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HOLY COW! HISTORY: Handling a Hostage Crisis, 1904 Style

Americans were appalled when Hamas seized 240 hostages during its October 7 attack on Israel. Among the hostages were several Americans, and the White House says there are seven Americans — one woman and six men — still unaccounted for.

People old enough to remember the Iranian hostage crisis or the Patty Hearst story know the political kidnapping of Americans is nothing new.

Consider, for a moment, how Washington handled an international hostage crisis in 1904.

Of the many odd people who’ve wandered into American history, Ion Perdicaris was among the strangest. His father immigrated from Greece in the early 1800s and married into a wealthy South Carolina family. Then, he doubled his fortune by investing in gas works up North.

Perdicaris was born into the lap of luxury in 1842. When the Civil War began, he hopped on a ship to Athens, handed over his American passport, and became a Greek citizen, hoping that would spare his family’s Southern property from destruction.

He eventually settled in Tangier, Morocco. There, he built a mansion called the “Place of Nightingales” filled with exotic animals. He studied Moroccan culture (which he loved), partied, wrote books, frequently went to New York on business, and even seduced a married Englishwoman — who left her husband and settled into Perdicaris’ mansion with her four children.

Fast forward to 1904. Morocco was led by a 26-year-old sultan who ruled like a tyrant at the head of a corrupt government. To say Morocco was a mess was putting it mildly. Sensing vulnerability, Britain, France and Germany came sniffing around, hoping to expand their empires. Which is where Mulai Ahmed er Raisuli enters the story.

Raisuli was the 33-year-old leader of a tribal confederacy bent on overthrowing Morocco’s government. Part pirate and thief, part heroic revolutionary, he was a Robin Hood combination of good and bad rolled into one. But on May 18, 1904, he bit off more than he bargained for.

Raisuli’s men kidnapped Perdicaris and his stepson, demanding $70,000 in ransom (about $2.25 million today).

President Teddy Roosevelt went ballistic. How dare a terrorist kidnap and hold a U.S. citizen hostage! (Because Perdicaris was so well-known in New York and the South, it was mistakenly assumed he was a U.S. citizen.)

Teddy dispatched seven battleships with hundreds of Marines. Their mission: If Morocco’s government didn’t end the hostage crisis pronto, the Marines would seize the customs houses, which bankrolled that nation’s economy. If Perdicaris was killed, they were to find, attack and destroy Raisuli’s gang.

As the warships steamed across the Atlantic, someone in the State Department stumbled upon an inconvenient fact: Perdicaris was a Greek citizen, not an American. Never one to let details stand in his way (this was, after all, the president who said, “I took the (Panama) canal zone and let Congress debate”), Teddy charged ahead as planned. Raisuli thought Perdicaris was an American when he seized him; that was good enough for the White House. (In fact, Washington kept Perdicaris’ nationality a secret for 29 years after the kidnapping.)

With the warships nearing Morocco, Washington furiously worked behind the scenes for a peaceful resolution. Britain and France pressured the sultan to give in to Raisuli’s demands. It looked like bloodshed would be avoided. But there was a problem.

1904 happened to be a presidential election year. While all this was going on, the Republican National Convention was underway in Chicago. Delegates were ho-hum about Teddy’s re-nomination. (Remember, the country had inherited him after McKinley’s murder three years earlier.) There was little excitement about the coming fall campaign.

Then, eight words changed everything.

After making a big show of flexing America’s military muscle, Teddy feared he would look weak accepting a peaceful settlement. Knowing Morocco’s sultan was about to meet the kidnapper’s demands, Secretary of State John Hay sent a bluntly simple communique to America’s ambassador in Morocco: “This government wants Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead.”

When the message was read to the convention, the delegates went wild. This was the famous Teddy Roosevelt they knew, the cowboy who had charged up San Juan Hill with guns blazing. Now, he was displaying courage and guts again, standing tall in the face of terrorism. The country rallied behind him as “Perdicaris alive or Raisuli dead” became a national catchphrase.

