July 2, 1881: The Forgotten Assassination of President James Garfield


Perhaps it is because my American history knowledge is an embarrassment, but I know very little about James Garfield. In fact, the only reason I even know he exists is because he shares his name with a Monday-hating cartoon cat. It was not until recently that I learned that this man, a president, not a cat, was assassinated.

The 20th president of the United States, James Garfield, was shot at 9:30 AM on July 2, 1881 by Charles J Guiteau, who was enacting revenge for "imagined political debt". Though he was shot on July 2, only a few months into his term, he did not die for another 79 days on September 19, 1881.


Garfield was the 20th president of the United States, and the only sitting member of the United States House of Representatives to be elected president. He began his term on March 4, 1881.

He began his political career in 1857, a republican serving in the Ohio State Senate from 1859 to 1861. He served as a major general in the Union Army during the Civil War and fought in various battles. He was elected into congress to represent Ohio's 19th district in 1862

At the 1880 Republican National Convention, Garfield was chosen as a presidential nominee, though he had not set his sights on the White House. He conducted a fairly low-key presidential campaign, and just barely beat Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock.

In his 4 months of presidency, he resurged presidential authority against senatorial courtesy (listen, I read what this was 6 times and I'm still unclear, but it appears to be a good thing), purged corruption in the Post Office, and appointed a Supreme Court Justice. He advocated for agricultural technology and civil rights for African Americans. He proposed civil service reforms that passed in Congress after his death.

Garfield married his wife, Lucretia, in 1858. They had 7 children, but only 5 survived infancy.

In the few search results when I Googled "was Garfield a good president", the answer is we really can't say because he was only in office for a few months, but many had high hopes for the things he would have, and could have, accomplished.


Guiteau attempted to make a career for himself in theology, law, and bill collection before turning to politics after various failures. He was a fan of Ulysses S. Grant, who had been president before from 1869-1877) in the 1880 presidential election, until he was defeated by a dark horse candidate, Garfield. He tried to sign on as a campaigner for the Republican ticket.

He had written a speech called "Grant against Hancock", (Hancock being the democratic nominee), but when Garfield was selected instead, he made a "hurried but incomplete effort" to swap out all of the "Grants" to "Garfields" in his speech. He never delivered the speech, but distributed several hundred copies, though it was largely ineffective.

Though it was decidedly untrue, he gave his speech credit for Garfield's victory. Because of this, he believed he should be awarded something for his "vital assistance", asking for a consulship in Vienna, and then saying he would settle for Paris. He hung around the Republican headquarters during the winter of 1880-1881 waiting for rewards for his winning speech, but to no avail.

He continued to believe someone would eventually award him for his poor, typo-ridden speech, even up until Garfield's inauguration. He got a meeting with the President on March 8, 1881, and dropped off a copy of his speech, reminding the President all he had done to land his victory. He spent months in Washington, roaming around, sneaking out of the homes he stayed in without paying.

This sad old buffoon spent his days writing letters to anyone he thought could help him get the recognition his delusional brain thought he deserved. He would approach Cabinet members, asking for them to work on his request, with no success. He was poor and wearing the same clothes every day, trekking through a cold, snowy city trying to get credit for something that didn't even really help.

On May 14, 1881, Secretary of State James G. Blaine told him never to speak to him again, or of a Paris consulship, as long as he lived. His family thought he was insane and tried to have him committed back in 1875, but he escaped. His mania was turning violent, and he decided that a higher power had commanded him to kill the President.

He borrowed $15 (about $400 in 2019 dollars) from a relative and purchased a revolver, knowing very little about firearms. He spent weeks in target practice. He continued to send letters to the White House that were ignored. He even wrote letters to the Commanding General of the Army, asking for protection after he committed his crime. He once followed Garfield and his wife all the way to a railway station with the intent to kill him, but he decided not to, as his wife was in poor health and he did not want to upset her by *checks notes* murdering her husband right in front of her. Fair assessment.


Garfield was supposed to leave Washington on July 2, 1881 for his summer vacation. It was in all of the papers. Guiteau, knowing where he would be traveling from, was waiting for him at the Railroad Station.

He was accompanied by his 2 sons, James and Harry. Blaine, and Secretary of War Todd Lincoln waited at the station to see him off. He did not have any security detail, as it was not commonplace at the time.

When he arrived at the station, Guiteau stepped forward and shot the President at point blank range, twice. He was hit in the shoulder and the back. Guiteau tried to leave via cab, but ran into a police officer who apprehended him immediately. In his excitement to catch the guy who shot the president, the officer, Kearney, forgot to take his gun until after they arrived at the police station.

