In February of 1903, Alice Roosevelt and Edith Root, daughter of (then) Secretary of War Elihu Root, embarked on a trip to Louisiana for Mardi Gras. Although they arrived on the same train with General Joseph Wheeler and his daughters, as well as Rear Admiral Winfield Scott Schley, the news outlets were fixated on the girls. People became fascinated by news of which society events the girls would attend. False rumors began to spread that Ms. Roosevelt was to be crowned Queen of the Comus Ball. Roosevelt was indeed the main attraction at many events, although she wrote that she felt that the lovely Root, pictured below, may have had an even better time. Other reports paint Root as being in mourning still from her grandfather's death in December. In the years following, Root would again make the headlines by marrying Ulysses S. Grant III, son of Frederick Dent Grant and grandson of the ex-president.
Edith Root. Image from Ainslee's Magazine, May 1902.
The girls spent the week with the family of John McIlhenny, a Rough Rider friend of Theodore Roosevelt and the head of the Tabasco sauce empire. Although the family lived on Avery Island, they stayed in the city off Prytania Street for much of February at the home of banker James T. Hayden while the Haydens were away in Egypt. Carnival week is filled with events from the competing krewes and secret societies. Alice described their whirlwind schedule. “For a week we went nearly every evening to a carnival ball, the Atlanteans, Momus, Proteus, and Comus, and to a small dance, the Carnival German, and to a benefit opera as well!”
Using historic newspaper records I have recreated the girls' schedule for Mardi Gras week:
February 17 – Atlanteans Ball
February 19 – Momus Ball
February 20 – Luncheon held by Mrs. Pearl White; Carnival German
February 21 – Luncheon held by the Misses Miles; dinner given by McIlhennys; Momus Ball
February 22 – Luncheon held by Mrs. Westfeldt
February 23 – Rex’s parade; dinner held by Mrs. Robert Parker; Proteus Ball
February 24 – Luncheon held by Mrs. Charles A Whitney, Mrs. W. G. Vincent, and Mrs. Ratcliff Irby; Comus Ball
MARDI GRAS DAY
February 25 – Ash Wednesday
February 26 – Leave for a weekend stay on Avery Island
February 27 – Dinner in a salt mine
At the opening festivities at the Atlanteans ball, held at a French opera house, the girls “were the center of attraction in a galaxy of the most beautiful young society women of the city,” according to the Baltimore Sun. The guests of honor were presented with honorary royal decrees. (The following month, J. T. Witherspoon, King of the Carnival, sent an official patent of nobility, as the one presented during the festivities was temporary.) The actual Queen of the Carnival that year was Ingersoll Minge, who would coincidentally die months later in a drowning while boating with two others.
Mardi Gras Queen Ingersoll Minge. The Times-Democrat (New Orleans), March 8, 1903.
In true Alice fashion, her actions kept her hosts on their toes. According to the Tabasco archives, McIlhenny’s son Jack later recounted that while John and Alice were walking through a courtyard, Alice pushed the elder McIlhenny into the water. His mother, Mary Eliza Avery McIlhenny, began scolding Alice before John jumped in and reminded her that it was the president’s daughter she was speaking to. The girls also had a chance to get out and play tourist a bit. On a trip to the Crescent City Jockey Club with Rear Admiral Schley and General Wheeler, Roosevelt (an avid equestrian like her father) bet on a long shot mare named L’Etrenne, who ended up winning to everyone’s disbelief. The horse’s owner, Edward Corrigan, sent Roosevelt a horseshoe from L’Etrenne after hearing the story.
Those unhappy with Roosevelt’s visit also captured the attention of the presses. One notable Mardi Gras celebration, held by the secret society “Seven Wise Men,” declined to invite Roosevelt due to her father’s support of African American progress. News of the snub made national headlines.
The Atlanta Constitution, left, and Buffalo Enquirer, right, cover the Mardi Gras invite controversy.
A representative for the group, Will Hinks, disputed those claims, though. “Please say for me that our members are gentlemen, and would not countenance such an affront to the daughter of the chief executive of the nation.” Hinks said that Roosevelt’s attendance would be an honor, and hints that the person who sent reports of the contrary would likely be resigning soon. Read his full response below.
Following the Mardis Gras festivities the girls continued their travels, first to Avery Island to the McIlhennys' estate. The island was home to the world’s largest salt mine at the time, and the family held a reception for Ms. Roosevelt inside the mine, with tables and chairs carved from salt, and a statue of Lot’s wife also fittingly made of salt. While I could not find photos from the event itself, I did come across this photo in the Library of Congress of the mines, which gives you an idea of the potential.
Following their visit in Louisiana, the girls continued on to the islands of St. Vincent and Martinique. In a thank you note to Mrs. McIlhenny upon returning home, Alice said, “I don’t ever expect to have quite such a good time again.”
Be sure to check back next week for our blog post about the McIlhenny family, and another coming soon for Women's History Month about our efforts to track down all of the "Mrs." mentioned in records, including the women above in the luncheon schedule.
For more on Alice and her Mardi Gras trip:
Cordery, Stacy A. Alice: Alice Roosevelt Longworth, from White House Princess to Washington Power Broker. Penguin, 2008.