Tuesday, February 2, 2016


President James Garfield had a life full of misfortune. He worked his way up to the presidency. He championed the rights of all people including people of colour. He was a true hero of the people, greatly loved. But a lunatic decided to murder him in God's name and then his physician, Dr. Bliss, rejecting all advice, made himself God and killed the president.

Phyllis Carter

Murder of a President

On March 4, 1881, James Garfield became the 20th President of the United States -- a position he would hold for only 200 days. Garfield rose from poverty to become the most powerful man in the U.S., and many Americans believed he had the potential to become one of the country's truly great presidents. But on July 2, mentally disturbed drifter Charles Guiteau shot President Garfield as he walked through the Baltimore and Potomac train station. Garfield survived the immediate shooting, but, with the importance of sterilization not yet realized by most American medical professionals, infection set in, killing the President 79 days later.

James Garfield in 1858 Ohio Historical Society James Garfield in 1858 James Garfield was born November 19, 1831 on the Ohio frontier. His father died before James was two, and his mother worked long days in the fields. James grew up poor, dreaming of one day sailing the high seas. He settled for work as a crewman on the Ohio and Erie Canals, despite not knowing how to swim, and returned home just six weeks later, ill with malaria. Desperate to set James on a better path, his mother handed over her life savings of $17, imploring him to get an education. "I took the money," Garfield later wrote, "as well as the advice." After attending smaller schools in the area, he was accepted to the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, a small preparatory school in northern Ohio.

In school, Garfield quickly excelled as a passionate and inherently intelligent student, paying his tuition with odd jobs as a janitor and carpenter around campus. By his second year he had advanced enough to become an assistant professor of literature, mathematics, and ancient languages. In one of his Greek literature classes he met Lucretia Rudolph. Six months later, Garfield proposed before leaving for Williams College to continue his studies.

After a long engagement, Lucretia and James married on November 11, 1858. Their marriage was not an easy one. They were emotional opposites, Garfield being very expressive and Lucretia more shy and reserved. James also spent long stretches away from home building his political career; during the first five years of their marriage they spent a total of just five months together. As Garfield was traveling and building his reputation as a politician, he began to recognize his own personal magnetism. His talents as a public speaker and politician were just budding when the American Civil War broke out.

Garfield joined the Union Army in 1861 and was given command of a small regiment. On January 10, 1862 he experienced a flash of fame after leading his men to victory at the Battle of Middle Creek, but he was horrified at the human cost of war, recalling that he had forever lost "the sense of the sacredness of life and the impossibility of destroying it." But Garfield, a lifetime abolitionist, remained committed to the war, viewing it as a fight for emancipation.

While Garfield was in the field, his colleagues back in Ohio put him up for election as the Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives. Despite never campaigning, Garfield won the election in November 1862. Reluctant to leave his post in the field in favor of a political position, Garfield conferred with President Abraham Lincoln, who convinced Garfield that his support on Capitol Hill would be more valuable to the President than Garfield's work as a General. In Congress, Garfield voted in favor of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery in the United States; he spent 17 years in his position, becoming the foremost Republican in the House of Representatives.Lucretia Garfield c. 1881 Library of Congress Lucretia Garfield c. 1881

It was during his tenure as a member of the House of Representatives that Garfield's marriage was nearly destroyed when he had an affair with a woman in New York. Garfield confessed his infidelity to Lucretia, who told him to end his relationship with the other woman. The rebuilding of their relationship following the affair seemed to strengthen their marital bond and mutual dedication, and from that point on they were intensely devoted to each other.

By the late 19th century, the United States was a nation in transition. The Industrial Revolution was in full swing, dividing citizens into rich and poor. For the first time, more Americans were living in cities than on farms. Thousands of factory workers endured 14-hour days and harrowing conditions for starvation wages while those same factories were channeling unimaginable wealth to a growing aristocracy. By 1880, the inequalities of capitalism were so vast that they threatened democracy itself. The government was infected by cynicism and corruption.

In June 1880 the Republican Party met in Chicago to choose their candidate for the upcoming presidential election. On June 5, Garfield delivered the nominating address for a long-shot Ohio candidate, but as Garfield spoke, the audience clamored for Garfield himself to be nominated. Having served in congress for 16 years, Garfield knew many of the people in the room personally. Many people considered him to be an intelligent, moderate champion of a government that would serve everyone. Over the next three days, delegates voted 33 times, deadlocked between former president Ulysses S. Grant and Maine Senator James Blaine. By the 36th and final ballot, Garfield was astonished to find himself the Republican nominee for President of the United States.

