The Assassination of James Garfield

In the late afternoon, during the summer, a thunderstorm rolled its way through the nation’s capital. Although it first had the effect of cooling the thick Washington air, the effect was fleeting. By 10 o’clock that night, the President could have hope for relief: a new apparatus—rumored to be quite effective against the oppressively humid air of India—had arrived. Staff assembled V-shaped troughs, made of zinc and “filled with ice and water,” and placed them under the windows of the President’s room.[i] The water lessened the humidity, and the ice cooled the air entering the room through the windows.[ii] The President’s pulse, temperature, and respiration satisfied his physicians, and there was optimism that “the worst was over.”[iii] It had been several weeks since the attempted assassination, and the 20th President of the United States, James Garfield, was having his secretaries attend to the pressing matters of the country as he rested.[iv] His wife and children visited his bedside, and his daughter, Mollie, “nestled her fresh face in his beard,” keeping her composure just as her mother did.[v] The President “kissed her and stroked her hair, and then she took a seat near her mother” when the “boys came in presently with manful bearing and remained a few minutes.”[vi] The cooling apparatus, the doctors said, was not giving “entire satisfaction,” and a new device—one that was “similar to that used in the mines to cool the air and send it into the chamber through the registers”—was set to be installed to relieve the President from his symptoms.[vii]

The assassin, Charles Guiteau, showed no remorse. He sat in his jail cell and was sure of his escaping punishment. He said, “Why, I know Sherman and Blaine and all of them, and do you suppose I can come to harm?”[viii] Although he did not show that he was suffering from insanity, he had “a trick of pulling his blanket over his face when a keeper looks in at him, and then emerges from his obscurity with a dazed and vacant look on his face, but all the time there is a twinkle in his dark eye that belies the stolidity of the face.”[ix] He was one to talk as well: although he was not permitted to converse with fellow prisoners, he had “the turnkey of his ward, a big, cool-headed fellow to talk with, and is comparatively content.”[x] Guiteau, in a showing of his callousness, said, “I am only sorry that I didn’t fire another shot and finish him.”[xi] He had his pride as well. When a photographer came to the jail to photograph Guiteau—at the District Attorney’s request—the prisoner approached the photographer and said, “I am the person who wants his photograph. Now I want you to do me full justice. See that you get the correct expression of my eyes.”[xii] Guiteau “took a standing position by a chair, with his head thrown back, and assuming an air as of a man of great importance, inquired if that was not an excellent position.”[xiii]

The fact was that Guiteau had been seeking office in the Spring of 1881 and had been a “traveling evangelist.”[xiv] He had sought power and had designs to obtain “a political appointment as minister to Austria or as a consul (preferably in Paris).”[xv] Guiteau became convinced that the newly-elected President, Garfield, had been blocking Guiteau from getting an appointment; Guiteau determined that if he killed the President, Garfield’s political foes would reward Guiteau for his efforts.[xvi] On July 2, 1881, Guiteau, at the Baltimore and Potomac railroad station in Washington, shot Garfield as Garfield walked through the station, talking with James Blaine, Secretary of State.[xvii] It was a time when a President used public transportation and did not have the benefit of protection while doing so. One of the bullets remained in Garfield’s body, and when he was brought to the White House, doctors were determined to find it.[xviii] The search would prove dangerous. Even Alexander Graham Bell was involved: he used a machine that generated sound waves to attempt to locate the bullet but failed.[xix] The doctors continued their probing. At a time when sanitized surgery was known—with Joseph Lister having demonstrated its efficacy—the White House was “infested with rats and afflicted with a plumbing system that left the soil in the basement saturated with excrement”; but worse than that, Garfield found himself under the care of a doctor, Dr. Bliss, who “rejected Lister’s methods.”[xx] Dr. Bliss’ “incessant probing tortured and infected the President.”[xxi] Nonetheless, the public held out hope and followed the President’s condition for months as the press reported it.

