The Assassination of President James Garfield

Jan 15, 2015 - by Denise Noe - 0 Comments

The assassination of President James Garfield cut short one of the most astounding political careers in U.S. history. Like few presidents before or after him, Garfield possessed a flexible mind and an ability to work well with others. His goal of integrating the recently freed slaves into the mainstream of American life died along with him. 

by Denise Noe

On July, 2, 1881, a deluded man named Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield. The disabling and death of Garfield prematurely ended one of the most promising presidencies in American history. Garfield was a man of firm convictions who cooperated well with people and was widely admired. The last president born in a log cabin, Garfield rose from a more humble background than even Abraham Lincoln. Garfield distinguished himself in the Civil War, rising to the rank of Brigadier General at an earlier age that anyone else in American history. He had served nine terms in the House of Representatives, rising to Minority Leader during the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes.

U.S. President James Abram Garfield

Garfield had ascended to the presidency during a time of deep turmoil. Black Americans had been freed from slavery but were still in the bondage of rampant racial discrimination. Garfield was a radical for his time. Even more radical than Lincoln, Garfield was not only a stout abolitionist but a believer in racial equality.

Another issue tearing the country apart was the question of how jobs in the civil service should be awarded. The patronage system, sometimes called the spoils system, meant granting civil service jobs to those who had supported the current president and worked for his election. However, many people wanted to see the connection between the civil service and political patronage severed. The Democratic Party was largely united in wanting to see a merit system enacted while the Republican Party was deeply divided over this issue. Supporters of continuing the patronage system were called “Stalwarts” for their stalwart defense of this status quo while Republicans favoring reform were called “Half-Breeds” because many considered them only “Half-Republican.”

The issue of the awarding of civil service jobs was pivotal in the assassination of President Garfield.

“Providence Only Could Have Saved My Life”

James Abram Garfield was born on November 19, 1831 to Eliza and Abram Garfield. Abram died in 1833, leaving Eliza with five children to feed and deeply in debt. The family’s poverty was such that little James did not possess a pair of shoes until he was 4 years old. As an adult, he warned against romanticizing the hardscrabble life, saying, “Let us never praise poverty, for a child at least.”

As Kenneth D. Ackerman observes in Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield, James early became “enamored with reading” and shone in school. Nevertheless, as a youth he did not yearn for a higher education but for the swashbuckling adventures of a sailor.

At 16, James obtained a position on a canal boat. In six weeks, he managed to fall overboard no less than 14 times. On the first 13, men on deck pulled him up. The 14th fall was different – and traumatizing.

Falling overboard close to midnight, he screamed for help as he splashed in the water but his screams went unheard because no one was on deck. He grabbed on a rope and pulled himself up.

In Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, Candice Millard reports, “As he sat, dripping and scared, on the deck of the canal boat, Garfield wondered why he was still alive. The rope was not secured to anything on the boat. When he had pulled on it, it should have fallen off the deck, slipping to the bottom of the canal and leaving him to drown.” Garfield later wrote, “Carefully examining it, I found that just where it came over the edge of the boat it had been drawn into a crack and there knotted itself.”

Having his life saved by such a happenstance convinced James he was destined for importance. He wrote, “I did not believe that God had paid any attention to me on my own account but I thought He had saved me for my mother and for something greater and better than canalling. . . . Providence only could have saved my life. Providence, therefore, thinks it worth saving.”

Deciding to make a living with brain rather than brawn, he returned home to Eliza’s log cabin. After studying at local schools, he enrolled in an Ohio preparatory school, the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, attending it from 1851 to the beginning of 1854. Unable to cover tuition, he worked as a janitor in exchange for schooling. By his second year at Eclectic, the school promoted him from janitor to assistant professor. He taught mathematics, literature, and ancient languages.

In mid-1854, he enrolled at Williams College in Massachusetts as a junior. As American President states, “He thrived intellectually at Williams. He relished the opportunity to hear Ralph Waldo Emerson and the challenge of confronting the strong personality of Williams’s President, Mark Hopkins. He fancied himself a reformer, identifying with the antislavery beliefs of the new Republican Party.”

Garfield graduated with honors from Williams College in 1856. He returned to the Eclectic Institute – as a teacher. He became Eclectic Institute President at age 26. At Eclectic he met dark-haired, attractive, intelligent but reserved Lucretia “Crete” Rudolph who had been an Eclectic pupil and later worked as a schoolteacher. After a five-year courtship, wedding bells chimed in 1858.

An Ohio State Senator died suddenly in 1859. Garfield admirers urged him to take the deceased man’s place in the upcoming election. He did and won by a hefty margin. Garfield campaigned for Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 Presidential election. When the Southern states seceded, Garfield supported keeping the Union together and hoped the conflict would eliminate slavery. He asserted, “I am inclined to believe the sin of slavery is one of which it may be said that without the shedding of blood there is no remission.”

In between teaching at Eclectic, politicking, and setting up housekeeping with Lucretia, Garfield studied law on his own. He did not enroll in law school as that was not then required. In 1861, he passed the Ohio bar exam. As the country exploded into Civil War, Garfield enlisted in the Union Army. Impressed superiors promoted him to lieutenant colonel and then full colonel. Colonel Garfield enthusiastically recruited men into the 42nd Ohio Infantry.

