The Attempted Assassination of President Theodore Roosevelt

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Theodore Roosevelt is one of few presidents to have survived an assassination attempt. In this lesson, we're going to explore the history behind this moment, and see what impact it had on Roosevelt himself.

Assassinating the Bull Moose

''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''.

With that line, Theodore Roosevelt immortalized his own legacy. The date was October 14, 1912. Roosevelt was on the campaign trail, trying to get elected as President of the United States when would-be assassin John Schrank fired a revolver straight at the candidate's chest. Rather than seeking medical attention, Roosevelt continued into the Hotel Gilpatrick of Milwaukee and delivered a 90-minute campaign speech. Then he went to the hospital. Not only did Schrank's assassination attempt fail, but in fact it helped to immortalize the legacy and robust personality of Theodore Roosevelt, something not even time could kill.

Theodore Roosevelt
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Background

The story of the assassination attempt against Teddy Roosevelt's life starts back in 1909. Roosevelt finished his second term in office, and according to precedent (but not yet law) he decided not to run for a third term. Instead, he used his great popularity to convince the American people to vote for his handpicked successor, William Howard Taft.

Taft's presidency was not what Roosevelt hoped it would be. Taft was less demanding, softer against big business, and more willing to compromise on the progressive issues that Roosevelt cared so deeply about. In fact, Roosevelt became so convinced that Taft should not be re-elected that he came out of retirement and founded a new political party to oppose the Republican president. Roosevelt called it the National Progressive Party. When reporters asked him if he felt up to another campaign, he responded that he felt as fit as a bull moose. The comparison was not hard to make. Roosevelt, born a sickly child, took immense pride in his physical fitness, resolve, and vigor. As a result, the National Progressive Party was known ubiquitously amongst the people as the Bull Moose Party.

The Assassination Attempt

Despite Roosevelt's popularity there were those who worried about his seeking re-election. At the time, it was not illegal to seek a third term but it was unusual. The thought made many people uncomfortable. One such person was the bankrupted saloon-owner John Schrank; a man whose life had been a series of endless tragedies and deaths of loved ones.

Schrank opposed Roosevelt's attempted third term, but what motivated him to take such drastic action was mental illness. He would later claim that the former president William McKinley came to him in a dream. McKinley had been assassinated in 1901, and that death is what propelled his vice president (Theodore Roosevelt) into power. In the dream, McKinley accused Roosevelt of murdering him and asked Schrank to avenge his death. Schrank obeyed.

John Schrank
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What Schrank didn't know on the night of October 14 was that Theodore Roosevelt had a 50-page copy of his speech, along with his metal glasses case, in his breast pocket. Schrank shot Roosevelt at nearly point-blank range, but the speech and case slowed the bullet drastically. However, the bullet still did enter into Roosevelt's chest, into his right ribcage.

Roosevelt realized he was bleeding, but having been a soldier and hunter, he knew a lot about gun injuries. He checked to see if his mouth was bleeding, and on seeing that it wasn't, he decided the bullet had not punctured his lungs. He would live and he went to deliver his speech, determined to demonstrate his resolve and strength. After bodyguards asked the crowd to stay calm, someone accused Roosevelt of lying to gain attention. Roosevelt showed the crowd the bleeding hole in his chest, asked them to remain as quiet as possible, and notified them that it took more than that to kill a bull moose.

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