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The Death of President Garfield

The 20th U.S. president was born 19 November 1831. He was fatally wounded just four months into his presidency.

He was shot twice by Charles Julius Guiteau, an itinerant whacko who’d been seeking a job in the Garfield administration.

James Garfield was born in Ohio and yes, in a log cabin. But his family was poor, so it probably wasn’t a very nice log cabin. His parents had no education, but James took to it like a fish to water, and that was his ticket to politics.

Garfield was an Ohio congressman for 18 years, a Republican. He was popular and powerful and a terrific speaker. In 1880 the Ohio legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate, but that was a presidential election year; Garfield’s election as president happened while he was still in the House of Representatives.

He hadn’t even wanted the job, they say. He was a supporter of John Sherman, who was duking it out with leading Republican contenders James Blaine and Ulysses S. Grant for the party nomination. But the crowd wanted Garfield, especially after he gave a rousing speech. After two days and a record number of ballots, Garfield emerged as the Republican candidate.

He easily defeated the Democrat candidate, Winfield Scott.

James Garfield

The first few months of his presidency were rough. The Republican party was split, and Garfield had made an enemy of New York’s powerful Senator Roscoe Conkling. And Garfield’s wife, Lucretia, came down with malaria.

But by June things were looking up. Garfield had triumphed over Conkling, and Lucretia was resting in New Jersey and regaining her health.

Meanwhile, crazy Charles Guiteau was stalking President Garfield, having decided he had to assassinate the president “to unite the Republican Party and save the Republic.”

Guiteau had a long history of being a weirdo. After Garfield became president, Guiteau would visit Garfield’s office, seeking a political appointment. He was such an oddball he was eventually banned, so he turned his attention to seeking a consulship in France from Secretary of State James Blaine.

After a few visits, Blaine bluntly told Guiteau to get lost.

Instead, Guiteau obtained a revolver and began following Garfield. He had one opportunity to kill the president in church, but instead drew attention to himself by heckling the sermon. Garfield even noted the event in his diary, describing his future assassin as “a dull young man, with a loud voice, trying to pound noise into the question.”

Guiteau had another opportunity several days later, but decided he didn’t want to kill Garfield in front of Lucretia.

On the morning of 2 July 1881, Guiteau knew that Garfield would be at the Baltimore and Potomac train station. President Garfield and his two teen sons, Harry and Jim, were on their way north to meet up with Lucretia, and Garfield planned to attend his 25th class reunion at Williams College.

Guiteau arrived at the station early. He stowed his things, got his shoes shined and eagerly anticipated his fame for killing Garfield. His plan was to immediately surrender and be taken to jail.

President Garfield and Secretary Blaine entered the station together, just the two of them. From three feet away, Guiteau fired at Garfield. The bullet went through Garfield’s right arm and he said, “My God! What is this?”

Guiteau shot Garfield again, firing into his back. Guiteau took off running, with Secretary of State Blaine chasing after him. Officers from the train station apprehended Guiteau, and they had to quickly usher him from the station amid an angry crowd’s demand for immediate retribution.

In the confusion, the police didn’t even take Guiteau’s gun until they’d finally taken him out of the station. President Garfield lay in a pool of blood in the station as his son, Harry, tried to summon medical help and keep the crowd back.

Guiteau had failed as a lawyer, failed as a preacher, failed as a politician, and now he had failed as an assassin. He didn’t kill President Garfield, medical malpractice did. The president had a bullet lodged in his body, and doctors dug around his insides while scoffing at the concept of germs. Garfield died 19 September 1881, a couple of months before his 50th birthday.

President Garfield had been in office only 200 days.

Charles Guiteau pleaded insanity and most of his trial hinged on that issue. He raved in court, openly badgering witnesses and insulting his defense attorney (his brother-in-law!). His trial lasted until 26 January 1882. When he was found guilty, the crowd cheered.

Charles Guiteau looking a little bit nutty

Guiteau was hanged 30 June 1882, in front of a crowd of hundreds.

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