“It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose”: The Wounding of Theodore Roosevelt

X-Ray of Roosevelt (shows bullet)X-Ray of Roosevelt (shows bullet). (Photo: Library of Congress)

October 14, 1912 was another busy day of campaigning for Theodore Roosevelt. The Progressive (“Bull Moose”) Party’s nominee for President of the United States, Roosevelt started his day in Chicago, made a stop in Racine, Wisconsin, then headed to Milwaukee to deliver an evening speech. Roosevelt knew his third-party bid was a long shot but campaigned harder than either of his opponents, the incumbent Republican William Howard Taft and Democratic New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson.

Running against Taft made the campaign particularly interesting and personal for Roosevelt. Vice President Roosevelt became the nation’s twenty-sixth chief executive in September 1901, when Leon Czolgosz assassinated President William McKinley just six months into McKinley’s second term. Roosevelt served the rest of that term and was then elected to his own term in 1904. In 1908, TR, who had pledged not to seek another term, made Secretary of War William Howard Taft his hand-picked successor for the Republican nomination. Taft cruised to victory over Democrat William Jennings Bryan.

By 1912, however, Roosevelt had become disenchanted with Taft and the rest of the Republican Party’s conservatives and tried to wrest the party’s presidential nomination from Taft. When the Republicans re-nominated Taft, TR told his supporters to walk out of the party’s convention. Progressive Republicans endorsed the creation of a national progressive party and made Roosevelt their presidential nominee. After receiving this nomination, TR told reporters he felt “as strong as a bull moose,” and the Progressives became popularly known as the “Bull Moose Party.” Roosevelt and the Progressives promised to work to protect the welfare of American workers and to increase both conservation of natural resources and industrial regulations.

Around 8 p.m. on October 14, Roosevelt exited Milwaukee’s Hotel Gilpatrick and got into an open car to ride to the venue for his speech. He carried his double-folded, 50-page speech and his metal spectacles case in the breast pocket of his overcoat. The gathered crowd cheered as Roosevelt climbed into the car. When the candidate stood up to wave in acknowledgement, a man just five feet away raised a pistol and fired, hitting Roosevelt in the chest. The assailant, John Schrank, was tackled and quickly hauled off by police. The wounded ex-President of the United States, a longtime hunter and former soldier, raised his hand to his mouth to check for blood. When he saw none, he was certain that the bullet had not punctured his lung and that he was in no immediate danger. As his companions in the car argued over where to take Roosevelt for treatment, TR told them, “I am going to drive to the hall and deliver my speech.”

Schrank's revolver

Schrank’s revolver. (Photo: Library of Congress)

Doctors at the auditorium examined Roosevelt before he went on stage to speak. They found a hole in the right side of his chest and a sizeable bloodstain on his shirt but determined that the folded speech and glasses case in his coat pocket had slowed the bullet before it entered his body. The doctors recommended an x-ray and more treatment immediately, but TR insisted on first delivering his speech. When he took the stage, he showed the crowd his bloody shirt and the bullet hole in his speech. “Friends,” he said, “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.” Roosevelt, always the proponent of what he called “the vigorous life,” spoke for nearly ninety minutes. Afterwards, an x-ray revealed that the bullet had lodged in one of his ribs. Roosevelt later said that he had been expecting an assassination attempt for years and therefore was not surprised when it happened.

While he was able to survive the shooting, TR could not overcome the split between conservative Republicans and his own Progressives. Though Roosevelt earned more votes than Taft, Woodrow Wilson was elected President just three weeks after TR’s shooting.

Attempted assassin John Flammang Schrank, a deeply religious Bavarian immigrant, claimed to have nothing personal against Roosevelt but to be vehemently opposed to anyone having a third term in the White House. Schrank also later claimed to have had a dream in which the ghost of assassinated President William McKinley told Schrank to avenge his murder while pointing at a portrait of Theodore Roosevelt. Several doctors examined Schrank and ultimately judged him insane. He was committed to Central State Mental Hospital in Waupun, Wisconsin, where he remained until his death on September 15, 1943, nearly thirty-one years after his attack on Roosevelt. When Schrank died, his body was donated for scientific dissection.

Theodore Roosevelt died on January 6, 1919 with John Schrank’s bullet still lodged in his rib. Upon hearing of TR’s death, his attempted assassin expressed sadness and called TR “a great American.”

About the Author

Benjamin T. Arrington

Benjamin Todd Arrington is a career historian living in Ohio. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and studies American political history with an emphasis on the Civil War era and the early Republican Party.

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