President James A. Garfield lay in a rodent-infested sickroom in the White House, a bullet lodged in his body. Weeks had passed since the assassin had struck, but more than a dozen doctors were struggling to save him. Day after day, summer temperatures approached 100 degrees, and mosquitoes thrived in the swamps around Washington. Four White House staff members had contracted malaria recently, as had the first lady, Lucretia Garfield. The president’s internal infections raged and spread, fevers came and went, and his heart began to weaken. He felt it most in his lower extremities—the acute neurological sensations he called “tiger’s claws,” which seized him regularly. Aides at his bedside would squeeze his feet and calves with all their might to relieve the 49-year-old president’s pain.
“Yes, I suffer some,” he told one attendant. “I suppose the tigers are coming back, but they don’t usually stay long. Don’t be alarmed, old boy!”
His three oldest children, Harry, James and Mollie, all teenagers, were taken into his room for visits, advised to do most of the talking and not to bring up anything unpleasant out of fear of aggravating their father’s condition. Doctors desperately probed Garfield’s abdomen with unsterilized tools and unwashed hands in search of the bullet, which had lodged harmlessly in soft tissue near his vertebrae. Such a gunshot wound today would require no more than a few days in the hospital. But the 20th president of the United States was spiraling rapidly and inevitably to his death—bravely and for the most part in good cheer as his physicians made one mistake after another, from nutrition to medication.
Charles J. Guiteau, a mentally unstable 41-year-old lawyer, had stalked Garfield for months before shooting him at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station in Washington on July 2, 1881. Though Guiteau had passed the bar exam and used money from an inheritance to start a law firm in Chicago, he could never bring in much business beyond bill collecting, and he’d gotten in trouble more than once for pocketing what he collected. Turning to politics, Guiteau wrote a speech supporting former president Ulysses S. Grant as the Republican Party’s nominee for the 1880 campaign; when Garfield surprisingly captured the nomination instead, Guiteau revised his speech (mostly by changing references from Grant to Garfield) and delivered it on a few occasions to small audiences. He fell under the delusion that he was responsible for Garfield’s victory over Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock and immediately began pressing the president-elect for an appointment as ambassador to Austria.
“Being about to marry a wealthy and accomplished heiress of this city,” Guiteau wrote Garfield, “we think that together we might represent this nation with dignity and grace. On the principle of first come first served, I have faith that you will give this application favorable consideration.” There was no heiress, however, and Guiteau was down to his last few dollars. He wrote again to ask for a post in Paris, which he said would suit him better. None of his requests were answered—a slight that, Guiteau admitted, “hurt me very badly.” He moved to Washington, where he stayed in hotels and skipped out without paying. He spent most of his days in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. He had already decided to kill the president.
At first, he thought he would do it with dynamite, but then he reconsidered. “I was afraid to handle the stuff, for fear in my inexperience it might explode in my hands, and thus tear me to pieces,” he later admitted. He also feared killing innocent bystanders, which, to him, was “too Russian, too barbarous. No! I wanted it done in an American manner.”
He considered, too, a stiletto, but conceded that the president was too strong to approach with a knife; Garfield “would have crushed the life out of me with a single blow of his fist,” he said. He finally settled on a pistol, where he “could creep up behind him and shoot him in the head, or through the body opposite the heart.”
Guiteau was certain he would be caught: “Of course I would be executed, but what of that, when I should become immortal and be talked of by all generations to come?” He borrowed some cash from a friend and spent $10 on a handsome, short-barreled British Bulldog revolver; he thought it would display well in an exhibit on the president’s assassination. He practiced firing into a fence and concluded he was a better marksman than he had thought.
Back in Lafayette Park, Guiteau read newspapers and gazed toward the White House, contemplating the task ahead. “My object in shooting Garfield again was not to make him suffer,” he said, “but on the contrary to save him from pain and unnecessary agony. I know that, for the sake of harmony in the Republican Party, I had to kill him.”
He continued his target practice by day, and at night he would clean and oil his pistol, wrapping it in a cloth so no dampness would spoil the gunpowder. He scoured the papers for an opportunity to get close to the president and “waited and waited in vain.” One Sunday morning in June, as he sat in Lafayette Park, he spotted Garfield on his way to church. Guiteau ran to his hotel to get his pistol and returned to the church—but concluded that he could not shoot the president “without endangering the lives of several of the worshippers near him.”
Later that week, he saw that Garfield would be taking a train to Long Branch, New Jersey, with his wife and some friends. Guiteau arrived at the station early. When he spotted the presidential party, he gripped his pistol to fire—but backed down when he saw the first lady. “She looked dreadfully sick, and pale, and weak, and her husband took her arm at the moment to support her,” Guiteau said. “In an instant I was completely overcome and I said to myself: ‘I cannot take that man’s life now! No! The country must wait a while…because if I shoot that man at this time before his wife, it will kill her. She has just recovered from a long spell of sickness and she does look so badly.”
