It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose: Inside the night Teddy Roosevelt was shot in Milwaukee

Posted at 6:39 PM, Oct 14, 2016
and last updated 2016-10-16 16:59:28-04

During an election year, October is an undoubtedly busy month for candidates. If any one of them were to slow down, it could prove fatal to their campaign. One candidate wouldn’t even let a bullet stop him.

On October 14th, 1912, Teddy Roosevelt was running for president as a Progressive or Bull Moose - a third party campaign that would never again see the kind of numbers that Roosevelt brought in.

A little over three weeks out from election day, Roosevelt was hitting the campaign trail hard, giving dozens of talks every day. Before he made his way to Milwaukee that night, he had been in Chicago.

“A regimen that today would probably break both the current presidential candidates in half if they had to do that,” said Marquette University History professor Father Steven Avella.

Father Avella has taught at MU for 25 years, and talking to him about President Roosevelt was truly a delight.  

“People liked him. People thought he was a great president, and he was. I thought he was one of the really exceptional presidents,” said Avella. 

At 8 o’clock on the evening of October 14th, Roosevelt was leaving the Kilpatrick Hotel, which stood where the downtown Hyatt Regency does now. He was waving to the crowd that had gathered as he got into his car when a man emerged with a gun.

“He's waving to everybody and then this guy steps up with a 38 colt revolver and shoots him. Shoots him right in the chest, aiming for his heart,” said Avella.

That man was John Shrank, a Bavarian immigrant from New York who had been orphaned at a young age. Shrank had been beset with a series of personal tragedies and had begun to suffer from delusions.

“He got two things in his head. One was that the president who Teddy Roosevelt had succeeded, William McKinley, had appeared to him in a dream, dressed like a monk, and said you have to take care of Teddy Roosevelt, you have to do something about him,” said Avella.

The other fixation was that he didn’t want Roosevelt serving a third term. At the time there was no constitutional amendment barring him from doing so. That wouldn't come until after Roosevelt’s distant cousin, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was elected to four terms in office.  

The bullet hit Roosevelt in the chest, lodging in his rib cage. Two things slowed it down. One was his steel glasses case, and the other was his speech.

“He also had tucked in his pocket there his speech, which was about fifty pages,” said Avella. 

Shrank attempted to get off another shot, but Roosevelt’s stenographer wrestled him to the ground. Roosevelt’s entourage wanted to get him to a hospital immediately, but Roosevelt refused. He knew guns and he knew how to tell the difference between a mortal wound and something less serious. He said that if he coughed up any blood, then it was serious.

“He coughed and no blood came up,” said Avella.

So Roosevelt headed to the Milwaukee Auditorium, where he stood in front of a crowd and told them that it took more than a bullet to stop a Bull Moose - one of the most accurate campaign slogans ever recorded (some might say).

Someone in the crowd doubted him, and started to jeer.

"Somebody kind of starts shouting out 'Fake, Fake.' Well he opens his jacket and there's this blood,” said Avella.

After his speech, which lasted anywhere between 50 and 90 minutes, he was taken to a nearby Milwaukee hospital before being transferred to Mercy Hospital in Chicago, where he recovered. That bullet stayed lodged in his chest for the rest of his life, and Shrank never left Wisconsin. He was committed to a State Mental Hospital in Waupun.

“Nobody came to visit him. Everybody forgot about him,” said Avella.

The glasses case and the speech are in a museum in New York, but Wisconsin did hold on to one momento from that day: a water glass that Roosevelt drank from after he was shot.

The Curator of Cultural History at the Wisconsin Historical Society, Joe Kapler, was able to talk about this glass, and how an every day object can connect us to history.

“When does something, an everyday, common object, become a historically important artifact? In this case it's because Teddy Roosevelt drank from this after getting shot and, by all accounts, stands up and delivers an hour long or more address to thousands of people,” said Kapler.

The glass was donated by a Wisconsin man, Philip Miles, in 1954. He had donated dozens of ethnographic pieces to the Wisconsin Historical Society.

“At the very end of his donation was this glass with a note inside, that [said] it was from Roosevelt's address at the auditorium after he got shot,” said Kapler.

While there are no pictures of Roosevelt with the glass, the glass fits the time period.

"Another piece of corroborating support would be the fact that the donor and the subsequent children weren't trying to sell it,” said Kapler.

The glass is well taken care of, and while it is not currently on display, it does get out of its safely padded box from time-to-time—most recently for three years starting in 2008. The Wisconsin Historical society has over 100,000 objects that they’re taking care of on behalf of the people of Wisconsin.

“When we take something in we take it in perpetuity, not just for the kids and the grand kids, but in perpetuity--that's a high bar,” said Kapler.

Luckily for us Wisconsinites, we get to hold onto something that connects us to an incredible demonstration of the will to, not only survive, but to keep going.