Who Shot T.R.?

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14 minutes, 18 seconds

Listen to the compelling story of what happened to TR during a campaigning trip to Milwaukee in 1912!

John Flammang Schrank
John Flammang Schrank

On October 14, 1912, Theodore Roosevelt set out to give a campaign speech in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He spoke to his supporters, but things did not begin exactly as planned. Roosevelt was struck by an assassin's bullet. But unlike any president before or since who met the same fate, Theodore did not go directly to a doctor...or an undertaker. He soldiered on and delivered a ninety-minute speech.

His fateful journey began when a rift occurred in the Republican Party between Theodore Roosevelt's liberal/reform wing and William Taft's conservative wing. At the 1912 Republican Convention, President Taft won re-nomination and ex-President Roosevelt led a group of his followers to run for an unheard of third term on the Progressive, or 'Bull Moose' Party ticket. On October 14, 1912, Roosevelt was campaigning in Milwaukee. He finished his dinner and stepped out of the Pfister Hotel to enter a waiting car. An assassin stepped out of the crowd. Raising a gun, the man fired one bullet at Theodore. It passed through T.R's overcoat, a fifty-page manuscript, a steel eyeglass case, and lodged in his chest.

Theodore coughed into his hand, and seeing no blood, determined that the bullet had not entered his lung. He then prevented a mob that gathered from killing the assassin until the police arrived. Refusing medical attention, Theodore Roosevelt went on to deliver the speech in which he said, "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." Doctors later examined him and decided it was safer to leave the bullet in his chest. It remained there for the remainder of his life. So, who was the man that shot T.R.?

John Flammang Schrank was born in 1876 and emigrated from Bavaria to America at the age of three. As a child, he experienced the deaths of his parents, and then his aunt and uncle who raised him, as well as his first and only girlfriend, Emily Ziegler who had died in the General Slocum disaster on New York's East River. Schrank inherited property and a tavern, where he had become its saloon-keeper, but he was heartbroken. Schrank sold the properties, and drifted around the East Coast for years. He became profoundly religious, and a fluent Bible scholar whose debating skills were well-known around his neighborhood. He wrote poetry and spent a great deal of time walking around city streets at night, yet caused no documented trouble.

It is known that Schrank opposed a sitting President's ability to seek a third term in office. But would Roosevelt's bid to do just that provoke Schrank to attempt murder? It doesn't seem likely. But soon after, Schrank had a bizarre dream. In this dream, he was advised by the ghost of William McKinley to avenge his death while pointing to a picture of Theodore Roosevelt. Schrank followed Roosevelt on the campaign trail from New Orleans to Milwaukee and then the Pfister Hotel where he fired the shot.

After his arrest, doctors examined Schrank and reported that he was suffering from 'insane delusions, grandiose in character' and declared him to be insane. In 1914, John Schrank was sentenced to the Central State Mental Hospital in Waupun, Wisconsin. He remained there for 29 more years, until his death in 1943. His body was donated to the Medical School at Marquette University (now the Medical College of Wisconsin) for anatomical dissection.

View a letter found on John Schrank's person after he shot Theodore Roosevelt that alludes to his reasoning for doing so.

Watch a brief documentary/interview with a park ranger from Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace about the incident.

Last updated: April 25, 2021

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