By Brad Dison
Shortly after 8:00 p.m. on October 14, 1912, the Colonel walked through a crowd of well-wishers at the Gilpatrick Hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and stepped into the back seat of an open-topped car. He was expected to arrive within minutes at the Milwaukee Auditorium, four blocks away, to deliver a speech. Still standing, he waved to the crowd. One of his two secretaries, Albert H. Martin, stood with him. A man later identified as John Flammang Schrank pushed his way through the crowd, pulled a .38 caliber pistol, and fired from a distance of about 7 feet. The Colonel barely moved. He showed no sign of panic or pain. At almost the same instant that Schrank fired the shot, Albert jumped from the back seat and Captain A.O. Girard, another member of the Colonel’s party, jumped from the front seat onto the man with the pistol. They quickly overpowered Schrank and disarmed him. The Colonel told the men to bring the shooter closer so he could get a good look at him. The colonel gazed into the shooters face and said, “the poor creature.”
The crowd turned hostile toward the would-be assassin. “Lynch him!” they cried, “Kill him!” “Stop, stop!” the Colonel yelled. “Stand back; don’t hurt him!” Only at the insistence of the Colonel did the crowd refrain from tearing the man apart and allow escorts to take Schrank inside the hotel to await the arrival of police. Multiple people asked, “Are you hurt, Colonel?” The Colonel responded with a smile, “Oh, no. Missed me that time. I’m not hurt a bit.” He turned to the remaining members of his party and said, “I think we’d better be going, or we will be late.”
They had hardly driven one block when John McGrath, the Colonel’s other secretary, exclaimed, “Look, Colonel. There is a hole in your overcoat.” The Colonel looked at the hole, unbuttoned the coat and felt of his chest. When he removed his hand, his fingers were stained with blood. Speaking to no one in particular, the Colonel said, “It looks as though I had been hit, but I don’t think it is anything serious.”
When they reached the auditorium, the Colonel went into a dressing room. Several physicians made a superficial examination of the wound and suggested that the Colonel leave for the hospital immediately. The Colonel calmly responded, “I will deliver this speech or die, one or the other.” The physicians’ protested, but the Colonel walked out of the dressing room and onto the stage. The crowd cheered loudly as the Colonel took his seat and waited for the program to begin.
Henry F. Cochems, a Wisconsin political leader, stepped to the front of the platform and held up his hand. The crowd sensed something was wrong and immediately fell silent. “I have something to tell you,” he said with a trembling voice, “and I hope you will received the news with calmness.” The crowd was deathly silent. “Colonel Roosevelt has been shot. He is wounded.” At this, Mr. Cochems turned and looked at the Colonel.
The crowd’s reaction was anything but calm. People yelled and screamed out of shock. Some of the patrons rushed toward the platform to get a better look at the Colonel. The Colonel stood and calmly walked to the edge of the platform. “It’s true,” the Colonel told the crowd as he unbuttoned his coat and showed them the blood-stained shirt. “I’m going to ask you to be very quiet,” he said, “and please excuse me for making you a very long speech. I’ll do the best I can, but you see there’s a bullet in my body. But it’s nothing. I’m not hurt badly.” The Colonel’s words were met with an outburst of cheering.
The Colonel pulled out his 50-page speech and began his oration. The crowd listened intently to every word the Colonel said. His speech was somewhat quieter than normal and his gestures were more subdued. He spoke for a while and suddenly his voice sank. He seemed to stagger. One of the doctors and another in the Colonel’s party approached him and quietly insisted that he leave immediately for a hospital. The Colonel seemed to regain all of his strength and told them, “I’m going to finish this speech. I’m all right; let me alone.” The Colonel struggled at times as he spoke for well over an hour. At the conclusion of the Colonel’s speech, he looked briefly at the cheering crowd and calmly walked off the platform and into a waiting car.
The Colonel’s driver sped through the streets of Milwaukee to the hospital where a team of doctors were waiting. They whisked him to an operating room and quickly removed his clothing. He insisted that he was not hurt badly and told the doctors that they were taking it too seriously. The doctors continued their work. The entrance wound was easy enough to find, but they were unable to determine the location of the bullet. While they waited for a staff member to retrieve an x-ray machine, the Colonel sat up on the operating table and entertained the doctors with political stories and jokes.
By using x-rays and probes, the doctors learned that the bullet had lodged in the Colonel’s chest muscle. It struck no major arteries or organs. The doctors concluded that it would be riskier to remove the bullet than to leave it in place. They were curious to learn, however, what had kept the .38 caliber bullet from penetrating deeper into the Colonel’s chest. As they examined his clothing the answer became clear. The bullet had passed through the Colonel’s thick overcoat, through his 50-page speech which he had folded in half so that it would fit into his pocket which made it 100 pages thick, through both sides of his metal eyeglasses case, through his waistcoat, shirt and undershirt, and finally, into his chest. Had the Colonel written a shorter speech, had he not doubled the speech over and placed in his chest pocket, had he placed his eyeglasses case in another pocket, the Colonel could have been the first former president of the United States to be assassinated. The Colonel’s speech was part of his campaign for a third non-consecutive term as president, which he ultimately lost. The Colonel was… Theodore Roosevelt.
- The Baltimore Sun, October 15, 1912, p.1.