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Why Doesn’t Garfield Assassination Site on the National Mall Have a Marker?

A new campaign by historians seeks to bring recognition to the site where the 20th president was shot

Left: Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Terminal, 6th Street & Constitution Avenue, Washington, D.C. Opened in 1873, demolished in 1908. Right: View of the Constitution Avenue entrance, north side, of the National Gallery of Art. (Public Domain/Smithsonian Archives)
smithsonian.com


Update, November 19, 2018: After a year of deliberations, the National Mall and Memorial Parks and James A. Garfield National Historic Site unveiled two waysides today on the National Mall, on what would have been Garfield's 187th birthday. The dual markers contextualize the shooting of the 20th president by Charles J. Guiteau at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station on July 2, 1881, and also interpret Garfield's lasting legacy. The markers are positioned on the National Mall nearest to the south entrance of the National Gallery of Art's West Building, which is where the railroad station once stood. Read our original reporting on the campaign to mark Garfield's assassination site below:

Yesterday, a tiny ripple made its way through the feeds of history geeks on Twitter. The James Garfield National Historic Site announced that it was working with historians, filmmakers, authors and other interested parties in placing a marker at the site where President James Garfield was assassinated in 1881. He is the only assassinated U.S. president without a marker at the site he was shot.

So why is there no marker for Garfield, 137 years after his murder? One reason might be his short term in office. Evan Andrews at History.com reports that after he was sworn in, Garfield clashed with fellow Republicans in Congress and cared for his wife, Lucretia, who was fighting a life-threatening bout of malaria. But the 20th president only served four months in the White House before he was shot at the Baltimore and Potomac rail station on July 2, 1881.

The other barrier to placing a marker at the site is the fact that the Baltimore and Potomac rail station, where the assassination took place, was torn down in 1908. According to Richard Brownell at WETA's Boundary Stones, the rail station was built on Constitution Avenue, then B street, and 6th Street NW in 1873. While the station itself was rather beautiful, Washingtonians always hated the train shed that extended out from the station. Garfield’s murder at the site, of course, cast its own pall over the station. By 1901, plans were afoot to tear down the station during a large-scale renovation of the National Mall. In 1908, it finally came down and the tracks were dug up. The National Gallery of Art was opened on the site in 1941, covering the spot where a marker of the assassination might be placed.

The J.A. Garfield National Historic Site, which operates Garfield’s home and farm in Mentor, Ohio, is now looking at sites around the National Gallery of Art to place the marker.

The story of Garfield’s death is something of a potboiler. Garfield, a former Union General and Congressman from Ohio, was hoping to take a break from the D.C. heat with a visit to New England in July of 1881. As his carriage pulled up to the train station, a 39-year-old man by the name of Charles Guiteau was lying in wait, armed with an ivory handled pistol he thought would look nice in a museum one day and a note addressed to the White House. Upon seeing the president, Guiteau opened fire, shooting two point blank shots at the president, one which grazed his elbow and the other, which lodged itself in his lower back.

What was Guiteau’s motivation? Gilbert King at Smithsonian.com reports that Guiteau was a "mentally unstable 41-year-old lawyer [who] had stalked Garfield for months before shooting him." After giving a few small local speeches supporting Garfield during the election, Guiteau became convinced that he was responsible for the president’s victory. He began writing to Garfield and moved from Chicago to Washington. He even received a meeting with the president where he asked for a post in Paris. His request was rebuffed. Later, he said he was lying in bed one night when God told him to kill the president so that Vice President Chester A. Arthur could return the country to Republican principals and save America. He considered killing the president using dynamite or a stiletto before settling on a revolver. Several times, he had opportunity to take Garfield’s life but held off, fearing he might hit his children or the first lady. One time, he followed the president to the secretary of state’s home, but lost his nerve when he had a clear shot. Finally, that morning at the train station he felt emboldened and brandished his weapon.

Garfield did not die immediately after being shot. In fact, he lingered, in agony, for 80 days. Researchers believe that today Garfield would have survived the assassination attempt, but because doctors of the day were unaware of sterilization practices, they likely created a deadly infection by poking and prodding the wound. By September, the president had a major infection and abscesses all over his body. A special railroad spur line was built directly to the White House, so that Garfield could be transferred by rail car to Long Branch, New Jersey, to take in the sea air. It did not help his condition. He died on September 19, 1881.

Guiteau was convicted and hanged in 1882. Portions of his brain are held in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum. And what became of the Guiteau’s museum-quality revolver? A black-and-white Smithsonian file photo of it exists, but the weapon itself has been lost to history.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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