When Theodore Roosevelt retired after seven-and-a-half years of the presidency, he was only fifty. Too young. Too vigorous. Too antsy. In a phrase, Too Theodore.
He had hand-picked his successor and good friend, William Howard Taft, to carry on his progressive Republican policies, but Taft was a jurist by profession and disposition – and politics was never his strong suit. The “Old Guard” Republicans, a very conservative bunch, were happy to see TR spend a year or more hunting big game in Africa, so they could revert to their old style and old ways and firm control. Will Taft, nice moderate fellow that he was, was no match for them.
Within two years of his ex-Presidency, Theodore had been inundated by complaints from his loyal followers: his progressive policies and ideas were systematically being dismantled.
Roosevelt, whose greatest political mistake (so say many) was “shooting himself in the foot” in November, 1904, when he was elected to a term of his own. As Vice President, he had come to the White House when popular William McKinley was assassinated only six months into his second term. Thus, on election night, TR formally announced (while his friends winced audibly) that he would not run for a “third term.” He kept his word, even though he quickly realized what a mistake it was.
John Flamming Schrank: Assassin-to-Be
By 1912, political assassinations had become all too common in the US. It has been suggested that presidential assassins are usually insane, at least in some way. Note “usually,” and not always. John Wilkes Booth had some political warping of his mind, but no one ever suggested insanity. Charles J. Guiteau, James Garfield’s assassin was a certifiable lunatic (no matter what the old history books claim). Leon Czolgosz, the man who assassinated McKinley was an anarchist, perhaps tainted with the same political warping that consumed Booth. In the case of Schrank, he was unquestionably insane.
John Flamming Schrank was born in Bavaria, but emigrated to America when he was nine. His parents died shortly thereafter, and he was foster-raised by an aunt and uncle, a saloon keeper and owner of several properties in New York City. Schrank worked for his uncle for several years, and when he died, he was their heir, with a considerable inheritance. It was expected the young man would have a good start in life.
Losing his aunt and uncle hit Schrank hard. He became depressed, sold the properties, and drifted from place to place. He became extremely religious, and was known to wander around the city parks at night – but never causing any disturbance.
1912: A Pivotal Year
By 1912, with Republicans fraying at the political edges between the “Stand Pat” wing and the “Progressive” wing, most party members knew that there would be a battle – especially if Theodore Roosevelt was involved. He was.
With the backing of young, vigorous and forward-thinking Republicans, he stumped the country, and counted at least a dozen state governors in his corner. He challenged the voting electorate at the Republican nominating convention, but was denied a huge percentage of electors that he believed were his – fair and square. Calling the convention “rigged” he marched out with scores of followers, and formed the Progressive Party – nicknamed the Bull Moose Party, for posterity. They nominated Theodore Roosevelt by acclaim.
Meanwhile, with the Republicans split, the Democrats believed they could regain the White House after a twenty year gap, and kept their own infighting to a quiet minimum.
Schrank the Stalker
In 1912, TR was fifty-three and an indefatigable campaigner, traveling all around the country, shaking hands, kissing babies and making dozens of speeches.
In 1912, John Schrank was thirty-five, and had become decidedly peculiar. He was having strange dreams, insisting he was visited by the ghost/spirit of William McKinley, who wanted to be avenged by having Theodore Roosevelt killed. He wrote several accounts of these “visitations.”
For several weeks, Schrank followed TR’s campaign train from New Orleans all the way to Milwaukee, looking for his opportunity. With only a few old Rough Riders as “security escort”, and knowing he was personally popular, TR had no inkling that he was being stalked.
But on October 14, the newspapers reported that TR was dining at the Gilpatrick Hotel, and scheduled to speak afterwards at the Milwaukee Auditorium. Schrank was waiting. As Roosevelt left the Hotel, he entered an open car, whereupon Schrank pumped a bullet into his chest. It hit a steel eyeglass case, and a 50-page speech folded in half – before it entered the ex-President’s chest. TR stumbled, but regained his composure.
The Next Two Hours
The Rough Rider escort, and other close associates immediately surrounded, wrestled and subdued Schrank.
One of them asked TR if he was all right. “He pinked me, Harry,” said TR. Then he coughed. As an experienced natural scientist, TR noticed there was no blood, and ascertained correctly that his lung had not been punctured.
He insisted the assailant be brought to him face to face. “Poor creature,” TR said, and ordered the crowd to hand the man over to the police – and “see there is no violence done to him.” Schrank was hustled into the hotel kitchen until the police came.
Meanwhile, TR insisted on continuing to the Auditorium and making his speech. He told the huge crowd they must be very quiet, since he could not speak loudly, “You see, I have just been shot. But it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”
He went on to speak for an hour and a half, then opened his suit jacket to show everyone his blood-stained shirt. It was only then that he agreed to be taken to a hospital.
TR’s doctors determined that it was too dangerous to remove the bullet. It remained in his chest till his death several years later.
John Schrank was never tried, but was declared insane and committed to a mental hospital where he remained until his death in 1943.
Brands, H.W. – TR: The Last Romantic – Basic Books, 1977
Morris, Edmund – Colonel Roosevelt – Random House, 2010