Then came the news: “DEAD! James A. Garfield Passes into the Dark Valley, And the Shadow of Death Hangs Over the Land. Dead—in the Full Ripeness of Life. Dead—At the Summit of All Earthly Greatness. Dead—but as a Christian and Soldier Dieth, With a Record of Imperishable Achievements That Will Live Through All the Coming Ages, And Keep Green the Memory of the Martyred President. Columbia Bows Her Stricken Head in Sorrow, And in this Hour of Her Supreme Grief, Knowing no Division of the North or South, She Decks His Bier With Immortal Laurels, While All Her Sister Nations Mourn With Her, Mingling Their Tears With Those of Our Own People.”[xxii] Only ten minutes before death, Dr. Hamilton had said there “were good grounds for encouragement,” but the President passed that evening at 10:52 P.M.[xxiii] When the President had complained of not feeling well and holding his chest, Dr. Bliss came to tend to him but found that the President was already “unconscious, substantially without pulse, and the action of the heart almost undistinguishable.”[xxiv] He sent for the First Lady, Dr. Agnew, and Dr. Hamilton, and then the President passed; notice was sent to the members of the Cabinet.[xxv] Just moments before the President’s passing, those in the room saw the President “breathing heavily and at increasing intervals” causing some of the servants to sigh and suppress their sobs, “but all the rest were silent.”[xxvi] Then, the “heavy breathing of the President continued for about fifteen minutes, and then ceased. Consciousness did not return. His death was absolutely painless.”[xxvii] The First Lady returned to the room after a half hour “and sat silently upon the bedside, the tears running in floods over her cheeks, but her whole demeanor manifesting her heroic spirit and self-control in this, the supreme hour of her grief.”[xxviii]

The news had not been expected: although earlier in the evening large crowds had “gathered around the telegraph and newspapers offices, the hotels, and other places of public resort,” they had since went to their homes believing that no such event would occur that night.[xxix] Then, in the nation’s capital, when the “streets were deserted, the city was as still and silent as the night,” the news broke: “[h]undreds of newsboys made their appearance on the streets with the extra edition of the National Republican and shouting at the top of their voices that the President was dead.”[xxx] “Lights instantly appeared where a moment before there had been darkness,” and folks “rushed out of their houses to verify the news.”[xxxi] The crowds converged, once again, on the telegraph and newspaper offices and “bells began to toll.”[xxxii] Although all had been following the President’s condition, no one knew his end was so near. Perhaps that shock caused “threats of proceeding to the jail and lynching the assassin Guiteau” to be heard, but those were no matter: the military had taken the necessary precautions, and no trouble was anticipated.[xxxiii]

The scenes in Washington were not exclusive to there: in Cleveland, Garfield’s home, crowds had “flocked to the newspaper and telegraph offices to learn the particulars, and manifestations of grief were pronounced, many weeping as if for a lost brother.”[xxxiv] But the grief was backed by some anger: Guiteau deserved punishment. His “official defense was insanity, but he was sane enough to circulate a statement saying that the doctors were the real killers.”[xxxv] The jury was not persuaded: on June 30, 1882, Guiteau was hanged for the crime.[xxxvi] Although a biographer, Horatio Alger, likened the assassination in 1881 to that in 1865, the comparison was not apt. Lincoln had steered the country through a crisis with deftness and grace and brought himself into the highest echelon of presidents; Garfield’s humble background was inspiring, but his record was tarnished—by the Credit Mobilier scandal—and his presidency was still in its nascency. Nonetheless, he may have been one of the best fits for the office given the era and its commensurate circumstances.

Following Garfield’s death, Harper’s Weekly, on its front page, printed a poem entitled After All. It read:

Despite the prayers and tears and earnest pleading,

   And piteous protest o’er a hero’s fall,

Despite the hopeful signs our hearts misleading,

                  Death cometh after all!

Over the bright scenes are clouds descending;

   The flame soars highest ere its deepest fall;

The glorious day has all too swift an ending;

                  Night cometh after all!

O’er bloom or beauty now in our possession

   Is seen the shadow of the funeral pall;

Though Love and Life make tearful intercession,

                  Death cometh after all![xxxvii]

Harper’s Weekly. October 1, 1881.

[i] Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 23, 1881.

[ii] Id.

[iii] Id.

[iv] Id.

[v] Id.

[vi] Id.

[vii] Id.

[viii] Id.

[ix] Id.

[x] Id.

[xi] Id.

[xii] Id.

[xiii] Id.

[xiv] Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 440.

[xv] Id.

[xvi] Id. at 440-41.

[xvii] Id. at 441.

[xviii] See id.

[xix] Id.

[xx] Id.

[xxi] Id. at 442.

[xxii] Cincinnati Weekly Gazette, September 21, 1881.

[xxiii] Id.

[xxiv] Id.

[xxv] Id.

[xxvi] Id.

[xxvii] Id.

[xxviii] Id.

[xxix] Id.

[xxx] Id.

[xxxi] Id.

[xxxii] Id.

[xxxiii] Id.

[xxxiv] Id.

[xxxv] Richard White, The Republic for Which It Stands: The United States During Reconstruction and the Gilded Age, 1865-1896, 442.

[xxxvi] Id.

[xxxvii] Harper’s Weekly, October 1, 1881.

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