The Battle for Kentucky

The 42nd was commissioned to turn Rebels back from Kentucky which held a critical strategic role as a border state and a critical symbolic role as Lincoln’s birthplace. Lincoln asserted, “I hope to have God on my side but I must have Kentucky.”

Some believed the 42nd had been assigned a hopeless job. Millard notes, “The Confederate force it faced was 2,000 men strong, fortified with a battery of four cannons and several wagonloads of ammunition, and led by Humphrey Marshall, a well-known, well-seasoned brigadier general who had graduated from West Point the year after Garfield was born. In sharp contrast, the 42nd had 500 fewer soldiers and no artillery. Worse, its commander was a young academic who had spent the past decade thinking about Latin and higher math and had absolutely no military experience.”

After receiving his orders, Garfield studied an eastern Kentucky map. The next morning, he led his men through fog, mud, sleet, and snow until they reached Marshall’s regiment. Garfield had decided on a singularly audacious – and risky – strategy. For the Battle of Middle Creek, Garfield divided the regiment into three smaller groups to attack the rebels from three different sides. Garfield hoped the enemy would have the mistaken impression of being encircled by a much larger regiment. Millard explains, “When Garfield’s first detachment attacked, the Confederates, as expected, confidently rushed to meet them. Then a second force fell upon the rebels from a different direction, throwing them into disarray and confusion. Just as they were beginning to figure out how to fight on two fronts, Garfield attacked on a third.”

Marshall ordered his regiment to retreat. The Union controlled Kentucky! The daring Garfield was promoted to brigadier general.

In 1863 political operators encouraged Garfield to run for Congress. Ackerman reports, “Reluctant to leave the army at first, Garfield had visited Washington, D.C., and sought direction from Abraham Lincoln himself.” Ackerman continues that Lincoln “told the earnest young officer that he ‘had more commanding Generals around than he knew what to do with.’ What he needed, he said, was support on the political front.” Thus, in December 1863, Garfield resigned from the Army to serve in the United States House of Representatives. American President comments, “During the war years, Garfield distinguished himself as one of the most radical Republicans in Congress. . . . Garfield supported the seizure of rebel property in the North and the execution or exile of Confederate leaders.” As time passed, Garfield moderated his positions toward the defeated South – but he remained solidly radical in his anti-racism stance. Before the war’s end, Garfield introduced a resolution to allow blacks to walk through Washington, D.C. without carrying a pass. When the war ended, he gave an impassioned speech supporting extending suffrage to black males.

At one point, scandal besmirched Garfield. Several congressional representatives were accused of accepting money and stock from Crédit Mobilier, a construction company for the transcontinental Union Pacific Railroad that had received government loans and land grants. The representatives were further accused of using their influence to diminish congressional oversight of Crédit Mobilier. Garfield admitted receiving $329 from the company – not a humongous amount even in those days.

Despite the scandal, he was re-elected in 1874.

In 1876, Garfield supported Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes for President. Hayes hoped to reform the system by which federal government jobs were filled. However, his proposals met stout resistance from those of his own Republican party designated as “Stalwarts.” In Demand Media, Ashley Portero writes, “Stalwart Republicans opposed the civil service reform measures advocated by the Hayes administration. Instead, the group favored [continuing] a patronage system – known as a ‘spoils system’ – that awarded political supporters with jobs in the federal government.” By contrast, the “Half-Breeds” supported civil service reforms, advocating an end to giving government jobs on the basis of political support. The term “Half-Breed” originated as a term of disparagement by their Stalwart opponents to suggest they were only “half-Republican.”

Disappointed by his inability to pass reforms made, President Hayes announced at the end of his term that he would not run for a second term.

Republican Convention: Stalwarts Vs. Half-Breeds

At the June 1880 Republican convention, most political observers expected that the 1880 Republican party ticket would be headed either by former president and war hero Ulysses S. Grant, who was believed to have a good shot at an unprecedented third term in the White House or by Maine Senator James G. Blaine. A minority of observers believed Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman (and younger brother of General William Tecumseh Sherman) would be nominated.

Stalwarts solidly supported the nomination Grant while Half-Breeds were divided between Blaine and Sherman.

Garfield was scheduled to make a speech supporting Sherman. This troubled Garfield because, although he felt obligated to support Sherman because he was a fellow Ohioan, Garfield did not believe Sherman was the best candidate. Garfield was also troubled because he would be thrust into competition with Stalwart leader Roscoe Conkling.
New York Senator Conkling was one of the most powerful men in America. A decade previously, then-President Grant put Conkling in charge of the New York Customs House, America’s biggest federal office which collected 70 percent of U.S. customs revenue. Millard reports, “Since then, Conkling had personally made each appointment to the customs house. Any man fortunate enough to receive one of the high-paying jobs had been expected to make generous contributions to the Republican Party of New York, and to show unwavering loyalty to Conkling.”

Garfield and Conkling had some important things in common. Both had stoutly opposed slavery and both supported rights for ex-slaves. Indeed, Conkling had helped draft the 14th Amendment that extended citizenship and other legal protections to former slaves.

However, Conkling’s strongest commitment was to the patronage system, the source of his personal power. In a reform effort, President Hayes had dismissed a Conkling appointee, Chester A. Arthur, from being New York Customs House Collector. Furious at Arthur’s removal, Conkling attacked Hayes during the rest of his term.

