Who Shot Theodore Roosevelt?


October 14, 1912. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The air is thick with political fervor as Theodore Roosevelt, the larger-than-life former President gunning for an unprecedented third term, steps into the spotlight.

The stage was set not just for a campaign speech but for an event that would etch itself into the annals of American history.

Now, folks, this wasn’t just any campaign trail. Teddy, our beloved Rough Rider with numerous accomplishments, was no longer sitting comfortably in the Republican saddle.

He had spurred his own horse, leading the charge of the Progressive Party, famously known as the Bull Moose Party. Why “Bull Moose,” you ask? Because Teddy was as tough and unstoppable as one, or so the people thought.

But even Bull Mooses, Moosi…let’s stick with Moose- can find themselves in the crosshairs. Enter John Schrank, a name not etched in gold but scribbled in the margins of a dark page of history.

A New York saloonkeeper with a mind tangled in delusions, Schrank trailed Roosevelt, fueled by a haunting dream where the ghost of President McKinley pointed a spectral finger at Roosevelt as his assassin.

As Roosevelt waved his hat to the gathered crowd outside the Gilpatrick Hotel, Schrank took his shot. History held its breath. The bullet, aimed with deadly intent, was destined for Roosevelt’s heart.

But fate, my friends, had a different script in mind.

Who Was John Schrank?

Let’s meet the man behind the gun, John Schrank. Picture a character plucked straight from a dark, twisted novel, and you’ve got our guy, Schrank.

He wasn’t your run-of-the-mill villain, though. Born in Bavaria in 1876, Schrank emigrated to the U.S., where life seemed to unravel around him.

After losing his parents and his beloved aunt and uncle, followed by his girlfriend in the tragic General Slocum disaster, Schrank’s world was a canvas of loss and sorrow​​.

But here’s where things take a turn for the bizarre. Schrank, now a saloonkeeper in New York, found his mind ensnared by dreams, not of sugarplums and fairies but of a dead president.

William McKinley’s ghost, no less, who seemed to have a bone to pick with Roosevelt.

In these eerie nighttime visitations, McKinley fingered Roosevelt as his assassin and tasked Schrank with preventing a Rooseveltian third-term presidency​​.

It’s like something out of a psychological thriller, isn’t it? Schrank, armed with a mission bestowed upon him by a spectral president, decided to take matters into his own hands.

Drifting along the East Coast, he became a devoutly religious man and a keen Bible scholar, his mind increasingly clouded with the delusion of his divine mission​​.

This was no mere political disagreement or a case of campaign rivalry gone too far. When Schrank pulled that trigger, he was firing a bullet loaded with delusion, loss, and a twisted sense of justice.

The mental state he was in? Well, let’s just say it wasn’t one for making sound, rational decisions. His mind was a tangled web of grief, religious fervor, and insanity, culminating in that one fateful moment in Milwaukee.

The Day of the Attempt

Video: Library of Congress

Roosevelt’s day was as packed as a sardine can. He began his day in Chicago, charging through his campaign trail with the vigor of a man half his age. His journey took him to Racine, Wisconsin, before he steamed into Milwaukee, the city where destiny awaited with a sinister twist​​.

As the evening approached, the air at the Gilpatrick Hotel was charged with anticipation. People gathered, eager to catch a glimpse of the man who had taken San Juan Hill and now sought to reclaim the highest office in the land.

Clad in his Army overcoat, Roosevelt was the picture of robust health and unflagging spirit. In his breast pocket was a thick, folded 50-page speech – little did he know he’d soon learn exactly why good writing is important!

Then came the moment that would freeze in time. As Roosevelt stepped out to greet the public, a figure emerged from the crowd. John Schrank, a man whose mind was a maze of delusions and vendettas, raised his .38 caliber revolver.

The shot rang out, slicing through the evening air and finding its mark in Roosevelt’s chest.

But fate, in a twist befitting a Roosevelt tale, intervened. The bullet, slowed down by the manuscript and a steel eyeglass case, spared Roosevelt’s life, embedding itself in his chest but not his heart​​​​.

In a legendary display of grit, Roosevelt, after a quick self-examination, decided the show must go on. Blood staining his shirt, he refused immediate medical attention.

Instead, with a bullet still lodged in his body, he headed straight for the auditorium. The crowd, unaware of the drama that had just unfolded, awaited the words of a man who had just cheated death.

