It Takes More Than That to Kill a Bull Moose

Alex Johnson - Content Writer

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In 1912, Bavarian-born saloonkeeper John Schrank had a dream. In this dream he was visited by the ghost of President William McKinley, killed by an assassin’s bullets over a decade earlier.

McKinley’s specter pointed to an image of Teddy Roosevelt and said, “This is my murderer—avenge my death.” Schrank listened, and, on October 14, 1912, he put a .38 caliber bullet in Teddy Roosevelt’s chest at a campaign stop in Milwaukee.

As it turns out, Ghost McKinley should’ve told Schrank to use a bigger gun.1

Wait, McKinley’s Ghost Said That?

Ah, well, he probably didn’t. Call me a skeptic, but I don’t believe Ghost McKinley really was talking to Schrank. Even if he was, why would he want his old vice president, Teddy, dead?

“Bully!”
-Teddy R.

Here’s a little background: McKinley’s assassination by anarchist Leon Czolgosz led to Vice President Teddy Roosevelt’s inauguration and first term as president, which was followed by his second term. Then, after taking a break, Teddy went back at it, running as a third-party progressive candidate, chasing a third, nonconsecutive term in office.2

So, to Schrank’s mind, Teddy had become president over McKinley’s dead body, and was now attempting to be the first three-term president. This was before the 22nd Amendment put the kibosh on three-termers with its ratification in 1951. Up to that point, presidents followed George Washington’s example and abided by a soft two-term maximum. For Schrank, this was an important tradition, and one that was integral to the balance of American power. At least, that’s what I’m deducing from the terse manifesto found on Schrank after the assassination attempt: “To prevent is better than to defend. Never let a third term party emblem appear on an official ballot.”3

Schrank had been stalking Roosevelt and writing diatribes decrying his perceived treachery and un-Americanism. Honestly, you can’t swing a dead cat meme on Facebook without hitting a political diatribe these days, so, not much of a red flag for an assassination attempt.

But Schrank’s dream was something you don’t see every day: “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,” said Schrank. “The dead President said, ‘This is my murderer—avenge my death.’” OK, that’s a clearer red flag. Too bad it was in a dream, where nobody else could see it.1

Bullet v. Roosevelt

John Schrank presumably checked his dream dictionary to understand what the dream meant and found that it was actually pretty straightforward: he was supposed to shoot Theodore Roosevelt in the head with a gun before he could become a third-term president.

For Teddy’s part, he had already lost the Republican nomination, and was now running under his “Bull Moose” progressive ticket. As a third-partier, he was hitting the streets, pounding pavement, and slapping asphalt like some kind of large, male ungulate in order to outwork his opponents, Wilson and Taft, from the big parties. Teddy was Rough Riding his way through 15 to 20 speeches a day, and these weren’t Gettysburg Addresses, but rather hour-plus-long spiels.

Would-be assassin John Flammang Schrank.

But on October 14, his packed schedule was catching up with him. The Bull Moose was feeling a little hoarse, and he was getting tired, so this particular campaign stop would be a quickie.

What Teddy didn’t know was that he was about to get just the pick-me-up he needed to shake off that two-thirty feeling: a .38 round to the chest.

“Chest, you say? Didn’t Schrank plan to shoot Teddy in the head?”

Excellent reading comprehension. Here’s what happened: Schrank f*cked up.

Maybe I’m being too hard on him. Schrank tried his best. As Teddy left his hotel and waved to the crowd, Schrank got close enough for his shot. He aimed right at Teddy’s mug, point blank. But, just then, a bystander bumped Schrank’s arm, just as Teddy’s security detail spotted the weapon and moved in for a tackle. Schrank got his shot off, but instead of hitting Teddy in the head, the bullet found his chest.

By the time the bullet hit, Schrank was eating dirt while Teddy’s security put him in a headlock. The crowd of onlookers was now a mob, looking to do some Schrank stomping, but Teddy ordered them to go easy—he didn’t want Schrank hurt. What a sport, that Roosevelt.1

Roosevelt didn’t realize the bullet had found him until he checked under his overcoat and felt the blood with his hand.