So when Raisuli, who was very much alive, released Perdicaris unharmed on June 21, the message was clear: Teddy had triumphed over the bad guys. Roosevelt sailed to re-election that November.

It’s easy to dismiss this episode as a comedic farce. No one was harmed, the U.S. wasn’t out anything but the cost of the coal to send its battleships across the Atlantic, the sultan was overthrown four years later, and Perdicaris and Raisuli even became friends during their time together.

But there was a serious side to what history now calls the Perdicaris Incident. When lives are at stake, Americans respond positively when a president displays courage. And while people cheer saber-rattling, they also expect our leaders to seize every opportunity to peacefully end a crisis.

Perhaps most important, nobody messed with Teddy Roosevelt again for the remainder of his presidency.

Washington can learn a lot today from that crisis back in 1904.

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HOLY COW! HISTORY: Teddy’s Traumatized Thanksgiving Turkey

Call it the first ‘Fake News’ White House feud. And it arrived just in time for the holiday season. Of 1904.

In the early days of the 20th century, Theodore Roosevelt’s brood burst into the White House in a whirlwind of activity unseen since Tad and Willie Lincoln ran wild there 50 years earlier. The children were, to use the polite wording of the day, rambunctious. The country was fascinated by its youthful president (he was 46 at the time) and his six energetic offspring. They made good copy, in newspaper jargon.

For example, they gave The Boston Herald a colorful story a few days before Thanksgiving. It described how when a live turkey was delivered to the White House for the First Family’s feast, the youngest Roosevelt kids gleefully chased it around the grounds. They tormented the animal and even plucked its feathers as it ran. TR supposedly watched the scene with great amusement.

Not content to let a good thing go, a Herald columnist called “The Chatterer” wrote the next day, “Apparently the Roosevelt children are chips off the old block and possess their full share of juvenile irresponsibleness. But why should they be allowed to torment and frighten an innocent turkey?”

But Teddy wasn’t laughing when the story reached his desk. In fact, he blew a gasket.

He was so worked up, he ranted about it during a Cabinet meeting, where his agriculture secretary helpfully pointed out it’s impossible to pluck a running turkey’s feathers.

The whole thing was a lie, the president growled. He explained the bird had arrived dead, dressed, and ready to cook, so his kids couldn’t have chased it, much less pulled off its feathers. Roosevelt vowed he would “stop newspaper stories of that kind.”

So, early that same evening the White House press shop issued a news release saying, “No such incident as that recited in the Herald has ever taken place since the president has been in the White House.” It went on to say the story, “marks the culmination of a long series of similar falsehoods, usually malicious and always deliberate, which have appeared in the news columns of the Boston Herald.”

And it didn’t stop there. Teddy was so furious, he banned the reporter who wrote the original account from the White House and instructed all federal agencies to give the Herald the silent treatment.

Painted into a journalistic corner, the newspaper fired back. It made a half-hearted mea culpa by admitting, “…the Herald finds that it has been the means of circulating statements which have no foundation in truth.” Then it proceeded to point out Roosevelt had made several erroneous statements. A rival paper called the apology “a trifle sarcastic.”

Now it was on in earnest as newspapers around the country weighed in. Minnesota’s St. Paul Globe opined, “It is an outrage that a public man should be pilloried through his children.” In the bombastic Southern manner of the era, the Charleston, S.C. Post took it a step further saying the reporter should be “condemned to be shot from the mouth of a cannon on the Washington Monument.”

But it ceased being a laughing matter when the U.S. Weather Bureau in Boston stopped giving the Herald its weather maps and New England forecasts.

That was too much even for Roosevelt supporters, who began criticizing him for going too far. The Manchester Union in New Hampshire got straight to the point, calling the president’s response, “censorship and nothing else.”

Maybe the Yuletide spirit brought a little peace on earth and goodwill toward men that season. Because as December drew to a close, the crisis quietly faded away. The whole laughable incident concluded with a chuckle.

The Chicago Tribune ended the saga the day after Christmas with one of the best one-line news reports of all time: “There were no White House turkey stories in the esteemed Boston Herald yesterday.”

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