The 1908 Republican Presidential Convention was held in Chicago. President Theodore Roosevelt was not running. In 1901, as vice-president, he had been sworn in as president when William McKinley was assassinated six months into his second term. Elected in his own right when that term ended, Roosevelt had publicly vowed not to run again. He would groom William Howard Taft, his secretary of war, and then put him forward as his successor. During the four years of his term, however, Congress blocked many of Roosevelt’s initiatives and he came to regret his promise.
Still hugely popular as the 1908 convention neared, Roosevelt’s many supporters held hope that he could be drafted to run for one more term. One of them was Maud Neal, a young woman who had grown up in Kansas City. Her father was George Neal, the U.S. attorney for the area that included Kansas City.
In 1908, Maud worked as a reporter for a Chicago paper, and in June she covered the Republican convention. On June 18, she sat in the midst of many other reporters covering the convention. U.S. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge chaired the convention and gave a speech honoring Roosevelt’s many accomplishments.
“In the great American electorate,” Lodge said, “money has few votes, but it can command many voices and cause many birds to sing. The result is that the president is the best abused and the most popular man in the United States today. He has been more abused than any president except Washington, Lincoln and Grant. He possesses the love and confidence of the American people to a degree never equaled except by Lincoln and Washington.”
This seems to have triggered Neal. It certainly matched her feelings about the president, whom she fervently supported. She glanced around and saw no Roosevelt banners, flags, or pictures. She quickly rose from her chair to better see. Nothing.
Neal suddenly left the press section, exited the auditorium, and walked quickly along the street, seeking some picture of Roosevelt. Still nothing.
Until she glanced through the window of a plumber’s shop and saw a huge Teddy bear, seemingly relaxing as it sat in a chair. Neal walked through the door, picked up the bear, and turned to head back to the convention before a clerk appeared and got after her for attempting to steal his Teddy bear. She pulled his hands together, palms up, and emptied all the money from her purse into the bowl they now made. Before the clerk could say anything, she swept up the bear and hurried back to the convention.
She tried to hurry. The bear was five feet tall, and Neal stood only three inches higher.
Police and porters opened the gates and doors for her to enter, not asking for credentials, and escorted her to the hall’s runway. As soon as Neal entered the auditorium, people started grabbing for the bear and she had to hold it tightly as she made her way back to the press section.
By this time, the applause that had started with Lodge’s praise for Roosevelt had been going on for 15 minutes and started to flag. Lodge was getting ready to resume, but as he did so, Neal heaved the bear into the air over her fellow reporters.
That’s when things really took off. Neal’s fellow reporters kept the bear in the air for all to see. Someone took hold of the back of the bear’s head and started moving it so it looked like the bear nodded with approval while looking out over the cheering reaction. Others started moving the arms to make it look like the Teddy bear was conducting the cheering, and still other reporters moved the legs so it looked as if the bear was caught up in a euphoric dance of celebration. Then the bear was heaved into the middle of one of the delegations.
The cheering and shouting went on for over three-quarters of an hour. Taft still handily won the nomination and went on to win the 1908 presidential election.
That evening, the clerk from the plumber’s shop went to the owner of Neal’s newspaper and presented a bill for $15, saying the bear was worth $25. The owner smiled and gave him the $15.