Researcher of the Month
History and Political Science majors, Class of 2020
Research Mentor: Dr. Nancy Tomes, History Department
Nava Berger is currently working under the direction of Professor Nancy Tomes on her History honors senior thesis: “Theodore Roosevelt’s Assassination Incident of 1903.” Nava's thesis expands a paper she wrote as a junior for Prof. Tomes’ History 401 class on Presidential Assassinations, and manifests a long-time interest in the life and times of Theodore Roosevelt. Since age 16, Nava has volunteered and been a tour guide at Sagamore Hill National Historic site, immersed in the physical surroundings and living history of the “Summer White House” of the 26th President of the United States. Asked about the challenge of researching and writing a senior thesis on this episode in Theodore Roosevelt's history, Nava responds: “For me, the topic was so clear because of all the time I have spent at Sagamore Hill. Writing a senior thesis is a lot of work. But I love the topic of my research, so truly I enjoy working on it. My advice for those interested in writing a thesis would be to find a topic that they are passionate about. It makes the whole process a lot more exciting!”
This past January, Nava was awarded a URECA travel grant to fund her research at the Library of Congress in Washington DC where she had the opportunity to explore the Alice Roosevelt Longworth Collection and examine the diaries and letters of Alice Roosevelt. Nava has presented a talk at the History Department Annual Conference (URECA 2019), and will be presenting at the upcoming SURC Downstate undergraduate research Conference at Old Westbury in April ; and the on-campus URECA undergraduate research symposium event in May.
At Stony Brook, Nava has also been active as a Roth Regatta Committee member, a Hall Council Senator, and an intern in the Vote Everywhere Program. She also has interned in summers and winter breaks for the Suffolk County Legislature (Page Program, Smithtown); and the Office of Suffolk County Legislator Susan A. Berland of the 16th District. Nava will be attending law school following graduation. She is a graduate of Schechter HS of Long Island in Williston Park. Below are excerpts of her interview with Karen Kernan, URECA Director.
Karen. Tell me about your senior thesis project. What first got you interested in your project?
Nava. My thesis is titled “Theodore Roosevelt’s Assassination Incident of 1903.” I’m building on a paper that I started in my 401 class, Presidential Assassinations, taught by Professor Tomes (HIS:401). The topic of my paper was an obvious choice, given that I started volunteering at Sagamore Hill, the home of Theodore Roosevelt, when I was 16 and continued into my first years of college. Having been a tour guide, surrounded by Roosevelt history for years, it seemed natural to write about a topic related to Theodore Roosevelt.
The “incident” happened in September 1903. A man named Henry Weilbrenner was convinced that President Roosevelt had spoken to him and promised that he could marry Alice, Roosevelt’s daughter. This never actually happened and was a delusion of Weilbrenner’s. Determined to talk to the President, Weilbrenner drove his carriage to Sagamore Hill. When he arrived, he told security that he had an appointment to meet with the President. Security turned him away because it was late at night and way past visiting hours. Weilbrenner left. A short time later he came back to Sagamore Hill, again asking to speak to the President. Security told him to leave and warned him that if he returned again he would be arrested. A short time later, Weilbrenner came to Sagamore Hill for the third time. He was arrested and a loaded gun was found in his carriage. My research deals both with what actually happened that night and how newspapers reported on it. I found that newspapers that covered this event printed one of three versions. The first was that Weilbrenner came to the house three times, there was a gun in the carriage, and he was arrested without resistance. The second version starts the same as the first, but then adds new information such as Weilbrenner resisting arrest, Theodore stepping outside to see what was going on, and that Weilbrenner had been practicing shooting his gun with the intention of assassination. The third version is the most “sensational.” This version claims that Weilbrenner got within a hundred feet of Theodore and had his gun pointed at the President. It also claims that Weilbrenner was not alone in this plot to assassinate the President. It’s hard to know what was truth and what was made up in an attempt to sell newspapers. The incident happened during the time of sensational journalism, when the goal of many papers was profit and not factual reporting. As I look at these newspaper accounts, I ask “how far did they stretch the story?”
So “fake news” was an issue?
Yes, one could say that. Interestingly, there are historians who have quoted these newspapers in their books. I believe that some of these newspapers accounts were wrong, and therefore the information in the historical books are wrong as well. I have yet to find a historical recounting of the incident that goes further than what was written in the newspaper quoted. The sensational information presented as being factual is concerning to me, and I want to set the historical record straight. So far, I have found that the New York Times had the closest account of what I believed happened.
Tell me about the kind of research involved in doing your thesis project. You recently
received a URECA travel grant to do library research. What resources were you able
to use that weren’t available electronically?
