Theodore Roosevelt’s Libel Trial

Roosevelt Takes Marquette

By Mikel B. Classen

What happens when you print in a newspaper the accusation that a former president of the United States “gets drunk not infrequently”? That’s exactly what happened in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Marquette County in 1912. A local newspaper called the Iron Ore accused Theodore Roosevelt of public drunkenness in an editorial. The result was a libel trial that not only made history locally, but made waves across the country and internationally as well. If not for this trial, we might have viewed Roosevelt and his legacy very differently. Rumors of Roosevelt’s drinking and misconduct was running rampant across the country. Roosevelt’s loud and boisterous attitude was being mistaken for intoxication.

A story told by newspaper reporter Jay Hayden, who was following Roosevelt during the 1912 campaign for the Detroit News, illustrates the extent of the problem:

 “I was told to board a train en route to the (Republican)convention at Toledo and find Roosevelt, who was reported aboard. Peeking into various compartments, I found the Colonel alone and reading. We had a sparkling half-hour of warm conversation before other visitors intruded.

“I scarcely had stepped from the train in Chicago before I began hearing that Roosevelt had been roaring drunk on the trip and had smashed dishes in the dining car.”

The Iron Ore was an unusual newspaper for its time. It was still partisan and made a conscious effort to advance the cause of conservative Republicanism. Opinion was constantly injected in its articles and the editorials were frequently inflammatory with unfounded accusations.

It was this practice that got George Newett, publisher and postmaster of Ishpeming in trouble. During The 1912 campaign when Roosevelt spoke to the crowd at Marquette, he spoke out against the Republican party, which he had been a member of until he split away, and bashed some of the local candidates as being corporate lackeys. This enraged Newett to where he went home and wrote a scathing editorial called “The Roosevelt Way”.

It was a mean spirited piece and one paragraph in particular made accusations. “Roosevelt lies, and curses in a most disgusting way, he gets drunk too, and that not infrequently, and all of his intimates know about it.”

It was exactly what Roosevelt had been waiting for. There had been rumors floating around the country for a long time concerning his drinking habits and had vowed to take the very next newspaper that printed such an accusation to court and make them prove it. Newett played right into his hands.

Jay Hayden, the Detroit News reporter picks up the story. ” Two days later on Oct. 14, Roosevelt was handed a copy of the editorial by his party’s secretary, Oscar King Davis. The ex-president was suffering from a sore throat from his marathon speech-making in his Chicago headquarters. Roosevelt would make from 26 to 30 speeches a day. He read Newett’s attack; ‘Roosevelt lies and curses in a most disgusting way; he gets drunk, too, and that not infrequently, and all his intimates know it.’ He whispered to Davis, ‘Let’s go at him!’

“While en route to Milwaukee where he was to speak that night, Roosevelt sent instructions to Henry M. Wallace, Progressive national committeeman from Michigan. Wallace was to retain a lawyer and file a libel suit against Newett.”

Milwaukee turned out to be a fateful place for Roosevelt. While on his way to a speech, on Oct 14. Roosevelt was picked up at his hotel. Roosevelt stepped into the back of the waiting car, sat, then rose to acknowledge the crowd waved to the cheers from the countless residents that were waiting for a glimpse of the Colonel. A man standing seven feet away drew a revolver from his vest and fired, striking Roosevelt in the chest. The shot knocked him back into this seat.

The man that pulled the trigger was named John Schrank, a New Yorker that claimed he was following the orders of McKinley’s ghost. The story goes that he was writing a poem in the night when the ghost of McKinley appeared to him telling him to kill Roosevelt and deny him his third term. Apparently McKinley’s spirit was very persuasive.

When examined by one of his personal doctors, Dr. Terrell, it was discovered that the bullet had gone through Roosevelt’s steel glasses case and the manuscript of his speech which was in his pocket and was quite thick. They had slowed down the bullet so that nothing vital was hit, but it was lodged in his ribs. Roosevelt insisted on completing his speech before going to a hospital!

