Secret Service Agent William Craig: His Life for His Country

The crowds cheer for President Theodore Roosevelt as his carriage rolls down North Street in Pittsfield. Courtesy of the Berkshire Eagle.

In previous weeks on Crime Capsule, we’ve profiled police officers, detectives, investigators, and judges. Today, however, continuing our occasional series on noted men and women in law enforcement, we’re turning to a department we’ve never covered: the United States Secret Service. And it’s our honor to introduce you to the first man to lose his life in the service of protecting the President.

That man was William “Big Bill” Craig.

September 3, 1902. President Teddy Roosevelt was visiting towns in western Massachusetts as part of a campaign tour for Republican candidates. Historian and journalist Andrew K.F. Amelinckx sets the scene in his book Gilded Age Murder & Mayhem in the Berkshires:

“In Pittsfield, what was originally planned as an unpretentious and simple welcome for the president had, by the day of the event, grown into a full-fledged blowout, with a large parade down North Street featuring Civil War veterans from the various Grand Army of the Republic posts and other patriotic organizations, bands playing martial music and American flags and celebratory bunting hanging from nearly every building, lamppost and tree along the president’s route.”

Festive bunting and flags decorate North Street for President Theodore Roosevelt’s visit. Courtesy of the Berkshire Eagle. Gilded Age Murder & Mayhem in the Berkshires.

Cheerful as the spectacle was, a dark undertone pervaded the federal agents—the previous year, President William McKinley had been assassinated in Buffalo, New York. Not only had this tragedy catapulted Roosevelt into the Oval Office, but had resulted in the Secret Service assuming the full-time responsibility of protecting the chief executive. Craig, a native of Glasgow, Scotland, was an ideal fit: over two hundred pounds of muscle packed into his six-foot-plus frame, he was, in Amelinckx’s words, an “accomplished boxer, wrestler and swordsman [with] a distinguished military background that showed in his ramrod-straight posture and martial bearing.” Oh, and before immigrating to Chicago with his family, he had seen combat in both Egypt and Sudan.

Roosevelt’s carriage, where Craig rode, was surrounded by a mounted guard, but little could have protected the retinue from what was unknowingly barreling their way. As they headed up a hill in downtown Pittsfield that morning, a trolley from the city’s Electric Street Railway came speeding directly at them, cutting perpendicular across their path. With hardly any time to react—efforts to signal the trolley motormen failed, and the horses drawing the presidential carriage had already crossed the track—the collision was swift and deadly. Amelinckx:

“One of the horses was struck, the front of the carriage splintered, all four wheels were crushed and the entire carriage was thrown several feet. Pratt was pitched sideways off the carriage, while Craig landed directly in the path of the trolley, the wheels passing over his body, killing him instantly. Roosevelt and the rest of the party were thrown from the landau … suffering only minor injuries.”

The presidential carriage was heavily damaged in the crash. Courtesy of the Berkshire Eagle. Image sourced from Gilded Age Murder & Mayhem in the Berkshires.

In the aftermath, Roosevelt—true to form—shrugged off his own bleeding facial wound and ordered his men to focus on the injured. Craig’s body was removed and taken to a local undertaker, and the trolley motormen were detained by local police for their excessive speed, and later charged with and convicted of manslaughter for their deadly neglect. Against objections from his staff, Roosevelt ordered the tour of the Berkshires to continue, where at subsequent stops, his voice breaking with emotion as he spoke of Craig, he spoke briefly of the accident to the waiting crowds.

Following the accident, Craig’s brothers came to collect his body, and returned to Chicago with him where he would receive a formal burial. The first Secret Service officer in America to die while protecting the president, Craig was remembered not just for his professionalism, decorum, and discipline, but as well for his sense of humor and gentle spirit—especially with Roosevelt’s own son, four-year-old Kermit. We’ll let President Roosevelt have the last word:

“I was genuinely fond of him. He was faithful and ready and I regret his death more than I can say. I regret exceedingly that the New England trip, carried through so delightfully to the last day, should have had such a tragic ending.”

Agent Craig, we here at Crime Capsule salute you.

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