James Garfield Charles J. Guiteau Assassination

February 20, 2012 by staff 

James Garfield Charles J. Guiteau Assassination, The assassination of President James A. Garfield took place in Washington, D.C. on July 2, 1881. Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau at 9:30 a.m., less than four months into Garfield’s term as the 20th President of the United States.

Garfield died eleven weeks later on September 19, 1881, the second of four Presidents to be assassinated, following Abraham Lincoln and preceding William McKinley and John F. Kennedy. His Vice President, Chester A. Arthur, succeeded Garfield as President. Garfield also lived the longest after the shooting, while compared to other Presidents. Lincoln and Kennedy died soon after shooting and McKinley died a week later.

Charles Guiteau turned to politics after failing in several ventures, including theology, a law practice, bill collecting, and time in the utopian Oneida Community. He wrote a speech in support of Ulysses S. Grant called “Grant vs. Hancck”, which he later revised to “Garfield vs. Hancck” after Garfield won the Republican nomination in the 1880 presidential campaign.

Guiteau never delivered the speech in a public setting, instead printing up several hundred copies, but he believed that this speech along with his other efforts were largely responsible for Garfield’s narrow victory over Winfield S. Hancck in the election of 1880. Guiteau believed he should be awarded a diplomatic post for his vital assistance, first asking for Vienna, then settling for Paris. He loitered around Republican headquarters in New York City during the 1880 campaign, expecting rewards for his effort, to no avail. Still believing he would be rewarded, Guiteau arrived in Washington on March 5, 1881, the day after Garfield’s inauguration, and obtained entrance to the White House and saw the President on March 8, 1881, dropping off a copy of his speech. He spent the next two months roaming around Washington, shuffling back and forth between the State Department and the White House, approaching various Cabinet members and other prominent Republicans and seeking support, to no avail.

Guiteau was destitute and increasingly slovenly due to wearing the same clothes every day, the only clothes he owned, but he did not give up. On May 13, 1881, he was banned from the White House waiting room. On May 14, 1881, Secretary of State James G. Blaine told him never to return: “Never speak to me again of the Paris consulship as long as you live.”

President Garfield

Contemporary depiction of the Garfield assassination. Secretary of State James G. Blaine stands at right.
Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Passenger Terminal, Washington, DC where U.S. President James A. Garfield was assassinated on July 2, 1881.
Garfield was scheduled to leave Washington on July 2, 1881 for his summer vacation. On that day, Guiteau lay in wait for the President at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station, on the southwest corner of present day Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, D.C.

President Garfield came to the Sixth Street Station on his way to his alma mater, Williams College, where he was scheduled to deliver a speech. Garfield was accompanied by two of his sons, James and Harry, and Secretary of State Blaine. Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln waited at the station to see the President off. Garfield had no bodyguard or security detail; with the exception of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, early U.S. presidents never used any guards.

As President Garfield entered the waiting room of the station Guiteau stepped forward and pulled the trigger from behind at point-blank range. “My God, what is that?” Garfield cried out, flinging up his arms. Guiteau fired again and Garfield collapsed. One bullet grazed Garfield’s shoulder; the other hit him in the back, passing the first lumbar vertebra but missing the spinal cord before coming to rest behind his pancreas.

Guiteau put his pistol back in his pocket and turned to leave the station for the cab he had waiting outside, but he was apprehended before he could leave by policeman Patrick Kearney, who was so excited at having arrested the man who shot the president that he neglected to take Guiteau’s gun from him until after their arrival at the police station. The rapidly gathering crowd screamed “Lynch him!” but Kearney took Guiteau to the police station a few blocks away. As he surrendered to authorities, Guiteau uttered the exulting words, repeated everywhere: “‘I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts! I did it and I want to be arrested! Arthur is President now!’” This statement briefly led to unfounded suspicions that Arthur or his supporters had put Guiteau up to the crime. The Stalwarts were a Republican faction loyal to ex-President Grant; they strongly opposed Garfield’s Half-Breeds. Like many Vice Presidents, Arthur was chosen for political advantage, to placate his faction, rather than for skills or loyalty to his running-mate. Guiteau, in his delusion, had convinced himself that he was striking a blow to unite the two factions of the Republican Party.

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