The old Rough Rider was even luckier than he was tough. While the bullet did make it into his chest muscle tissue, it first passed through a 50-page copy of his speech (they were long, remember?) and his steel eyeglasses case. They slowed the bullet just enough that it didn’t reach his heart or lungs.

Speech Time

No stranger to war, Teddy knew his way around bullet wounds. He deduced that the bullet must not have hit his heart because he wasn’t dead. And it mustn’t have hit a lung, or else he’d be sputtering blood when he coughed into his hands.

So, if he wasn’t dead, and he could still talk, that meant there was no good reason not to stick to schedule and give an 84-minute speech. So he refused to go to the hospital and instead spoke, with his clothes soaked in blood. It was metal as f*ck.

“Friends,” he opened, “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. But fortunately I had my manuscript, so you see I was going to make a long speech, and there is a bullet—there is where the bullet went through—and it probably saved me from it going into my heart. The bullet is in me now, so that I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”

Apparently, Teddy got his second wind, because 84 minutes ain’t a short speech.1

Aftermath

His thirst for bloody rhetoric finally slaked after nearly an hour and a half, Teddy Roosevelt finally relented and allowed himself to be taken to the hospital. He was treated for eight days, but the bullet was never removed, as doctors thought taking it out would be riskier than leaving it in. It stayed in the old Bull Moose’s chest until he died in his sleep in 1919 of a pulmonary embolism.2

Roosevelt’s x-ray—you can see the bullet on the left. Also, I guess doctors back then would draw the rib cage on with finger paint for reference?

Oh, and as for that election, he lost, so no third Roosevelt term—at least not until Franklin Delano Roosevelt got a third term in 1940.1

As for John Schrank, he went to prison, where he earned some jailhouse fame and tried to justify his actions with his staunch opposition to three-termers. He was soon committed to an insane asylum, where he lived until 1943, when he died of pneumonia.2

Teddy Roosevelt would later explain that he was able to keep his composure throughout the assassination attempt for two reasons: One, he had always expected an assassination attempt, so he wasn’t surprised. And two, as he remarked, “In the very unlikely event of the wound being mortal I wished to die with my boots on.”3

 

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Notes & Gossip 📌

  1. Cain, Áine. (2017, June 21). US President Theodore Roosevelt once delivered and 84-minute speech after getting shot in the chest. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/teddy-roosevelt-assassination-attempt-2017-6
  2. Crezo, Adrienne. (2017, October 14). The Time Teddy Roosevelt Was Shot in the Chest, Then Gave a Speech Anyway. Retrieved from http://mentalfloss.com/article/12789/time-teddy-roosevelt-got-shot-chest-gave-speech-anyway
  3. O’Toole, Patricia. (2012, November). The Speech That Save Teddy Roosevelt’s Life. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-speech-that-saved-teddy-roosevelts-life-83479091/

Scholarly Shout-outs 🌟

  • Cain, Áine. (2017, June 21). US President Theodore Roosevelt once delivered and 84-minute speech after getting shot in the chest. Retrieved from http://www.businessinsider.com/teddy-roosevelt-assassination-attempt-2017-6
  • Crezo, Adrienne. (2017, October 14). The Time Teddy Roosevelt Was Shot in the Chest, Then Gave a Speech Anyway. Retrieved from http://mentalfloss.com/article/12789/time-teddy-roosevelt-got-shot-chest-gave-speech-anyway
  • Kingseed, Wyatt. (2001, October 1). President William McKinley: Assassinated by an Anarchist. Retrieved from http://www.historynet.com/president-william-mckinley-assassinated-by-an-anarchist.htm
  • National Park Service. (Last updated 2015, February 26). John Schrank’s Letter on the “Third Term.” Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/thrb/learn/historyculture/js-letter.htm
  • O’Toole, Patricia. (2012, November). The Speech That Save Teddy Roosevelt’s Life. Retrieved from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-speech-that-saved-teddy-roosevelts-life-83479091/
  • The New York Times. (1919, January 6). Theodore Roosevelt Dies Suddenly at Oyster Bay Home; Nation Shocked, Pays Tribute to Former President; Our Flag on All Seas and in All Lands at Half Mast. Retrieved from https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/big/0106.html

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