Conkling also had a long-standing feud with Blaine. They had gotten into a spat in Congress 14 years previously and not spoken to each other since. As might be expected, Conkling was dead-set against Blaine being nominated for the presidency. Conkling fervently wanted Grant nominated.

When Garfield gave his speech for Sherman, Garfield at one point said, “Gentlemen of the Convention, what do we want?”
To Garfield’s own surprise, some in the crowd shouted, “We want Garfield!”

Garfield continued, “I nominate John Sherman of Ohio” – receiving strong applause.

A total of 379 votes were required to win the nomination. The first ballot had no one with enough to win. Nor did the second or third. However, the third ballot had two new names with one vote each: Indiana Senator Benjamin Harrison (who would become President in nine years) and Garfield.

As more ballots were taken, more votes went to Garfield – who reacted with distress. Garfield objected, “The announcement contains votes for me. No man has a right, without the consent of the person voted for, to announce that person’s name, and vote for him, in this convention. Such consent I have not given.” The convention leader ordered Garfield to “resume his seat.”

A groundswell of support surged for Garfield who was described as “pale as death” when he found himself his party’s nominee for president.

Thus, in the 1880 presidential race, Republican Garfield was pitted against Democrat Winfield S. Hancock.

Republican party bigwigs knew it was vital to win New York and that to win New York, Conkling had to strongly back Garfield. As a way of securing Conkling's support, the party offered the vice-presidential nomination to a man so close to Conkling he shared his home: Chester Arthur. Sherman raged, “The nomination of Arthur is a ridiculous burlesque. He never held an office except the one he was removed from!”

Nevertheless, Arthur became Garfield’s running mate.

Longtime Loser

Charles Guiteau
Charles Guiteau

One who campaigned for Garfield was Charles J. Guiteau whose life bore striking parallels to Garfield’s. However, in some ways those parallels turn into polar opposites for while Garfield had often snatched victory from defeat – and even had the glory of a presidential nomination thrust upon him -- Guiteau had shuffled from failure to failure.

Born on September 8, 1841, Charles Julius Guiteau was the fourth of the six children of Luther and Jane Guiteau. Like Garfield, Guiteau suffered the early loss of a parent. In Guiteau’s case, it was his mother who died when Charles was 7 years old. Luther was extremely religious. Charles later recalled, “My father was a father and a mother to me and I drank in this fanaticism from him for years.” Charles was also close to a sister, Frances, who was six years older than he.

While a teenager, Charles worked for his father who did not consider college worthwhile despite Charles’ strong desire for it. In 1859, Charles received an inheritance from his maternal grandfather. It allowed him to enter the University of Michigan.
At about this time, Luther became impressed by the “Bible communism” of John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida Community in New York State. Following in his father’s footsteps, Charles studied Noyes’ precepts.

Noyes taught that human beings could achieve intellectual, moral, and spiritual perfection through the right combination of prayer and education. To aid others in finding this perfection, he founded the Oneida Community, named after the town in which it was formed, in 1848.

The Oneida Community was a Christian “millennial” organization best known for practicing “complex marriage” or “Free Love.” Noyes believed monogamy was “unhealthy and pernicious.” Those living in the Oneida Community were allowed multiple sex partners. However, to avoid incessant pregnancies, Noyes advocated “male continence” or intercourse “up to the moment of emission,” a practice commonly called “withdrawal.”

In 1860, Charles left college to enter the Oneida Community. Like most members, he lived in a sprawling brick Victorian Gothic building called the “Mansion House.” Almost 300 people occupied the 35 Mansion House apartments. The private rooms were small but the Oneida Community boasted a range of amenities including theaters and a Turkish bath.

Charles chafed at Oneida Community rules. Members were expected to accept assignments in the fields and kitchens as needed. Ackerman observes that Guiteau “became moody and complained about doing menial work.” Nursing the longtime belief that God had special plans for him, an indignant Charles Guiteau wrote to Noyes, “You prayed God . . . to send you help, and he has sent me.” Guiteau complained, “I ask no one to respect me personally, but I do ask them to respect me as an envoy of the true God.” Guiteau insisted he was “God’s minute man.”

Eager to enjoy the benefits of “complex marriage” and willing to practice withdrawal, Guiteau found himself rejected by Oneida Community women who nicknamed him “Charles Gitout.” After nearly six years as a celibate in a Free Love commune, he left the Oneida Community on April 3, 1865, because he believed God had chosen him to spread Noyes’s doctrines by founding a newspaper. Charles went to Hoboken, New Jersey where he founded the Daily Theocrat. The paper flopped and on July 20, 1865, he re-entered Oneida. According to the Charles Guiteau Collection, “Then, just over a year later, he again quit, and on November 1, 1866, he departed with some money that he had originally consigned to the community.” During this time, his sister Frances and her husband occasionally gave him handouts or allowed him to live with them for awhile.

