The Pocket Items That Saved the Life of Theodore Roosevelt

It was the result of pure serendipity—a deadly assassin impeded by casual effects. Ordinary items that were unintentionally but strategically placed by the victim in a breast pocket that blocked the course of an otherwise lethal bullet. 

In the fall of 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was stumping in the Midwest as the Bull Moose candidate for the U.S. presidency. The former President had decided to run for the executive office for a third term after he became frustrated with the Taft administration’s failure to carry out his past policies.

In the early evening of October 14th, Roosevelt arrived in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After dining at the Gilpartick Hotel, he and several members of his entourage headed towards his car which would take them to the auditorium where Roosevelt was to deliver his speech. A crowd of people had gathered and as Roosevelt reached the car, he stood up to bow and acknowledge their cheers. At the front of the crowd was a man holding a .38-caliber Colt revolver taking aim. 

Unbeknownst to Roosevelt, a 36-year-old saloonkeeper from New York City named John Schrank had stalked him through eight states in an effort to catch the right moment to assassinate him. As Schrank would later claim in court proceedings, slain U.S. president William McKinley had appeared to him twice in his dreams. The first was in September 1901 when McKinley rose from his grave, pointed to Roosevelt, and claimed the vice president had murdered him. In a second dream in September 1912, McKinley tapped Schrank on the shoulder and ordered him to avenge his murder. 

At about 8:10 p.m., standing just feet from Roosevelt, Schrank raised his gun, took aim, and fired. The bullet penetrated Roosevelt’s heavy overcoat and ripped through the right side of his chest. Inside the breast pocket were two items that absorbed the impact and undoubtedly saved Roosevelt’s life. The first was a thick fifty-page speech manuscript folded in half. Behind that was a metal eyeglass case in which Roosevelt kept his spectacles. 

After he was hit, Roosevelt tottered a bit, then fell into the seat beneath him. Elbert Martin, his stenographer and a former football player, immediately jumped out of the car and wrestled Schrank to the ground, stopping the man who was aiming to fire again. “He doesn’t know what he is doing,” Roosevelt shouted, “Don’t strike the poor creature.” The wounded Roosevelt was able to restore order to the chaos at the scene before police arrived and took Schrank into custody.

Although Roosevelt was advised by his doctor and others to go immediately to the hospital, he made it emphatically clear that there was no change in plans. “This may be my last talk in this cause to our people,” he said. Despite having a bullet lodged inside him, Roosevelt was driven to the Milwaukee Auditorium and he took the stage to deliver his speech.  

“I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot,” Roosevelt began, appealing to the audience’s emotions, “but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.” He showed the crowd his bullet-ridden speech manuscript and continued, “The bullet is in me now so that I cannot make a long speech, I will try my best.” 

Roosevelt did in fact make a rather long speech, speaking off the cuff rather than reading from the page. He finally concluded his talk roughly a full hour later, a bit shaky from loss of blood. 

Afterwards, Roosevelt was rushed to a hospital in Milwaukee, then later taken to Chicago’s Mercy Hospital. Physicians monitored Roosevelt for several days and ultimately decided not to remove the bullet. A week after he had been shot, Roosevelt was released from the hospital and was back campaigning on October 30th.

Both Roosevelt and Taft lost the election of 1912 to Woodrow Wilson. In the years following, Roosevelt went on to explore and survey a river in the Amazon basin, write prolifically, and continued to speak out and advocate for political matters. On January 6, 1919, Teddy Roosevelt died at his home in Oyster Bay, New York at the age of 60, with Schrank’s bullet still inside his chest.

Roosevelt’s almost-assassin, John Schrank, was diagnosed with paranoid-schizophrenia. He was committed to an institution for the criminally insane, where he lived until his death in 1943.

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