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The James A. Garfield Assassination

Guest Author - Donna Johnson

James A. Garfield, the 20th President of the United States, also became the second President to be assassinated (after Abraham Lincoln) and, as of 2011, the President who served the second shortest term. Inaugurated on March 4, 1881, Garfield was shot on July 2 and succumbed to his injuries on September 19, serving a total of only 199 days in office.

Garfield was born on November 19, 1831 in Cuyahoga County, Ohio. After growing up relatively poor and working to put himself through college, Garfield successfully ran for the Ohio Senate on the Republican ticket in 1859. He then served as a Major General in the Civil War and was elected to Congress in 1863. He served nearly 20 years in Congress before being elected President in 1880, winning by only 10,000 in the popular vote count.

Charles Julius Guiteau, an attorney originally from Illinois, had campaigned for Garfield after the latter defeated Ulysses S. Grant for the Republican Presidential nomination. He wrote numerous letters and gave speeches in support of Garfield. One such speech, given in August of 1880, stuck out in his mind, and he began to consider this speech the driving force behind Garfield’s election. Since he played such a powerful role in the victory, he reasoned, surely he should be appointed to an important position in the new administration.

Guiteau took up residence in Washington, DC and began a letter-writing campaign to secure a government job. He felt that he should be given a diplomatic position, specifically that of Consul-General to Paris. After his many letters to Garfield, Secretary of State James G. Blaine and other government officials went unanswered, Guiteau went to see Blaine, the person to whom he had written the majority of his letters. Upon learning that Guiteau was the author of the letters, Blaine shouted at him to never speak of the diplomatic post again. The position was subsequently filled by another, a move that infuriated Guiteau.

The would-be diplomat began a most decidedly undiplomatic course of action to avenge his perceived betrayal. Armed with a pistol, he set his sights on President Garfield. He planned several assassination attempts, but backed out of each for various reasons-either too many others were around, the First Lady Lucretia was present or the weather was unsuitable.

July 2, 1881 offered the perfect opportunity for Guiteau to act. Approaching the President from behind at the Sixth Street railway station in Washington, DC, he fired twice. One shot grazed Garfield, the other lodged in his body, possibly near the spine or lung. Local policeman Patrick Kearney took Guiteau into custody.

Garfield was taken to the White House, where several attempts over the next two months to locate the bullet, including one by Alexander Graham Bell with a metal detector, were unsuccessful. These probes may actually have brought about Garfield’s death in September, as he died from internal hemorrhaging and infection of his wounds.

Guiteau was officially charged with murder after Garfield’s death, and went to trial on November 14. He proved to be a difficult defendant, rejecting his lawyer’s attempt at an insanity plea, disrupting the proceedings on many occasions and acting as though he was a hero. Despite his argument that Garfield's death was due to infection introduced by doctors rather than injury caused by the bullet, Guiteau was found guilty of murder on January 25, 1882. On June 30 of the same year, he was executed by hanging. His last words came in the form of a poem he had written, entitled I am Going to the Lordy.

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Content copyright © 2015 by Donna Johnson. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Donna Johnson. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Vance R. Rowe for details.


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