The Unbreakable Bull Moose: Theodore Roosevelt, an Assassin, and the Presidential Election of 1912
Theodore Roosevelt sank into his rocking chair and grabbed a rare nap in the Gilpatrick Hotel on Third Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He was exhausted, and he had good reason to be. Over the preceding months, Roosevelt had traveled thousands of miles across the United States as he campaigned for a third presidential term. To one observer, the 53-year-old Roosevelt was campaigning so vigorously that he seemed to be “an electric battery of inexhaustible energy.” That boundless spirit for which TR was so famous was truly needed right now. It was October 14; the presidential election of 1912 was less than three weeks away. For the former president to return to the White House, these closing days of the campaign would be pivotal, especially since he was running as a third-party candidate under the Progressive “Bull Moose” Party banner. With his eyes on the stars and his feet on the ground, TR prepared to take his next step on the path to guiding America toward a brighter future. As Roosevelt would soon learn though, there was one malevolent force close by who was determined to stop him from ever getting the chance to do so.
Back in the Ring
Following the assassination of President William McKinley in September 1901, forty-two-year-old Vice President Theodore Roosevelt became America’s 26th commander in chief, making him the youngest President in U.S. history. Over the next roughly seven and a half years, TR proved to be one of the most effective and energetic leaders ever to grace the nation’s highest office, fighting to secure a “square deal” for every American, taking huge steps to ensure America’s continued emergence as a world power, conserving an estimated 230 million acres of land for “the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” and so much more. Despite his massive popularity, Roosevelt decided to walk away from power, opting not to run for a third term in the presidential election of 1908. Instead, he supported the candidacy of his Secretary of War, William Howard Taft, the man TR had chosen to be his hand-picked successor. Roosevelt ultimately got his wish; Taft won big in the election of 1908 and would follow TR into the White House as the 27th President of the United States. After finishing out his time as commander in chief, Roosevelt walked into the sunset with his head held high, proud of everything he had done to make life better in America and confident that Taft would continue to carry out his progressive policies.
Following Taft’s inauguration in March 1909, Roosevelt spent the next 15 months traveling across Africa and Europe. When TR returned to New York City on June 18, 1910, he was greeted with a city-wide celebration; a million people were on hand to welcome him home. As Roosevelt settled back on U.S. soil, two things became abundantly clear; he remained as popular as ever with the American people, and as TR saw it, President Taft had strayed from the progressive path he expected him to follow. Fearing that the country was heading in the wrong direction, Roosevelt decided to step back into the political arena.
“My hat is in the ring,” announced Roosevelt in February 1912. “The fight is on and I am stripped to the buff.” With that mentality, he challenged President Taft for the Republican nomination in the presidential election of 1912. Although Taft ultimately secured the nomination over Roosevelt, TR refused to give up. With his supporters rallied behind him, he resolved to launch a third-party campaign for president under the Progressive Party, which Roosevelt and his backers had formed after the Republican nomination went to Taft. When someone asked Roosevelt if he felt healthy enough to run for president, he responded in epic fashion, declaring himself “fit as a bull moose.” That unforgettable line gave the Progressive Party a nickname that would stick: the “Bull Moose” Party.
Theodore Roosevelt on the campaign trail in 1912. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In addition to Taft, Roosevelt faced two more effective contenders in the battle for the presidential election of 1912. New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson headlined the Democratic ticket and Eugene V. Debs was the Socialist Party standard-bearer. TR took them all on with great enthusiasm, using his powerful voice to champion progressive causes such as racial equality, minimum wage laws, conservation, voting rights for women, safer workplaces, and an eight-hour workday. Roosevelt’s supporters fed off his spirit as they listened to him stump across the country, cheering on their contender by making moose calls during his speeches. They found plenty of reason to take up the Progressive Party campaign song, “Oh, You Beautiful Moose.” With the stakes so high, though, it was not only love that came TR’s way. He received numerous assassination threats and even fended off one attacker along the campaign trail by using some of the martial arts moves he had been avidly practicing throughout his life.
The Unbreakable Bull Moose
Eight months after throwing his hat in the ring, Theodore Roosevelt’s campaign for the presidency had taken him to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. With less than three weeks to go until the election, he found a rare moment to rest at the Gilpatrick Hotel on the evening of October 14. Shortly after the clock struck eight, TR began to stir. It was time to move again. Thousands of his supporters were awaiting his arrival at the Milwaukee Auditorium, where Roosevelt was to give one of the many speeches he had scheduled for every night throughout the rest of the campaign. TR folded his thick bundle of speech papers and tucked them into his inner right jacket pocket before leaving the hotel with his entourage. Assembled outside the building along the ill-lit street was a crowd of people waiting for their chance to cheer on the famous Theodore Roosevelt. TR was greeted by their enthusiastic voices as he exited the hotel, entered his roofless, seven-seat automobile, stood up to bow, and began waving his hat in his right hand to the crowd. It took only an instant for the air of jubilance to turn into one of terror.
