Assassination of James A. Garfield

Assassination of James A. Garfield
President Garfield with James G. Blaine after being shot by Charles J. Guiteau[1][2]
Location Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Coordinates 38°53′31″N 77°01′13″W / 38.89194°N 77.02028°W / 38.89194; -77.02028Coordinates: 38°53′31″N 77°01′13″W / 38.89194°N 77.02028°W / 38.89194; -77.02028
Date July 2, 1881, 137 years ago
9:30 am (Local mean time)
Target James A. Garfield
Attack type
Weapons Bulldog Revolver
Deaths 1 (Garfield; died on September 19, 1881 as a result of injury)
Non-fatal injuries
Perpetrator Charles J. Guiteau
Motive Retribution for perceived failure to reward campaign support

The assassination of James Abram Garfield, the 20th President of the United States, began when he was shot at 9:30 am on July 2, 1881, less than four months into his term as President, and ended in his death 79 days later on September 19, 1881. He was shot by Charles J. Guiteau at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C., and died in Elberon, New Jersey. Guiteau's motive was revenge against Garfield for an imagined political debt.



Charles Guiteau turned to politics after failing in several ventures, including theology, a law practice, bill collecting, and time in the utopian Oneida Community. He wrote a speech in support of Ulysses S. Grant called "Grant vs. Hancock". Grant was the early front runner for the Republican nomination for president in the election of 1880, but he lost to Garfield. Guiteau then revised his speech to "Garfield vs. Hancock", and he tried to sign on as a campaigner for the Republican ticket. However, he never delivered the speech in a public setting, but printed it and distributed several hundred copies.[3] The speech was ineffective, even in written form; he had made a hurried but incomplete effort to replace references to Grant with references to Garfield, among other problems; yet he convinced himself that it was largely responsible for Garfield's narrow victory over Democratic nominee Winfield Scott Hancock. He believed that he should be awarded a diplomatic post for his vital assistance, first asking for a consulship in Vienna, then expressing a willingness to "settle" for one in Paris.[4] He loitered around Republican headquarters in New York City, expecting rewards for his speech, but to no avail.[5]

Guiteau arrived in Washington on March 5, 1881, the day after Garfield's inauguration, still believing that he would be rewarded. He obtained entrance to the White House and saw the President on March 8, 1881, dropping off a copy of his speech as a reminder of the campaign work which he had done on Garfield's behalf.[6] He spent the next two months roaming around Washington, staying at rooming houses and sneaking away without paying for his meals and lodging. He spent his days loitering in hotel lobbies to read old newspapers, and use hotel stationery to write letters to those whom he thought could help him obtain an appointment from Garfield. In addition, he spent time shuffling back and forth between the State Department and the White House, approaching various Cabinet members and prominent Republicans to press his claim, all without success. He was destitute and increasingly slovenly because he was wearing the same clothes every day. On May 13, 1881, he was banned from the White House waiting room. On May 14, 1881, he encountered Secretary of State James G. Blaine, who told him, "Never speak to me again of the Paris consulship as long as you live."[7]

Guiteau's family had judged him to be insane in 1875 and attempted to have him committed, but he had escaped.[8] Now his mania took a violent turn, and he decided that he had been commanded by a higher power to kill the President. He later stated, "I leave my justification to God."[9]

Guiteau borrowed $15 (equivalent to $380 in 2017) from George Maynard, a relative by marriage, then went out to purchase a revolver.[10] He knew little about firearms, but he believed that he would need a large caliber gun. O'Meara's store in Washington provided a choice between two versions of the .442 Webley caliber British Bulldog revolver,[10] one with a wooden grip and another with an ivory grip; he chose the ivory[11][12][13] because he thought that it would look better as a museum exhibit after the assassination.[13] He could not afford the extra dollar, so the store owner dropped the price for him.[14] (The revolver was recovered and displayed by the Smithsonian in the early 20th century, but it has since been lost.)[15] He spent the next few weeks stalking Garfield and in target practice; the kick from the revolver almost knocked him over the first time that he fired it.[16] He wrote a letter to Garfield, saying that he should fire Blaine or "you and the Republican party will come to grief".[17] The letter was ignored,[18] as was all the correspondence that Guiteau sent to the White House.[19]

