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  • Mike Martinez

Political Assassinations: Theodore Roosevelt

The legendary assault on Theodore Roosevelt, 26th President of the United States, is recounted in Chapter 16 of my recently released book, Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders.

TR had been out of office for more than three years when he launched a third-party campaign to recapture the presidency. He had endorsed his hand-picked successor, William Howard Taft, as the heir apparent before leaving office early in 1909, but Roosevelt had come to regret his choice. He simply did not believe Taft was up to the task of carrying on the Progressive legacy that TR had established. The only clear option available to him was to challenge Taft for the 1912 Republican presidential nomination.

When he was unable to wrest the nomination away from the incumbent, Roosevelt led the Progressive wing of the Grand Old Party away to form a new organization, the Bull Moose Progressive Party. He was anointed the new party’s candidate to challenge Taft and Democratic nominee Woodrow Wilson in the fall presidential election.

The “colonel,” as he liked to be called in his post-presidential years, set out on an exhausting, whirlwind campaign tour across the country. Everywhere he went, large crowds of excited well-wishers and curiosity seekers turned out to greet the famous man who sought a third term in office. Everyone, it seemed, was a TR fan.

Well, perhaps not everyone: during a campaign stop in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, just after 8:00 p.m. on October 14, 1912, Roosevelt greeted well-wishers in front of the Gilpatrick Hotel. As the candidate waved to the crowd, a saloonkeeper named John Schrank stepped forward and fired a .32 caliber pistol point-blank at Roosevelt. In an astonishing bit of good luck, Roosevelt was not killed or mortally wounded. The bullet passed through a glasses case as well as the folded-up pages of his speech, which was tucked into the breast pocket of his coat. As a result, TR suffered only a minor chest wound. Within minutes of the shooting, Schrank was whisked away into police custody. His only motive, he muttered, was that “any man looking for a third term ought to be shot.”

Schrank had experienced a dream, or perhaps it was a vision, in the wee morning hours of September 15, 1901, when the spirit of the assassinated President William McKinley instructed the German immigrant to avenge his death. Appearing only hours after McKinley had shuffled off his mortal coil, the apparition intimated that TR, who was serving as vice president at the time that Leon Czolgosz shot and killed McKinley, was the mastermind behind the murder. Years passed and Schrank failed to act on his vision, but he never forgot what he had seen.

On August 7, 1912, the same night that Roosevelt accepted the Bull Moose Party presidential nomination, Schrank experienced a new dream. This time, he awoke with a startling conviction: Theodore Roosevelt must not recapture the presidency. If the colonel recaptured the White House, he would become a new Napoleon, plunging the United States into war, thereby hastening an apocalyptic series of events, including a second, bloody civil war. Even as Schrank wrestled with how he should interpret the dream, he awoke in the night five weeks later and encountered McKinley’s ghost again. This time, Schrank realized that he could not shirk his duty. McKinley was instructing him to kill the Bull Moose, and he could no longer refuse. He bought a Colt .38 pistol for $14.00 and headed out on the road to follow Roosevelt as the old warhorse campaigned for the third term.

Schrank headed to New Orleans before moving on to Atlanta, Georgia; Charleston, South Carolina; and Chattanooga, Tennessee. He came close to shooting the third termer in Chattanooga, but he lost his nerve and failed to act. Castigating himself for his timidity, he headed up the Midwest, trailing TR through Indiana and into Chicago. He probably could have done the deed in the Windy City, but he changed his plan at the last minute because he liked the city of Chicago and did not wish to tarnish its image.

The moment of reckoning came in Milwaukee. After he fired his shot and was taken into custody, Schrank initially refused to divulge his identity or any personal information. As the police interview progressed, he stated his name and revealed much about his thinking. Echoing comments uttered by other assailants of public figures, Schrank defended his act as “my duty as a citizen.” He did not believe that he had acted irrationally or that he was insane. During this first discussion, Schrank appeared to be a normal, well-functioning person. He had never been in legal trouble, nor had he been institutionalized for mental health reasons.

As for the inimitable Teddy Roosevelt, he refused all entreaties to seek immediate medical attention. Insisting that he keep his promise to deliver a speech, Roosevelt appeared at his campaign function. Alerting the astonished audience to the assassination attempt, the seemingly indestructible candidate assured everyone, “It takes more than that to kill a bull moose.” In a dramatic flourish, TR displayed the bullet-riddled, 50-page manuscript of his remarks. “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.” After speaking for an hour, Roosevelt agreed to visit a local hospital for treatment.

The incident contributed to TR’s legendary stature as a “Rough Rider” and “an electric battery of inexhaustible energy,” but he nonetheless failed to recapture the White House. The electorate apparently agreed with Schrank’s assessment, if not quite his methods, that no man should be elevated to the presidency for a third term.

It was hardly surprising that the alienists who were directed by the court to examine Schrank pronounced him insane. A man who acts at the direction of visions and dream-like apparitions is not someone who is mentally healthy. The presiding judge, August C. Backus, read the psychiatric evaluation and accepted the conclusions. “The court now finds that the defendant John Schrank is insane, and therefore incapacitated to act for himself,” Judge Backus announced. “It is therefore ordered and adjudged that the defendant John Schrank be committed to the Northern Hospital for the Insane, near Oshkosh, in the County of Winnebago, state of Wisconsin, until such time when he shall have recovered from such insanity, when he shall be returned to this court for further proceedings according to law."

Schrank cheerfully accepted the verdict. He told the doctors that he disagreed with their conclusions, but he thanked them for their efforts. Later, he bid farewell to the sheriff who had held him in custody. “I hope I haven’t caused you much trouble,” he said.

The sheriff assured him that all was well. “You’ve been the best prisoner we have had here since I have been in office.”

“I am glad to hear that, for I do not like to cause people trouble,” the amiable would-be assassin explained. “I am not crazy, but as the doctors have said I am, I must go to the asylum. There is nothing else for me to do.”

Having dispensed with the pleasantries, Schrank’s jailers transferred him to the Northern Hospital for the Insane. There he lived out his days, occasionally complaining about his treatment and always following the latest news. During more than three decades in confinement, Schrank never received a personal letter or a visitor. He must have been especially perturbed when TR’s distant cousin, Franklin D. Roosevelt, dared to seek and win a third term as president in 1940. A few years later, on Wednesday, September 15, 1943, John Schrank, died of pneumonia. He was 67 years old.

Schrank was the prototype of the Type 4 assailant, suffering from severe cognitive deficiencies. Although he was not quite as impaired as, say, Richard Lawrence, the delusional housepainter who shot at President Andrew Jackson in 1835, Schrank was guided by voices and visions that existed only in his imagination. He was a classic would-be assassin who acted for reasons beyond perceived self-interest or political expediency.

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