Standing in the crowd gathered around Theodore Roosevelt outside the Gilpatrick Hotel was 36-year-old John Schrank. Unlike the others, this unemployed New York City saloonkeeper was not here to cheer the presidential contender. Instead, he was here to shoot him. Carrying a .38 caliber Colt Police Positive Special Revolver, Schrank raised the weapon and fired a single shot at Roosevelt from almost point-blank range. According to TR biographer Edmund Morris, “Roosevelt was hit in the right breast and dropped without a sound.” As he watched the horrible scene unfold, one member of Roosevelt’s entourage feared, “He’ll never get up again.”
John Falter's famous painting of the attempted assassination of Theodore Roosevelt on October 14, 1912. (Photo Credit: Shapell Manuscript Foundation)
Schrank was unable to score a second hit on TR. Roosevelt’s stenographer, Elbert Martin, was on the gunman in an instant, wrestling Schrank to the ground and seizing his gun. With a furious fire burning in his eyes, Morris reports that Martin seemed to be “trying to break Schrank’s neck.” The crowd also wanted blood, shouting, “Kill him!” Amid this chaotic scene, however, one voice remained calm and composed. “Don’t hurt him. Bring him here. I want to see him.” That voice belonged to the man who had just been shot. To the relief of the great many gathered there, Theodore Roosevelt was alive.
Heeding Roosevelt’s request, Martin dragged his prisoner to the side of the automobile. TR clasped the gunman’s head between both his hands, closely studied his face, and asked, “What did you do it for?” Schrank stared back with what has been described as expressionless eyes and offered no reply. “Oh, what’s the use?,” said Roosevelt after failing to get an answer. “Turn him over to the police.”
As Schrank was taken away, everyone in Roosevelt’s orbit turned their attention to their man, carefully examining his heavy army coat for a bullet hole. TR reached inside the jacket himself and his hand came out with blood on it. “He pinked me,” said a unfazed Roosevelt. Mentally, he had already moved on. Instead of proceeding to Milwaukee’s Emergency Hospital, as Dr. Scurry Terrell urged, TR insisted on being taken to deliver his speech. “No Colonel,” pleaded Henry F. Cochems, who was the Progressive Party’s local representative, “Let’s go to the hospital.” Roosevelt, however, remained defiant. As he put it plainly,“You get me to that speech.”
Roosevelt’s orders were obeyed. He arrived at the Milwaukee Auditorium, where a crowd of ten thousand eager listeners awaited his remarks. Before taking the stage, TR relented and allowed a very worried Dr. Terrell to examine him. According to Morris, Terrell discovered that the wound “was a ragged, dime-sized hole, bleeding slowly, about an inch below and to the right of his right nipple. The bullet was nowhere to be seen….” Alarmingly, the entire right side of Roosevelt’s body had turned black. Terrell once again insisted that TR drop everything and make haste for the hospital, but Roosevelt remained as steadfast as ever. No matter what, he was going to give his speech.
Before Roosevelt stepped up to the podium, Cochems addressed the crowd first. When he explained that the man of the hour had just been targeted in an assassination attempt, the people in attendance could hardly believe it. Some shouted, “Fake! Fake!” Others cried out for their hero: “Are you hurt!” In the midst of this concern and confusion, TR strode forward and confirmed that an attempt had indeed been made on his life. Displaying his iron fortitude, Roosevelt said that despite being shot, “it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.” As TR biographer H.W. Brands adds, Roosevelt proceeded to unbutton “his vest and showed the bloodstained shirt to the audience, which gasped in a combination of horror and admiration.” With everyone now fully informed, Roosevelt told the crowd, “I’m going to ask you to be very quiet. I’ll do the best I can.”
Once TR began to read from his thick, 50-page bundle of speech papers, he was taken back to the scene of the shooting. At that time, his speech had been folded in half and tucked into his jacket pocket. Now that he had the speech rolled out before his eyes, he could see that the gunman’s bullet had passed through the pages. With the pierced papers at his fingertips, Roosevelt seemed to be shaken for a moment, but he quickly steeled himself. Drawing upon his notable sense of humor, TR reported to the audience, “You see, I was going to make quite a long speech.” After lightening the mood a bit, Roosevelt carried on with his address.
Theodore Roosevelt's 50-page manuscript and his steel eye-glass case that bear the scars from John Schrank's bullet. (Photo Credit: Harvard Library/Theodore Roosevelt Collection)
As the wounded TR powered through his speech, those watching could clearly see that the shooting had taken a toll on their hero. As Morris writes, “A knifelike pain in [Roosevelt’s] ribs forced him to breathe in short gasps. Two or three times, he appeared to totter.” Roosevelt’s aides even stationed themselves around their leader, putting themselves in position to catch him in case he toppled over. Through it all, though, TR fought to the finish and ultimately spoke for an hour and twenty minutes. By the end of the speech, his face was as white as a ghost, but incredibly, he had fulfilled his duty. After the inspired audience applauded their hearts out, Roosevelt turned to Dr. Terrell and said, “Now I am ready to go with you and do what you want.” He was bound for the hospital at last.