Roosevelt’s Response and His Famous Speech

Upon realizing he’d been shot, Roosevelt did something that would make most modern-day action heroes blush. He coolly probed his chest, looking for blood on his fingertips and in his mouth – the old Rough Rider’s way of checking if his lungs were hit.

Finding none, he surmised the bullet hadn’t reached his lung.

His conclusion? He was fit enough to speak. The man was practically a walking medical marvel!

Now, let’s not forget the unsung heroes of this story – a steel eyeglass case and a 50-page speech manuscript.

Folded in Roosevelt’s breast pocket, they absorbed the brunt of the bullet’s impact, cushioning its deadly force. In a world without Kevlar, Roosevelt had unwittingly equipped himself with the best protection a man could have – his own words​​​​​​.

Then came the moment of sheer Rooseveltian drama. Standing before the stunned audience at the Milwaukee Auditorium, he began with words that would echo through time:

“Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”

If ever there were words that encapsulated the indomitable spirit of a man and a president, these were it.

For the next hour, Roosevelt, with a bullet still inside him, spoke not just with his voice but with the unyielding spirit of a true American legend.

He didn’t just give a speech; he gave a performance that was part defiance, part drama, and all Roosevelt.

Aftermath: Medical Response and Roosevelt’s Campaign

Now, picture this: Roosevelt, fresh off the stage, still in his bloodied shirt, surrounded by doctors backstage. They discovered the bullet had lodged in his chest wall.

But here’s the kicker – they decided not to remove it. That’s right, the risks of surgery in those days outweighed the benefits, so they left it there. Roosevelt carried that bullet as a literal and figurative badge of honor ​​​​for the rest of his life.

But what about his campaign? Well, Teddy was a tough cookie, but even tough cookies can crumble. This incident, as electrifying as it was, couldn’t catapult him back into the presidency.

Despite his valiant efforts and the sympathy he garnered, Roosevelt lost the 1912 election to Woodrow Wilson. It seems the American electorate admired his moxie but perhaps wondered if a man who had just been shot was up to the strenuous demands of the presidency.

Nevertheless, Roosevelt’s campaign post-shooting was nothing short of remarkable. He bounced back into the fray with the same vigor and passion, refusing to let a mere bullet slow him down.

This incident only added to the legend of Teddy Roosevelt – a man who could take a bullet and still deliver a rousing speech, but who, in the end, couldn’t quite clinch the electoral victory.

John Schrank’s Trial and Life Afterwards

After the smoke cleared and Roosevelt had made his dramatic exit, the spotlight turned to John Schrank, the would-be assassin.

Schrank’s trial was as much a spectacle as the assassination attempt itself. Here was a man who shot a former president, but his motives, rooted in delusion, painted a tragic picture of mental illness rather than calculated malevolence.

Schrank’s defense didn’t revolve around denial of the act but rather focused on his mental state. The court-appointed psychiatrists delved into the depths of his psyche, uncovering the layers of his delusions and unraveling the threads of his tormented mind.

Their conclusion? Schrank was not a criminal mastermind but a man deeply afflicted with paranoid schizophrenia. The verdict was clear: instead of prison, Schrank was committed to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Wisconsin​​.

There, in the confines of the mental institution, Schrank spent the remainder of his days.

He lived there, largely forgotten by the world, until his death in 1943. Schrank’s story is a poignant reminder of the fine line between sanity and madness, a human life derailed by mental illness and a dream that turned into a nightmare.

Wrapping it Up

Roosevelt’s decision to carry on with his speech despite a bullet in his chest has become the stuff of legend. It’s a tale that speaks volumes about his toughness, commitment to his cause, and unyielding determination.

This incident, often recounted in history books and Roosevelt biographies, has helped to perpetuate the image of Roosevelt as the quintessential “Bull Moose,” a man whose physical and mental fortitude were seemingly unbreakable.

Moreover, this incident highlights Roosevelt’s complex legacy as a leader who symbolized strength and a man of flesh and blood.

It humanizes him, showing that even the most powerful figures can be vulnerable, yet resilient. The incident has been used to draw parallels to Roosevelt’s approach to life and politics – fearless, direct, and unflinchingly honest.

Article References

  1. https://blogs.loc.gov/headlinesandheroes/2019/07/the-pocket-items-that-saved-the-life-of-theodore-roosevelt/
  2. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/theodore-roosevelt-shot-in-milwaukee
  3. https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/12789/time-teddy-roosevelt-got-shot-chest-gave-speech-anyway
  4. https://www.nypl.org/blog/2011/06/13/great-slocum-disaster-june-15-1904