John Schrank left New York City and boarded a train for destinations unknown.
Town after town, train after train, Schrank roamed like a candidate stumping for national office, traveling first through the South -- Charleston, Augusta, Birmingham, Chattanooga, Louisville -- then into the Midwest -- Evansville, Indianapolis, Chicago.
Schrank cared little about places he saw or people he met. All that mattered was the dream. Fulfilling the dream. Getting the dream out of his addled mind.
It was late September 1912 when Shrank left his apartment inside the White House Hotel on New York’s Canal St. and began his cross-country journey. More than a decade had passed since a young anarchist fired two shots at President William McKinley at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. McKinley died after lingering for a week, and Vice President Theodore Roosevelt became the nation’s 26th president.
Roosevelt served two terms from 1901-1908. After a hiatus, which included an African safari, Roosevelt was now campaigning for another term, this time on the Progressive ticket.
Schrank, meanwhile, never forgot the dream he had years earlier on the anniversary of McKinley’s death: The slain president is lying in state when he sits up in his coffin. McKinley points to man dressed like monk. It is Teddy Roosevelt.
“This is my murderer,” McKinley tells Schrank. “Avenge my death.”
On Sept. 14, 1912, Schrank was writing poetry late at night when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Do not let a murderer sit in the president’s chair, a voice intoned. Schrank turned around to find McKinley standing behind him. Once again the assassinated president instructed Schrank to avenge his death.
Schrank left New York City armed with a .38-caliber Smith and Wesson pistol.
Besides, he reasoned, any man seeking a third term for president ought to be shot.
Teddy Roosevelt remained popular in retirement, but his new Progressive ticket -- he called it the Bull Moose Party -- had a problem, specifically, Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette. The Progressive U.S. Senator from Wisconsin had prepared for a 1912 presidential run believing he had Roosevelt’s endorsement. When Roosevelt threw his hat in the ring at the last minute and grabbed the Progressive banner, La Follette was incensed. (The two men had a tenuous relationship to begin. Roosevelt was a reactionary, La Follette believed; La Follette was a Socialist, according to Roosevelt.)
As the campaign hit the home stretch, La Follette was returning the favor by writing a series of scathing articles detailing Roosevelt’s “betrayal” on Progressive causes.
Roosevelt’s campaign headed to Wisconsin to salvage his Progressive base of voters.
Oct. 14, 1912
After spending two days in Chicago, Schrank
checked into a downtown Milwaukee hotel under the name Albert Ross.
Roosevelt reached Milwaukee’s Hotel Gilpatrick, Kilbourn & N. 3rd St., late afternoon Oct. 14. The candidate ate dinner with advisors in a private dining room.
Schrank waited calmly in the lobby. About 8 p.m. as Roosevelt began making his way through the hotel, Schrank pushed his way into the crowd outside and waited next to the candidate’s automobile.
The crowd cheered when the candidate exited the doors. As he reached the vehicle, Roosevelt stepped on the floorboard and turned to acknowledge the crowd. Schrank aimed his pistol at Roosevelt's head. The two men were feet apart. Adam Bittner, a spectator standing next to the gunman, swung his arm across Schrank’s just as the pistol fired.
Roosevelt was thrown backwards by the shot. A Roosevelt aide pounced on the would-be assassin.
In the chaos that followed, the crowd assumed Schrank had succeeded and immediately began to exact justice. Schrank was being pummeled. Cries of “kill him” and “lynch him” filled the air. Men ran to nearby stores to find rope.
Roosevelt felt like he had been kicked by a horse, but seeing the scene before him, he struggled to his feet to calm the mob. “Don’t hurt the poor creature,” he yelled.
Roosevelt waved his hat in the air and the crowd erupted in cheers, enabling four policemen to fight their way into the melee and grab Schrank, who was hustled into the hotel and secured in the kitchen while bellboys kept the crowd at bay.
Roosevelt was bloodied and shaken from a gunshot wound to the chest. Having treated battlefield wounds during the Spanish-American War, he induced coughing to see if he was bleeding internally. Famously, after his self-exam proved negative, Roosevelt rebuffed those who begged him to go to a hospital and his car sped away to the Milwaukee Auditorium three blocks away.
“I’m going to make that speech if it’s the last thing on earth I do.”
The 10,000 people gathered for his speech had no inkling of what transpired minutes earlier.
A request for doctors was made among the audience. Two men volunteered and were taken backstage, but Roosevelt and his entourage appeared moments later to the cheers of unwitting crowd.
