This US president got shot in the chest and still went ahead to deliver a speech moments after

A quick look at the history of the United States, and one is astonished by the sheer number of times that the life of the commander-in-chief has been threatened. As a matter of fact four sitting Presidents of the United States have been assassinated in our nation’s history; they are Abraham Lincoln (in 1865), James A. Garfield (in 1881), William McKinley (in 1901), and John F. Kennedy (in 1863). There were two presidents that sustained injuries from assassination attempts – they were Theodore Roosevelt (in 1912) and Ronald Reagan (1891). The assassination attempt on Teddy Roosevelt and the event that followed is considered one of the most bizarre in U.S. history.

On October 14, 1912, Teddy Roosevelt was shot in the chest by a German-born New York-based shopkeeper John Schrank. The former U.S. president was on his way to give a speech at the Milwaukee Auditorium in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Rather than receive immediate medical attention, the former New York National Guard and hero of the Spanish-American War went ahead to give his speech, which lasted for more than 80 minutes!

Teddy Roosevelt and his presidency (1901-1909)

Facts about Theodore Roosevelt, 26th United States President

America’s youngest ever president, Theodore Roosevelt, left office on March 4, 1909 after nearly 8 years as the commander-in-chief of our nation. The New York City-born politician and soldier had served as the 25th Vice President of the United States before assuming the presidency at just age 42 after then-U.S. President William McKinley was assassinated in September 1901.

Teddy Roosevelt’s term (1901-1909) in the White House had many highs, including the construction of the Panama Canal and the development of America’s Navy into a real fighting force. He received critical acclaim, including the 1906 Nobel Peace Prize, for his tireless diplomatic effort in brokering a peace deal that brought an end to the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905).

Theodore Roosevelt’s campaign trail of 1912

After getting very disappointed with his chosen successor’s (William Howard Taft) presidency (1909-1903), Theodore Roosevelt decided to run again for the White House job in the 1912 presidential election. Image: Theodore Roosevelt campaigning for president, 1912

After a bitter feud with leaders of the conservative wing of the Republican Party, chief among them then-president William Howard Taft, Teddy Roosevelt left the Republicans to form his own party called the Progressive Party.

His critics blamed him for seriously dividing the Republicans, which in turn put Democratic Party nominee Woodrow Wilson in pole position to win the 1912 presidential election. They accused him of wanting to serve more than two terms in office, which went against the two-term limit tradition established by George Washington. It must be noted that as at 1912 the Constitution of the United States did not have presidential term limits. It was not until the ratification of the Twenty-second Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1951 that two-term limit on the presidency was introduced.

For leaving the Republican Party to set up his own party, the Progressive Party, Teddy Roosevelt was tagged as power-hungry and blamed him for the poor showing of the Republican Party at the polls in 1912, which saw Democratic Party candidate Woodrow Wilson cruise to victory. Roosevelt finished second, while incumbent president William Taft came third.

It was during this 1912 presidential election campaign trail that he came close to dying. On October 14, 1912, the former president was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, trying his hardest to convince the good people of Cream City to put their faith in him once again, when a lone gunman John Flammang Schrank (1876-1943) shot him at point blank range. Schrank, a saloonkeeper from the same state as Teddy Roosevelt, wielded a .38-caliber Colt Police Positive Special.

October 14, 1912

On the day of the assassination attempt, Teddy Roosevelt had checked himself in Gilpatrick Hotel and was being hosted to a dinner by the owner of the establishment who was a big supporter of Roosevelt.

Roosevelt was scheduled to give a speech at the Milwaukee Auditorium later in the day. By this time, it had become known that the former president was lodged in the Gilpatrick Hotel. Therefore, supporters of Roosevelt began gathering in front of the hotel, waiting patiently to catch a glimpse of the politician. One of the people in the crowd included John Flammang Schrank. Unbeknownst to Roosevelt and security team, Schrank had stalked the ex-president for quite a time during the campaign trail, from New Orleans all the way to Wisconsin.

All prepped up for the speech, Roosevelt was escorted from the hotel into an open car. Just as he was about to enter the car, he paused for a minute to wave at the crowd that had thronged to see him. It was in this moment that Schrank decided to take aim at Roosevelt and fire his .38 caliber Colt Police Positive Special revolver. No sooner had the shot being heard than did Elbert E. Martin – Roosevelt’s secretary and an ex-football player – spring to action and react first. Martin tackled Schrank to the ground and seized the weapon.

Assassination attempt on Theodore Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt prevented the attacker, John Schrank, from being lynched and pummeled by the irate crowd.

In the ensuing pandemonium a number of people in the crowd jumped Schrank, as the rest called for him to be skinned alive and killed. Roosevelt’s security team and some policemen immediately checked to see if Roosevelt was alright. By this time, Roosevelt was already up on his feet and straightening himself. He appeared unfazed and told reassured everyone that he was alright. When asked if he was hit, he replied in assuring manner that he was simply “pinked”.

Worried that the crowd might end up lynching Schrank, Roosevelt ordered them to calm down before asking the police officers on the scene to “take charge” of Schrank and ensure that no harm was done to him. Roosevelt gazed at Schrank, trying to see if he knew him somewhere. He then repeatedly asked Schrank why he took such bold and callous decision, but the attacker refused answering. Schrank was taken into custody, and police restored order to the place.