He decided on a legal career. He clerked in a Chicago law office and passed the Illinois bar exam in 1868. He set up his own law office. Soon after, in 1869, he married librarian Anne Bunn. The marriage was troubled from the start partly because Guiteau’s odd work performance led to few clients and a low income. Defending one client, Guiteau actually jumped over the bar separating him from the jury and waved a fist in a juror’s face. The jury convicted Guiteau’s client without leaving their seats. In another case, Guiteau failed to address the petty larceny of which his client was accused but droned to the jury about such issues as the general rights of man and the nature of divinity.
Ackerman notes that Anne “grew tired of his short tempter, constant lack of money, hiding from bill collectors, and fleeing apartments for lack of rent. He beat her, punched and kicked her when she disagreed with him, and sometimes for no apparent reason at all. Finally, in 1874, Guiteau purposely slept with a prostitute in New York, where they’d moved after Chicago’s Great Fire, to create legal grounds for a New York divorce.” Anne divorced him. For the next 14 years, Guiteau bounced between New York and Chicago, opening law offices that soon closed.

In between practicing law, he traveled as an evangelist. In places ranging from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Buffalo, New York, he rented venues and preached sermons. When traveling by train, he sometimes went on the train without buying a ticket. He said it was not “dead beating” since he was “working for the Lord.” Often conductors took pity and let him ride although some evicted him at the next station. He took a similar approach to accommodations, finding nice boarding houses and slipping out sans payment. On occasion, he found himself in jail for failing to pay a boarding house. In 1874, failure to pay board led to a month-long stay in a New York jail.

The Charles Guiteau Collection reports, “Increasingly despondent over his prospects, Charles Guiteau conceived of the idea to sue the Oneida Community on a trumped up charge of withholding compensation for the work he professed to have performed under its auspices. For a few months, Guiteau sent threatening letters to Noyes that amounted to blackmail. Eventually, he desisted, when Oneida’s own lawyers threatened to prosecute him for extortion and to use his letters against him.”

In the summer of 1875, Guiteau was living with his sister and her family in Wisconsin. One day Frances asked if he would “cut up a little wood for us.”

He cut the wood but, instead of taking it to the shed, he dropped it on the house’s walkway. Rather than risk a quarrel, Frances stooped down to pick up some wood. She later remembered, “As quick as I did that he raised the ax, without any provocation or words. It was not so much the raising of the ax as it was the look of his face that frightened me. He looked to me like a wild animal.” The terrified woman dropped the wood and raced into the house.

At Frances’s request, the family doctor examined Charles. The physician told Frances that Charles’s “explosions of emotional feeling” indicated severe mental illness and advised institutionalization. Charles left his sister’s home before action could be taken on the doctor’s recommendation. Guiteau traveled for five years. He lived in Boston in 1880 when he suddenly took a strong interest in politics. He became a Republican of Stalwart stripe. He decided to volunteer in the upcoming presidential campaign, convinced that his work in the area would lead to a high-ranking political appointment.

Like most Americans, Guiteau believed the Republicans would nominate Grant. He believed (correctly) that the Democrats would nominate Union General Winfield Scott Hancock. Hoping to make his mark in the politics, Guiteau wrote a speech entitled “Grant and Hancock.” When the Republicans nominated Garfield, Guiteau refreshed it and changed its title to “Garfield against Hancock.”

Speech in hand, an excited Guiteau boarded the steamship Stonington along with about 300 other passengers to travel to New York. Guiteau planned to pay a visit to the Republican campaign headquarters.

Disaster Aboard the Stonington

Late in the evening of June 11, 1880, Guiteau suffered insomnia. Near midnight, he walked out on deck. Gazing into the darkness, he was suddenly jarred because the steamship Narragansett crashed head-on into the Stonington. Millard writes, “As the tragedy unfolded before him, Guiteau could hear the screams and desperate cries for help, which continued, disembodied, even after the ship burned to the waterline and then sank, plunging the shell-shocked witnesses, once again, into complete darkness. The frightened and ill-prepared crew of the Stonington lowered lifeboats into the water and circled blindly for hours, searching for survivors by their cries and pulling them to safety by arms, legs, clothing, even the hair of their heads. Many, however, had already drowned, or had drifted beyond help, their cries fading as they were carried away by the tide.”

Some Stonington survivors transferred to a steamship that had come to their rescue. Guiteau was among that lucky group. In a parallel reaction to that of Garfield who survived a near-drowning, Guiteau was convinced that God chose to save him so he could accomplish something vital.

Most observers believed the Democratic nominee, Winfield Scott Hancock, stood little chance. He had distinguished himself as a Union general but never held elected office. Catty Republicans distributed a pamphlet entitled Hancock’s Political Achievements – filled with blank pages!

What’s more, despite Hancock having won fame as a Union general, most Americans identified the Democratic Party with the South. Garfield derided it as the “Rebel Party.”

Hancock supporters sought to smear Garfield with the Crédit Mobilier scandal. They often wrote the numbers “329,” for the amount of money Garfield acknowledged accepting, on sidewalks and on the sides of buildings.

Ex-slaves were among the most enthusiastic Garfield campaigners because of his support for extending full rights to them. In a speech, former slave turned famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass proclaimed Garfield “right on our questions” and asserted, “He has come from obscurity to fame, and we’ll make him more famous!”

Holding his “Garfield Against Hancock” speech, Guiteau sought out Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Chester Arthur. Eventually, Arthur gave Guiteau the opportunity to deliver the speech to a New York gathering.

On November 3, 1880, Garfield was elected president.

The day after his inauguration, Guiteau took a train from New York to Washington, D.C. Believing his speech had been instrumental in securing the presidency for Garfield, Guiteau was certain the grateful president would reward his efforts. He mailed a letter to Garfield asserting, “We have cleaned them out just as I expected. Thank God!”