Guiteau continued to prepare carefully; he wrote a letter to William Tecumseh Sherman, the Commanding General of the Army, asking for protection from the mob that he assumed would gather after he killed the President,[20][21] and he wrote other letters justifying his action as necessary to heal dissension between the factions of the Republican Party.[22] He went to the District of Columbia jail to ask for a tour of the facility where he expected to be incarcerated, but he was told to come back later.[23] He spent the whole month of June following Garfield around Washington. On one occasion, he trailed him to the railway station as the President was seeing his wife off to a beach resort in Long Branch, New Jersey, but he decided not to shoot him then, as Lucretia Garfield was known to be in poor health and he did not want to upset her.[24][25]


Contemporaneous depiction of the Garfield assassination; Secretary of State James G. Blaine stands at right
Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station, Washington, DC where President James A. Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881

Garfield was scheduled to leave Washington on July 2, 1881 for his summer vacation, which was reported in the Washington newspapers,[26] and Guiteau lay in wait for him at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station on the southwest corner of Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, D.C.[27] Garfield came to the Sixth Street Station on his way to his alma mater Williams College, where he was scheduled to deliver a speech before beginning his vacation. He was accompanied by his sons James and Harry, and by Secretary of State James G. Blaine; Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln waited at the station to see him off.[25] Garfield had no bodyguard or security detail; early Presidents did not employ them, with the exception of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War.[24]

As Garfield entered the waiting room of the station, Guiteau stepped forward and pulled the trigger at point-blank range from behind. Garfield cried out, "My God, what is that?", flinging up his arms. Guiteau fired again and Garfield collapsed.[28] One bullet grazed the President's shoulder, and the other struck him in the back, passing the first lumbar vertebra but missing the spinal cord before coming to rest behind his pancreas.[29] Guiteau put his pistol back in his pocket and turned to leave via a cab that he had waiting for him outside the station, but he collided with policeman Patrick Kearney who was entering the station after hearing the gunfire.

Kearney apprehended Guiteau and was so excited at having arrested the man who had shot Garfield that he neglected to take his gun from him until after they arrived at the police station.[30] Kearney demanded, "In God's name, what did you shoot the president for?" Guiteau did not respond. The rapidly gathering crowd screamed, "Lynch him", but Kearney and several other police officers took the assassin to the police station a few blocks away.[28] As he surrendered to authorities, Guiteau uttered the exulting words, repeated everywhere: "I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts! I did it and I want to be arrested! Arthur is President now!"[31] This statement briefly led to unfounded suspicions that either Arthur or his supporters had put Guiteau up to the crime.[32]

The Stalwarts were a Republican faction loyal to former President Grant, and they strongly opposed Garfield's Half-Breeds.[33] Chester A. Arthur had been selected as a running mate for political advantage, to placate his faction rather than for his skills or loyalty. Guiteau had convinced himself that he was striking a blow to unite the two factions of the Republican Party.[34]

Treatment and death

Garfield was carried to an upstairs floor of the train station, conscious but in shock.[35] One bullet remained lodged in his body, but doctors could not find it.[36] Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln was deeply upset, thinking back to the assassination of his father Abraham Lincoln; he said, "How many hours of sorrow I have passed in this town."[36]

Garfield was carried back to the White House, and doctors told him that he would not survive the night; nevertheless, he remained conscious and alert.[37] The next morning, his vital signs were good and doctors began to hope for recovery.[38] A long vigil began, and Garfield's doctors issued regular bulletins that the American public followed closely throughout the summer of 1881.[39][40] His condition fluctuated; fevers came and went, he struggled to keep down solid food, and he spent most of the summer eating only liquids.[41]

Navy engineers rigged up an early version of the modern air conditioner in an effort to relieve him from the heat of a Washington summer. Fans blew air over a large box of ice and into the President's sickroom, and the device worked well enough to lower the temperature 20 degrees.[42] Doctors continued to probe Garfield's wound with dirty, unsterilized fingers and instruments, attempting to find the bullet,[43] and Alexander Graham Bell devised a metal detector specifically to find it. He was unsuccessful, partly because Garfield's metal bed frame made the instrument malfunction, and partly because self-appointed chief physician Doctor Willard Bliss allowed Bell to use the device only on Garfield's right side, where Bliss insisted the bullet had lodged.[44] Bell's subsequent tests indicated that his metal detector was in good working order, and that he would have found the bullet had he been allowed to use the device on Garfield's left side.[45]

