In 1912, Teddy Roosevelt's Life Was Saved by a Rhinelander Native

Feb 27, 2019

They say playing on sports teams in high school prepares you for the future in a lot of ways.

For one former Rhinelander High School football player, the way he learned how to tackle in high school set him up to save a former president's life.

Gary Entz has the story this week for A Northwoods Moment in History.

Theodore Roosevelt was one of the most vigorous and intriguing presidents in American history.  He delighted in his reputation as a robust individual always ready for adventure, but with Roosevelt it was more than just image.  He really was a resilient man who refused to shirk from danger or responsibility.  A 1912 speech he gave in Milwaukee demonstrated his fortitude, but there was also a Northwoods connection to the Milwaukee speech that few history books mention.

Rhinelander native Elbert Martin holds a speech belonging to U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt in Milwaukee, Oct. 1912. The bullet hole in the speech is from an assassination attempt on the President by John F. Schrank. Martin tackled him.
Credit Library of Congress

On October 14, 1912, Theodore Roosevelt was running for a third term as president of the United States as the progressive candidate of the Bull Moose Party.  He came to Milwaukee on that day to deliver a campaign speech, and at 8:00 pm that evening he left the Gilpatrick Hotel and got into a car that would deliver him to the Milwaukee Auditorium.  Acknowledging the crowd of admirers, the former president stood up and waved to people outside of the hotel.

As he stood and waved his hat a final time, a man by the name of John Schrank stepped out of the crowd, got within six feet of Roosevelt, and shot him in the chest with a .38 caliber revolver.

Schrank began taking aim for a second shot as the stunned president clutched at his chest, but before he could squeeze the trigger he was tackled and wrestled into submission by Elbert Martin.  Martin appears in every book written about the incident, and he is always referred to as a former football player who worked as Roosevelt’s stenographer.  Martin was a native of Rhinelander, Wisconsin.  He was a graduate of Rhinelander High School and had played right tackle for Rhinelander High football team.  After graduation he moved to Detroit, attended Business College, and in 1912 earned a law degree from the Detroit College of Law.  Although his official title with Roosevelt was that of stenographer, his experience as a football player also turned him into one of Roosevelt’s unofficial bodyguards.  The Milwaukee incident was not the first time that Martin put himself between Roosevelt and danger.  Earlier in Saginaw, Michigan, a man burst out of the crowd and pushed threateningly close to Roosevelt.  Martin bodily picked the man up and slammed him down into the gutter, an act for which Roosevelt rebuked him for being a bit rough.

Although wounded, Roosevelt survived the assassination attempt and went on to give his speech at the Milwaukee Auditorium, despite having a bullet in his chest.  Roosevelt lived up to his “strong as a Bull Moose” reputation, but without an assist from a Rhinelander native who knows what might have happened in Milwaukee in 1912.

This story was written by Gary Entz and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Some music for this commentary came Podington Bear. A photo above is used with permisson from the Wisconsin Historical Society and can be found on their website here.

A Northwoods Moment in History is funded in part by a grant from the Wisconsin Humanities Council, with funds from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the State of Wisconsin. Any views, findings, conclusions or recommendations expressed in this project do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities. The Wisconsin Humanities Council supports and creates programs that use history, culture, and discussion to strengthen community life for everyone in Wisconsin.