Teddy Roosevelt: did a speech really save his life?

Kevin R. Loughlin
Boston, Massachusetts, United States

 

Teddy Roosevelt’s Eyeglass Case
Figure 1. Roosevelt’s Eyeglass Case. Photo by Rickster77. Via Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 3.0
Teddy Roosevelt’s Speech With Bullet Hole.
Figure 2. Roosevelt’s Speech With Bullet Hole. Houghton Library, Harvard University. Part Of the Theodore Roosevelt Collection. Via Flickr. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Teddy Roosevelt’s Bloody Shirt
Figure 3. Roosevelt’s Bloody Shirt. Houghton Library, Harvard University. Part Of the Theodore Roosevelt Collection. Via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Teddy Roosevelt’s Chest X-ray with bullet overlying rib
Figure 4. Roosevelt’s Chest X-ray with bullet overlying rib. Houghton Library, Harvard University. Part Of the Theodore Roosevelt Collection. Via FlickrCC BY-NC-ND 2.0

“Ladies and gentlemen, 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.” Teddy Roosevelt uttered those words outside the Gilpatrick Hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on October 14, 1912, shortly after he was shot by John Flammang Schrank.1 Roosevelt was in the midst of running for president as a third party candidate of the Bull Moose Party. Schrank, a deranged New York saloon keeper, shot Roosevelt with a .38 caliber Colt Police Positive special revolver at close range. The bullet penetrated Roosevelt’s army overcoat, his eyeglass case (Figure 1), a folded copy of his speech (Figure 2), and his shirt (Figure 3) and lodged in his chest muscle, but did not enter his pleura.2

Teddy Roosevelt was a larger-than-life, charismatic figure who served as leader of the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War, governor of New York, and was elected vice president in 1901. He had ascended to the presidency on September 14, 1901, after the assassination of William McKinley and served until March 4, 1909. As president, he successfully negotiated the end of the Russo-Japanese War, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

 

Roosevelt and Taft

William Howard Taft served as Theodore Roosevelt’s vice president. The two men had been good friends since around 1890 when Taft was solicitor general and Roosevelt was a member of the Civil Service Commission.3

During his presidency, Roosevelt was a progressive. He was viewed as a “trust buster” and achieved regulatory reform and anti-trust protections. He advocated the “Square Deal,” which included regulation of railroad rates and pure foods and drugs through the Pure Food and Drug Act, which established the FDA.4 Throughout this time, Taft was very much a willing partner and supporter of Roosevelt’s initiatives.

When Roosevelt decided not to run in 1908, Taft was his hand-picked successor. Taft gave the impression that he was subservient to Roosevelt as he traveled to Roosevelt’s home at Sagamore Hill to get advice on his acceptance speech, saying that he needed “the President’s judgment and criticism.”5 In fact, the close relationship between Taft and Roosevelt was so overt that some humorists suggested that “TAFT” stood for “Take advice from Theodore.”6 However, Taft easily defeated William Jennings Bryan in the general election with 51.6% of the popular vote and 321 to 162 electoral votes.7

Nevertheless, once in office there was increasing friction between the two men. First, Roosevelt tried to influence Taft’s cabinet appointments and over time they had increasing disagreements over anti-trust policy, foreign affairs issues, and conservation. Besides their developing personal differences, there was increasing division within the Republican Party between the conservative faction led by Taft and the progressive faction led by Roosevelt.8 By 1912, their differences had become profound and Roosevelt decided to challenge Taft for the Republican presidential nomination.

As the campaign progressed, Roosevelt had strong showings in the primaries, including winning the primary of Taft’s home state of Ohio.9 On March 28, 1912, Roosevelt issued an ultimatum: if the Republicans did not nominate him, he would run as an independent.9

The Republican convention was held in Chicago from June 18 to 22 and, as expected, was contentious. As the sitting president, Taft had control of the party machinery and secured the nomination, although over 300 delegates, progressive supporters of Roosevelt, only voted “present” as a sign of protest.

 

The Bull Moose Campaign and the assassination attempt

In 1912, Taft ran at the head of the Republican ticket and Roosevelt was the National Progressive Party (Bull Moose) nominee. Woodrow Wilson was the Democratic standard bearer and Eugene Debs was the Socialist candidate.

Roosevelt ran a vigorous campaign and made appearances throughout the country. On October 14, 1912, he had started his day in Chicago and traveled later in the day to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The plan that evening was for Roosevelt to leave the Hotel Gilpatrick, where he had taken a brief rest, and travel in an open car that would take him to an auditorium to deliver a campaign speech.

Upon entering the waiting car, he rose to wave to the crowd, and John Flammang Shrank, only four to five feet away, fired a Colt .38 revolver at Roosevelt’s right chest.

