Roosevelt was nearing the end of his campaign for president. Having left politics after his second term as U.S. president in 1909, he returned for a run at an unprecedented third term when his hand-picked successor William Taft did not live up to his expectations. For this campaign, Roosevelt formed a new political party, The Bull Moose Party (officially called the National Progressive Party).
On the evening of October 14th, Roosevelt was leaving his hotel in Milwaukee to make a campaign speech. Just as he was entering the car that would take him to the auditorium, an unemployed saloonkeeper named John Schrank, standing a few feet away, fired a shot from his Colt .38 revolver into Roosevelt’s chest. Schrank was immediately tackled and arrested, and Roosevelt’s handlers prepared to whisk him away to the hospital. Roosevelt, however, refused, demanding to be taken immediately to the auditorium to fulfill his campaign appearance.
Only when he arrived backstage at the auditorium did Roosevelt allow himself to be examined by doctors. Their exam revealed that a bullet had indeed pierced Roosevelt’s chest. Although he was bleeding, the shot was not fatal — fortunately for Roosevelt, the bullet’s path had been slowed by the folded 50-page speech he carried in his breast pocket. Stepping up to the podium, Roosevelt revealed his bloody shirt and the bullet-pierced manuscript of his speech to the audience. He began by saying: “Friends, I shall ask you to be as quiet as possible. 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.”
Only after speaking for more than an hour did Roosevelt step away from the podium. On Election Day, November 5th, Roosevelt lost the election to the Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson. John Schrank spent the rest of his life in an insane asylum. In a somewhat Shakespearean twist, Schrank claimed that the ghost of President William McKinley had appeared to him and ordered the hit; it was McKinley’s assassination that had made Roosevelt president in 1901.
Today, visitors to the Smithsonian National Museum of American History can view a bullet-pierced page of Roosevelt’s speech. The bullet, however, remained lodged in Roosevelt’s rib for the rest of his lift. He died in his sleep in 1919 and is buried at Oyster Bay, New York (1).
Unlike many people, Theodore Roosevelt did not fear public speaking. According to the Washington Post, public speaking is the biggest phobia of Americans, followed by fear of heights, drowning, strangers, zombies, and clowns (in that order) (2).
One antidote to overcoming the fear of public speaking is to face your fears head-on, as explained in the following analogy by Dale Carnegie in his book The Art of Public Speaking:
Did you ever notice in looking from a train window that some horses feed near the track and never even pause to look up at the thundering cars, while just ahead at the next railroad crossing a farmer’s wife will be nervously trying to quiet her scared horse as the train goes by?
How would you cure a horse that is afraid of cars—graze him in a back-woods lot where he would never see steam-engines or automobiles, or drive or pasture him where he would frequently see the machines?
Apply horse-sense to ridding yourself of self-consciousness and fear: face an audience as frequently as you can, and you will soon stop shying. You can never attain freedom from stage-fright by reading a treatise. A book may give you excellent suggestions on how best to conduct yourself in the water, but sooner or later you must get wet, perhaps even strangle and be “half scared to death.” There are a great many “wetless” bathing suits worn at the seashore, but no one ever learns to swim in them. To plunge is the only way. (3)
Today’s Challenge: I came, I saw, I spoke
How can people best acquire the courage to confront and conquer their fears of public speaking? What are your top three go-to topics for a brief speech? You’re not always given the chance to pick your own topic; however, choosing and preparing speeches on topics you care about is an excellent way to gain the kind of confidence you need to speak under any circumstances (even with a bullet lodged in your chest). For example, when Julius Caesar was a young man, he was kidnapped by pirates; to kill time during his captivity, he composed short speeches and poems and read them aloud to his captors (See July 13: I Came, I Saw, I Conquered Day). Brainstorm a list of your go-to speech topics — topics that you know something about and are passionate about. Then compose a short speech sharing your passion with an audience. (Common Core Speaking and Listening)
1-O’Toole, Patricia. The Speech That Saved Teddy Roosevelt’s Life. Smithsonian Mag.com Nov. 2012. //www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-speech-that-saved-teddy-roosevelts-life-83479091/?no-ist.
2-Croston, Glenn. The Thing We Fear More Than Death. Psychology Today.com 29 Nov. 2012. https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-real-story-risk/201211/the-thing-we-fear-more-death.
3-Carnegie, Dale. The Art of Public Speaking. Springfield, Mass.: The Home Correspondence School, 2015. Public Domain.