On the afternoon that President McKinley was shot, pointblank, while greeting Pan-American Exposition visitors in Buffalo, his Vice President was on an island in Lake Champlain, preparing to address the annual meeting of the Vermont Fish and Game League. Theodore Roosevelt, who found the Vice-Presidency so boring he was planning to use the time to study law, was the featured speaker at the League’s summer outing, and just about to give his speech when he was pulled aside, abruptly, and given terrible news: the President had been shot: whether he would live or die was uncertain.
Roosevelt, stunned but a moment, sprang to action. He would go to the side of the stricken President; he would leave the island, by rowboat, by yacht, by train; he would wire, immediately, for more information. Here, hastily scrawled on the back of a railroad timetable, is that urgent, and respectful, message:
Director of Hospital or House at which President lies Buffalo NY.
Wire me at once full particulars to Van Ness House Burlington Vermont.
Roosevelt’s unusual use of the appellation “Vice President” was added, no doubt, to assure any and all that he was not, nor would for a second presume to be, anything but the Vice President.
But as this message is, in and of itself, historic, one needs but to turn it over, to see the historian’s hand – the anonymous recording, in pencil, of exactly what Roosevelt said on hearing that President McKinley had been shot, and later, on hearing that McKinley would survive. “I am so inexpressibly shocked & horrified that I cannot say anything,” Roosevelt first remarked.
Three days later, on September 9th, having seen the President as he recovered at the Buffalo home of the Exposition’s leading organizer, Roosevelt, like everyone else, was sanguine that McKinley’s prognosis was excellent. Writing here about, ostensibly, a more troubling concern – a missing coat – Roosevelt addresses the President’s condition in the second paragraph:
Everything is going on most satisfactorily with the President. I feel assured not only that he will recover, but that his recovery will be so speedy that in a very short time he will be able to resume his duties.
Yet Roosevelt’s confidence, though reflecting that of the President’s doctors, was tragically misplaced. What seems clear, today, is that the fifty-eight year-old President, overweight and sedentary, having been shot in the abdomen; operated on, in the exigency of the moment, by a gynecologic surgeon, in a theatre lit by an electric light with the wattage of a Christmas tree bulb; with a wound that had neither been drained, completely traced or thoroughly cleaned – had little likelihood of a speedy recovery, if any a recovery at all. Yet McKinley himself was, at this point, cheerful, and the gangrene that would kill him, not yet causing pain. But that would change, suddenly, on September 12th – by which time Roosevelt, convinced of a happy outcome, was off hiking in the Adirondack Mountains. He was, in fact, far up the highest mountain in New York when a man approached from below, waving a yellow envelope. Inside was a telegram, bearing eight dreaded words. “The President’s condition,” it declared, “has changed for the worse.” Roosevelt started down immediately. When he arrived in Buffalo on September 14th, McKinley would be dead, and he, suddenly, President.
Autograph Telegram Signed, as Vice-President, in pencil, 2 pages, oblong quarto, no place [Isle La Motte, Vermont], no date [September 6, 1901]. To the Director of the Hospital, or house at which President McKinley lay, in Buffalo, New York; written hastily on the back of a printed 1901 Rutland Railroad timetable cover [With Roosevelt's statements on verso, at hearing that McKinley was shot, and upon learning he was expected to recover, recorded in pencil in an unknown hand.
Typed Letter Signed, as Vice President, 1 page, quarto, Buffalo, N.Y., September 9, 1901. To Fletcher D. Proctor in Proctor, Vermont.