In December, Garfield made a vital political appointment. He put James G. Blaine in the top Cabinet position, that of Secretary of State. His appointment to that office had been a masterstroke. Ackerman observes, “By this one action, Garfield had managed to shift the axis of power in American government. Instead of the New York Stalwarts who had won him his election and demanded tribute, Garfield would now anchor his line to James G. Blaine, the ‘magnetic man’ from Maine, who’d shown himself fully able and not the least bit hesitant to deal with Roscoe Conkling.”

Lines of Office Seekers

A typical day for the new president included trying to get away from the lengthy lines of office seekers waiting outside his front door. A large section of the day, from 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday was taken with about a hundred such seekers. Garfield complained, “My day is frittered away by the personal seeking of people when it ought to be given to the great problems which concern the whole country.” Office seekers also haunted the Secretary of State Blaine.

As usual for Guiteau, he spent his time in Washington D.C. moving from boardinghouse to boardinghouse to avoid paying rent. In some cases, he staved off landlords by saying he was soon to come into a lucrative political appointment.

An early Guiteau letter to Garfield stated, “I, Charles Guiteau, hereby make application for the Austrian Mission.” The puzzled President read this letter and commented to an associate that it was an “illustration of unparalleled audacity and impudence.”

As months passed, Guiteau experienced a change of heart. In a letter to Garfield, Guiteau wrote, “I think I prefer Paris to Vienna and, if agreeable to you, should be satisfied with the consulship of Paris.” He also enclosed a copy of the speech he had presented in New York, telling Garfield it had “resulted in your election.” Guiteau regularly visited the White House. One time, he actually met Garfield. Guiteau introduced himself as applying for the Paris consulship and handed Garfield the campaign speech. Guiteau left, certain the Paris consulship would soon be his although he continued his regular visits to the White House.

Guiteau's pistol
Guiteau's pistol

For months, he waited for an appointment that never came. In May 1881, Guiteau had an idea that he later said came upon him “like a flash.” That idea: “If the President was out of the way, everything would go better.” He was certain this idea did not come from his own mind but had been placed there by God. However, he later said he had not wanted to heed God’s direction in this instance. He said he was “horrified” by the idea and “kept throwing it off.” Nevertheless, “It kept growing upon me, pressing me, goading me.”

Guiteau later recalled praying daily for two weeks, hoping God would indicate that He did not really want Guiteau to kill Garfield.  However, on June 1, 1889, Guiteau accepted that God wanted him to assassinate the President – and that he would fulfill God’s order.

Guiteau selected a gun with an ivory handle because he believed it would look better when eventually displayed in a museum as the gun that felled a president.

Although he would be described as a “disappointed office seeker,” Guiteau denied he wanted to kill Garfield for that reason. He explained, “The Lord inspired me to attempt to remove the President in preference to someone else because I had the brains and the nerve to do the work. The Lord always employs the best material to do His work.”

The President Is Shot!

On July 2, 1881, Garfield prepared for a planned trip to New England with his older sons, Harry and Jim. The group would meet up with Lucretia, who was recovering in New Jersey from a recent illness, and then head to Massachusetts where Garfield would attend the Williams College 25th class reunion and help Harry and Jim get settled for the academic year.

It was early that morning when Garfield, Blaine, Harry, and Jim arrived at the Washington D.C. train station located at Sixth and B Streets. Ladies’ waiting room matron Sarah White noted that the President of the United States walked through the station “absolutely free from any affectation whatever.” His free and easy attitude contrasted sharply with that of a man who had arrived earlier and caught White’s attention. That man appeared oddly ill at easy, slouching, his head often held at an angle, and his eyes shuttling nervously around the station.

(Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

Moments after Garfield entered the station, Guiteau drew his revolver, aimed it at Garfield’s back, and shot.

Garfield’s arms shot up in shock and he exclaimed, “My God! What is this?”

The first bullet pierced Garfield’s right arm and passed into a toolbox carried by a terrified but luckily unharmed station worker.

As Garfield turned to look at his assailant, Guiteau fired his second shot. Garfield fell to the floor, vomiting as a huge wet red stain covered the back of his suit.

Screams filled the station.

Guiteau raced for the door leading to the street and his carriage. A man blocked the door. Guiteau turned and raced for another exit but was caught by ticket agent Robert Parke who shouted, “This is the man!” Officer Patrick Kearney ran to Park’s side to hold Guiteau. As he was grabbed, Guiteau exclaimed, “I’m a Stalwart and Arthur will be president!”

In an unusual twist, a group of black men – so often the victims of lynching -- gathered, shouting, “Lynch him!”

Realizing the danger posed by the crowd, Guiteau said, “I want to go to jail” to Kearney. The officer hurried Guiteau into a police vehicle that transported him to the District Jail. On his way, Guiteau said to a detective seating beside him, “You stick to me and have me put in the third story, front, at the jail. General Sherman is coming down to take charge. Arthur and all those men are my friends, and I’ll have you made Chief of Police.”

Guiteau thought he had accomplished God’s mission and expected to reap rewards for it. He talked volubly with the arresting officers, saying, “I am a native-born American, born in Chicago and am a lawyer and theologian.” Asked his motive, he replied, “To save the Republican party. . . I am a Stalwart . . . with Garfield out of the way, we can carry all the northern states.” Guiteau shot the President to preserve the political patronage system – even though Guiteau had failed to gain office through that system.

