April 25, 2012
What brought them together in Milwaukee—Theodore Roosevelt and his would-be killer, John Flammang Schrank—on that cool night in October of 1912, was their differing opinions on whether any man should serve three terms in office as president of the United States. And what saved Roosevelt were the things he carried—a steel eyeglass case and a 50-page manuscript of his speech—tucked close to his chest, which absorbed the force of Schrank’s bullet and prevented a lethal wound. Roosevelt would carry the slug from Schrank’s .38-caliber revolver in his chest for the remaining six years of his life, a violent but proud reminder of the strenuous and dangerous life that he lived with such brio.
Vice President Theodore Roosevelt had become the nation’s youngest president, at age 42, after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901. He assumed office at a time when militant anarchists were claiming responsibility for a wave of bombings across the globe and the assassination of numerous heads of state. John Schrank was not one of them, however.
Born in Bavaria, Germany, in 1876, Schrank came to the United States with his parents at the age of nine, settling in New York’s Lower East Side. His parents soon died, and Schrank moved in with an aunt and uncle and worked in the family biergarten. Tragedy was never far from his life. He was supposed to accompany his 19-year-old sweetheart, Emily Ziegler, on a St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran German Church outing aboard the General Slocum steamboat in June of 1904, but he’d been unable to get anyone to take his shift at the family tavern. More than 1,000 passengers, mostly Germans from the Lower East Side, were killed when the Slocum caught fire off Manhattan. Schrank later identified the charred remains of Ziegler’s body, and according to newspaper accounts at the time, he “appeared wild-eyed at the Morgue.”
Schrank’s aunt and uncle died within a year of each other, beginning in 1910. Schrank, in his 30s, took the deaths very hard; according to the funeral director, he was more like an adopted son to them, and while he inherited their belongings and business, the soft-spoken nephew “brooded and was abstracted continually” after their deaths. Their bodies cremated, Schrank never claimed their ashes, quickly sold off the properties, and eventually found himself living in a cheap hotel over a saloon on Canal Street.
In his hotel room, Schrank kept pictures of four presidents on his walls—Lincoln, Grant, Garfield and Roosevelt—men whom, Schrank told acquaintances, he admired, despite having no serious political interests. And it was in this room that Schrank was known to drink beer and stare in silence for hours at the faces of the four presidents.
After Theodore Roosevelt had completed his second term in office, in 1908, the former president went off on a tour of Europe and Africa. The Republican Party, Roosevelt believed, was in good hands, with his friend William Howard Taft in office to maintain the progressive policies that Roosevelt had become known for.
When Roosevelt returned from his tour, he’d come under the impression that Taft was betraying his progressive legacy. Alarmed, Roosevelt decided he would challenge Taft for the Republican nomination, referring to his once close friend as “fathead” and “flubdub.” By the summer of 1912, it looked as though Roosevelt might actually win. Roosevelt was livid to learn, however, that parliamentary irregularities in the primary gave the sitting president an advantage in acquiring delegates. Crying thief, Roosevelt decided instead to form a third party—on the “Bull Moose” ticket—to seek a third term as president.
Schrank had known of Roosevelt since the former president had been New York’s police commissioner in 1895. He’d admired Roosevelt’s presidency. “Then I began to think seriously of him as a menace to his country,” Schrank later told police. “I looked upon his plan to start a third party as a danger to the country; my knowledge of history, gained through much reading, convinced me that Colonel Roosevelt was engaged in a dangerous undertaking. I was convinced that if he was defeated at the Fall election he would again cry ‘Thief’ and that his action would plunge the country into a bloody civil war.”
Then John Schrank had the dream that would turn his thoughts into action. “I had a dream in which ex-President McKinley appeared to me,” Schrank told police. “I was told by McKinley in this dream that it was not [Leon] Czolgosz who murdered him, but Roosevelt.” McKinley, in Schrank’s dream, pointed to Roosevelt and said, “This is my murderer. Avenge my death!” The dead president, Schrank said, “told me that his blood was on Roosevelt’s hands, and that Roosevelt had killed him so that he might become President.”
The dream impressed Schrank, more than any words he had read in the newspapers, and he became “more convinced than ever that I should free the country from the menace of Roosevelt’s ambition.”
After moving to the rundown White Hotel on Canal Street, Schrank bought a revolver and set out on an ambitious tour through the South and Midwest, following Roosevelt from city to city, looking for the opportunity to kill him. But Roosevelt made it difficult, altering his arrival plans and slipping in and out of train stations using entrances “other than the one at which I had stationed myself.”
Traveling under the name of Walter Roos, Schrank decided to head to Milwaukee, where he planned more carefully, settling on ambushing Roosevelt at the entrance of his hotel, the Gilpatrick, as the candidate left to make a speech that evening at the Milwaukee Auditorium, three blocks away. Waiting calmly in the lobby with a crowd that had spilled onto the street, Schrank heard the cheer, then moved toward the candidate’s waiting car just as Roosevelt appeared in the lobby. It was 8 p.m.