In a trembling voice, an aide introduced the candidate as the man who “embodies the Democratic qualities of Jefferson and Republican qualities of Lincoln.”
“As he left his hotel a dastardly hand raised a revolver at the colonel and he will speak to you, though there is a bullet somewhere in his breast.”
The audience sat in silence not fully comprehending what it had just heard.
Roosevelt stood and smiled.
“I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot,” he told the stunned crowd, “but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose!
“There is where the bullet went through and it probably saved me from it going into my heart,” he said, holding his speech manuscript aloft. “The bullet is in me now, so I cannot make a very long speech, but I will try my best.”
Roosevelt finished his speech 90-minutes later. Spectators swarmed the candidate.
“For a few moments, it looked as though he might suffer because of his throng of admirers,” according to the Milwaukee Sentinel.
Aides links arms around Roosevelt and pushed their way out.
The former president’s remarkable performance that night -- his shirt was bloodied and he fought off fainting several times -- was reported worldwide in banner headlines.
A Close Shave
Roosevelt was taken to Emergency Hospital where he reluctantly received a tetanus shot and departed for further treatment in Chicago. An aide described the scene later:
“It happened that one of our Wisconsin State committeemen, who lived in Milwaukee, was receiving at that time a visit from his brother, who was one of the distinguished members of the surgical staff of Johns Hopkins Hospital, in Baltimore. This man's reputation was such that I was very glad when he came out to the hospital and went in to the operating room to join the examination of the Colonel. But when he came out, he walked up to me and said, quietly, but very earnestly:”
“‘Get him out of here just as quickly as you can. This is no place for him.’”
“I asked him what was the matter, but he did not say. He only repeated his advice to get the Colonel away from that place just as quickly as we could.”
Making no attempt to shield himself from the crowd, the candidate vigorously boarded the “Mayflower,” his private campaign train waiting at the Northwestern Depot at the foot Wisconsin Ave.
“Now for a shave,” he told his staff.
“But surely, you do not mean that,” replied his doctor.
“I certainly do.”
At 1 a.m., Oct. 15, 1912, Roosevelt departed Milwaukee. In the coming weeks, Roosevelt snored so loudly in the Chicago hospital that complaints were made by the other patients on the wing. He was released only days before the election. The Bull Moose campaign had ended prematurely in Milwaukee.
Roosevelt’s rugged demeanor dominated his speech that night.
“I have altogether too important things to think of to feel concern over my own death, and I cannot speak insincerely within five minutes of being shot. I am telling you the literal truth when I say that my concern is for many other things. It is not in the least for my own life.
“I am all right. I cannot tell you of what infinitesimal importance I regard this incident as compared with the great issues at stake in this campaign.”
Aides tried to cut short his remarks.
“I am all right and you cannot escape listening to the speech either,” he quipped.
But Roosevelt had come to Wisconsin to address the nagging La Follette problem -- which may explain his determination to deliver his speech despite a fresh gunshot wound to his chest -- and when he launched into his response to La Follette mid-way through the address, the situation created another strange twist to the evening.
La Follette supporters had packed the auditorium and began demonstrating with each mention of the senator’s name. Despite Roosevelt’s condition, his speech was interrupted five times due to the pro-LaFollette demonstrations. Finally, the candidate was able to provide the litany of Progressive issues that he and La Follette had championed, as well as producing a 1909 article from La Follette’s magazine lauding the former president. (He had an aide recite the article.)
Whatever sympathy existed for the wounded former president did not translate into votes. Roosevelt lost to Woodrow Wilson (though he did finish ahead of incumbent President William Howard Taft).
In Wisconsin, the place of his near assassination, Roosevelt finished a distant third -- the rift between he and Progressive favorite son La Follette never more apparent.
Roosevelt once told reporters during his presidency that he would return fire ever confronted by an assassin, and he frequently carried a gun. Not so the night in Milwaukee.
Schrank was never tried. He was committed to the Northern State Hospital for the insane in Oshkosh and died in the Central State Hospital, Waupun, in 1943. He never received a visitor or a letter in the 30 years he was confined.
"I did not care a rap for being shot,” Roosevelt said later, echoing his comments to the audience that night. “It is a trade risk, which every prominent public man ought to accept as a matter of course."
The auditorium where the bloodied candidate gave his speech underwent a $42 million redesign in 2003. It is now the Milwaukee Theater. The Hotel Gilpatrick closed in 1941. The Hyatt now stands at the corner of Kilbourn and N. 3rd St.
One statesman, one lunatic, one incredible
night in Milwaukee.