As was the standard for the time, Garfield did very little campaigning for the presidency. Instead, he conducted what came to be known as "front porch talks" on the veranda of his farm in Mentor, Ohio where citizens came to see and speak to him. However, Garfield knew that the only way he could win the presidency was if the Republican Party carried New York, and for that he needed senior senator Roscoe Conkling. To appease Conkling, the party chose Chester A. Arthur, Conkling's right-hand man, to be Garfield's running mate. Garfield also let Conkling believe that he would have the right to appoint his own choice to a powerful position in the government, in exchange for supporting Garfield's bid for the presidency.

On November 3, Garfield was informed that he had been elected President. He had won by only 10,000 popular votes. Almost immediately after assuming the presidency in March 1881, Garfield was besieged by eager office-seekers looking to exchange a past favor or friendship for a position within the new administration. One such applicant was a troubled lawyer named Charles Guiteau. During Garfield's campaign, Guiteau was often seen at Republican headquarters on 5th Avenue in New York, spouting his political views to anyone who would listen. He even wrote a speech in support of Garfield titled "Garfield vs. Hancock." Guiteau believed that he had played a key role in getting Garfield elected and that he deserved a political appointment as a reward, namely the Paris consulship. Stunned upon learning that he would not be given any political appointment, Guiteau felt deeply betrayed. After receiving what he claimed was divine inspiration, he began to plan Garfield's assassination, buying a gun, practicing shooting, and stalking the president throughout Washington, D.C. Despite Abraham Lincoln's assassination in a public setting in 1865, in 1881 presidents still did not have personal guards or any kind of protection; they could walk through the streets of the capital much like any other citizen. It was generally considered that, since the United States was a democracy, if citizens did not approve of their leaders they would vote them out of office. There was no need for assassination. Thus, Guiteau had several opportunities to shoot Garfield, but continuously lost his nerve.An illustration of Garfield's sickbed Library of Congress An illustration of Garfield's sickbed

On the morning of July 2, 1881, Garfield left the White House and travelled to the Baltimore and Potomac train station. He was scheduled to travel to the New Jersey shore to meet Lucretia, who was recovering from a bout of malaria. Guiteau was waiting at the station, where he shot the president twice -- once in the arm and a second time in the back. Dr. Willard Bliss assumed control of his medical care. At this time in the United States, most doctors did not yet believe in germ theory, and Garfield's wound was never cleaned. Instead, it was repeatedly probed by Bliss' fingers and other unsterile tools as Bliss searched for the bullet in the president's body. Soon, infection set in. Bliss administered morphine every day along with a diet of brandy and rich foods. When Garfield became unable to keep the food down, Bliss had Garfield fed rectally with beef bouillon, warmed milk, egg yolk, and opium. After a few weeks the president developed a fever, and his wound produced pus, which Bliss believed was a good sign. The doctor regularly sent updates to the local press, reporting that Garfield's condition was improving. For weeks, the American public believed their president was going to experience a full recovery.

By the end of July, Garfield began to show symptoms that today would be recognized as massive septicemia: fever, chills, abscesses all over his body, and delirium. Dr. Bliss resorted to even more extreme measures, including such extensive isolation that Garfield was rarely allowed to see his own children. The infection continued to spread throughout the President's body, and his immune system began to fail entirely. 

On September 6, 1881 a special train carried Garfield to a summer home on the New Jersey coast. Volunteers laid track right up to door of his cottage. Lucretia refused to leave Garfield's side and was with him throughout the remainder of his illness. On September 19, with Lucretia by his side, Garfield died of internal hemmorhaging from a rip in his splenic artery, though the proximate cause of death was widespread septic poisoning.Chester A. Arthur Library of Congress Chester A. Arthur
Upon the announcement of Garfield's death, there was a massive public outpouring of grief and sympathy for Lucretia and her family. The entire country seemed to mourn with her. As the president's body was returning to Washington, crowds gathered in silence to watch the train pass through their small towns as bells tolled.

In the early morning hours of September 20, 1881 Vice President Chester A. Arthur was sworn in as the 21st President of the United States. Almost a year after Garfield's death, on June 30, 1882, Charles Guiteau was hanged for the murder of James Garfield. During his trial, Guiteau's counsel attempted to use an insanity defense, and Guiteau repeatedly exclaimed that "the doctors ought to be indicted" instead of himself.

For many Americans, James Garfield represented not only an American's capacity to rise up in the world, but also the larger notion of what they believed the Union had fought for -- equal opportunity for all men, black or white. With his death, many feared that vision died. But instead of Garfield's vision dying with him, his death brought together the American public in a way they had not been united since well before the Civil War. The hope that Garfield had given them for a better day, a more just and equal America, would be carried forward in the decades to come.

American Experience/PBS

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