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Mike BarryEye on the Island

By Mike Barry
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Teddy Roosevelt’s Failed Assassin Gets His Close-Up

The newspapers were filled with stories about income inequality, immigration, and a Republican Party seeking to distance itself from the legacy of its most recent GOP president.

Yes, 1912 was an amazing year, and Gerard Helferich has brilliantly made the past come alive in his just-published Theodore Roosevelt and the Assassin: Madness, Vengeance, and the Campaign of 1912 (Lyons Press). The assassin, John Schrank of New York City, is a name that’s been lost to history because Schrank’s attack on the former president of the United States in October 1912, outside a hotel in Milwaukee, Wis., caused limited physical damage to Roosevelt.

By chance, the bullet Schrank shot into the former president’s chest was slowed significantly by Roosevelt’s metal eye-glass case as well as the thick pages of a prepared speech he was scheduled to deliver that evening.

Theodore Roosevelt famously ended up giving a variation of those remarks before seeking medical attention. Indeed, after treating the wound, the doctors thought it best to leave the bullet in Roosevelt’s body. It stayed there until the 26th U.S. President, who is buried in Oyster Bay, died of natural causes in 1919.  

President Roosevelt was in the midst of what would be his final campaign in 1912, the presidential nominee of the Progressive Party, because the Republican Party had given its nod to the incumbent, President William Howard Taft. Roosevelt, despite having said he would not seek re-election after winning 1904’s presidential contest, had a falling out with President Taft during what would be Taft’s only term in the White House (1909-13).

He then sought to wrest the GOP nomination away from Taft in a number of state primaries, and at the 1912 Republican National Convention (RNC) in Chicago. Roosevelt had more delegates than Taft upon entering the RNC, but President Taft prevailed, prompting Roosevelt to form the Progressive Party.

Schrank, Helferich writes, felt it was his duty to block President Roosevelt from regaining the White House for a third term, citing a dream Schrank had where President William McKinley urged Schrank to avenge McKinley’s death and hinting that his vice president had something to do with it. Then-Vice President Roosevelt, a former New York governor, ascended to the presidency in 1901 after President McKinley was assassinated in Buffalo.

Born in the farming village of Erding, Bavaria, Schrank came to New York City when he was 13 years old, and was raised by an aunt and uncle, Annie and Dominick Flamming. New York at that time (1889) was “home to more native German speakers than any city in the world except Berlin or Vienna,” according to the book. Schrank quickly learned English, became an avid reader and, at 28 years of age, was planning to wed 17-year-old Elsie Ziegler. Helferich implies that Ziegler’s death in June 1904, while traveling aboard the excursion steamer General Slocum, near Astoria, Queens, one of the deadliest fires in the city’s history, contributed to Schrank’s descent into madness. Schrank never married, and had no children.

Besides having no family commitments, the 36-year-old Schrank also had the financial resources to chase Theodore Roosevelt around the country in the fall of 1912, because both Mr. and Mrs. Flamming had died by then, and Schrank inherited the Manhattan tenement building they owned, the author reports.

Despite the violent chapter Schrank entered into the book on 1912’s presidential race, neither he nor his gun changed the electoral outcome many of the era’s pundits had anticipated. New Jersey Governor Woodrow Wilson, the Democratic nominee, won a convincing victory (6.3 million votes) in November 1912 over former President Roosevelt (4.1 million), President Taft (3.5 million) and Eugene Debs, the Socialist Party’s candidate (900,000-plus).

Would-be assassins of political figures have provided source material for Hollywood in the past. For instance, the diary of Arthur Bremer, who shot and paralyzed Alabama Governor George Wallace during the 1972 presidential campaign, is said to have been the inspiration for Robert DeNiro’s character in Taxi Driver. Now, to find a 36-year-old German-born actor to portray Schrank…Michael Fassbender (X-Men), call your agent!

Mike Barry, a corporate communications consultant, has worked in government and journalism. Email: MFBARRY@optonline.net