History is riddled with near-misses, with what-ifs, with moments in which disaster was only narrowly averted and America itself was very nearly changed forever.
This is the Forgotten History of the Bullet That Couldn’t Stop the Bull Moose.
Milwaukee was abuzz with the news that former President Theodore Roosevelt would be making a major speech in his independent campaign to recapture the White House. With the election just weeks away, his supporters hoped that this would be a major turning point.
It had been a bitter summer for Roosevelt’s Republican Party. After declining in 1908 to run for another term even though he was constitutionally eligible, Roosevelt suddenly reversed course on his pledge to only serve eight years and decided to run.
Four years earlier, he had endorsed William Howard Taft, his Secretary of War, to be his successor and, based largely on that endorsement and Roosevelt’s wild popularity, Taft won in a landslide. But over the course of his first term, Roosevelt became disillusioned with Taft’s conservatism and perceived rollbacks of Roosevelt’s progressive reforms.
After Republicans lost more than 50 House seats in the 1910 midterms, Roosevelt and Taft’s differences spilled into the open and Roosevelt’s backers started publicly questioning if the former President should run again. Roosevelt had become President following the assassination of William McKinley in 1901—just weeks after his inauguration—and was elected to a full term in 1904, but because he had served eight years, he opted to continue the tradition started by George Washington and retire.
In early 1912, though, he was having serious doubts, even telling a journalist that if the Republican presidential nomination was open and “comes to me as a genuine public movement of course I will accept.”
His supporters worked tirelessly to make that happen, and when the Republican National Convention rolled around that June, Republican support was split evenly between Roosevelt and Taft. Ultimately, delegates picked Taft after a vicious floor battle, but Roosevelt—ever the fighter—was undeterred. He would run as an independent progressive.
As the campaign heated up that fall, Roosevelt headed to Milwaukee for a dinner at the Gilpatrick Hotel and then a speech he titled “Progressive Cause Greater Than Any Individual.” He folded a 50-page copy of it and placed it in his breast pocket as he walked out of the hotel into the crisp October air. A crowd had gathered outside waiting to catch a glimpse and perhaps even shake hands with their hero, but one man lurking toward the back had other ideas.
John Schrank, a Bavarian immigrant who had worked as a saloonkeeper in New York, had become obsessed with Roosevelt—blaming him for McKinley’s assassination after McKinley came to him in a dream and told Schrank that he needed to avenge him. Clearly mentally unstable, Schrank stalked Roosevelt all the way from New Orleans to Milwaukee and now saw his opening.
As Roosevelt walked out of the hotel doors, Schrank pushed his way through the crowd and pulled out a gun. As the former President stopped briefly to acknowledged the crowd, Shcrank took aim and fired.
The bullet struck him right in the chest and Roosevelt stumbled backwards to the shock and horror of the assembled crowd. A young Czech immigrant named Frank Bukovsky immediately grabbed Schrank, disarmed him, and wrestled him to the ground as the crowd started pummeling him.
Roosevelt was shaken, but miraculously not seriously hurt. Ane experienced hunter, he knew that since he wasn’t coughing up blood, the bullet hadn’t entered his lungs. He felt his chest and pulled his glasses case and the folded up copy of his speech from his pocket. The bullet had pierced them and slowed down enough that it only entered his chest muscle and avoided every major organ.
He was relieved, but also furious and somewhat curious. Who had done this and why? The crowd brought Schrank to his feet and Roosevelt approached him. The crowd was even more furious than he was and started screaming “Kill him!” “Hang him!”
But Roosevelt calmed them down.
"Don't hurt him!” he shouted. “Bring him here. I want to see him."
People in the crowd were shocked. They thought their hero had been assassinated. Instead, he was up and walking toward them.
“Is he okay?” one man asked.
"I'm all right, I'm all right!" Roosevelt yelled back, then ordered the men restraining Schrank to bring his would-be killer to him. Roosevelt looked him square in the eye.
"What did you do it for?"
Schrank remained silent.
“Oh, what's the use?” Roosevelt sighed. “Turn him over to the police.”
Roosevelt took one last look at him, and said to him, “You poor creature.” Then, he said to police officers gathered next to him, “Officers, take charge of him, and see that there is no violence done to him.”
The Secret Service begged the former President to go to the hospital, but instead he got in a car and took off for the Milwaukee Auditorium to deliver his speech.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he opened, “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 spoke for more than 80 minutes before finally seeing a doctor, who determined that it was safer to leave the bullet lodged in his chest than risk infection by removing it, so he lived with it inside him for the rest of his life.
Word of the attempted assassination and subsequent speech spread quickly, and the nickname “Bull Moose” stuck. For the remaining weeks of his campaign, supporters called themselves “The Bull Moose Party.” Ultimately, Roosevelt lost his bid for re-election, but both his nickname and the bullet in him solidified his legacy as perhaps the toughest man to ever serve as president.