The next year, 1913, the former President, Theodore Roosevelt, rolled into the city of Marquette on the eve of his trial with 25 well known “witnesses”. Roosevelt was posing for photos and enjoying the publicity. The citizens of Marquette were thoroughly enjoying the circus atmosphere. Roosevelt brought in former rough riders as well as statesmen who had served with him throughout the years. Individuals of character so indisputable, that even the witnesses that Newett had to Roosevelt’s alleged drinking would be completely overshadowed. It read like a who’s who. Truman Newberry, ex-Secretary of the Navy; and Dr. Presley Rixley former Surgeon General, two members of the Roosevelt family. Admiral George Dewey sent a deposition.

There couldn’t have been a more perfect opportunity for Roosevelt. Right from the outset, the trial was hailed as “Famous Libel Suit” in headlines on its first day, May 26, 1913. Even the National Enquirer was covering the case. “Drunken Roosevelt trial begins!”

Newett’s paper, Iron Ore, was a relic and all of the major newspapers criticized him severely for it. The New York Times referred to Newett as “wielding a malicious and wicked pen.” The Detroit Free press compared him to Horace Greeley calling politicians villains and liars.

Huge crowds of spectators waited outside the Marquette County Courthouse trying to get a seat or just a glimpse of Teddy. It was reported that the crowds were overwhelmingly female. Everywhere he went, he attracted constant attention. Roosevelt stayed at the home of his good friend George Shiras 3d, the world renowned wildlife photographer.

The first day of the trial was on May 26th, 1913. The case was officially called by the bailiff at 2:00 pm with Judge Richard C. Flannigan and the picking of the jury began. Earlier in the day, Flannigan had received a telegram from Minneapolis, Minnesota. It said, “Don’t let this sensational trial continue until I have arrived.” It was signed “Jacob Miles.”

Judge Flannigan turned the message over to Frank Tyree, one of Roosevelt’s Secret Servicemen when T.R. was president. He was along to testify as a witness. He contacted the Police Chief in Minneapolis who immediately investigated. He wired back that Miles had been arrested and was considered insane. With the assassination attempt less than a year past, no one was taking any chances with Roosevelt’s safety.

The papers reprinted full columns of dialog from the picking of the jurors. There were full transcripts of cross-examinations. It was remarkably graphic trial coverage nationwide. Everyone knew who the little publisher from Ishpeming was who was about to feel Roosevelt’s “Big Stick”.

Newett’s attorney, who was actually employed by Cleveland Cliffs, tried during the case to have other editorials making similar accusations entered as evidence that Roosevelt’s drinking was so widely reported, Newett couldn’t help but think Roosevelt was a drunk. It wasn’t allowed. The case rested on his editorial only.

In something of an irony, some of the witnesses, nearly a dozen, that were called in the defense of Roosevelt were members of the press that had been covering him over the years. They were asked to testify if they had ever seen him drunk or even suspicious of possible intoxication. None ever had.

It seemed Newett was being deluged from all sides. He didn’t have a prayer and Roosevelt knew it. His sole intent was to prove once and for all that the press had it wrong and it was his way of throwing it back at them. The entire news community was covering him suing the news community for something they had perpetuated.

In court Roosevelt reiterated virtually every time he ever took a drink, which of course read like a travelogue and an adventurer’s dream. There were tales of the days of the Rough Riders, recountings of a journey down the Nile, memories of the Presidency and the White House, tales of hunts and the campfire, but tales of Roosevelt’s drinking didn’t occur. Roosevelt’s drink of choice, was milk!

Roosevelt’s testimony is like reading his biography. Consequently the news coverage reads like a novel with the overlay of courtroom intrigue. As to commentary on the trial and Roosevelt’s habits, the newspapers were silent. Most were taking no chances that they might be the next ones in court defending their accusations.

The fourth day of the trial was Memorial Day. The trial was suspended for the holiday and Roosevelt stayed at the Shiras home. He didn’t participate in any of the local holiday activities. Reflecting on the day, he said sadly that it was the first Memorial Day he could remember in which he had not at least marched in a parade.

