• Theodore Roosevelt was shot while campaigning for a third presidential term with the Progressive Party.
• The assassin’s bullet was slowed by the folded-up speech and glasses case in his breast pocket.
• The 26th president finished the 84-minute speech but ultimately failed to win the 1912 election.
US President Theodore Roosevelt was saved by the length of his speech after being shot in the chest with a .38-caliber revolver.
It was 1912 and Roosevelt was running for a third presidential term on the third-party Progressive, or Bull Moose, ticket. He was up against Woodrow Wilson and his vice president-turned-bitter-rival William Taft.
“It was a very vitriolic campaign,” Clay S. Jenkinson, the Theodore Roosevelt humanities scholar at Dickinson State University‘s Theodore Roosevelt Center, tells Business Insider. “TR offended the Republican establishment by challenging Taft for the nomination in the Republican Party. Then the party offended TR by maneuvering the convention in Chicago to favor the incumbent. TR, at that point, bolted.”
Amid the turbulent presidential race, Roosevelt put his immense personal popularity to use. “Wherever he stopped on his cross-country pilgrimage, he attracted such multitudes – at depots, outside hotels, along city streets – that newspaper wags were comparing him to John the Baptist,” Gerard Helferich writes in “Theodore Roosevelt and the Assassin.”
But the candidate was not beloved by everyone. Somewhere amongst the mass of supporters, a stalker set his sights on Roosevelt. Saloon-owner John Schrank began writing screeds against the president, “pouring out the injustice and treachery and unworthiness and un-Americanism of Theodore Roosevelt,” writes Helferich.
Schrank had been obsessed with the former president ever since he had an unusual nightmare.
“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. The dead President said, ‘This is my murderer – avenge my death,'” Schrank wrote, according to “Killing the President: Assassinations, Attempts, and Rumored Attempts on U.S. Commanders-in-Chief.”
Schrank struck on October 14 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, sparking what Jenkinson calls “one of the strangest, most uncanny, and most compelling stories” involving the 26th president.
As Roosevelt stepped out of the Pfister Hotel to head over to his speech at the Milwaukee Auditorium, the would-be assassin fired at the candidate, striking him in the chest. Fortunately, Roosevelt had his notes with him – 50 pages of them, folded in his breast pocket next to his metal glasses case. These objects slowed the bullet and saved Roosevelt’s life.
The presidential candidate also ordered the gathering mob not to hurt Schrank, who had been wrestled to the ground by onlookers. The would-be assassin went to prison, where Jenkinson says he became “something of a jailhouse celebrity,” and attempted to justify himself by saying he was against third-term presidents. Jenkinson says it’s impossible to say whether Schrank was unhinged or had more rational reasons for his assassination attempt.
It’s unclear when exactly Roosevelt realized he had been shot, but he made his way to the auditorium after coughing into his hands, “to see if there were blood in his spittle,” says Jenkinson.
Then, in what is probably one of the most remarkable feats of public speaking in history, he arrived at the auditorium and completed an 84-minute speech, as Business Insider’s Henry Blodget previously wrote.
The ex-president kicked things off by letting his audience know he’d been shot, according to the Theodore Roosevelt Association:
“Friends, 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.”
A handful of audio recordings of Roosevelt survive – here’s one from 1912. As a speaker, Jenkinson says he had quite a few quirks, including large teeth, an aggressive manner, a habit of beating his fist into his hand, and a “distinctive way of biting off his words.” In a time before microphones, the man would have to shout at the top of his lungs to be heard.
Roosevelt also had “a high, squeaky voice, and when he got excited the timbre of it went straight up into falsetto,” says Jenkinson, so we can imagine what he sounded like after an assassination attempt.
“He also understood political theater,” says Jenkinson. “Like Ronald Reagan, who responded to his own near-assassination in much the same way, TR knew that it would help to cement his larger-than-life, tougher-than-anyone-else legend if he gave the speech. TR had an outsized mythology to protect. As they say of Elvis’ death in his early 40s, it could be said that this was a ‘great career move.'”
While the speech and his survival may have helped boost his legendary status, it didn’t give the Bull Moose candidate much of an edge in the polls. He was forced to stop campaigning for the weeks leading up to the election. And, while Roosevelt accrued the largest ever third-party vote in US history, he ended up splitting the Republican vote with Taft and launching Wilson to the presidency.
The Theodore Roosevelt Center, which is currently building its own Theodore Roosevelt Presidential Library, features a collection of newspaper coverage from the time.
Such headlines include “Roosevelt Assures His Wife He Is In No Danger,” “Roosevelt Orders Police to Rescue Assassin From Crowd,” “Roosevelt’s First Remark One of Pity For Assailant”, and “Washington Deeply Shocked by News of Attack on Colonel.”
“There was an outpouring of concern, sympathy, and support, but if you say, ‘It takes more than that to kill a bull moose,’ people are going to normalize the adventure and the trauma,” Jenkinson says. “He got headlines all over. It all added to the legend. An 84-minute speech. But somehow it made TR seem less like the rest of us, because he was such an outlier, even a freak, by normal American standards.”
Physicians later determined that it would be potentially more risky to remove the bullet than to leave it be. And so Roosevelt finished the rest of his unsuccessful campaign with a bullet in his ribs, where it remained until his death in 1919.