History Notes: Theodore Roosevelt and John Schrank

Theodore Roosevelt (left) and the man who attempted to assassinate him: John Schrank (right).
Theodore Roosevelt (left) and the man who attempted to assassinate him: John Schrank (right).
Most school children have read about Theodore Roosevelt. He was known as an explorer, historian, politician and a great naturalist. He became the 26th president of the United States. He was elected as vice president along with William McKinley on March 4, 1901. Only six months into office, President McKinley was assassinated and Theodore Roosevelt became president.

His life previous to the presidency was a fascinating adventure of a sickly child suffering from asthma who by force of will became a physically robust and healthy person. There have been hundreds of books and articles written about this president and most historians agree that he is one of the four most influential and effective presidents in American history. His face is carved on Mt. Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

He was born to a wealthy New York City family and home-schooled for much of his youth. He attended Harvard University where he studied biology, boxed and developed an interest in naval affairs. In 1881 he was elected to the New York State assembly and wrote a book entitled the Naval War of 1812 which established him as a learned historian and writer.

His first wife, Alice, died two days after giving birth in February 1984. Heartbroken and in despair, he temporarily left politics and became a rancher in the Dakotas. A bitter winter and fierce blizzards destroyed his cattle, so he decided to give up ranching and return to New York City politics.

He ran and lost the race for mayor. In the 1890s, he took vigorous charge of the city police as New York City police commissioner. By 1897 he was running the Navy Department. When war broke out with Spain in 1898, he formed the famous Rough Riders, a combination composed of wealthy Easterners and Western cowboys. He gained international fame for his charge up San Juan Hill in the famous episode known the Charge of the Rough Riders. Immediately after the war he returned to New York and was elected governor. After one year as governor he was nominated for vice president to run with William McKinley. The campaign issues were for prosperity, national honor, imperialism, high tariffs and the gold standard.

After President William McKinley was assassinated, Theodore Roosevelt became president of the United States. He called his domestic policies a square deal. He was inaugurated at the age of 42 and became the youngest president in history up to that time. He attempted to move the GOP toward trust busting and increased regulation of businesses.

After finishing up the first term, he was re-elected in a landslide over conservative Democrat Alton Brooks Parker. He was committed to breaking up monopolistic corporations, holding down railroad rates, and guaranteeing pure food and drugs.

He was the first president to speak out on conservation and he greatly expanded the system of national parks and national forests. By 1907 he proposed many radical reforms which were blocked by the conservative Republicans in Congress’s. His foreign policy focused on the Caribbean, where he built the Panama Canal, and infrastructure to guard its approaches. This is when he made a famous speech and introduced the slogan “speak softly and carry a big stick.”

At the end of his second term, Roosevelt threw his complete support behind his close friend William Howard Taft for the 1908 Republican nomination. Upon leaving office, Roosevelt departed upon a lengthy tour of Africa and Europe. On his return in 1910, he was shocked by the path the government had taken and quarreled with President Taft on issues of progressivism. In the 1912 election, Roosevelt tried but failed to block Taft’s re-nomination. Seeing no other alternative, Roosevelt formed the Progressive, or Bull Moose, party. Thus a third party was born and effectively split the Republican vote, which allowed Democrat Woodrow Wilson to win the election.

It must be noted that Roosevelt’s third-party tethered 27 percent of the vote, which has never been equaled since by any third party candidate. I find very few who realize Theodore Roosevelt was trying to break the two-term policy which had been adopted by all previous presidents. Interestingly this policy was later broken by another man with the same surname: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. These two men lived in different generations but each was equally popular, one a Democrat the other a Republican. They were related and most historians agree that they were probably second cousins.

It is not the intent here to give a biography of Theodore Roosevelt. Borrowing from my idol Paul Harvey, I now come to the part of writing that I love the best. I am about to tell you the “rest of the story.”

On October 14, 1912, an unemployed saloonkeeper named John Schrank made an attempt on Roosevelt’s life. Roosevelt was in Milwaukee Wisconsin campaigning for president. He was scheduled to deliver a 90 minute speech. It was later noted that the speech was 50 pages in length and this fact played a great part in saving the life of the man. Never again in history will we probably hear an opening remark for a presidential campaign speech which reads as follows, “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible.” This by itself would have been rather remarkable, but what followed was the bombshell that history seems to have forgotten: “I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot.”