Roosevelt, an experienced hunter, was familiar with guns and realized that without bleeding from the mouth, it was unlikely that the bullet had entered his lung. He noted a dime-size hole in his chest and blood on his shirt. The bullet had penetrated his overcoat, his eyeglass case, and shirt and lodged in his chest muscle. Roosevelt’s aides wanted to take him immediately to the hospital, but he refused and persisted in proceeding in the car to the auditorium to give his scheduled speech where he uttered his famous phrase about killing a Bull Moose.

For years the popular legend was that his folded fifty-page speech had saved his life.10 However, a more thorough analysis raises serious questions regarding the validity of this conclusion.

 

Ballistic evidence

The assertion that a folded speech of 100 typewritten pages could stop a .38 caliber bullet fired at close range certainly should be viewed with skepticism. In order to evaluate whether textbooks could be used as effective shields to protect children from deranged shooters, the Panama Police Department in LeFlore County, Oklahoma fired rounds from various guns into textbooks of varying thicknesses to see if they would stop the bullets. Two books stopped a handgun fired at close range, and three stopped a round from an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle.11,12

A 2015 story in Popular Mechanics reported on a Demolition Ranch experiment to see how much paper it would take to stop a bullet. They found that a .50 caliber bullet could penetrate a 1,000-plus page textbook.13 Although not scientifically rigorous, these studies certainly call into question whether 100 sheets of paper saved Roosevelt’s life.

Then what did save Roosevelt’s life? Certainly his thick Army overcoat, his suitcoat, eyeglass case, shirt, and thick chest wall all contributed to slow the bullet. However, perhaps the most important factor that protected Roosevelt from a more serious injury has been overlooked—one of his ribs. A chest X-ray taken later that night at a Milwaukee hospital clearly shows the bullet was overlying what appears to be Roosevelt’s right sixth rib. The X-ray image that has survived is only an AP (anterior-posterior) view without any lateral or oblique images. (Figure 4) However, it is well known by emergency room and trauma physicians that not all gunshot wounds (GSWs) to the chest are fatal.14 Bullets may hit a rib obliquely and then track along the rib for some distance and this may have occurred in Roosevelt’s case, although the lack of lateral or oblique films limit the interpretation somewhat. However, it is interesting to speculate regarding the political ramifications if Roosevelt had died that night in Milwaukee.

 

The 1912 presidential election

The 1912 presidential election was a four-way race and Roosevelt’s survival from his gunshot wound caused his Bull Moose Party to split the Republican vote. Woodrow Wilson was elected with 435 electoral votes but received only 41.8% of the popular vote. Roosevelt captured eighty-eight electoral votes and 27.4% of the popular vote, followed by Taft with eight electoral votes and 23.2 % of the popular tally. Debs finished with no electoral votes and only 6% of the popular vote.

Clearly, without Roosevelt, Taft probably would have achieved close to 50% of the vote and in all likelihood reached an electoral college majority. This possible outcome raises one of the tantalizing “what if” scenarios of history.

 

What if Taft, not Wilson had been elected

Historians acknowledge the major role that Woodrow Wilson had in the formation of the League of Nations. However, what is often overlooked is that both Roosevelt and Taft had similar enthusiasm for the establishment of a multinational body to promote international harmony and peaceful arbitration.

In Roosevelt’s Nobel Prize address of 1910, he said, “. . . it would be a master stroke if those great Powers (sic) honestly bent on peace would form a League of Peace, not only to keep the peace among themselves, but to prevent, by force if necessary, its being broken by others.”15,16

Roosevelt continued to push for such an international body even after World War I began. In September 1914, he proposed “a World League for the Peace of Righteousness” that would preserve sovereignty but limit armaments and require arbitration.16 Whether it was because of the influence of Roosevelt or whether Taft independently sought to promote such an international body, he presided as the first president of the League of Peace in Philadelphia in June of 1915. Although Taft and Wilson had similar goals for greater international cooperation, they epitomized the partisan competition as to how best to achieve that end. One historian concluded that the ideal of international cooperation “sacrificed to party intrigue, personal antipathy and pride of authorship.”17

The differences between Taft and Wilson in their world views are striking. As a former secretary of war and president, Taft considered Wilson his inferior in the understanding of foreign affairs. This is nowhere more apparent than in a letter written by Taft to his friend Gus J. Karger, a Cincinnati journalist, on March 4, 1918. In it he said, “We ought to be making plans for an army of 5,000,000 men. That would give us 2,000,000 or 2,500,000 fighting men on the front. Somebody said we haven’t any ships to carry them. Well, that is true. We must build them. We will not get them unless we prepare for this war as if it was a real job of years instead of one to be ended through the sweet, forward-looking sentences of our stylist President.”18

Wilson had been New Jersey governor before becoming president, but had no foreign policy experience whatsoever. Contrast that to Taft, who had served as head of the commission to organize a civilian government in the Philippines, secretary of war, and vice president. One can rightfully speculate that the more savvy Taft would have had the United States much better prepared to enter World War I and an earlier entry of American forces into the Great War. One can further speculate that a better prepared American Expeditionary Force would have been successful in bringing the war to an earlier conclusion.