On July 29, Garfield met with his Cabinet for the only time during his illness; the members were under strict instruction from the doctors not to discuss anything upsetting.[46] Garfield became increasingly ill over a period of several weeks due to infection, which caused his heart to weaken. He remained bedridden in the White House with fevers and extreme pains. His weight dropped from over 200 pounds (90.7 kilograms) to 135 pounds (61.2 kilograms) as his inability to keep down and digest food took its toll.[47] Nutrient enemas were given in an attempt to extend his life because he could not digest food.[48] Blood poisoning and infection set in, and the President suffered from hallucinations for a time.[49] Pus-filled abscesses spread all over his body as the infections raged.[50]

On September 6, Garfield was taken to the Jersey Shore to escape the Washington heat, in the vain hope that the fresh air and quiet might aid his recovery.[49] He was propped up in bed before a window with a view of the beach and ocean.[51] New infections set in, as well as spasms of angina. He died of a ruptured splenic artery aneurysm,[52] following blood poisoning and bronchial pneumonia at 10:35 pm on Monday, September 19, 1881 in Elberon, New Jersey, two months before his 50th birthday. During the 79 days between his shooting and death, Garfield's only official act was to sign a request for the extradition of a forger who had escaped and was apprehended after he fled to Canada.[53]

Most historians and medical experts now believe that Garfield probably would have survived his wound had the doctors been more capable.[54][55] Unfortunately, most American doctors of the day did not believe in anti-sepsis measures or the need for cleanliness to prevent infection.[56] Several inserted their unsterilized fingers into the wound to probe for the bullet, and one doctor punctured Garfield's liver in doing so. Also, Bliss had supplanted Garfield's physician Jedediah Hyde Baxter. Bliss and the other doctors who attended Garfield had guessed wrong about the path of the bullet in his body; they had probed rightward into his back instead of leftward, missing the location of the bullet but creating a new channel which filled with pus. The autopsy discovered this error and revealed pneumonia in both lungs and a body that was filled with pus due to uncontrolled septicemia.[57]

Chester Arthur was at his home in New York City when word came the night of September 19 that Garfield had died. He said, "I hope—my God, I do hope it is a mistake", but confirmation by telegram came soon after. Arthur was inaugurated early in the morning on September 20, and he took the presidential oath of office from John R. Brady, a New York Supreme Court judge. Arthur then left for Long Branch to pay his respects to Mrs. Garfield before going on to Washington.[58]

Garfield's body was taken to Washington, where it lay in state for two days in the Capitol Rotunda before being taken to Cleveland, Ohio, where the funeral was held on September 26.[59]

Trial and execution

Guiteau went on trial in November,[60] represented by his brother-in-law George Scolville. He received ample media attention during his trial for his bizarre behavior, including constantly insulting his defense team, formatting his testimony in epic poems which he recited at length, and soliciting legal advice from random spectators in the audience via passed notes. He claimed that he was not guilty because Garfield's murder was the will of God and he was only an instrument of it.[61] He sang "John Brown's Body" to the court.[62] He dictated an autobiography to the New York Herald, ending it with a personal ad for a nice Christian lady under 30.[63] He was oblivious to the American public's outrage and hatred of him, even after he was almost assassinated twice himself. At one point, he argued that Garfield was killed not by him but by medical malpractice. "I deny the killing, if your honor please. We admit the shooting".[64] He was housed at St. Elizabeths Hospital in the southeastern quadrant of Washington, D.C. throughout the trial and up until his execution.

Guiteau's trial was one of the first high-profile cases in the United States where the insanity defense was considered.[65] Guiteau vehemently insisted that he had been legally insane at the time of the shooting, but he was not really medically insane, which caused a major rift with his defense lawyers, and which probably contributed to the jury's impression that Guiteau was merely trying to deny responsibility.