Guiteau halted another attempt when he spotted Garfield’s son nearby. Becoming depressed at his chances, he spent Friday night, July 1, in Lafayette Park, staring at the White House, when “lo, and behold, who should come out but President Garfield alone.” Guiteau followed, stalking the president down to 15th Street, where Garfield dropped by the home of James G. Blaine, his secretary of state. When the president emerged, Guiteau’s nerve failed him again, because “just at the moment somebody would always get in the road.”
The would-be assassin lay awake that night, thinking, “Well, you are no good; your President comes right to you to be shot and you let your heart get in the road of your head and your hand. This will not do.” Convinced that he would not fail again, Guiteau wrote a letter to the White House the next morning, calling Garfield’s impending death a “sad necessity,” and predicting that the assassination would “unite the Republican Party and save the Republic.” He wrote another letter to General William T. Sherman, commanding general of the Army, stating, “I have just shot the President…. I am going to the jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the jail at once.” He placed the letters in his pocket, called for a carriage, picked up “my dearest friend on earth,” a recent “paramour” named Pauline Smolens, and the two rode to the depot.
“You told me one day, not so long ago, to go do something that would make me famous,” Guiteau said. “Just keep that in your mind till you see it accomplished.”
“What are you plotting now, Charles dear?” she asked. Guiteau told her she’d have to wait and see, but that he would be “your hero then to a certainty!”
Guiteau bade Pauline goodbye, then walked to the waiting area where passengers were gathering for boarding. In walked Garfield with Blaine and several friends traveling behind. Even though President Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated 16 years earlier, Garfield was traveling unprotected. The United States Secret Service, signed into law by Lincoln in 1865, in his last official act, would not begin protecting presidents until 1894, when a plot to assassinate Grover Cleveland came to light. And when political opponents criticized Cleveland for accepting the protection, he responded by refusing it.
“Immortality will shortly be yours,” Guiteau said to himself, then turned to Garfield. “This is the hour of your doom!”
He drew his pistol, snuck up behind the president, took aim and fired. Stricken in the back, Garfield turned and made eye contact. Guiteau imagined Garfield remembered him “as the one he had so slighted.” He fired again, hitting Garfield in the elbow as he fell forward. Guiteau prepared to fire again but was “roughly grasped by an officer” and his weapon was wrenched from his hand.
The president was taken to the White House. Over the next 24 hours, more than 15 doctors stuffed their unwashed fingers into his intestinal wound, trying to locate Guiteau’s bullet and ultimately causing sepsis. They repeatedly injected him with morphine, causing the president to vomit; they next tried champagne, which only made him sicker. Joseph Lister, a British surgeon and pioneer of antiseptic surgery, had been advocating since Lincoln’s death for more sterile procedures and environments, but American doctors ridiculed him. “In order to successfully practice Mr. Lister’s Antiseptic Method,” one doctor scoffed in 1878, “it is necessary that we should believe, or act as if we believed, the atmosphere to be loaded with germs.”
As the weeks passed, Garfield’s body became engorged with pus. His face began to swell and had to be drained. Initial meals of steak, eggs and brandy were soon replaced by eggs, bouillon, milk, whiskey and opium. He lost nearly 100 pounds as his doctor’s starved him. Doctors inserted drainage tubes and continued to probe for the bullet; at one point, they brought in Alexander Graham Bell, who had invented a metal detector and thought he might be able to locate the slug by passing it over the president’s abdomen. All was for naught.
Garfield asked to be moved to a peaceful oceanfront cottage in Long Branch, New Jersey where he’d been a regular visitor over the years. Local residents, informed that the ailing president was planning to arrive in Long Branch, laid down half a mile of railroad tracks in 24 hours, so that rather than ride by horse and carriage over rough roads, the president could be taken smoothly by train, right to the cottage door. Garfield found no relief from the staggering heat, and he died in his bed in the New Jersey cottage on September 18, 1881, less than two weeks after he arrived. On the following day, the emergency tracks were torn up and the wooden ties were used to build the Garfield Tea House, which stands today. That November, Charles Guiteau stood trial for murder, was convicted and hanged the following summer. Defending himself in court, he had declared, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”
Books: Guiteau’s Confession: The Garfield Assassination: A Full History of this Cruel Crime, Old Franklin Publishing, Philadelphia, 1881. Ronald Kessler, In the President’s Secret Service: Behind the Scenes with Agents in the Line of Fire and the Presidents They Protect, Crown, 2009. Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, Doubleday, 2011. Charles Panati, Panati’s Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody, Harper and Row, 1989.
Articles: “The Doctors Who Killed a President,” by Kevin Baker, Review of Destiny of the Republic, New York Times, September 30, 2011. “A President Felled by an Assassin and 1880′s Medical Care,” by Amanda Schaffer, New York Times, July 25, 2006. “Garfield II: A Lengthy Demise,” History House: An Irreverent History Magazine, http://www.historyhouse.com/in_history/garfield/.