Eight Republican candidates debated Tuesday evening at the historic Milwaukee Theatre. The venue choice is an interesting one for the Republican party: 103 years ago, popular Republican president Theodore Roosevelt was nearly assassinated minutes before his scheduled speech at the same venue. The would-be assassin was 36-year-old Bavarian immigrant named John Schrank. But who was he, and why did he want to kill Roosevelt?
John Flammand Schrank was born in Bavaria in 1876. He came to America with his parents at the age of 9, and when they died soon after, John was cared for by his aunt and uncle in New York. Schrank seems to have been positioned for a happy life: he grew up working in his uncle’s tavern, and he had a sweetheart named Emily Ziegler.
Everything started changing in 1904, when Emily was killed in the General Slocum excursion ship fire. Within a few years, Schrank’s aunt and uncle passed away. They left everything to their nephew, and their generosity should have allowed him to live comfortably. But Schrank had never recovered from Emily’s death, and with the loss of his aunt and uncle, his mind began to waver.
Overcome with loneliness, Schrank sold his inheritance and studied the Bible and the American Constitution intensely. John also wrote poetry, and was known to be intelligent and sensitive. He spent most of his time alone, taking long, aimless walks, sometimes late into the night.
During the years that were so turbulent for Schrank, Theodore Roosevelt was on top of the world. Roosevelt, known as TR to his friends and family, was not a man. He was a force of nature.
William McKinley’s assassination at the World’s Fair in Buffalo in 1901 catapulted Roosevelt into the presidency. TR was a popular president and when he departed in 1909, he was pleased to leave the White House in Republican hands, with William Taft.
Roosevelt’s pleasure faded as Taft committed one blunder after another. The former president was not content to merely shake his head. Roosevelt was only 53, and he told supporters, “I feel as fit as a Bull Moose!” Nevertheless, his announcement that he was challenging Taft for the Republican nomination rocked the political establishment.
Apart from the novelty of issuing a primary challenge to his own successor, Roosevelt’s bid for a third term broke with tradition. No other president had ever served more than two terms. Years later, Franklin Roosevelt (distant relation of TR) won four terms, which ultimately led to a limit of two presidential terms. Taft won the nomination but Roosevelt announced a third party run on the Progressive “Bull Moose” ticket.
When newspaper reports announced Roosevelt’s bid for a third term, John Schrank was furious. He believed TR’s assault on the Constitution had to be stopped, at any cost. He made up his mind to kill the former president, and immediately left New York in pursuit. He caught up to Roosevelt in New Orleans and followed him, awaiting his chance.
October 14, 1912 was a Sunday. In Milwaukee, John Schrank and Theodore Roosevelt were about to collide violently. At 8 p.m., TR emerged from a hotel where a car waited to convey him to the Milwaukee Auditorium (now Milwaukee Theatre) for a speech. 8 p.m. was late for a Roosevelt speech, as the former president loved to talk and would frequently give speeches lasting two hours or more. He climbed into the open car, bantering cheerily with supporters. He did not notice the stocky man shoving his way to the front of the group.
This was long before the days of motorcades. Roosevelt traveled with a few aides who provided general assistance, including security. Too late, they spotted Schrank aiming a .32-caliber gun at TR.
The bullet hit TR in the chest. The doctors later concluded that, had it not been for the eyeglasses case and 50-page typewritten speech stuffed in his inner coat pocket, the president would have been mortally wounded.
Schrank was forcibly restrained a moment too late, and overheard protesting that “any man looking for a third term ought to be shot.”
Roosevelt pulled a handkerchief from another pocket and coughed into it experimentally. Seeing no blood, he concluded the bullet didn’t hit his lung, and demanded to be taken to the auditorium.
Knowing protests would only annoy Roosevelt, his aides complied. However, they positioned themselves around the stage, prepared to catch the candidate, should he faint.
Roosevelt entered to a standing ovation from 9,000 supporters, which delighted him. His voice carried well, but he knew he couldn’t shout over the cheers. He said, “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!”
Roosevelt held up the speech with a flourish to a collective gasp from the crowd. Then he proceeded to speak for an hour, which is incredible considering how much blood he lost during that time. Take a look at the shirts he was wearing:
When Roosevelt’s speech began to slur, his aides insisted he end his speech. TR was taken to a local hospital for emergency treatment, but when he went home eight days later, the bullet was still in his chest. It stayed there the rest of his life.
When he was asked about it, Roosevelt answered with characteristic stoicism, “I don’t mind it any more than if it were in my waistcoat pocket.”
Roosevelt recovered fairly quickly after the assassination attempt, but he lost the election in November. He and Taft split the Republican vote, resulting in Woodrow Wilson winning the presidency.
Schrank was apprehended at the scene. Scribbled notes in his pocket illuminated an unfocused narrative that began with the ghost of William McKinley appearing to Schrank in a dream.
Schrank wrote that McKinley rose from his coffin, declaring his death must be avenged, and pointed at Roosevelt, who was wearing a monk’s robe.
Schrank also claimed he shot Roosevelt as a warning to “other third termers”. The doctors determined Schrank suffered from “insane delusions, grandiose in character” and he was committed to Central State Mental Hospital in 1914.
After he was committed, Schrank wrote several letters to his physician, Dr. Sherman. This example conveys surprisingly articulate thoughts written in a neat, careful script.
At some point, Schrank had a change of heart. When TR died in 1919, John said he was a great American and that he was sorry to learn of his death.
Schrank survived his intended victim by more than two decades. He died from bronchial pneumonia in 1943. His body was donated to Marquette University’s Medical School for anatomical dissection. During the 29 years he lived at Central State Mental Hospital, John Schrank did not receive a single letter or visitor.