This past January I went to the Library of Congress where the Alice Roosevelt Longworth collection is housed. Alice is Theodore Roosevelt’s daughter, the woman that Henry Weilbrenner wanted to marry. Her collection is only available in person. I was able to look at her diary, letters written to her, and newspaper clippings she had kept. It was an amazing experience. Because of my trip, I’ve been able to look at diary entries from around the time of the incident to see if she had written anything about it. The process of going through the entries is still ongoing, but so far it appears that Alice wrote absolutely nothing about the incident. She also kept no letters about the incident or newspaper clippings that mention it.
Did Theodore Roosevelt himself write anything about the incident?
Two nights before I was going to present my then 401 research at last year’s URECA conference, I stumbled upon a letter written by Theodore about the incident. I had gone almost the entire semester without knowing it existed and it was a very exciting discovery. It was like the missing puzzle piece. His letter all but stated that my suspicions were correct in that nothing of much excitement happened. The letter, written to his Secretary of State, said “there was nothing whatever in that crazy man incident.” He noted that because Weilbrenner came in a carriage there was no danger of him getting past the security, as well as that security “simply arrested him” which tells us that there was no resist to arrest. He said that by the next day the family had already forgotten that anything had happened.
Is there evidence that Henry Weilbrenner met Alice?
We don’t know if he ever met Alice. But Alice was the celebrity of the time period, and she was the “first daughter” which was a big deal. She was in the newspapers almost daily, with every event she attended and a description of every outfit she wore printed in the press. Weilbrenner may have felt like he knew her, the same way people feel today about celebrities that they’ve never met.
What has surprised you, from your research findings so far?
When I first started looking into this, the only information about Weilbrenner was in articles dealing with the incident, which varied in their description of him. I wanted to understand who he was, where he came from, and how long he lived for. All I knew was that after the incident he was declared “insane” and sent to Kings Park Psychiatric Center where he spent the rest of his life. Through my research I found documents that describe him exactly, such as census records and draft cards. I must say, it was particularly interesting to find that Weilbrenner had a draft card even though he was committed to Kings Park Psychiatric Center and had been declared “insane.”
Do you still stay in touch with the people you worked with as a Sagamore Hill volunteer?
Are they aware that you are working on this project?
They know all about it! I am very lucky to have the people who work and have worked at Sagamore Hill in my life. They have all taught me so much and are a large part of why I am who I am today. In regards to my research, the museum technicians are helping me go through Alice’s journal entries. They’re the best, I can’t thank them enough, and I don’t know what I would do without them!
Tell me a little more about the 401 class that you took, the class that led to your
senior thesis on this topic.
My 401 class was taught by Professor Tomes and was on the topic of presidential assassinations. We learned about the assassinations of course, but we also focused on who the assassins were as well as how the country reacted to each assassination. It was a very interesting class and I greatly enjoyed taking it. Professor Tomes is an incredible professor and I’m very honored that she invited me to continue my 401 research as an honors thesis.
In working on your senior thesis project, have you noticed a development in your own
I am a lot more confident in my abilities and in myself. When I first started this topic for my paper, I had some background knowledge and I was interested in what I was doing. But now, I really know what I’m talking about. I know that I am capable of writing a research paper, capable of finding the sources and capable of solving the mystery of what happened –I wouldn’t have been that confident years ago!
What is the most difficult or challenging part of doing a thesis project?
For me, the topic was so clear because of all the time I have spent at Sagamore Hill. Writing a senior thesis is a lot of work. But I love the topic of my research, so truly I enjoy working on it. My advice for those interested in writing a thesis would be to find a topic that they are passionate about. It makes the whole process a lot more exciting!
Do you have any advice for other students?
Find a project or a topic that you are really interested in, that’s important. I would also say that when you’re looking at sources and a source doesn’t seem like it will be worthwhile, look at it anyway. You never know what you’re going to find. More than once I was ready to give up on a source, but I didn’t and I ended up finding exactly what I needed.
...discovering something by chance?
Yes, that can be the most exciting! I found the letter Theodore wrote by chance and some Weilbrenner records by chance as well. The more you research, the more practice you get, and the better you are at realizing small connections that can lead to exciting results.
Are you planning to present the work you’ve done for your thesis?
We hope to submit my finished thesis to history journals. I presented at URECA last year and I will present again—but now I have a lot more stuff! I plan on presenting my research in poster format this year. It’s a little unusual for history students to present a poster because the History Department has their own departmental conference which takes place in a separate location from the larger URECA conference. I would like to bring history research to the larger conference so everyone can see the amazing work being done in the department!