Guiteau was actively making plans to start a lecture tour after his release and to run for president himself in 1884; at the same time, he delighted in the media circus surrounding his trial. He was dismayed when the jury was unconvinced of his divine inspiration, convicting him of the murder. He was found guilty on January 25, 1882.[66] He appealed, but his appeal was rejected, and he was hanged on June 30, 1882 in the District of Columbia. Guiteau famously danced his way up to the gallows and waved at the audience from the gallows, shook hands with his executioner and, as a last request, recited a poem that he had written called "I am Going to the Lordy".[67] He requested an orchestra to play as he sang the poem; it was denied.


Part of Charles Guiteau's preserved brain is on display at the Mütter Museum at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.[68] Guiteau's bones and more of his brain, along with Garfield's backbone and a couple of ribs, are kept at the National Museum of Health and Medicine,[69] at the Army's Forest Glen Annex in Silver Spring, Maryland.

Garfield's assassination was instrumental to the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act on January 16, 1883. Garfield himself had called for civil service reform in his inaugural address[70] and supported it as President in the belief that it would make government more efficient.[71] It was passed as something of a memorial to the fallen President.[72] Arthur lost the Republican Party nomination in 1884 to Blaine, who went on to lose a close election to Democrat Grover Cleveland.

The Sixth Street rail station was later demolished. The site is now occupied by the West Building of the National Gallery of Art. No plaque or memorial marks the spot where Garfield was shot,[73] but a few blocks away, a Garfield memorial statue stands on the southwest corner of the Capitol grounds.

The question of Presidential disability was not addressed. Article II, section 1, clause 6 of the Constitution says that in case of the "Inability [of the President] to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President", but gives no further instruction on what constitutes inability or how the President's inability should be determined. Garfield had lain on his sickbed for 80 days without performing any of the duties of his office except for the signing of an extradition paper, but this did not prove to be a difficulty because in the 19th century the federal government effectively shut down for the summer regardless. During Garfield's ordeal, the Congress was not in session and there was little for a President to do. Blaine suggested the Cabinet declare Arthur acting President, but this option was rejected by all, including Arthur, who did not wish to be perceived as grasping for power.[47][74]

Congress did not deal with the problem of what to do if a President were alive but incapacitated as Garfield was. Nor did the Congress take up the question 38 years later, when Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke that put him in a coma for days and left him partially paralyzed and blind in one eye for the last year and a half of his Presidency. It was not until the Twenty-fifth Amendment was ratified in 1967 that there was an official procedure for what to do if the president became incapacitated.

Lincoln's assassination had taken place roughly sixteen years before in the closing stages of the Civil War. On the other hand, Garfield's term was marked (for the most part) by peacetime, and a general complacency with respect to presidential security had developed by this time. Garfield, like many other presidents, often preferred to interact directly with the public and although some form of security was almost certainly in place, a comprehensive security detail had not been seriously considered by either Congress or the president up to that point. Remarkably, it would not be until the assassination of William McKinley some twenty years later that Congress would finally task the United States Secret Service (founded to prevent counterfeiting) with the responsibility of ensuring the president's personal safety.[75]

The Garfield Tea House, built by the citizens of Long Branch, New Jersey, with the railroad ties that had been laid down specifically to give Garfield's train access to their town, still stands today near the location where Garfield died.[76]

