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Teddy Roosevelt on a Moose: Fake News, or Fake Fake News?

President Theodore Roosevelt was larger than life, in many ways. He explored the Amazon. He delivered a campaign speech after being shot. (“The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best,” he told the horrified audience.) He was the very first president both to drive a car and fly in a plane. He got into a bar fight in a tiny town called Wibaux, Montana. And on at least one occasion, Roosevelt rode in a saddle on a moose. There’s even a photo of that last thing: Teddy in his iconic white safari hat, perched atop an antlered beast as it fords a body of water flanked by evergreens. The legs of our 26th president dangled in the water.

It’s fitting, somehow, to find Roosevelt in this unusual position. (The man did at one point have a pet bear named Jonathan Edwards.) The problem is that this particular ride never happened. The image is doctored—a photograph of the president that was cut and glued atop a picture of a moose. Up close, the famous photo is easy to identify as a sham: The seams around his legs and hands are messy and indicate foul play. (Anybody who knows much about moose wouldn’t need to make a close inspection. The wild creatures are not exactly friendly, and they certainly don’t appreciate being ridden.) Yet the image, ripe with the juicy mythology of a president who could sometimes seem as though he’d ridden out of a tall tale, has been shared far and wide, and treated as the real deal. Today, you can find it printed onto mugs, posters, and even cheeky T-shirts.

Its fakeness too has become iconic. Roosevelt is often trotted out astride his moose for discussions of the problem of deepfakes. The picture makes the point that photo manipulation isn’t some new phenomenon. I’ve used it myself, pointing out that the spread of misinformation and doctored images didn’t suddenly pop up with the release of Photoshop in 1990. In fact, just recently, I found myself about to make this very point—with this very photo as the illustration—in a book I’m writing about the future, based on my podcast Flash Forward.

Then it occurred to me how little I really knew about the picture’s origin. It was clearly fake, that much was obvious. But who had done the faking, and for what reason? And was its awkward cutting and pasting really meant to be deceptive? Had Teddy put it out himself to show how badass he was? Or had a rival put it out to try and catch him in a lie? What exactly are we debunking here? I also didn’t know, right then, that trying to find out more about this photograph would send me down a rabbit hole of digitization, historical memory, fake news, and questions about how and why we share things at all.

Here’s what I can say conclusively: The image was created in 1912 by a photography firm called Underwood and Underwood, as part of a political triptych showing each of that year’s presidential candidates cut and pasted atop the animal that represented his political party. On the left, William Howard Taft sits on an elephant; on the right, Woodrow Wilson is on a donkey. In the middle, Roosevelt “rides” his trusty moose, there to signify his Bull Moose party.

Somewhere along the way, between 1912 and now, the photograph of Teddy and the moose escaped the confines of its context and found a new life as a stand-alone image. By 2011, it was popping up in posts like Cracked's "18 Old-Timey Photos You Won't Believe Aren't Photoshopped," which claimed: “This picture is real, this scene existed, and yes, at one point in our history, you could have actually voted for this man.” Posts like this were then debunked in turn by other blog posts, like Gizmodo’s “That Famous Photo of Teddy Roosevelt Riding a Moose is Fake.” Round and round we go again.

How and when, in the midst of that 99-year span, did this photograph get separated from its original use? And did anybody during Roosevelt’s life, or even just after, actually believe that this image was real? I’ve now spent months trying to find out—not just because I am the kind of person who will let questions like these consume me for days to weeks on end (which is true), but also because the answers change the nature of the example at hand. If nobody thought the photo was real at the time, is this really akin to today’s “fake news”?

In my quest I’ve contacted librarians, archivists and historians. Almost all these sources replied with some variation of what William Tilchin, the editor of the Theodore Roosevelt Association Journal, told me: “Sorry, but I do not know the answer to your interesting question.” None of the five biographers of Teddy Roosevelt I got in touch with had any idea, nor did scholars of topics such as the particular strain of American rugged manliness that this photograph so clearly illustrates.

For those of you who are impatient, I’ll spoil the end of this quest now: I still don’t have a clear answer. But I do think the journey is illustrative.

First, a few well-informed speculations. Based on my research, I think it’s fair to say that Underwood and Underwood was not trying to mislead anybody into thinking that then-candidate Roosevelt had, in fact, ridden on a moose. The firm was respected and “did very little manipulation,” Karen Sieber, Interim Outreach Coordinator of the Theodore Roosevelt Center, told me. “This is a rare exception.” And most readers at the time would have understood the visual connection between Teddy and a moose as primarily a reference to his party, not a nod to his rugged outdoorsiness.

I would also suggest that the original triptych (called “The Race for the White House”) wasn’t actually seen by that many people back in 1912. The photograph seems to have been published in only three or four newspapers, including the New York Tribune, the Times Dispatch from Richmond, Virginia, Rochester's Democrat and Chronicle and the San Francisco Call. This itself is unusual. “I spend a lot of time in historic newspaper databases, and papers generally reprinted things word for word,” Sieber says. She was surprised to see the triptych wasn't reprinted widely at the time. There's no indication whatsoever that Roosevelt on a moose, let alone Taft astride an elephant or Wilson on a donkey, “went viral” in the 1910s.

