In Honor of the Upcoming JFK Anniversary, Here’s How President Garfield Died


We here at BTL are as interested in history as we are in politics, and with the entire media blowing out about the JFK assassination's 50th anniversary, we wanted to do something special.  Instead of bringing you more of the same, however, we figured we’d give you the scoop on  equally fascinating if not less conspiracy-ridden presidential assassination - that of President Garfield.  It’s a riviting story of crazy-meets-gun; a true American classic.  So join us as we brush up on our history with this week’s slightly-relevant foray into America’s past!

Did you know we had a president named after a cartoon cat?  You might have forgotten because he only served for six months and didn’t accomplish much beyond making boring civil service reforms.  The “Preacher President” was a compromise candidate between the conservative and moderate branches of the (original, less offensive, Union-loving) Republican party.  Outgoing President Rutherford B. Hayes advised him against campaigning so as to avoid igniting an interparty war (Rep. Boehner take note!) so Garfield basically wandered into office when he got the word to and that was that.  He had the right pedigree to be president as a veteran of the Civil War, a former professor of classical languages at the (obviously very) “Eclectic Institute,” and a former U.S. Representative and Senator from the state of Ohio, so that seemed just fine to everybody.  Just your average reasonable person who wouldn’t accidentally burn the Capitol down or die in a pretzel-choking accident.  Standards were much higher back then.

It wasn’t all sober institutional changes, however!  Beyond civil service reforms, Garfield dabbled in accidental irony, offering famous proof of his most famous quote: “Assassination can be not more guarded against than death by lightning; and it is best not to worry about either.“  (You are actually 45,000 times more likely to be assassinated as president then struck by lightning, so this is a massive understatement.)  Working with such a massive statistical deficit, It’s not hard to see how, in the process of his not-worrying, he was caught unawares by a gunman on July 2nd, 1881 at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station.  After an impressive 80 day survival slog, Garfield died on September 19th, 1881, only six months into his term.  Happy anniversary?  

Garfield was a surprising target for an assassin’s ire considering that he wasn’t up to much and was just sort of generally a reasonable-ish guy with very minor plans.  The late Abraham Lincoln, after all, was president during a civil war, McKinley was president during the Spanish-American War, and JFK was giving people rights and had very youthful floppy hair.  Like Lincoln, Garfield was shot by a crazy person, and like McKinley, he didn’t die right away and ultimately died of something other than his gunshot wounds.  At the time, the medical profession was not universally schooled in the dangers of infection, and, while the holes in his chest were certainly problematic, he actually died because his doctors were poking around with unwashed hands and instruments.  Among the pokers was beloved inventor Alexander Graham Bell, who was called in to invent some sort of Garfield-saving device that turned out to be less successful than the whole telephone thing (still a hero!).  Some other scientist invented a primitive air-conditioner to cool him, however, and for that we can all be thankful.

Beyond bad doctors, Garfield’s death also caused the most entertaining trial of an assassin in American history (according to our very scientific ranking system).  Charles Guiteau, the man who fired the shots that caused the poking that caused the sepsis that caused Garfield’s death, was a professional loon-nut who was actually insane enough to be kicked out of the Oneidas, a free-loving utopian cult in upstate New York, twice.  (For more info on that, see here.)

After a failed attempt at practicing law and a poorly received lecture tour predicated on a theology book he plagiarized from the head of the Oneidas, Guiteau decided to turn to politics.  His goals were no less fuzzy and qualifications no less questionable.  He had written a speech in support of  Ulysses S. Grant called “Grant vs. Hancock” and decided to revise it to support Garfield in his campaign against Winfield S. Hancock, his Democratic rival.  Nobody is even sure if he ever delivered the speech, but he did print out a few copies and for his “help,” he came to the delusional conclusion that he deserved a cushy diplomatic appointment.  He hung around the Republican headquarters during the election, then moved to Washington and paid literal-stranger Garfield a visit, dropping off a copy of his speech and, one can only assume, getting the brush-off.  He then wandered around Washington for months wearing the same clothes every day and loitering in waiting rooms all over town, eventually finding himself banned from the White House waiting room because he was smelly and gross and always f*cking there!  Finally, after being told by in person the Secretary of State to stop bothering everybody about the damn Paris consulship, he borrowed $15, purchased a gun, and declared that he had been commanded by God to shoot the President.

Guiteau then began to stalk the President around Washington, nearly taking his shot at the train station a month before the actual incident but deciding against it so as to not upset Garfield’s wife.  When, several weeks later, he finally did take his shot at the unarmed, un-security-detailed Garfield, the President replied with, “My God, what is that?”  (Given the statistical likelihood of this event occurring, it seems like he should have known.)  Guiteau was caught by a nearby policeman and taken down to the station, but the policeman was so excited to have caught the culprit that he forgot to take away Guiteau’s gun.  Even though that seems like the set-up for a story of police station tragedy, nothing really happened and they just took the gun later, but no historian has ever failed to mention it in the telling of this story.  What did happen, however, was that Guiteau started shouting, ”‘I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts! I did it and I want to be arrested! Arthur is President now!’ and then everybody panicked for a while, thinking Vice President Chester Arthur’s people were behind the whole thing.  (They weren’t.  Also, did Chester Arthur have militant supporters?  Any supporters?  Name-knowers?)

Guiteau’s trial was a total media circus, possibly because Guiteau was a massively entertaining subject.  Despite the public ire towards him, he really hammed it up for the audience, waving and smiling and enjoying the attention.  He also exhibited some unusual courtroom behaviors, delivering his testimony in the form of epic poems, soliciting legal advice from spectators via school-style note-passing, and shouting obscenities at the jury, the prosecution, and his own lawyers.  During the course of the trial he also dictated his autobiography to the New York Herald from jail and ended it with a personal ad for a “nice Christian lady under 30 years of age.”  

Not surprisingly, his was the first high profile case in which the insanity defense was considered, but Guiteau didn’t want to admit to being insane in a general sense, and insisted that he was only insane on the day of the shooting, showing an impressive lack of self-awareness.  Also not surprisingly, his defense team didn’t like working with him and kind of didn’t mind that he was constantly shooting himself in the foot.  Despite his active work in planning the lecture series that he believed he would start once out of jail, he was found guilty on July 25th, 1882 and sentenced to death.  As his sentence was read, he shouted “You are all low, consummate jackasses!” to the jury, but his anger didn’t prevent him from literally dancing his way to the gallows, smiling and waving to spectators as he passed.  As his last request,  he recited a poem he wrote in jail entitled “I am Going to the Lordy,” which he initially planned to sing to the audience with a full orchestra (a request that was resolutely denied by the authorities).  

Garfield was succeeded by Chester Arthur, another forgettable person who finished out the term and promptly disappeared from history.  Disappointingly, he would be unable to claim the title of shortest Presidential term even at the time because President William Henry Harrison had already died of a cold only 30 days into his term.  Isn’t that sad?  So many (sepsis-tainted) guts, so little glory.