Doctors rushed to the station to attend Garfield.

Neither bullet caused a fatal injury although two of Garfield’s ribs were broken and an artery grazed. The bullets missed his spinal cord and all vital organs. However, doctors believed it imperative to remove from Garfield’s body the second bullet that had lodged in his back.

District of Columbia Health Officer Dr. Smith Townsend arrived five minutes after the wounding. Nine more doctors joined Townsend within an hour.

Townsend gave Garfield sips of brandy and aromatic spirits of ammonia. When Garfield was conscious enough to talk, the doctor asked Garfield where he hurt worst and Garfield indicated his lower body. Townsend stuck a fingers into Garfield’s back wound in an unsuccessful effort to find the bullet. At Townsend’s request, station workers brought out a mattress upon which they lifted him. The group carried Garfield from the waiting room to a large room upstairs.
Garfield moaned and vomited as he drifted in and out of consciousness. He managed to say, “I think you’d better telegraph Crete.” His wife was informed by telegraph that he had been shot.

A doctor who joined Townsend was the remarkable Dr. Charles Purvis. Purvis was one of the first African-Americans trained in medicine. On this day, he became the first black physician to treat a U.S. president.

Another physician summoned to Garfield’s side was the prominent Dr. D. Willard Bliss who had lived near Garfield’s home when Garfield was a child and was well-acquainted with Garfield. Bliss had served the Union Army as a surgeon during the war and been in private practice in Washington D. C. since 1865.

When Bliss arrived he questioned Purvis and Townsend before essentially assuming control of Garfield’s treatment. Bliss took a long probe out of his doctor’s black bag and stuck the probe into one of Garfield’s wounds to search for the bullet.

Lister vs. Bliss of the “Good Old Surgical Stink”

Doctor Willard Bliss

Bliss could not find the bullet and removed the probe. He probed with a finger but this too failed.

Bliss had the injured President transferred to a room in the White House for recovery. As was common in those days, doctors came to what was made into a sickroom rather than taking Garfield to a hospital.

Millard writes that later observers wondered, “how Bliss came to be in charge of the case.” A doctor recalled, “He just took charge of it.” Ackerman writes that the day after the shooting, Bliss summoned all the attending physicians together. Ackerman writes that Bliss “told them he’d had a private talk with the president and Mrs. Garfield and they had made a decision. The President had complained that there were too many physicians treating him and he’d suffered through too many painful examinations. Bliss alone would be in charge now. Only a handful of doctors could stay, he told them; the rest would have to leave.” Some doctors objected and there was some heated conversation but eventually most acquiesced to what they took to be Garfield’s wishes.
However, Lucretia later stated there had been no such conversation. Nevertheless, Bliss was in charge from that point forward.

Bliss had inserted probe and finger without cleaning. Like most American physicians of the time, Bliss scorned the antiseptic theories of Joseph Lister who had enjoyed great success with convincing European doctors that germs, though they could not be seen, were omnipresent and that sterilizing wounds and surrounding areas was essential. Bliss and others held that these “invisible germs” were as much a figment of the imagination as the “invisible humors” of the past. History House quotes an American physician writing in 1878, “In order to successfully practice Mr. Lister’s Antiseptic Method, it is necessary that we should believe, or act as if we believed, the atmosphere to be loaded with germs.” Around that same time, George Shrady, The Medical Record editor, wrote, “We are as likely to be as much ridiculed in the next century for our blind belief in the power of unseen germs, as our forefathers were for their faith in the influence of spirits.” Bliss and similar thinking American doctors believed European physicians wasted time with their newfangled practices of washing their hands and using sterilized instruments.

Dr. Joseph Lister

America’s physicians generally prided themselves on the “good old surgical stink” of their hospitals and believed a stained surgeon’s coat, covered with layers of crumbling dried puss and blood, was a tribute to the physician’s professional experience.

A minority of American doctors were impressed by Lister’s theories and concerned about the treatment Garfield was receiving. Dr. E. L. Patee wrote Lucretia, advising, “Do not allow probing of the wound. Probing generally does more harm than the ball.” He also urged, “Saturate everything with carbolic acid.”

Bliss scorned such advice. Bliss announced he believed Garfield would recover.

Although he rarely complained, Garfield suffered agonizing pains. He described a sense of “tiger’s claws” seizing. He steadily lost weight because he could not keep food down. He suffered many attacks of vomiting in a day. Despite his agony, he was unfailingly kind to those attending him.

Garfield managed to avoid complaining even though his condition meant he could no longer take care of his most intimate body functions. As a physician commented, “Every passage of his bowels and urine required the same attendance bestowed upon a young infant.”

Blaine visited Garfield shortly after the President was taken to the White House room that had been transformed into a sickroom. Garfield inquired as to the identity of the shooter. Blaine said it was office seeker Charles Guiteau. Garfield said, “Why did that man shoot me? I have done him no wrong. What could he have wanted to shoot me for?” Blaine said Guiteau must have been disappointed over failing to get an office. Garfield never again asked about Guiteau.

