How a Speech Saved Teddy Roosevelt’s Life

The 1912 election was one of the most contentious in history. At this time in American history, the Republican Party was the liberal pro-change party, which had been formed on an anti-slavery platform; the Democratic Party, which dominated the South and had set up the Jim Crow segregation laws, was the conservative anti-reform party. Teddy Roosevelt would change all that. And during the campaign, Roosevelt’s life would be saved by the text of a campaign speech that he had folded up inside his pocket . . .


Teddy Roosevelt

Vice President Teddy Roosevelt became the youngest US President ever after assuming office when President William McKinley was assassinated in 1901. After winning the 1904 election, Teddy Roosevelt, a supporter of the newly-emerging “Progressive Movement”,  set out to show the corporations who was boss, filing 44 different anti-trust actions and earning himself the nickname “The Trust-Buster”.

When Roosevelt decided not to run for re-election, his protégé William Howard Taft won the 1908 election. But Roosevelt was unimpressed with Taft’s actions, and in 1912, decided to challenge Taft for the Republican party’s nomination. When Taft won, Roosevelt bolted the party and declared his own candidacy under the newly-organized Progressive Party, popularly referred to as the Bull Moose Party. Most of the Republican party’s progressive supporters left along with him. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party was being changed from within by a progressive faction, represented by Woodrow Wilson. The 1912 election turned into a four-way race: Taft running for re-election with the Republican Party, Wilson running for the Democratic Party, Roosevelt running for the Bull Moose Party, and Eugene V Debs (in jail on sedition charges) running for the Socialist Party.

Roosevelt ran a hard campaign. He made speeches and appearances in 38 of the then-48 states, more than any other candidate, detailing the Bull Moose Party’s platform supporting labor, farmers, women’s suffrage, racial equality, a National Health Service, campaign finance regulations, and checking the power of the corporations.

On October 14, 1912, Roosevelt was in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. At around 8:00 that evening, he walked from his hotel room to a car that was to take him to a speech at the nearby Milwaukee Auditorium. As he stood in the car and waved his hat to the crowd, an unemployed bartender named John Schrank stepped forward and fired a single shot from a .38-caliber pistol. Schrank was immediately wrestled to the ground. Roosevelt called out, “Don’t hurt him.  Bring him here–I want to see him.” Then he asked Schrank, “What did you do it for?” There was no reply. Roosevelt then muttered, “Oh, what’s the use. Turn him over to the police.” Schrank was taken away. He later declared that the ghost of William McKinley had told him in a dream to kill Roosevelt–he had been stalking Roosevelt for three weeks, following him through eight states. Schrank was judged to be insane and was confined to a mental hospital for the rest of his life.

It was only after the would-be assassin had been taken away by the police that someone noticed a hole in Roosevelt’s overcoat. Reaching inside, Roosevelt’s fingers came away bloodstained, and he knew he had been hit. “He pinked me,” Roosevelt told a bystander. But not finding any blood in his mouth, Roosevelt, an experienced combat soldier, knew that the bullet had not actually entered his chest. He therefore ordered his driver to take him to the Auditorium. He was met there by three doctors, who found that the bullet had hit the pocket of his shirt, where Roosevelt had placed his folded-up speech and his metal eyeglass case. The bullet had passed through these, broken the skin, and lodged in the muscle.

Roosevelt then gave what must be the most dramatic opening for any campaign speech ever, “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.” When some in the crowd shouted “Fake!”, Roosevelt dramatically held up his blood-stained shirt. He then proceeded to give his entire 80-minute 50-page speech before being led away by doctors and taken to the hospital. An X-ray showed the bullet had lodged in the front of one of his ribs. They decided not to remove it, and the bullet stayed there for the rest of his life. Roosevelt was kept in the hospital for eight days for observation, and was released just a week before the election.

In the end, Roosevelt’s Bull Moose Party was an electoral failure. In the 1912 election, the Republicans and the Bull Moose supporters split the vote, and Woodrow Wilson and the Democrats won with 42% of the popular vote; Roosevelt and the Bull Moose Party came in second with 27%, Taft and the Republicans got 23%, and the Socialists under Debs got 6%. (It was the last election in which a “third party” beat out one of the two major parties.) But in the longterm, Roosevelt had changed the face of American politics. The exodus of progressives from the Republican Party to the Democratic Party turned the formerly pro-business Democrats into the pro-reform party that forged the New Deal coalition and transformed the United States in the 1930’s.

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