After giving the crowd a very reassuring smile and wave, Roosevelt was whisked into his car and drove straight to the venue where he would give his speech as scheduled. Against the advice of his secretaries that he receive immediate medical attention, Roosevelt chose to head to the Auditorium in Milwaukee and deliver his speech as planned. It was only after the speech, which lasted for more than one hour, that he received medical attention at the Chicago Mercy Hospital in Milwaukee.

Assassination attempt on Theodore Roosevelt

Rather than receive immediate medical attention, the former New York National Guard and hero of the Spanish-American War went ahead to give his speech, which lasted for more than 80 minutes! With a blood-stained shirt, he opened his speech with these very memorable words.

Why Teddy Roosevelt survived an assassination attempt on his life

When Schrank shot Roosevelt, he was most likely aiming at causing serious damage to vital organs of the ex-president, including the heart or the lungs. Luckily for Roosevelt, he had two very important things placed in his jacket pocket that day – a steel case of his eyeglasses and a 50-page single-folded copy of the speech he was to deliver. Those two items helped slow down the bullet, which ultimately got lodged in his chest permanently.

Although Roosevelt was bleeding slightly from the gunshot wound, he knew that nothing massive was amiss. His years of being a hunter and an anatomist had taught him one thing – the fact that he was not coughing blood meant that the bullet had missed his lung. This was the reason why he declined to go the hospital immediately.

Teddy Roosevelt was shot once in the chest by Schrank, with the bullet lodging in his chest. According to the reports, the bullet ripped through Roosevelt’s breast pocket and went through the steel eyeglass case before being slowed down a bit by the 50-page speech, both of which were in the former president’s breast pocket. Image: The Pocket Items That Saved the Life of Theodore Roosevelt – the bullet-damaged speech and eyeglass case on display at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace in Manhattan, New York City

Medical examinations and x-ray scans showed that the bullet, which had lodged in Roosevelt’s chest muscle, failed to touch his pleura – (the pulmonary pleurae) – two opposing layers of serous membrane (i.e. visceral pleura and parietal pleura) that overlie the lungs and the inside of the surrounding chest walls. The doctors decided it was best not to remove the bullet as it was much safer to have the bullet stay in Roosevelt’s chest compared to the risk involved in removing it. As a result, Teddy Roosevelt carried the bullet for the rest of his life.

Did you know?

  • In a telegraph message to his wife, Edith Carrow, he described the gunshot wound as trivial.
  • The 50-page speech that Roosevelt gave that day was titled – “Progressive Cause Greater Than Any Individual”.
  • John Flammang Schrank (1876-1943), the man who tried to kill Teddy Roosevelt, had immigrated to the United States when he was around 9 years old.
  • One of the men in the crowd that joined to disarm and capture Schrank was a Czech immigrant and Chicago-based baker by the name of Frank Bukovsky.
  • The speech that Roosevelt gave that day lasted for 84 minutes. With a blood-stained shirt, he opened his speech with these very memorable words: “Ladies and gentlemen, 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.”
  • Due to the divisions between the conservative wing and the progressives in the Republican Party, the Democrats under the leadership of Woodrow Wilson cruised to victory at the 1912 presidential election. Roosevelt, under the ticket of the Progressive Party, came in second, while incumbent president William Taft came in third.

“I’m fit as a bull moose”

Following the assassination attempt on Teddy Roosevelt, his political opponents – Republican candidate and then incumbent president William Howard Taft and Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson – put on hold their campaigns until Teddy Roosevelt recovered two weeks later.

Theodore Roosevelt’s medical x-ray on October 14, 1912, after the assassination attempt, showing the bullet that would remain inside his body for life

To reassure his supporters, i.e. members of the Progressive Party, he took using the phrase “I’m fit as a bull moose”. The Bull Moose became his symbol and that of the Progressive Party. As a matter of fact, the Progressive Party was nicknamed the “Bull Moose Party”.

Who was the man who shot Theodore Roosevelt?

The attacker Schrank came close to being lynched had it not been for the intervention of Teddy Roosevelt who ordered the irate crowd not to harm the perpetrator. Roosevelt assured the crowd that all was well and that he was fine. Image: John Schrank, the man who tried to kill Theodore Roosevelt

John Flammang Schrank (1876-1943) was born in Erding, Bavaria. He immigrated to America at the age of 9 with his family. During his trial for the attempted assassination of former president Theodore Roosevelt, he was found by experts to be plagued by insane delusions and grandiose in character. It’s likely that the early deaths of first his parents and then later his uncle and aunt caused him to develop some psychological problems.

The .38-caliber Colt Police Positive Special revolver that John Schrank used to shoot Theodore Roosevelt

During the trial of Schrank, he told the court that he was visited by the ghost of deceased U.S. president William McKinley in his dreams. Schrank explained to the court how McKinley asked him to avenge his assassination. At the end of the trial, the court found Schrank legally insane and committed him to an institutional facility, i.e. the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Waupun, Wisconsin. Schrank died in 1943 of bronchial pneumonia.

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