This is how Theodore Roosevelt described the moment when a would be assassin fired a gun at him on today’s date, October 14, in 1912. Needless to say, TR survived, but did he really want to survive?
TR and the Campaign of 1912
Theodore Roosevelt had completed his term of office on March 4 of 1909. He had been brought to office as a result of an assassin’s bullet bringing down his predecessor, William McKinley. And he had been wildly popular. Shortly after his election in his own right in 1904, he had told reporters that he would not run again in 1908. Of course he instantly regretted it. He loved the spotlight and the power of the presidency. But this was a more innocent time when a politician making a promise, even off the cuff, felt honor-bound to stick to it. So TR sorrowfully left office in 1909. But his hand-picked successor, his one-time close friend President William Howard Taft of Ohio (below), had not been following the
“Progressive” policies which TR himself had followed. So TR challenged Taft for the nomination of the Republican Party in 1912. But Taft controlled the party machinery and secured the nomination for himself at their Chicago Convention in June of 1912. Furious at having been robbed of the nomination, TR’s Progressive supporters bolted the GOP and formed the Progressive Party which in August of 1912 at the same hall (the “Coliseum” in Chicago) nominated TR for President to the strains of “Onward Christian Soldiers”. Taking its cue from TR’s expression “I feel as fit as a Bull Moose!!” the Party was that year called the “Bull Moose Party”.
T.R. is Shot in Milwaukee
So it was that T.R. was on his way to deliver a speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on today’s date during that bitter and divisive campaign. T.R. knew that his campaign had split his own Republican Party and would result in the election of the Democratic Candidate Woodrow Wilson, the Governor of New Jersey. But driven by his own natural pride and egotism, and his
own personal longing to be in the spotlight once again, TR had, in his own phrase “thrown his hat into the ring.” He was in his auto- mobile leaving the Gilpatrick Hotel when the crazed loon (named John Schrank) shot at him with a revolver. The bullet tore through T.R.’s heavy overcoat, through a folded copy of the speech which TR was to deliver, flattened his steel glasses case (above) and lodged in TR’s chest very near his lung. The crowd was aghast, but TR insisted on going ahead to his planned event:
“There was a perfectly obvious duty, which was to go on and make my speech. In the very unlikely event of the wound being mortal I wished to die with my boots on, so to speak. It has always seemed to me that the best way to die would be in doing something that ought to have been done, whether leading a regiment or in doing anything else.”
So he was driven to his appointed speech. “My friends,” he said in a whispering voice, “I am going to ask you to be very quiet and please excuse me from making a long speech. I’ll do the best I can, but there is a bullet in my body..” And at this highly dramatic moment he pulled back his jacket so the audience could see his bloody shirt. The audience gasped. “But it takes more than one bullet to stop a Bull Moose!” He then continued his speech for nearly 90 more minutes before aids finally convinced him to finish and go to the hospital. Author David McCullough has said that he is convinced that TR actually was hoping to die; that at this moment he wanted to make what would clearly be the greatest exit ever from American political life. And given his remarks above (from a letter written shortly after the election) it is difficult to disagree with Mr. McCullough.
TR Survives, but is Soundly Beaten in the Election
But his powerfully built chest would not permit anymore than a flesh wound to the old “Rough Rider”. The surgeon who tended TR was amazed at the former President’s constitution: “It is largely due to the fact that that he is a physical marvel that he was not dangerously wounded. He is one of the most powerful men I
have ever seen laid on an operating table. The bullet lodged in the massive muscles of the chest instead of penetrating the lung.” So T.R. continued with his quixotic campaign for the Presidency as a Third Party candidate. But as he had indeed split the Republican ranks, the election that November went to Woodrow Wilson (above), who finished with nearly 42% of the popular vote, and 435 of the electoral tally. TR racked up nearly 27.5% of the popular vote and 88 of the electoral vote. Taft finished with a little over 23% of the popular vote, but came in a distant third of the electoral at 8.
The would-be assassin was locked up in an insane asylum where he died in 1943.
“Theodore Roosevelt’s History of the United States” Arranged by Daniel Ruddy, Smithsonian Books, New York, 2010.
“The Life and Times of Theodore Roosevelt” by Stefan Lorant, Doubleday & Co. New York, 1959
“The American Experience: T.R.” Written, Directed by David Grubin, PBS Home Video, 1996