While the normally stout Garfield rapidly lost weight, the heretofore thin Guiteau gained it. Guiteau enthusiastically chowed down the tasteless jail food because he was so happy. Certain the American people applauded his actions and confident President Arthur would pardon him, Guiteau was cheerful. He relished talking to journalists – who often experienced disgust when interviewing him. Reporter Edmund Bailey wrote, “His vanity is literally nauseating. Guiteau has an idea that the civilized world is holding its breath waiting to hear of the minutest details of his career.”

When Guiteau’s jailors photographed him, he seemed to revel in it. To the photographer, Guiteau said, “I don’t want to appear strained and awkward. If my picture is taken at all it must be a good one.” After one photograph, Guiteau eagerly asked, “Did you get me good that time? I want to look natural.”

He read with interest newspaper accounts about him but seemed nonplussed by the universal contempt and hostility expressed toward him.

A Deteriorating President

Over a month after the shooting, the bedridden President was completely helpless, often vomiting and regularly bathed in sweat. On July 22, an enormous amount of pus leaked from his wound. A piece of bone about one eighth of an inch long and cloth fragments that the bullet had dragged into his back accompanied the vile liquid profusion. On July 23, Bliss sent for other surgeons. Dr. David Hayes Agnew and Dr. Frank Hamilton joined Bliss and the trio of physicians operated on Garfield’s back and inserted a drainage tube.

Millard reports, “Two days after the first surgery, Agnew again operated on the President, enlarging the opening he had earlier made over his rib and pulling out fragments of muscle, connective tissue, and bone, one piece of which was an inch long.”

Doctors were desperate to find the bullet, believing that removing it was key to Garfield’s recovery. Unfortunately, the X-ray would not be invented for another decade. Nevertheless, famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell, whose telephone would so transform the world, believed he might have the answer to finding the bullet in an invention Bell called the “induction balance.” Ackerman describes it as “a rudimentary metal detector whose electrically charged needle supposedly could locate a hidden object inside a patient’s body.” Bell tried it on Garfield but the machine failed to find the bullet. The failure may partly have been the result of it being thrown off by metal springs in the bed. Another explanation for the failure, as Ackerman writes, was that Bliss instructed Bell “to look for it in the wrong place, near the liver.”

Infection spread throughout Garfield’s increasingly weakened body. Along with chills, sweating, and regular vomiting, lumps full of pus, nicknamed “septic acne,” appeared on Garfield’s arms and back.

At Bliss’s direction, Agnew operated on Garfield on August 8 to allow pus to escape. He cut open Garfield to insert drainage tubes that released pus.

However, two weeks after that surgery, an abcess formed between Garfield’s mouth and an ear. It caused part of his face to swell and then exploded, spurting so much pus onto Garfield that he almost drowned in it.

As Garfield lost weight, Bliss resorted to feeding through an “enemata.” Food was mixed with opium and inserted into Garfield’s rectum. History House notes that, at one point, charcoal was substituted for egg in the enematas because doctors believed that the egg might have contributed to the extreme flatulence Garfield suffered – and from which those treating him also suffered due to the overwhelming odor.

After two months of agony, Garfield decided his only hope was a change of atmosphere. On September 5, he emphatically told Bliss he wanted to be taken to an area by the sea.

Garfield was on a train the next day and transported to Elberon, New Jersey. At Elberon, Garfield was placed in a room at the Franklyn Cottage, the summer home of a wealthy man who had offered it to Garfield as long as it was wanted. As Garfield was carried into the room, he saw that the bed was turned from the window. At his request, it was moved so the ailing man could have a clear view of the ocean. Garfield welcomed that view but it could not save him from the consequences of massive infection. On the evening of September 19, the unconscious Garfield shouted in pain before his breathing turned fast and shallow. Lucretia hurried into the room and was terrified by his appearance. She bent over and kissed him as an attendant ran to fetch Bliss.

At 10:35 p.m., of September 19, 1881, Bliss realized that Garfield was dead. Bliss said, “It is over.”

Chester Arthur was sworn into office as President of the United States on September 20.



On the same day Arthur officially became president, doctors autopsied Garfield. The Dr. D. S. Lamb of the Army Medical Museum led the autopsy. He was assisted by a local physician and six of those who had treated Garfield, including Bliss, Hamilton, and Agnew.

When they cut open the stomach, they saw the bullet’s track. To their surprise, it had traveled to the left side of Garfield’s body, behind his pancreas.
Along his right was a long channel of which the autopsy report stated, “This long descending channel was supposed during life to have been the track of the bullet” but was seen by the autopsy doctors as a channel of “pus.” Indeed, his entire body showed signs of infection. Ackerman observes, “There were collections of abscesses below his right ear, in the middle of his back, across his shoulders, and near his left kidney. He had infection-induced pneumonia in both of his lungs, and there was an enormous abcess, measuring half a foot in diameter, near his liver.”

The doctors were dismayed at the implications. The bullet itself had not killed the President. Infection, brought about to a large extent by attempts to heal Garfield, had killed him.

Six months after Garfield’s demise, The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal published a piece by respected German physician Friedrich Esmarch asserting, “It seems that the attending physicians were under the pressure of the public opinion that they were doing far too little. But according to my opinion they have not done too little but too much.”

That minority of American physicians who championed Joseph Lister’s antiseptic doctrines blasted the traditionalist position Bliss and others maintained. An American physician who had just returned from Europe where he studied the “Listerian method of wound treatment,” Dr. Arpad Gerster, wrote, “None of the injuries inflicted by the assassin’s bullet were necessarily fatal.” Taking a jab at the doctor who had taken over Garfield’s treatment, Dr. Gerster elaborated, “Ignorance is Bliss.”

