there a mortally wounded dog, several others seriously injured, blood everywhere, and a half-dead mangy bear tied to a tree trunk and gasping for air. Those present told TR that the honor of shooting the bear was his.
But Roosevelt was not cut from the same cloth as his contemporary outdoorsman, William ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody (the man famous in part for indiscriminate mass killings of bison on the western plains). TR refused to shoot the bear under these circumstances.
The papers smelled a popular story. The Washington Post ran the now-famous Clifford Berryman cartoon and the ‘official’ line in its edition of Monday, November 17th: conservationist president upholds personal honor and refuses to shoot captive bear in an unsportsmanlike setting. What a wonderful guy that TR is!
[sidebar: each time the Berryman cartoon was reprinted in the days that followed, the bear was drawn smaller and smaller, until it was nothing more than a frightened cub]
A New York candy shop owner, Morris Mitchom, saw the cartoon and article. He asked his wife Rose to make two plush toy bears, stuffed with excelsior and sporting black shoe-button eyes, and put them in the window of his shop with the sign, “Teddy’s Bears” (I’m not sure why it was plural, since there was only one bear.) This simple act, and TR’s later permission to use his name on the product, soon evolved into a new business venture for the Mitchoms, one that eventually became the Ideal Novelty and Toy Company. Its sales soared on the strength of sales of its Teddy’s Bear line.
Copied around the globe, today’s teddy bear has remained a staple of childhood memories now for over a century, all from the warm and fuzzy story of the kind president who refused to shoot a frightened captive bear.
But as the Late Great Paul Harvey would have said, now it’s time for the rest of the story, the part you almost certainly don’t know.
First, a post-script. When TR left the White House in 1908, there was fear in toy-land that the popularity of the teddy bear would quickly wane. They needed a new gimmick. The incoming President. W.H. Taft, wasn’t nearly as charismatic as TR. Taft was hugely fat, and his eating habits were the stuff of tabloid fodder. At one banquet in Georgia during the campaign, Taft was served barbequed possum with potatoes, and apparently ate all of it and asked for seconds. The president-to-be, while wiping his lips, was quoted as saying, “I’m for possum first, last, and all the time between.” Toy companies decided to market what they called the Billy Possum, the incoming administration’s answer to Teddy’s Bear. It was to be a political symbol for adults, but one that could easily be made into a cuddly toy with which children across the country would play and contentedly fall asleep for years to come.
Teddy’s Bear survived and thrived. Billy Possum failed miserably, though if you’re lucky enough to find a surviving example of the latter, buy it, as they can fetch well into the tens of thousands of dollars at auction.
But secondly, and of more importance, what became of Teddy’s actual bear?
Having put away his rifle that November day, the president instead had handed his 14” Bowie knife to an aide and told him to put the bear out of its misery. The aide obliged, slitting the struggling bear’s throat as it vainly tried to escape. Butchered on site, the bloody carcass was brought back to camp, and the feasting began.
So much for the warm and fuzzy story trumpeted by the media.
Perhaps readers in the early 20th century would have seen nothing wrong with the conservationist president’s mercy knifing. Whether his directive was humane or not remains to be seen. Whether this should be judged by 21st century mores in the era of PETA is debatable. But the marketing people, even back then, knew that leaving this last tidbit OUT of the story of Teddy’s bear was probably good for business. They were correct.
Oh, and Andrew Longino lost reelection.
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