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You’ve Got Mail: “It takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose”

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Photograph of Theodore Roosevelt, 1912. Roosevelt 560.7 1912The process of campaigning for the position of U.S. president can be an arduous one. For Theodore Roosevelt, the 1912 presidential campaign very nearly turned deadly.

TR had already served two presidential terms, from 1901-1908. Despite claiming he would never again seek that office, TR was not terribly eager to retire from public life. His successor, William Taft, did not hold popular support that way TR had (and still did). When he did not win the nomination of his own party, TR and his supporters quickly formed a new party, the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party, whose platform supported numerous liberal social reforms, including women’s suffrage, the creation of a minimum wage, the formation of a national health service, and the prohibition of child labor, as well as limiting the power of large corporations and trusts, encouraging and supporting the conservation of natural resources and landmarks, and much more.

TR campaigned vigorously, travelling by train through 32 states in September and October, where he sometimes made as many as seven speeches per day, often for several hours at a time. Huge crowds turned out to see “Teddy,” and his speeches were frequently interrupted by applause and cheers.

On October 14, 1912, TR arrived at the Gilpatrick Hotel in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to rest briefly before giving a speech that evening. As he was exiting the hotel, waving his hat to the gathered crowd, he was shot point blank in the chest by John Schrank, a former New York City saloonkeeper who had been following Roosevelt on his campaign stops, waiting for the right moment to strike. Schrank later claimed that the ghost of former president William McKinley had compelled him to avenge McKinley’s own assassination.

The bullet from Schrank’s revolver travelled through TR’s thick wool overcoat, his suit jacket, and the fifty-page speech in his jacket pocket, glanced off his eyeglass case, and lodged in his chest, narrowly missing his lung. TR, a war veteran and frequent hunter, concluded that if he wasn’t bleeding from the mouth, his lung wasn’t punctured, and thus he didn’t need to go to the hospital right away. He insisted on giving his scheduled speech, saying “I am going to make that speech if I die doing it.”

Theodore Roosevelt's speech and eyeglasses case.

He spoke for nearly an hour, and even displayed his bloody shirt to the crowd, characteristically claiming that it would take more than a gunshot wound “to kill a Bull Moose.” Following the speech, he was rushed to Mercy Hospital in Chicago, where he recovered (the bullet was never removed.) Despite TR’s progressive platform – and obvious vitality – he lost the election to Woodrow Wilson three weeks later (despite winning the largest percentage of both the popular and electoral votes for any third party candidate in history, to this day).

In this letter to his son Kermit, written five days after he was shot, Roosevelt dramatically describes his brush with death, relating the experience with his trademark enthusiasm:

Theodore Roosevelt to Kermit Roosevelt, October 19, 1912. MS Am 1541.1 (92) p.1

Theodore Roosevelt to Kermit Roosevelt, October 19, 1912. MS Am 1541.1 (92) p.2

This post is part of a weekly feature on the Houghton Library blog, “You’ve Got Mail,” based on letters in Houghton Library. Every Friday this year a Houghton staff member will select a letter from the diverse collections in the Library and put that letter into context. All posts associated with this series may be viewed by clicking on the You’veGotMail tag.

[Thanks to Heather Cole, Curator of the Theodore Roosevelt Collection and Assistant Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts, for contributing this post.]

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