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Celebrating the Fourth in a Time of National Distress

`Citizens. The last telegrams relative to the condition of President Garfield ...` Broadside

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Images from the collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Not to be reproduced without permission.

This 1881 broadside, issued by the Fourth of July committee of the town of Foxborough, Massachusetts, informs residents that, despite the shooting of President James Garfield two days earlier, the celebration of Independence Day would go on.

A Shot Rings Out in a Crowded Rail Station

Little more than 100 days into his first term as President of the United States, James A. Garfield was headed to Massachusetts on the morning of 2 July 1881, to deliver a speech at his 25th Williams College reunion and begin a well-deserved summer vacation. Having survived a contentious convention and election, where he was assailed by rumor and political enemies on every side, and a rough start to his administration, Garfield was walking through Sixth Street Station to board the train when he was struck, first in the arm, then in the spine by two .44 caliber bullets. The assassin, Charles Julius Guiteau, was apprehended right outside the station, although, in any case, he had already hired a cab to convey him to the city jail. Garfield was transported back to the White House where a seemingly endless parade of physicians examined the wound, trying in vain to locate the bullet, and introducing bacteria into the wound that, more than likely, would be Garfield's true killer.

Garfield's medical team issued daily updates about the President's health, as mentioned in the broadside above, but many of these were overly optimistic, even outright lies. As Garfield became increasingly weak due to infection and the unbearable heat of a Washington summer, his physicians publicly maintained that he was on the road to recovery. Finally, in September, the President was moved to the Jersey Shore where, it was thought, the fresh air and quiet would do him good. On 19 September, eighty days after the shooting, however, Garfield's wound proved fatal and what must have been unbearable suffering from blood poisoning and primitive medical care finally came to an end.

The Assassin

Remembered by history as "a disappointed office seeker," Charles Julius Guiteau was much more than that--a ne'er-do-well grifter, con artist, abused child and abusive husband, shady lawyer, and failed member of the Oneida community. Born 8 September 1841 in Freeport, Illinois, Guiteau was just seven years old when his mother died, leaving him to the care of his disapproving father and an overly indulgent sister. Unable or unwilling to apply himself to hard work of any sort, Guiteau drifted from scheme to scheme, always staying one step ahead of the rent collectors and others whom he casually defrauded. In the election of 1872, Guiteau supported Horace Greeley, in the hopes that his "support" (a speech) would net him a diplomatic position. Greeley lost and Guiteau put the notion aside for a time. In 1880, however, Guiteau resumed his quest for a diplomatic post, writing a tribute to Ulysses S. Grant. When Grant failed to win the nomination, Guiteau substituted Garfield's name for Grant's in the title and began lobbying the Republican power brokers for a diplomatic post--Paris, perhaps, or Vienna. After Garfield's election, Guiteau became such a nuisance with his letter-writing and constant lobbying of politicians that he was banned from the White House and told by Secretary of State James G. Blaine, "Never speak to me again on the Paris consulship as long as you live."

After this final rejection, Guiteau determined that President Garfield himself was the real obstacle and that the President would have to die. He borrowed $15 to buy a pearl-handled revolver, brushed up on his marksmanship, and began to stalk the President, looking for the opportunity to fulfill what Guiteau would claim was his divine mandate. Despite Lincoln's assassination just fifteen years earlier, there was no Secret Service, so Garfield was regularly out in public, totally defenseless. It was only a matter of time before the determined and deluded Guiteau would act.

Murder or Medical Malpractice?

At his indictment on 14 October 1881, Guiteau pleaded not guilty due to three causes: insanity--Guiteau felt he was acting as an agent of God in the assassination; medical malpractice--it was not the bullet that killed Garfield, but rather poor and unsanitary medical care; and lack of jurisdiction--Garfield died in New Jersey, beyond the purview of the Washington court. Defended by his brother-in-law George Scoville, a lawyer of thirty years, with just two criminal cases under his belt, Guiteau began a seventy-two day trial that on many days must have closely resembled a carnival. Jury selection alone took three days, with 131 potential jurors called. Guiteau constantly interrupted the proceedings: berating his counsel, badgering witnesses, passing notes to the crowd, and making repeated requests for money and legal help--neither of which ever arrived. Numerous medical "experts" testified as to Guiteau's sanity, or lack thereof, and Guiteau's ex-wife and siblings were called to the stand, none of them doing much to support Guiteau's defense of insanity, however. The trial finally came to a close on 25 January 1882, and after a little more than an hour of deliberations, the jury returned with a unanimous verdict of guilty. Guiteau's execution was scheduled for 30 June, two days shy of a year since the shooting. Despite numerous appeals, and Guiteau's continued belief that his act would be vindicated (even celebrated) and that he would be freed to become a star on the lecture circuit, Guiteau was hanged on the appointed day, as nearly 1000 spectators waited outside the jail, cheering when the news of his death was announced.

Garfield and Massachusetts

James Garfield may have owed his presidency, at least in part, to Massachusetts' own George Frisbie Hoar, a three-term Congressional colleague and close friend. Hoar presided over the hotly-contested Republican Convention of 1880 and had thought from the start that if the delegates "could be shut up by themselves and not permitted to leave the room until they agreed, the man on whom they would agree would be General Garfield." After six days and thirty-three ballots with delegates for Ulysses S. Grant, James G. Blaine, and John Sherman unable to gain a winning majority, there was considerable backstage wrangling to find a nominee that could unite the party, much of it centered on an unwilling James Garfield. On the thirty-fourth ballot, Garfield received seventeen votes and the tide began to turn against the front-runners. Hoping to avert his nomination, Garfield rose to his feet, saying, "No man has a right, without the consent of the person voted for, to announce that person's name, and vote for him, in this convention. Such consent I have not given." Hoar cut Garfield off, immediately calling for the next ballot. As Hoar recalls in his Autobiography, "I interrupted him in the middle of his sentence. I was terribly afraid that he would say something that would make his nomination impossible, or his acceptance impossible, if it were made." Two ballots later, James Abram Garfield won the nomination of the Republican Party and, by the smallest popular vote total ever, the election over Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock. The George Frisbie Hoar papers at the MHS contain letters from Garfield to Hoar; see the finding aid to the George Frisbie Hoar papers. Letters from Garfield can also be found in the papers of liberal reformer Edward Atkinson; see the finding aid to the Edward Atkinson papers.

Sources for Further Reading

Ackerman, Kenneth D. The Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield New York: Carroll & Graf, 2003.

Blaine, James G. Twenty Years of Congress. 2 vols. Norwich, Conn.: The Henry Bill Publishing Co., 1884-1886.

Clark, James C. The Murder of James A. Garfield: the President's Last Days and the Trial and Execution of His Assassin. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1993.

Hoar, George F. Autobiography of Seventy Years. 2 vols. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1903.

Mitchell, Stewart. "The Man Who Murdered Garfield," Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, vol. 67 (October, 1941-May, 1944), p. 452-489.

Smith, Theodore Clarke. The Life and Letters of James Abram Garfield. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1925.

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