Day 773: Tales Of The Almost-Assassins

originally published February 11, 2014

Plotting the demise of a sitting United States president requires an impeccable form of madness, a meticulous disregard for common sense and a commitment to scratching the rest of one’s life off of one’s to-do list. Presidential assassins are not known for having impressive lifespans after pulling the trigger. Oswald went out with a bang, Booth hit the road for eleven days before catching his bullet, Garfield’s killer got the noose, and anarchist Leon Czolgosz, who plugged President William McKinley with his fatal hunk of lead, took a ride in the electric chair. 

Those guys knew what they were signing up for. They launched themselves into the fires of consequence knowing full well there was no landing pad on the other side. So I suppose in some pretzel wrap of logic and deduction you could say they were successful. 

But although four presidents met an early fate at the hands of some deranged crank-job (or an elaborate network of highly organized and fiercely secretive crank-jobs if you are into conspiracies), several others watched their virtual tickets to the afterworld party get mishandled and improperly stamped by their would-be dispatchees. These are the madmen who took that leap and landed amid the fire with no brass ring in their fingertips. These are the almost-assassins. 

By most accounts, Theodore Roosevelt was the most bad-ass of all United States presidents. It’s said that Teddy once killed a charging rhino simply by squinting. When a man dared to make fun of Teddy’s mustache, the president waved his finger and eradicated the man’s entire home nation from the planet and even the annals of history. He was simply not the kind of guy who could be taken down by a single fruitcake assassin. 

Teddy’s ascent to presidential power occurred when the aforementioned Leon Czolgosz landed a bullet in William McKinley’s abdomen in 1901. The doctors accidentally forgot to clear the wound of pus and bacteria before sewing McKinley up, and the president succumbed to his wounds after eight gruesome days. Roosevelt took the reins of power and rode through the 19-oughts, including an easy win for reelection in 1904. He bid adieu to public office in 1908, but four years later he had the itch to run again. There were no term limits on presidents at the time, as evidenced by Teddy’s 5th cousin Franklin, who won a staggering four consecutive elections. 

Teddy’s bid to reclaim the American throne was almost thwarted by John F. Schrank. 

Democrat Woodrow Wilson was looking to take the presidency from William Taft, the Republican who had taken power after Roosevelt. Taft and his predecessor didn’t see eye to eye, and Taft accused Teddy of a power grab when Teddy tried to make his return to politics. It may not have been mandatory for a leader to serve only two terms, but it tradition and dammit, it was just polite. The Republican party was split, with some of its supporters cheering for the incumbent, while others hopped on the Teddy train, which was now running under the title of ‘The Progressive Party’. 

John Schrank claimed he was visited by the ghost of William McKinley, who told John in a dream to avenge his death, indicating a photo of Roosevelt as he said this. John was not the type to ignore the sound requests of nocturnal spirits. He loaded up a revolver, followed the former president from New Orleans to Milwaukee, and on October 14, 1912 he showed up at the hotel where Teddy was having dinner. Schrank took aim and fired a bullet into Teddy’s chest. 

The bullet, which was deftly pointed at Roosevelt’s heart, was slowed by the 50-page speech Roosevelt was scheduled to give that night at the Milwaukee Auditorium, and also by a steel eyeglass case. It entered Teddy’s chest, but Teddy figured out quickly that it had neither pierced his heart nor punctured his lung. While police apprehended Schrank, Teddy composed himself and set off for the auditorium. 

That’s right. He delivered the entire speech with a bullet in his chest, just minutes after an attempt on his life. President Bad-ass. 

Doctors determined that the surgery to remove the bullet would be riskier than simply leaving it in place, so Roosevelt lived the rest of his days with the assassin’s bullet in his innards. He wasn’t re-elected president (splitting a party’s vote is never a good bet – Wilson took the win), but no lone gunman ever tried besting this beast of a man again. 

Then there’s the star-studded story of Richard Lawrence. Richard was a housepainter who felt the government owed him a massive fortune due to some unresolved English estate claims. If only president Andrew Jackson was out of office, he reasoned, Martin Van Buren could take over and set everything straight. Richard decided Jackson had to get got (to put in The Wire parlance). 

On January 30, 1835, Richard waited until Jackson exited the funeral of congressman Warren R. Davis at the U.S. Capitol. He fired a shot from his pistol, but it misfired. No worries, he grabbed his backup. That one misfired too. It was a muggy day in Washington and the brand of gun Richard had chosen was known for not responding well to humidity. Jackson, who like Teddy Roosevelt was not surrounded by Secret Service agents, proceeded to beat Richard down with his cane until a throng of witnesses (including Davy Crockett!) separated them. 

At the end of the quick trial (which was prosecuted by Francis Scott Key – this story is a treasure trove of Americana), Richard was found insane and committed for life. 

There was a reason Abe Lincoln wore that big hat. 

One night in August of 1864, Abe was riding to Soldiers’ Home, the cottage he’d retire to at night after a busy day at the White House. It was a three-mile jaunt, not a big deal on horseback. But he rode alone, with no security. He wasn’t far from his destination when a shot rang out. The shooter had misjudged where Lincoln’s cranium ended and where the hat began; the bullet penetrated the stovepipe hat mere inches from Abe’s skull. 

Abe didn’t chase the guy down and throttle him with his bare hands (he was, after all, no Teddy Roosevelt), but instead bolted for home. The sentry on duty heard the shot and saw Abe race through the darkness toward the cottage, but the wannabe assassin was never tracked down. 

The shooter’s faulty aim earned Abe another election win and allowed him to pull the curtain on the Civil War before John Wilkes Booth finished the murder the following April. 

Truly an impeccable madness. And when coupled with such incompetence it makes for a curious historic footnote rather than the game-changing result these nutjobs were hoping for. 

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