Holy Cow! History: Teddy Roosevelt’s close call

Losing a president in office is a national tragedy. Imagine losing two presidents in 12 months. In the early days of the 20th century, that came dangerously close to happening.

William McKinley was wrapping up his first term as president. In the final weeks of 1899, Vice President Garret Hobart’s heart gave out, and McKinley suddenly needed a replacement.

He found him in Theodore Roosevelt. (Though Roosevelt hated being addressed as “Teddy,” Americans called him nothing else.) A bona fide war hero after leading his Rough Riders up San Juan Hill in Cuba, he followed that up by becoming New York’s governor. McKinley tapped him as his second-term running mate. Teddy brought sizzle to the Republicans’ 1900 presidential ticket, and it coasted to an easy victory.

Things were looking good — until McKinley decided to visit a World’s Fair in Buffalo, N.Y. in September 1901, where a crazed anarchist was waiting with a gun.

Just 42, the youngest man to become president, Teddy brought rock-star excitement to the White House. When the 1902 congressional midterm elections rolled around, he decided to put his popularity to use. Twelve months after McKinley’s murder, his successor embarked on an extended swing through New England to boost Republican candidates.

Pittsfield is a small city in western Massachusetts. But there were voters to woo, which was why Teddy was there on Wednesday morning, Sept. 3, 1902.

Having the president visit your town was a big deal in those days. Pittsfield was giddy over hosting the great man. Teddy’s speech in the city park was a huge hit. Tens of thousands of people waved as he and his entourage headed to a noon appearance in nearby Lenox.

With the automobile in its infancy, Teddy rode in an open carriage pulled by four horses. Accompanying him was Massachusetts Gov. Winthrop Crane, Secret Service Agent William Craig and Roosevelt’s White House secretary. Carriages filled with local VIPs and reporters followed.

The honchos of the Pittsfield Electric Street Railway tagged along in Car #29, an open trolley. But it was delayed 15 minutes as stragglers were rounded up. The bosses barked at trolley engineer Euclid Madden to go faster to make up lost time. It was a deadly mistake.

The presidential party crossed the trolley tracks in a sharp curve at the bottom of a hill on the edge of town. The speeding trolley rushed into view just as the president’s carriage was crossing the rails. Madden frantically clanged the bell. The governor stood up, frantically waving his arms. Agent Craig shielded the president’s body and shouted, “Look out, hold fast!” as the trolley slammed into the carriage.

Metal scraped against metal. Horses screamed. Horrified onlookers gasped.

The trolley struck the left rear wheel, plowing through the carriage and turning it over. One horse dropped on the tracks, dead; the other three bolted, dragging the wreckage 40 feet.

Agent Craig fell, and the trolley ran over him, killing him instantly. The carriage driver landed on the dead horse and rolled out of the way, avoiding the same fate (though his shoulder was dislocated and his face was badly cut). Gov. Craig was uninjured. The president’s secretary was badly hurt. Teddy landed face-first on the ground, dazed and severely shaken. Blood poured from a cut lip; his leg was also hurt.

Nobody on the trolley was hurt. Madden stopped the car and ran to the crash site. Regaining his senses as he surveyed the death and carnage all around him, Teddy exchanged what one reporter called “heated words” with the engineer. Witnesses said Teddy had to be physically restrained from hitting Madden.

Craig became the first Secret Service agent killed in the line of duty while protecting a president. Madden was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to six months in jail. (He got his engineer job back upon his release.)

It had been a very close call. Although he survived, Teddy’s leg became infected and abscessed; he underwent painful surgery and was confined to a wheelchair for weeks.

In a twist, there was no procedure at the time for filling a vacancy in the vice presidency. According to the order of succession then, the man next in line after Hobart died and who also would have become president if Teddy had died in the accident was Secretary of State John Hay. He had begun his career 40 years earlier as a secretary to Abraham Lincoln.

You can’t help marveling at the irony: A president murdered by an assassin was succeeded by a vice president who, had he been killed himself the following year, would have been succeeded by a man who once served our first assassinated president.

Try to find a “Ripley’s Believe It Or Not” scenario stranger than that.

Holy Cow! History is written by novelist, former TV journalist and diehard history buff J. Mark Powell. Have a historic mystery that needs solving? A forgotten moment worth remembering? Please send it to [email protected]