President Theodore Roosevelt dedicated his life to conquering the ghost of his sickly childhood…but as he stood on Monument Circle before a sea of supporters, the infection boiling in his wounded leg had reduced him to limping agony.
Less than three weeks earlier, as his presidential entourage had trotted down a Massachusetts street, a speeding electric trolley had slammed into his open carriage, killing Secret Service Agent William Craig and flinging Roosevelt from the carriage to the pavement. As usual, Roosevelt dismissed the few cuts and scraps, looking to the well-being of others.
Only a single wound, a shallow but lengthy laceration down his left leg, caused him any lasting pain, but for a veteran solider and consummate outdoorsman, such a wound was a trifle.
It would turn out to be life-threatening.
The tireless Teddy Roosevelt commenced with a speaking tour of the Midwest, anxious to support his fellow Republicans in an upcoming race as well as legitimize his newborn presidency. Only a year earlier, his predecessor, President William McKinley, died from septicemia after an (ultimately successful) assassination attempt.
As his tour took him through the Midwest and then to the Hoosier State, the wound on his leg grew hot, swollen and painful to the touch. When out of the public eye, President Roosevelt rested in a wheelchair, but even this brought him little relief. Hot needles of infection pierced every step, and yellow pus curdled beneath the wound’s feverish skin.
His legendary endurance gave out in Indianapolis, when the crowd notice the boisterous young president wince repeatedly during his impassioned speech.
In 1902, before the advent of antibiotics, infections were deadly business. If left untreated, they could quickly turn into blood poisoning (sepsis or septicemia), leading to a long and agonizingly-painful death. No steely resolve could save Roosevelt, and his staff hurried him to emergency surgery at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Indianapolis.
Word of Roosevelt’s illness quickly spread, and when news of possible blood poisoning leaked, hundreds of solemn onlookers stood vigil outside the Roman-Catholic hospital. They remembered well the condition that had taken McKinley.
For the second time in a year, the American public waited for news of another president’s death.
Polite to a fault, Roosevelt apologized to the hospital staff for their troubles as he was carried to surgery. The surgeon, Dr. John Oliver, readied instruments to lance and clean the leg infection, a simple but lengthy procedure. Given the wound’s size and the president’s observed pain, Dr. Oliver strongly suggested a general anesthetic, but Roosevelt refused, accepting only a local anesthetic in his leg.
For an hour, the doctor pressed, cleaned and drained the wound, kneading the raw, infected nerves in Roosevelt’s leg. No local anesthetic could kill the pain, only dull it, but the president weathered it bravely, clutching his hands behind his head, clamping his teeth, and screwing his eyes shut. He never screamed or whimpered or made a peep.
Only days later, he was back in Washington D.C., and recuperated quickly from the near-death experience more charismatic and energetic than ever. The American public understandably celebrated, and the near loss boosted national affection.
Roosevelt would go on and mold the United States from an industrious but isolated nation to a world superpower and economic leader.
A decade later, President Theodore Roosevelt would survive an assassination attempt, four years after he left office and during his campaign as delegate for the Progressive Party. An assassin (later judged insane) fired a .38 caliber revolver directly at Roosevelt’s chest as the president exited a restaurant in Milwaukee. According to the assassin, the ghost of McKinley had ordered it.
Roosevelt fell back but immediately sprang to his feet and ordered the furious crowd to unhand the would-be assassin. Police arrested him, and the president did not leave until he ensured police had proper custody, and the crowd would cause the assassin no harm.
Using his knowledge as a soldier and hunter, Roosevelt decided the wound was only superficial, and he decided to give his speech…instead of first seeing a doctor. He did, with a patch of blood growing like a corsage on his shirt.