See also


  1. Cheney, Lynne Vincent. "Mrs. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper" Archived September 29, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.. American Heritage Magazine. October 1975. Volume 26, Issue 6. URL retrieved on January 24, 2007.
  2. "The attack on the President's life". Library of Congress. URL retrieved on January 24, 2007.
  3. Peskin (1978), p. 587
  4. Peskin (1978), pp. 588–589
  5. Peskin (1978), p. 588
  6. Peskin (1978), p. 589
  7. Peskin (1978), p. 590
  8. Millard (2011), pp. 80–82
  9. Vowell (2005), p. 170
  10. 1 2 "Trial Transcript: Cross-Examination of Charles Guiteau". Retrieved 2013-05-25.
  11. Alexander (1882), pp. 107–108
  12. Reyburn, Robert (March 24, 1894). "History of the Case of President Garfield". Journal of the American Medical Association. Chicago, IL: American Medical Association: 412. doi:10.1001/jama.1894.02420910009001a.
  13. 1 2 Elman (1968), p. 166
  14. June (1999), p. 24
  15. Vowell (2005), p. 165
  16. "Garfield's Assassin". Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Springfield, IL: Illinois State Historical Society. 70: 136. 1977. ISSN 0019-2287. OCLC 1588445.
  17. Vowell (2005), p. 168
  18. Taylor (2007), pp. 77–78
  19. Kittler (1965), p. 114
  20. Vowell (2005), pp. 164–165
  21. Original letter in Georgetown Univ. collection
  22. Peskin (1978), p. 592
  23. "A Great Nation in Grief" The New York Times, 3 July 1881.
  24. 1 2 Peskin (1978), p. 593
  25. 1 2 Vowell (2005), p. 160
  26. Peskin (1978), p. 581
  27. Conwell (1881), p. 349
  28. 1 2 Peskin (1978), p. 596
  29. Millard (2011), pp. 189, 312
  30. "Garfield II: A Lengthy Demise". History House. Archived from the original on December 22, 2014. Retrieved April 25, 2015.
  31. New York Herald, July 3rd, 1881
  32. Millard (2011), p. 230
  33. Millard (2011), p. 47
  34. Millard (2011), p. 178
  35. Peskin (1978), pp. 596–597
  36. 1 2 Peskin (1978), p. 597
  37. Peskin (1978), p. 598
  38. Peskin (1978), p. 599
  39. Peskin (1978), p. 600
  40. Vowell (2005), p. 124
  41. Peskin (1978), p. 601
  42. Peskin (1978), pp. 601–602
  43. Millard (2011), p. 194
  44. Peskin (1978), p. 602
  45. Millard (2011)
  46. Peskin (1978), p. 603
  47. 1 2 Peskin (1978), p. 604
  48. Bliss, D. W. "Feeding Per Rectum: As Illustrated in the Case of the Late President Garfield and Others". Washington: N.p., n.d. Rpt. from the Medical Record, July 15, 1882.
  49. 1 2 Peskin (1978), p. 605
  50. Millard (2011), pp. 289–291
  51. Peskin (1978), p. 606
  52. Millard (2011), p. 313
  53. Swaney, Homer H. (1881). Lives of James A. Garfield and Chester A. Arthur. Washington, DC: Rufus H. Darby, Printer and Publisher. p. 95.
  54. A President Felled by an Assassin and 1880’s Medical Care The New York Times, July 25, 2006.
  55. Millard (2011), p. 208
  56. Millard (2011), pp. 25–26
  57. Millard (2011), pp. 312–313
  58. Peskin (1978), p. 608
  59. Peskin (1978), pp. 608–609
  60. Millard (2011), p. 321
  61. Vowell (2005), p. 173
  62. Vowell (2005), p. 136
  63. Millard (2011), p. 250
  64. Millard (2011), p. 322
  65. Vowell (2005), p. 175
  66. "Guiteau Found Guilty," New York Times. January 26, 1882, p.1.
  67. "Last Words of Assassin Charles Guiteau". University of Missouri–Kansas City School of Law. Archived from the original on 13 December 2007. Retrieved 15 December 2007.
  68. Siera, J.J. "Come see Dead People at the Mutter Museum". Venue Magazine. Rowan University. Issue 41. Volume 2. URL retrieved February 19, 2007.
  69. Carlson, Peter. "Rest in Pieces". The Washington Post. January 24, 2006. Page C1. URL retrieved February 19, 2007.
  70. Peskin (1978), p. 540
  71. Peskin (1978), pp. 551–553
  72. Peskin (1978), p. 610
  73. Vowell (2005), p. 159
  74. Vowell (2005), p. 171
  75. President's Commission on the Assassination of President John F. Kennedy (1992). The Warren Commission Report. New York: St. Martin's Press. p. 110. ISBN 0-312-08257-6. The first congressional session after the assassination of McKinley gave more attention to legislation concerning attacks on the President than had any previous Congress but did not pass any measures for the protection of the President. Nevertheless, in 1902 the Secret Service, which was then the only Federal general investigative agency of any consequence, assumed full-time responsibility for the safety of the President.
  76. Vowell (2005), p. 185

Cited works

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