It is also not unreasonable to posit that the more experienced Taft would have been more facile in overcoming the obstacles to the League of Nations than the inexperienced Wilson, who was also encumbered by a variety of health issues including strokes, prostatism,19 and perhaps the 1918 influenza.20

More effective negotiations involving the underpinnings for the foundation of the League of Nations in concert with kinder, less harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles may have altered the inevitability of the rise of Hitler and the start of World War II.

 

The denouement

Theodore Roosevelt survived his assassination attempt and the bullet remained in his chest muscle without sequelae until his death in 1919. Apparently, Schrank’s only motivation for his crime was to prevent Roosevelt from seeking a third term and later claimed it was the ghost of William McKinley that told him to perform the act.21

Soon after the assassination attempt, a team of doctors examined Schrank and determined that he was suffering from “insane delusions, grandiose in character” and declared him criminally insane. He was committed to the Central State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Waupun, Wisconsin in 1914 and remained there until 1943 when he died of bronchial pneumonia.21

Teddy Roosevelt survived the assassination attempt and completed his run for the presidency. He undoubtedly cost Taft his re-election bid and Wilson, who was less savvy in foreign affairs, was elected as a minority president. A few centimeters—would an entry wound on Roosevelt’s chest a few centimeters apart from where it actually entered have changed the course of history? What can be answered with certainty is that 100 pages of a folded speech alone did not save Roosevelt’s life. It provides a cute historical vignette, but medical evidence raises serious doubts about the veracity of that conclusion. Would a change of a few centimeters in the course of the flight of a bullet have changed the course of history? We will never know.

 

References

  1. “It Takes More Than That To Kill a Bull Moose: The Leader and the Cause” https://web.archive.org/web the Theodore Roosevelt Association accessed 8/11/2020
  2. John Flammang Schrank wikipedia. John-flammang-schrank. Accessed 8/26/2020
  3. William Howard Taft. www.wikipedia. William-howard-taft. Accessed 8/28/2020
  4. Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Presidency_of_Theodore_Roosevelt accessed 8/30/2020
  5. Morris, Edmund 2001. Theodore Rex. https://archive.org/details/theodorerex00edmu. P.529 accessed 8/30/2020
  6. Lurie, Johnathan 2011William Howard Taft: Progressive Conservative. Cambridge.Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-0-521-51421-7. P.136
  7. Anderson, Donald F. William Howard Taft: A Conservative’s Conception of the Presidency.(https://archive.org/details/williamhowardtaft00ande.IthacaN.Y.Cornell University Press. Accessed 9/10/2020
  8. President Taft Breaks From Teddy Roosevelt-His Closest Friend. https://learningenglish.voanews.com accessed 9/10/2020
  9. 1912 United States presidential election. wikipedia. 1912-United-States-presidential-election. Accessed 912/2020
  10. O’Toole, Patricia. The Speech That Saved Teddy Roosevelt’s Life. Smithsonian Magazine , November 2012
  11. Strauss V. Oklahoma police department fires guns into textbooks to see if they can really stop bullets.
  12. Grantham J. Can a .38 caliber bullet lodge “under the fourth rib” https://www.quora.comaccessed 9/18/2020
  13. Which Ordinary Household Items Could Actually Stop A Bullet? Popular Mechanics 5/18/18
  14. Lyle DP. Gunshot to the chest. http://wound.d.pylemd.com/criminal-mischief-notes/18-gunshot-to-the-chest-html. Accessed 9/18/2020
  15. League to Enforce Peace. https://en.wikipedia.org/league-to-enforce-peace. Accessed 9/19/202/
  16. Pringle HF, Theodore Roosevelt: A Biography (1931) p.519
  17. Teoman HA. Abbott Lawrence Lowell 1856-1943 Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1948. P.454
  18. William Howard Taft typed letter, signed, to Gus J. Karger. March 4,1918. sethkeller.com/item/1334-William-Taft-Criticizes-Wilson-on-World-War-I-Preparedness
  19. Loughlin KR. Hugh Hampton Young at the bedside of Woodrow Wilson: The President, the Urologist and the First Lady. Urology(2017);100:1-5
  20. Johnson DW. Then and Now: What Woodrow Wilson’s Pandemic Failure Can Teach Us Today. April 23,2020. 4sight health https://www.4sighthealth.com/then-and-now-what-woodrow-wilsons-pandemic-failure-can-teach-us-today/ accessed 9/12/2020
  21. John Flammang Schrank. wikipedia.john-flammang-schrank. Accessed 8/21/2020

 


 

KEVIN R. LOUGHLIN, MD, MBA is a retired urologic surgeon who lives in Boston. He is a professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School.

 

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