Pushing through the crowd, Roosevelt made it to the car alongside his campaign advisers, stood on the floorboard and turned to acknowledge his admirers with a wave of his hat when Schrank pushed forward and raised his revolver. Already seated in the car, Albert H. Martin, Roosevelt’s secretary and a former football player, caught a glimpse of metal in the air and leapt from the vehicle.
“Everything seemed to happen at once,” Martin recalled. “There was a flash, the sound of a shot, and I was on the ground with the man. I threw one arm around his neck and held him fast. At the same time I caught his gun hand with my free hand and wrenched the revolver from him.”
Schrank strugged for a moment, “acting like a madman,” Martin noted, until the crowd set upon the would-be assassin and began to beat him, amid cries of, “Lynch him…kill him!” Martin managed to lift Schrank to his feet and hold him before Roosevelt.
“Don’t hurt the poor creature,” Roosevelt said, on his feet again and not yet aware that he’d been shot.
Someone in the crowd asked if he’d been hurt. “Oh, no,” Roosevelt said, smiling. “Missed me that time. I’m not hurt a bit.”
Martin and some police rescued Schrank from the angry crowd while Roosevelt and his advisers continued on, by automobile, to the auditorium. On the way, an escort observed a bullet hole in Roosevelt’s army overcoat, and Roosevelt touched it, finding blood on his fingertips. Despite efforts to persuade him to seek medical attention, Roosevelt was adamant that he speak to the people of Wisconsin, even if he died while doing so.
He took the podium to great cheering, then spoke softly to the thousands in attendance. “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.”
Roosevelt went on to speak of the importance of the Progressive movement. He said he did not know the man who shot him, but that he was a coward and that the untruths printed in newspapers, on behalf of his opponents, had incited “weak and vicious minds” to acts of violence.
“Now, friends, I am not speaking for myself at all, I give you my word, I do not care a rap about being shot; not a rap…. Friends, every good citizen ought to do everything in his or her power to prevent the coming of the day when we shall see in this country two recognized creeds fighting one another, when we shall see the creed of the ‘Havenots’ arraigned against the creed of the ‘Haves.’ When that day comes then such incidents as this to-night will be commonplace in our history.”
The crowd alternatively roared and pleaded with him to rest. To the side, Roosevelt’s advisers tried to persuade him to cut his speech short. Roosevelt would have none of it.
“My friends are a little more nervous than I am,” he said. “Don’t you waste any sympathy on me. I have had an A-1 time in my life and I am having it now.”
Roosevelt spoke for more than an hour. Then he was rushed to the Johnston Emergency Hospital, where six surgeons prepared him on an operating table. Roosevelt insisted they were taking the wound, between the collar bone and the lower rib, too seriously. After they proved unable to locate the bullet, he was transported to a Chicago hospital, where X-rays helped surgeons see that it had lodged where it couldn’t do further damage. They chose not to remove it.
All of the candidates agreed to suspend their stumping out of respect for the former president’s injury. After he came back, he beat Taft in the popular vote—but both men lost to Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who carried 40 states to victory.
John Flammang Schrank pled guilty, believing that Roosevelt, having survived, might forgive him. But the former barman was sent off to the Central State Mental Hopsital in Waupun, Wisconsin, where he was not permitted to receive any visitors, and he died there in 1943, at age 67.
“I am sorry I have caused all this trouble for the good people of Milwaukee and Wisconsin,” Schrank said shortly after the assassination attempt, “but I am not sorry that I carried out my plan.”
Books: A Passion to Lead: Theodore Roosevelt in his own Words, Edited by Laura Ross, Sterling Signature, 2012. Colonel Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris, Random House, 2010. It Happened in Wisconsin, by Michael Bie, Morris Book Publishing, 2007. Buckeye Presidents: Ohioans in the White House, Edited by Phillip Weeks, Kent State University Press, 2003.
Articles: “Attempt Made to Kill Roosevelt,” Boston Globe, October 15, 1912. “Crank Tries to Murder Roosevelt: Will Live,” Chicago Tribune, October 15, 1912. “Shrank Brooded, But Seemed Sane,” New York Times, October 16, 1912. “Martin Tells of His Leap,” New York Times, October 15, 1912. “Long on Trail of Roosevelt,” Boston Daily Globe, October 15, 1912. “Bullet in Right Breast, Doctors Say Wound is Not Serious,” New York Times, October 15, 1912. “Oct 14 2012 (sic) TIH Program. John Schrank Transcript,” Campaign History Blog, Ken Davy interview with Adam Green and Ariel Garneau, October 27, 2010. http://usatodayinhistory.wordpress.com/2010/10/27/oct-14-2012-tih-program-john-schrank-transcript/
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