On This Day: President Garfield Shot By 'Half-Crazed' Assassin


The first information to come to reporters said that the president was dead. But, as happens from time to time today, that initial information was wrong. On July 2, 1881, 137 years ago today, President James Garfield took two shots to the back, but managed to survive, at least for a while.

The New York Times wrote the next morning that the story "briefly told," went like this:

"President Garfield and Secretary [of State James] Blaine drove from the Executive Mansion, about 9 o'clock yesterday morning, to the depot of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad, where the President was to join other members of his Cabinet and proceed on a trip to New-York and New-England. As he was walking through the passenger rooms, arm in arm with Mr. Blaine, two pistol-shots were fired in quick succession from behind, and the President sank to the floor, bleeding profusely from two wounds. The assassin was instantly seized, and proved to be Charles J. Guiteau, a half-crazed, pettifogging lawyer, who has been an unsuccessful applicant for office under the Government, and who has led a precarious existence in several of the large cities of the country."

Related: The Man Who Shot the Man Who Shot the President

Doctors immediately rushed to Garfield's aid. In the late 1800s that consisted of them, in an attempt to locate one of the bullets, "pok[ing] and prob[ing] the wound with their unwashed fingers and instruments, but with no success," according to a biography of Garfield by the late Allan Peskin.


The doctors didn't expect the president to live out the night, but when morning came he "confounded [them] by appearing cheerful and rested," Peskin writes.

Still not out of the woods, inventor Alexander Graham Bell proposed a novel way to find the bullet that the doctor's missed: through an early version of the metal detector he designed specifically for the task. The machine, however, failed to do better than the doctors' fingers.

For 80 days the president clung to life, at times rallying, at times slipping into worse and worse condition. Ailing badly, in early September he asked to be taken to the New Jersey seaside, the breathe in the ocean air. He died soon after.

"Everywhere, notwithstanding the lateness of the hour, the bells were tolled as a mark of respect and sorrow for the long-suffering, patient, and heroic President," The New York Times wrote the next morning, Sept. 19, 1881.

Guiteau's issue with Garfield began after he obsessively tried without success to gain employment in the government, perhaps as the consul general in Paris, despite having almost no qualification for such a thing. Peskin writes that Guiteau was granted a brief audience with the president to plead his case, and then came to the White House every day for months when he didn't hear back.

"His clothes grew shabby. He had no socks and he wore his coat collar turned up to conceal his ragged shirt," Peskin writes. "His haggard face seemed pinched with hunger, yet his eyes burned with exultation."

When finally he was forcefully rebuffed by Secretary Blaine, Guiteau brooded "over the political situation" and decided that "if the President was out of the way, everything would go better."

Before his attack, Guiteau wrote a series of letters and in one explained why he was going to kill the president -- writing in past tense, as if the deed had already been done. He harbored no "ill-will" toward Garfield, according to Peskin.

"His death was a political necessity," Guiteau wrote, adding that it would "unite the Republican party and save the Republic."

The Secret Service had been established in 1865, but it wouldn't be until the 1890s that it took on the responsibility of protecting the president. In the train station, Garfield didn't even have a bodyguard.

"Americans still believed that political assassination was some exotic custom practiced only in despotisms, such as Russia, whose Tsar had been blown to bits only a few months before," Peskin wrote.

Garfield himself dismissed the idea of protection.

"Assassination can no more be guarded against than death by lightning; and it is not best to worry about either," he once said.

Guiteau was originally charged with attempted murder, but upon Garfield's passing, the charge was upgraded to murder. After a sensational trial, in which Guiteau attempted to plead temporary insanity, he was convicted. Guiteau was executed by hanging on July 30, 1882, just two days before the one-year anniversary of his attack.

The morning after Guiteau's death, the Daily Globe carried the headline "Justice at Last -- 'Removal' of the Assassin. A Worthless Life".

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