As one historian explains, subsequent x-rays revealed that the gunman’s bullet had “lodged against Roosevelt’s fourth rib on an upward path to his heart.” The bullet could easily have been fatal. Luckily for Roosevelt, though, he had tucked his steel eye-glass case and the folded, 50-page manuscript of his speech into his inner right jacket pocket before the shooting. Those two objects, plus his heavy army coat, all worked in harmony, slowing the bullet enough that it failed to reach Roosevelt’s heart. In the end, doctors determined it was too risky to surgically remove the projectile. As a result, Theodore Roosevelt would carry John Schrank’s bullet in his chest for the remaining six years of his life.
No Keeping TR Down
Theodore Roosevelt did not stay down for long. As H.W. Brands puts it, his “recovery began almost with the speech itself.” From Chicago’s Mercy Hospital on October 19, TR expressed he was feeling “as hearty as a Bull Moose.” He relayed similar sentiments to the scores of people who sent heartfelt, get-well messages to him in the aftermath of the ordeal. Among those who reached out to Roosevelt was Vincent Curtis Baldwin of Chicago. His letter included a campaign donation of ten dollars. Baldwin explained that he had earned the money by selling flowers and added, “For I want you to be our President. If I was a man I’d help you, and work hard for you, and tell people how good you are, but I am only 10 years old.”
After spending a week in the hospital, Roosevelt returned to his beloved home of Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay on Long Island, where he celebrated his 54th birthday on October 27. Three days later, he closed out his presidential campaign before a 16,000-strong crowd at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The sight of TR made the crowd go absolutely wild. Only 16 days earlier, Roosevelt had been shot. Now, he stood before his faithful supporters looking as vigorous as ever. It took more than 40 minutes for the crowd to settle down before TR could open what was to be his 150th formal address of the campaign. “Friends, perhaps once in a generation, perhaps not so often-” began TR before the crowd became so loud again that he could not continue. After demanding that the crowd quiet down, Roosevelt finished his original thought: “-Perhaps not so often, there comes a chance for the people of a country to play their part wisely and fearlessly in some great battle of the age-long warfare for human rights.”
Despite his remarkable powers of resilience to finish out the campaign after his brush with death, election day did not go Theodore Roosevelt’s way. Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the 1912 presidential election with roughly 42% of the popular vote and 435 of the 531 available electoral votes. TR finished second in the race, earning 27.4% of the popular vote and 88 electoral votes. Republican William Howard Taft walked away with 23.2% of the popular vote and eight electoral votes. Rounding out the list of contenders was the Socialist Party standard-bearer, Eugene V. Debs, who secured six percent of the popular vote and zero electoral votes. In the final analysis, most historians agree that the split between Roosevelt and Taft essentially secured Wilson’s victory in the election, ultimately propelling him to the White House as the 28th President of the United States.
President-elect Woodrow Wilson celebrating his 56th birthday with a visit to his birthplace in Staunton, Virginia on December 28, 1912. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
TR was at his Sagamore Hill home on election night when the phone rang at approximately eleven o’clock. He learned that despite his best efforts throughout the campaign, Woodrow Wilson had won the greatest political contest in all the land. Roosevelt proceeded to send the following telegram to Wilson in Princeton, New Jersey, where the bells were ringing to celebrate his victory:
THE AMERICAN PEOPLE, BY A GREAT PLURALITY, HAVE CONFERRED UPON YOU THE HIGHEST HONOR IN THEIR GIFT. I CONGRATULATE YOU THERON.
Although Theodore Roosevelt fell short in the election of 1912, he still managed to make history, becoming the only third-party candidate to ever place second in a presidential election. The end of the campaign closed another chapter in TR’s life of adversity. Across the many challenges Roosevelt faced throughout the 1912 race, he tackled them all the only way he knew how: with a relentless drive and an unflinching fighting spirit. Above all else, the way he refused to stay down after the assassination attempt was one of the most amazing moments of his colossal, heroic life.
The Would-Be Assassin
This story from the life of Theodore Roosevelt would not be complete without returning to the man who attempted to assassinate him, John Schrank. After shooting TR, Schrank was immediately taken into custody. Upon investigation, it was revealed that he had been stalking Roosevelt along the campaign trail for weeks, awaiting his opportunity to strike. In his diseased mind, Schrank seemed to be motivated by a dream in which the spirit of former President William McKinley, whose assassination at the hands of anarchist Leon Czolgosz in 1901 had propelled Roosevelt to the presidency, appeared to him and accused Roosevelt of being his true murderer. According to Schrank, McKinley thus ordered him to exact vengeance on TR. Schrank also went on to say that he targeted Roosevelt because he was pursuing a third presidential term, thereby violating the two-term tradition set by America’s first President, George Washington. In the end, psychiatrists determined Schrank to be insane. He was committed to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Waupun, Wisconsin in 1914. Schrank spent the remainder of his life in confinement until passing away from a bout with pneumonia on September 15, 1943.
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