Bliss asserted that infection had not killed Garfield. Bliss claimed he had given Garfield the best treatment possible and presented Congress with a $25,000 bill. Congress paid only $6,500. Angered by the relatively paltry amount, Bliss refused any payment.

Although he never admitted error, Bliss’ reputation suffered as did his practice. He died seven years later of a stroke.

The Last of Charles Guiteau

On October 14, standing before Judge Walter Cox, Guiteau stated in response to a charge of first-degree murder, “I plead not guilty to the indictment.” He elaborated that his plea was one of “insanity” because “it was God’s act and not mine. The Divine pressure on me to remove the President was so enormous that it destroyed my free agency, and therefore I am not legally responsible for my act.” He also said he was certain God was overseeing the trial and would ensure Guiteau’s freedom. Guiteau commented, “I have entire confidence in His disposition to protect me and to send me forth to the world a free and innocent man.”

The trial started on November 14. Guiteau’s brother-in-law George Scoville was the defense attorney.

The judge refused Guiteau’s request to make his own opening statement. Guiteau handed a written statement to reporters sitting in a row behind him. That statement argued, “General Garfield died from malpractice. According to his own physicians, he was not fatally shot. The doctors who mistreated him ought to bear the odium for his death, and not his assailant. They ought to be indicted for murdering James A. Garfield, and not me.”

Days later, as a witness testified to the shooting, Guiteau interrupted, saying, “I deny the killing, if your honor please. We admit the shooting.”

All during the trial, Guiteau made interruptions. At one point, he shouted at his own attorney, “Don’t spoil the matter on cross-examination! That is the way you generally do. You spoil everything by cross-examination.” Guiteau also called Scoville a “jackass.”

At one point, a witness testified that a fund was set up for the President’s widow and children. Guiteau yelled, “The rich men of New York gave Mrs. Garfield $200,000 or $300,000. It was a splendid thing – a noble thing. Now, I want them to give me some money.”

Guiteau’s outbursts made his insanity evident and doctors testified to it. Psychiatrist Dr. George Beard testified about the defendant’s mind, “All the links in the chain are there but they are not joined but rather tossed about hither and thither, singly, like quoits, each one good and strong of itself, but without any relation to each other.” Beard asserted of the defendant, “His insanity forces itself constantly to the front, breaking in upon his eloquence.”

Prosecutors called Dr. John Purdue Gray, superintendent of the New York State Lunatic Asylum. He testified that Guiteau’s problem was “only depravity.”

On January 26, 1882, the jury convicted Guiteau of first-degree murder.

Thunderous applause broke out from courtroom spectators. The judge demanded quiet and they ceased clapping. In the silence, Guiteau yelled, “My blood be on the head of the jury!” He continued, “God will avenge this outrage!”

Guiteau went to the scaffold on June 30, 1882. He pitched his voice high like a child’s as he recited from a poem of his own composition: “I am going to the Lordy, Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah! I am going to the Lordy!” When he finished, he was hanged.

President Chester A. Arthur

The New York Times wrote about the start of the presidency of Chester A. Arthur, “No man ever assumed the presidency of the United States under more trying circumstances; no president has needed more the generous appreciation, the indulgent forbearance of his fellow citizens.
To a large extent, the American people granted that forbearance – and Arthur earned their appreciation. His first official act as President was to proclaim the day Garfield was buried – September 26, 1881 – a national day of mourning.

Although Arthur had been placed on the ticket as a Stalwart, Garfield’s assassination led Arthur to re-examine his position on the issue. He embraced his martyred predecessors position for reform. In 1883, Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Act into law that basically dismantled the patronage system. While some Stalwarts hoped to repeal the Act after it was initially made law, it soon became evident that the new, merit system was superior to the patronage system. Thus, demand for repeal faded away. By about 1890, both Stalwarts and Half-Breeds had also faded away as identifications.

Arthur tried for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1884 but the Republicans nominated Blaine who lost to Democrat Grover Cleveland. Seven months after leaving office, Arthur died of a kidney disease.

A Look Back

The Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds have largely been forgotten, a fact that the wise Garfield would have well understood. In his inaugural address, he spoke of “leaving behind the battlefields of dead issues” and noted, “We do not now differ in our judgment concerning the controversies of past generations, and 50 years hence our children will not be divided in their opinions concerning our controversies.”

Unfortunately, President Garfield has also been forgotten. However, recent biographies such as those by Ackerman and Millard may have acquainted more of the populace with this extraordinary and gifted man whose presidency was so cruelly cut short.


Ackerman, Kenneth D. Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. Carroll & Graf Publishers. New York. 2003.

“American President: James A. Garfield (1831-1881).”

“Charles Guiteau Collection.”

“Garfield I: Who Shot Garfield.” History House.

“Guiteau, Convicted and in Jail, Declares He is Not a Lunatic.”

“James A. Garfield.” C-SPAN Home.

“James A. Garfield Inaugural Address.”

King, Gilbert. “The Stalking of the President.” Jan. 17, 2012.

Millard, Candice. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President. Doubleday. 2011.

Portero, Ashley. “What Issue Divided the Republican Party in 1880?” Demand Media.


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