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James Garfield's Death

James Garfield

The life and death of James Garfield:

Four American presidents were assassinated – and while the names Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy are forever branded in American history, the other two – William McKinley and James Garfield are not famously remembered. This time, we're talking about the second President to be killed while serving in office - his term only lasting about six months.

James Abram Garfield was born in a log cabin in Moreland Hills, Ohio in a place called Orange Township at the time.

James Garfield log cabin

The youngest of five children, his father Abram was born in Worcester, New York and went to Ohio to court a childhood sweetheart, only to find she was already married when he got there. So, he married her sister Eliza instead.

Abram Garfield died later in the year of 1833 and his son James was raised in poverty. His mother remarried but soon left her second husband in what was then, a scandalous divorce. Fatherless and poor, James was taunted by other boys and throughout his life he was very touchy about insults. But he was an avid reader and found work on a canal boat when he left home at the age of 16.

Illness forced him to return home after a few weeks and while recovering his mother and a local school official got James to promise to postpone his return to canals for a year to further his education.

James Garfield in school

He attended Geauga Academy, where he met his future wife, Lucretia Rudolph.

James Garfield and his wife

They had seven children, though two died very young.

James Garfield with his wife and children

Garfield worked several jobs after leaving school including teaching, and then enrolled at Williams College in Massachusetts. His time at that prestigious Eastern school made of Garfield a man of distinction and he returned to Ohio to teach.

Garfield served in the Union Army during the Civil War and rose to the rank of Brigadier General. In early 1862 he was approached by friends about running for Congress in Ohio. He won a congressional seat and served in Congress for several terms. He spoke in support of the gold standard to back the dollar and was viewed as a skilled speaker and later moved up to an Ohio Senate seat.

Then it was onto the 1880 Republican National Convention and Garfield gave a presidential nominating speech. But the convention was deadlocked and Garfield himself emerged as the party's candidate for the White House. And he won the election!

In his brief term, he powered up American naval power and routed out corruption in the post office he also made some notable judiciary important appointments, including US Supreme Court Justice.

But Garfield only served for about 200 days.

His assassin, Charles Guiteau…

Charles Guiteau

…expected a federal job by supporting the winning Republican ticket in 1880. Garfield met with him and a White House official suggested that Guiteau would work in the Department of State. But Guiteau didn't get the job and he left angry.

On July 2, 1881, Garfield was visiting the Potomac and Baltimore railroad at the Sixth Street station.

Potomac and Baltimore railroad

…and Guiteau was hiding and in the ladies room. Guiteau took out a gun and shot Garfield twice, once in the back and once in the arm.

Drawing of Garfield being shot

And Guiteau made no secret as to why he shot Garfield.

The wound to Garfield's body isn't what killed him. Doctors were probing it with unsterilized fingers and instruments, making the situation worse. Garfield was given morphine to ease the pain and his condition deteriorated. His fever spiked to 104° due to the infection in his body and Garfield died.

Drawing of Garfield in hospital

This death mask was sculpted by Augusts St. Gaudens.

James Garfield death mask

Guiteau was indicted for killing the President…found guilty in January 1882…was sentenced to death and was executed June 30 of that year.

Garfield was succeeded by Chester Arthur and is buried with a memorial at Lakeview Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio.

James Garfield burial site

Biographers speak well of Garfield's very brief Presidency and that he left the office stronger than when he entered it. There's a statue of him near the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

James Garfield statue in Washington D.C.

And there are other Garfield monuments in Cincinnati…

James Garfield statue in Cincinnati

…and in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

James Garfield statue in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park