The River of Doubt

Roosevelt nearly died while exploring an uncharted stretch of the Amazon. It was his final adventure

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Theodore Roosevelt had carried the lethal dose of morphine with him for years. He had taken it to the American West, to the African savanna and, finally, down the River of Doubt--a twisting tributary deep in the Amazon rain forest. The glass vial was small enough to tuck into a leather satchel or slip into his luggage, nearly invisible beside his books, his socks and his eight extra pairs of eyeglasses. Easily overlooked, it was perhaps the most private possession of one of the world's most public men.

In December 1913, Roosevelt, then 55, and a small group of men embarked on a journey to explore and map Brazil's River of Doubt. Almost from the start, the expedition went disastrously wrong. Just three months later, as Roosevelt lay on a rusting cot inside his expedition's last remaining tent listening to the roar of the river, he clutched the vial that he had carried for so long. Shivering violently, his body wracked with fever, he concluded that the time had come to take his own life.

In the span of a few days, Roosevelt, once America's youngest President and among its most vigorous, had become a feverish, at times delirious, invalid. He was suffering from malaria and had developed a potentially deadly bacterial infection after slicing his leg on a boulder. In the sweltering rain forest, the cut had quickly become infected, causing his leg to redden and swell and sending his temperature soaring to 105°F. At the same time, the expedition had reached a set of seemingly impassable rapids. Roosevelt's Brazilian co-commander, Colonel Cândido Rondon, had announced that they would have to abandon their canoes and strike out into the jungle--every man for himself. "To all of us," one of them wrote, "his report was practically a sentence of death." For Roosevelt, who could barely sit up, much less fight his way through the rain forest, the plan was simply an impossibility.

He made his decision that night. Before the first rays of sunlight seeped through the thin tent walls, he summoned his remaining strength and called out to George Cherrie, a naturalist who, along with Roosevelt's son Kermit, had been keeping a vigil over the feverish ex-President. Turning to his friend and his son, Roosevelt said, "Boys, I realize that some of us are not going to finish this journey. Cherrie, I want you and Kermit to go on. You can get out. I will stop here."

Roosevelt had set sail for South America in the fall of 1913, not quite a year after his failed attempt to regain the presidency. As a third-party candidate vying for a third term, he had split the Republican vote, putting a Democrat, Woodrow Wilson, in the White House for the first time in 16 years. After the election, Roosevelt found himself a pariah, ridiculed by his enemies and hated by many of his old Republican friends and backers. Hunkered down at Sagamore Hill, his secluded home in Oyster Bay, N.Y., he fought to stave off depression and despair.

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