Roosevelt was asked to speak to a veterans’ group but he declined, not wanting his presence on the streets of Marquette to influence the trial in any way. Apparently some of the veterans weren’t willing to take no for an answer. Veterans from the Civil War and the Spanish-American War made their way to the home of George Shiras where Colonel Roosevelt was staying. They were welcomed and Roosevelt took the opportunity to make an impromptu speech. Though there is no record of it, it was said to have been impassioned and inspired, a few reportedly moved to tears. Roosevelt also took some time to take photographs of himself and the veterans in front of Shiras’ house. One was taken with the Civil War vets and another of the Spanish American War vets.

During the holiday, rumors were spreading around the city. It was speculated that the trial would last another week. The plaintiff was close to wrapping up and the defense would begin. Many were saying that Newett had dozens of people locked away in area hotels waiting for their chance to testify against Roosevelt that he had been seen intoxicated on countless occasions. It was even rumored that a group of University of Michigan students were willing to swear that Roosevelt had been drunk in Ann Arbor during a talk he gave there in 1911. The next week of the case promised to be especially dramatic. The court was scheduled to reconvene the next day, Saturday. The trial was the topic of most conversations.

Meanwhile behind the scenes, a secretary for Roosevelt received a telegram asking for the arrest of James Miller, one of the witnesses that Newett had interviewed and was to testify against Roosevelt, having claimed he’d witnessed Roosevelt drunk at the Senator Joe Gannon 70th birthday party. The telegram stated, if he was to appear in Marquette, he was to be arrested. It further stated that Miller was wanted in New York on charges of grand larceny. It was signed, “J.P. Reynolds.”

J.P. Reynolds, assistant district attorney, confirmed the report that he had asked for the arrest of James Martin Miller on the charges of grand larceny. Miller had written “checks full of bounce.”

Suppossedly, Miller had been friendly with Roosevelt at one time and had even written a book about him. He had apparently worked for Henry Ford on his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. He was another who had bad feelings about Roosevelt leaving the Republican Party. He had agreed to testify against Roosevelt. 

Attorney Andrews, one of Newett’s legal staff, made the announcement that Miller could not be brought to Marquette as a witness as, “he is beyond Judge Flannigan’s jurisdiction.”  The meaning of that quickly became evident.

The New York Times published a telegram from Miller hiding out Winnipeg, Canada. Miller had skipped the country. It said that after he had made his deposition for Newett, “Roosevelt personally directed a campaign to destroy me.”

It was a sign of things to come. When court would reconvene on Saturday morning, it would be a day of big surprises. Miller had been Newett’s star witness.

When Newett took the stand, he read a prepared statement on the stand in the court room. He gave up! He admitted that he was wrong. Newett was impressed by the stature and character of those who testified and he pointed out that Roosevelt had never asked for a retraction in print. There was no defense.

Roosevelt stood up and said that this was all he had been waiting for and asked to be awarded the lowest sum possible which was six cents. He had only sought to restore his reputation publicly, legally, which he had done in fashion befitting the flamboyance of Teddy Roosevelt.

In a statement by the court, “The publisher of a newspaper may freely discuss the fitness of a person for public office, he may lawfully communicate to the public any fact within his knowledge respecting the official acts, character or conduct, so long as he states as facts only the truth.”

Roosevelt had proved that he’d been libeled and done it in a very sensational way making sure that everyone took notice, particularly the press.

On his way out of the court room a reporter asked Roosevelt what he would do with his penny and a nickel. he is reported to have said. “That’s about the price of a GOOD paper.” The Ishpeming Iron Ore cost three cents.

The Iron Ore continued to publish for many years afterward, seemingly undaunted by the trail. Though it never again accused Roosevelt of drinking. Its fiery critical Republican stance never changed. Newett retired and passed the Iron Ore on to his son George Jr. who also became postmaster of Ishpeming as well.

Author’s Note: When researching this subject for my book, Teddy Roosevelt and the Marquette Libel Trial, published by the History Press, many rare photographs of Roosevelt in Marquette came to light. Some accompany this article. Many had never been seen before and others had not seen print in at least a century. A personal photo scrapbook of George Shiras 3d which had been residing in a vault in Marquette contained lost pictures of Roosevelt during the trial. Though not specifically labeled, these were probably taken by Shiras himself. They are all contained within the book. I have also been giving presentations on the book, during which I have been showing these rare photos. Follow my website as more dates are set.