Garfield was carried upstairs in the train station, still conscious but in shock. One bullet remained lodged in his body. He was taken back to the White House where doctors did not expect him to live through the night, but he remained conscious and alert. His vital signs were good the following morning, and doctors then believed he would recover.

America followed the updates throughout the summer. Though things looked better, he was still unable to hold down solid food, and fevers came and went throughout the months. Navy engineers made something of an early version of an air conditioner to help keep him cool during the summer heat. But, because it was 1881, doctors would touch his wound with dirty, unsterilized hands and instruments, trying to find the bullet inside of him. A metal detector was used to try to find it, but it did not work because the doctor only allowed them to search the right side of his body, where he was sure it was lodged. It was not. Had they searched the left side, they likely would have found it.

On July 29, he met with his Cabinet who were under strict orders not to discuss anything upsetting. He remained bedridden with fevers and pain, dropping nearly 80 pounds as he struggled to keep food down. Sepsis began to set in from the infection, and he suffered hallucinations. The summer heat exacerbated his worsening condition. A last ditch effort for fresh air proved useless.

President James Garfield died of a ruptured splenic artery aneurysm following sepsis and pneumonia in Elberton, New Jersey on September 19, 1881, 79 days after he had been shot. His only Presidential action in those 79 days was to request the extradition of a forger who had escaped to Canada.

Historians believed that a more capable set of doctors would have saved his life, but cleanliness and sterilization just weren't considerations back then. They had also assumed the bullet was in the wrong place, which also contributed to the inability to remove the bullet.

Garfield's body was taken to Washington from New Jersey, where he died, before he was taken to Cleveland, Ohio for his funeral. Chester Arthur was inaugurated to the presidency on the morning of September 20th.


Guiteau went on trial for the murder of Garfield in November. His brother-in-law represented him. During the trial, he exhibited truly bizarre behavior that garnered media attention, including insulting his defense team, formatting his testimony into long poems, and asking random audience members to provide him legal advice. He claimed he was not guilty because Garfield's death was God's will, he just carried it out.

He sang songs in court. He dictated an autobiography and ended it with a personal ad for a "nice Christian lady under 30". Though 2 different people tried to kill him, he was oblivious that America hated him. He also argued that he admitted to the shooting, but not the killing, which technically, he argued, was medical malpractice.

This was the first major, high-profile case where the insanity defense was actually considered. He argued that he was sane, but he clearly was not, which made for some awkward conversations with his defense team. Ever the loon, he planned to start a tour after his release and actually run for President himself in 1884. He loved the media attention he was getting and genuinely believed that he was well-liked.

So much so that he was surprised when the jury convicted him of the murder, and when his appeal was rejected, and when he was sentenced to death by hanging. He was hanged on June 30, 1882, where he famously danced to the gallows, shook hands with the executioner, waved to the audience, and recited a poem titled "I am Going to the Lordy" before being executed. His request for an orchestra to play behind his reading of the poem was denied.

Some of his brain and bones are on display in various museums.

Congress did not deal with the problem at hand: what is to be done if the President is alive, but unable to fulfill his duties? They similarly ignored the question when Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke 38 years later. The 25th Amendment, ratified in 1967, finally provided official procedure for an incapacitated President.

Lincoln's assassination was near the closing stages of the Civil War, and he had a security detail because of it. But Garfield's presidency was primarily during peacetime, and thus, he interacted directly with the public without need for a comprehensive security detail. Nobody had really considered its necessity. The United States Secret Service was not founded until 20 years later when William McKinley was assassinated, though its original purpose was to prevent counterfeiting, with some Presidential protection on the side.

In honor of Garfield, the Garfield Tea House in Long Branch, New Jersey, with the railroad ties that had been laid specifically to give Garfield's train access to their town still stands today. The National Park Service erected 2 exhibit panels in Washington in 2018 to mark the site of the assassination.

Nobody knows what would have become of President James Garfield, but many historians believe he could have been a really great President. His death did not come from any wrongdoing on his part: He just met with a delusional, mentally ill man who believed he was owed some sort of debt for an ineffective campaign element he wrote. Truly, there is nothing anyone could have done to stop it. Who would have thought their letter-writing menace would turn to murder?

This was a very interesting article to write, and it has sparked an interest in me to learn more about U.S. Presidents (I had never even heard of Chester Arthur.) I knew that 4 presidents had been assassinated, but I did not know Garfield was one. Though his official assassination date is September 19, 1881, Garfield was shot by a delusional political wannabe that ultimately ended his life 139 years ago today.




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