In fact, the photograph, and references to it, quickly vanished after September 1912. The triptych does not seem to be reprinted after its first publication, and the photograph of Roosevelt doesn’t appear again in any newspaper archive that I could access. In other words, Teddy and his moose seem to have entered a long period of dormancy, like a 100-year presidential cicada.

We know the photo lived on, in physical space, during these decades. Sieber came across a mention of the picture in a 1958 gossip column from the Allentown Register. The author describes an antique shop in Vermont this way: “On the wall were swirled picture frames confining the activities of Abe Lincoln, U.S. Grant, Ted Roosevelt riding a bull moose, and Will McKinley glaring from behind cut-glass china.” But this picture in the background wouldn’t take on a life of its own until many years later.

One clue as to how and when Teddy and his moose might have slipped the triptych lies in the photo credit provided for it in recent times. When websites bother to source the image (which they rarely do), they usually give some variation of the following: "Unspecified – 1900: Theodore Roosevelt riding a moose. (Photo by Underwood And Underwood/Underwood And Underwood/The Life Picture Collection via Getty Images)." Of course, we know that the photo is from 1912, not 1900; but the rest of this offers another avenue of inquiry.

Life Magazine began publishing in 1883, and was purchased in November 1936 by magazine mogul Henry Luce. Before Luce acquired the publication, Life was a humorous weekly styled after the British magazine Punch. But the new owner wanted absolutely nothing to do with that content; he simply wanted the rights to the name, and quickly shifted the publication’s focus to photojournalism.

Getty Images formed a partnership with the Life Picture Collection in 2003. A Getty spokesperson declined to comment on the record, but did tell me that the photograph never ran in Life under Henry Luce’s reign. If Life ever did publish it, the relevant issue would have had to have come out before 1936. With the help of a nearby library, I combed through every edition of the magazine from 1912 to 1936, and found no sign of our moose. (Yes, that’s a lot of pages. Yes, there are a lot of funny old ads.)

Here’s what probably happened: Life at some point acquired a collection of photographs from Underwood and Underwood for potential use. These were slowly digitized in the early 2000s. As the Life photo collection began making its image archives easier to browse online, people discovered the mooseback pic and delighted in it anew. The rest, as they say, is history.

This tracks with the rest of what we know. Heather Cole, a librarian, wrote the quintessential Teddy-Roosevelt-never-rode-a-moose blog post back in 2013. At the time, she was the curator of the Theodore Roosevelt Collection at the Houghton Library at Harvard University. She thinks that the image took on a life of its own in the early days of internet virality. “That particular image of TR, along with a lot of other similar content framing him as a mega-badass or a jingoistic bloodthirsty hero, started appearing around 2010-11,” she wrote to me in an email. (I found a handful of earlier examples, like this motivational poster from 2009 on a website called “The Art of Manliness;” but the photo really seems to get more popular in 2010.) Before that, Cole says, she had never seen the image at all.

It’s illustrative to take a look at what else was popular online during the 2000s and 2010s. In 2005, the site Something Awful published a Chuck Norris Fact Generator, which provided readers with “facts” about the action TV star such as: “Chuck Norris does not sleep. He waits;” and “Fire escapes were invented to protect fire from Chuck Norris.” It would be easy to create one of these for Teddy Roosevelt: “Teddy Roosevelt doesn’t play with bears, he is one.” In 2006, George Ouzounian (better known online as Maddox) published a book called The Alphabet of Manliness, based on his incredibly popular blog. In 2012, at peak-look-at-Teddy-riding-a-moose time, we also had the “Overly Manly Man” meme—a black and white photograph of a boxer named Mike Conley who looks like just the sort of gent who might be friends with Teddy (or else his mortal enemy). When Life added the moose-riding president to its database in 2003, this ironic manliness trend was just about to break.

So where does this leave us? I still don’t know for sure that people knew the photograph was a fake in 1912. (If they didn’t, we might reasonably conclude they also believed that President Taft had really ridden an elephant, or that Wilson was foolish enough to be photographed atop a donkey. I mean, I guess that’s possible?) At the same time, I do know that some people today take the picture at face value. Which ultimately means that this may not, in fact, be the perfect illustration of the point I’d been trying to make in my book, that photographically driven “fake news” has been around for at least a century. But maybe it doesn’t matter. Maybe what the photograph signifies instead is that the internet has its own, special way of processing history through a kaleidoscope of selective forgetting, memes, and exaggeration. The Teddy photo is perfect fuel for this cultural machine: It’s absurd, it’s old-timey, it’s “epic.” And maybe it doesn’t matter if it’s true.

Who cares if Teddy ever rode a moose? Can’t you just have a laugh and move on? Debunking images that spread during breaking news events is celebrated as important journalistic work, while debunking pictures that are “fun” and old is deemed a drag. But it’s important to examine how and why we remember things the way we do. Getting to the bottom of Teddy and his moose helps us understand what makes an image believable, viral, sticky. And understanding that can help us guard against being fooled when it actually matters.


Updated, 3/24/2020, 7:51 pm EST:
An earlier version of this story incorrectly described the town of Wibaux as being in Texas, not Montana.

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