The horrified audience in the Milwaukee Auditorium on that fall day gasped as the former president unbuttoned his vest to reveal his bloodstained shirt. He looked down and then out at the audience and said “it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a bullet-riddled, 50-page speech and held it up. The prepared remarks had two big holes blown through each page. Roosevelt continued, “Fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet — here is where the bullet went through — and it probably saved me from going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”

Two days before the editor–in–chief of the Milwaukee Outlook characterized Roosevelt as “an electric battery of inexhaustible energy,” and for the next 90 minutes the 53-year-old former president proved it. Looking at the audience, he said, “I give you my word, I do not care a rap about being shot; not a rap.”

As nervous aides begged him to stop speaking and then positioned themselves around to catch him if he collapsed, Roosevelt delivered his speech. Although his voice weakened and his breath shortened, he glared at his aides when they attempted to approach him and refused until the speech was completed to visit the hospital. It was later revealed that he also had an eyeglass case in this pocket which the bullet had penetrated.

By the following day reporters had pieced together what had occurred prior to his showing up on the podium in the auditorium. Just before 8 p.m. Roosevelt entered his car outside the Gilpatrick Hotel. As he stood up in the open-air automobile and waved his right hand to the crowd, a flash from a revolver five feet away was seen. Fortunately Roosevelt’s stenographer was standing next to the shooter. He grabbed the would-be assassin around the neck with his left arm and then his right wrist to prevent him from firing a second shot.

The well-mannered crowd, realizing what had just happened, turned into a bloodthirsty pack, and began beating the shooter and shouting, “Kill him!” One eyewitness later said that the one man who was the least excited and the coolest of anyone in the frenzied mob was Roosevelt. This man who had witnessed president William McKinley being shot and had been served almost eight years as president now bellowed out, “Don’t hurt him. Bring him here. I want to see him.” Roosevelt asked the shooter, “What did you do it for?” When no answer came forth, he said, “Oh, what’s the use? Turn him over to the police.”

There were no outward signs of blood as the former president reached inside his heavy overcoat and felt a dime-sized bullet hole on the right side of his chest. “He pinked me,” Roosevelt told a party official. He coughed into his hands three times. Not seeing any telltale blood, he determined that the bullet hadn’t penetrated his lungs. An accompanying doctor naturally told the driver to head directly to the hospital, but Theodore Roosevelt gave different marching orders. “You get me to that speech.”

After the speech was finished, Roosevelt reluctantly allowed his aides to take him to the hospital. X-rays showed the bullet lodged against Roosevelt’s fourth right rib on an upward path to his heart. Fortunately, the projectile had been slowed by a dense overcoat, steel reinforced eyeglass case and his hefty speech squeezed into his inner right jacket pocket. Roosevelt dictated a telegram to his wife, Edith, and said he was “in excellent shape” and that the “trivial” wound wasn’t “a particle more serious than one of the injuries any of the boys used continually to be having.”

The fight at the Republican convention had turned into a brawl. Barbed wire concealed by patriotic bunting defended the podium at the Republican convention. The whole affair tore the Grand Old Party apart. Roosevelt had gone rogue and he was now blasted by elements of the press as being a power-hungry traitor willing to break the tradition of two-term presidencies. Roosevelt told his Milwaukee audience that the campaign’s inflamed political
rhetoric contributed to the shooting. “It is a very natural thing,” he said, “that weak and vicious minds should be inflamed to acts of violence by the kind of awful mendacity and abuse that have been heaped upon me for the last three months by the papers.”

The attempted assassination was performed by a 36-year-old unemployed New York City saloon keeper who had been stalking his prey around the country for weeks. His name was John Schrank. A written note found in his pockets reflected the troubled thoughts of a paranoid schizophrenic. “To the people of the United States,” Schrank had written. “In a dream I saw President McKinley sit up in his coffin pointing at a man in a monk’s attire in whom I recognized Theodore Roosevelt. The dead president said — this is my murderer — avenge my death.”

Schrank also claimed he acted to defend the two-term tradition of American presidents. “I did not intend to kill the citizen Roosevelt,” the shooter said at his trial. “I intended to kill Theodore Roosevelt, the third termer.” Schrank pled guilty, was determined to be insane and was confined for life to the Wisconsin state asylum.

Doctors determined that it was safer to leave the bullet embedded deep in Roosevelt’s chest than to operate. In later years the bullet was believed to increase his chronic rheumatoid arthritis which bothered him for the rest of his life. The result of this incident created a wave of sympathy for Theodore Roosevelt, the Bull Moose candidate, but it was not enough to ensure his victory. It only split the Republican Party so severely that the Democrat’s Woodrow Wilson was elected.

Frank C. Newby is the author of numerous books which are available on Amazon.com