Theodore Roosevelt’s Hunting Knife
By Joel Kolander
To say that Teddy Roosevelt is a well-known, beloved, and important character in American history is an understatement. Though fame tends to find perspective when one’s face has been immortalized with granite in the Badlands of South Dakota. TR was admired across the nation. He had a robust personality, gave profound speeches, lived his beliefs, and changed the face of this country forever with his efforts in wildlife and habitat conservation. Whether leading the legendary Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, embarking on prolific hunting adventures, offering “Square Deals” to his constituents, surviving an assassination attempt on his life, winning the Nobel Peace Prize, or beginning construction of the Panama Canal, the tales of Teddy Roosevelt’s life have become part of the fabric of this nation’s great history.
It should come as no surprise that a knife once owned by President Roosevelt also has more than a few tales to tell. Its origin begins in 1909 when TR received this national treasure from his good friend New York Supreme Court Justice James W. Gerard. Both men served in the Spanish-American War, but upon leaving the service found opposite ends of the political spectrum. They likely became acquainted in the New York political scene when Roosevelt served as the New York governor for two years and Gerard sat on the Supreme Court bench. The story of the knife’s presentation is recalled best in the words of U.S. Marshal Thomas D. McCarthy, whom Justice Gerard had asked present the hunting knife to Roosevelt with the following instructions,
“‘Be sure to get a coin, a penny from the President when you give him the knife,’ the Justice told me. ‘Remember the old superstition that a gift of that sort cuts friendship unless a small payment is made for it.’
When I gave Colonel Roosevelt the knife I asked him for the penny. He didn’t have one in his pocket, neither did his secretary Mr. Loeb, neither did Senator Chamberlain who was present. So I volunteered: ‘Here, Mr. President. I’ll lend you a cent.’ He took it and put it in his vest pocket.
After ten minutes of conversation during which time he gave me an autographed photograph for myself and a book for my father who always admired him, the President suddenly reached into his pocket, withdrew the coin and said: ‘Mr. McCarthy, it gives me great pleasure to hand you in return for Judge Gerard’s gift this one cent coin.’ Ever since then I have prized the photograph and the book Mr. Roosevelt gave me is one of the most cherished possessions of my father. And I always have been proud of the fact that a President of the United States owed me a penny.”
The knife was considered an extremely lavish gift and wore a 1909 price tag of $1,250, about $33,266 in 2016 dollars. It was such a send off to the nation’s youngest president, that it warranted national news coverage. In Rock Island, Illinois, the city’s newspaper at that time was the Rock Island Argus. On Thursday, March 10, 1909 they printed at article on the sixth page entitled, “Fine Knife for Roosevelt.” It reads as follows:
“Gem Studded Hunting Weapon Presented to Ex-President by a Friend.
One of the handsomest of the presents that have been pouring in upon former President Roosevelt from friends in every part of the United States who have wished to give him some token of their friendship to carry with him on his African hunting trip is a hunting knife given him by Justice James W. Gerard of the supreme bench of New York city, who is an old friend of the ex-president. The weapon is a masterpiece of jeweler’s workmanship, the hilt being wrought in gold and platinum and ornamented with jewels. The top of the handle is carved in the shape of an eagle’s head of solid gold. The eagle’s eyes are garnets.
On one side of the hilt beneath the eagle’s head is depicted a forest scene, with two American Indians behind a birch tree, one of them standing, rifle in hand, the other crouching. The tree is done in gold upon a platinum background. On the reverse side is set the arms of the United States, surmounting a wishbone and intertwining tree boughs in gold. Below is the monogram ‘T.R.’ The background on this side is also of platinum. Two bears’ heads extending out from the handle form the guard at the base of the blade, which is of the finest steel and engraved as follows: ‘Presented to Theodore Roosevelt by His Friend, James W. Gerard.’ The knife is nearly a foot long and is said to have cost $1,250.”
One item of note not covered in the Argus article is that of the knife’s creator. That honor belongs to two separate companies: J. Russell and Co. of Green River, New York whose stamp is on the blade, and Dreicer & Co., whose name is printed on the handle’s edge. It should be of significant note to collectors that Dreicer & Co, despite being in business only from 1904 – 1923, were a top jewelry retailer and a direct rival to such well-known names as Fabergé. With the split of duties for the blade and the highly ornamented handle, it is unknown which shop performed the acid etched inscription.
The knife has been passed down through the Roosevelt family for the last 107 years. It has never been made available to the public prior to this sale. When Theodore died in 1919, the knife went to his second wife, Edith (his first wife, Alice, passed in 1884). Edith in turn bequeathed the knife to her eldest daughter Ethel Roosevelt Derby. Mrs. Derby intended to present the knife as a wedding gift to her granddaughter in 1976. To secure the knife during her cross-country travels from Oyster Bay to Seattle, Mrs. Derby kept the knife in her purse. However, this was cause for alarm at the security checkpoint in John F. Kennedy International Airport, in New York City. Upon seeing this incredible knife and hearing its story, security allowed the knife to be transported by the pilot in the cockpit for the duration of the flight. Upon landing, it was returned to Mrs. Derby who presented the knife to the couple several days later at their wedding. Thrilled with such a historic and beautiful gift rife with family history, the couple immediately used it to cut their wedding cake.
The stories this knife can tell after scant more than a century are enough to endear it to the heart of any collector or history enthusiast. Even without the tales that have truly given this item a personality all its own, its provenance alone elevates its status to that of National Treasure. A hunting knife given to arguably the greatest conservationist and one of the most well-known hunters of the 20th century? What could be more perfect representation? Rock Island Auction Company is honored to present this perfect slice of American history to the public for the first time in its existence, and cannot wait to hear of the new adventures in which it partakes.
“Fine Knife for Roosevelt.” Rock Island Argus 11 Mar. 1909: 6. Print.
Herbert, Thomas. Theodore Roosevelt: Typical American, His Life and Work. United States: L.H. Walter, 1919. 341-42. Print.