On This Day

james garfield, garfield assassination, charles guiteau
New York Public Library/AP
Illustration depicting President Garfield
being shot by Charles Guiteau.

On This Day: President Garfield Shot

July 02, 2011 05:00 AM
by Denis Cummings
On July 2, 1881, President James A. Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau; he died 11 weeks later due to his doctors’ unsanitary efforts to remove the bullet.

Charles Guiteau Shoots President Garfield

Charles Guiteau was a disturbed and likely mentally ill man who became interested in politics in 1880. During that year’s presidential campaign, he gave several sparsely attended speeches in support of Republican nominee James A. Garfield. University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law professor Douglas O. Linder writes that the speeches were originally written about Ulysses S. Grant—Guiteau’s first choice for president—but Guiteau simply substituted Garfield’s name.

Garfield went on to win the election, and Guiteau believed his speeches, particularly one given to a small group of black voters, had contributed to the victory. He badgered Garfield’s staff for a diplomatic post, claiming that he deserved “a personal tribute” for his support.

On May 14, 1881, he waited outside the State Department to speak to Secretary of State James Blaine, who had become irritated by Guiteau’s frequent letters. When Guiteau introduced himself, Blaine told him, “Never bother me again about the Paris Consulship so long as you live,” Linder reports.

Guiteau was insulted and, believing that he was acting on God’s instructions, he set out to kill the ungrateful president. In June 1881, he bought a revolver and wrote a letter known as “Address to the American People,” in which he tried to justify assassinating Garfield.

“[G]radually the conviction settled on me that the President's removal was a political necessity,” Guiteau wrote, “because he proved a traitor to the men that made him, and thereby imperilled the life of the Republic … This is not murder. It is a political necessity.”

On the morning of July 2, as Garfield walked into Washington’s Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station, Guiteau stepped out of the crowd and fired two pistol shots, one lodging in Garfield’s lower back.

The New York Times described the shooting in its July 3 edition: “As [Garfield] was walking through the passenger room, arm in arm with Mr. Blaine, two pistol-shots were fired in quick succession from behind, and the President sank to the floor, bleeding profusely from two wounds. The assassin was instantly seized, and proved to be Charles. J. Guiteau, a half-crazed, pettifogging lawyer, who has been an unsuccessful applicant for office under the Government, and who has led a precarious existence in several of the large cities in the country.”

The Death of President Garfield

Garfield initially survived the shooting and showed signs of recovery. The bullet had missed his organs, arteries and veins.

“Garfield had such a nonlethal wound,” surgeon and historian Dr. Ira Rutkow told The New York Times in 2006. “In today’s world, he would have gone home in a matter of two or three days.”

Sterilization practices had been in use for two decades in Europe, but Garfield’s surgeons, led by Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss, poked through his body with unsanitary instruments and their bare hands. Alexander Graham Bell was even called in to locate the bullet with a metal detector, but was unsuccessful.

Weakened by infection and malnourished, Garfield died on Sept. 19, 1881. Guiteau later claimed that the doctors killed Garfield and that he “just shot him.”

The Trial of Charles Guiteau

Guiteau was immediately arrested and imprisoned. Expecting to be treated as a hero, he was shocked to find himself despised for the assassination. Guiteau defensively wrote many letters to the media and political figures, and even published an autobiography.

His trial began in November. He was represented by his brother-in-law, George Scoville, who attempted to prove that Guiteau was not guilty by reason of insanity. Both sides presented experts to discuss Guiteau’s mental capacity and disturbed life.

The defense’s biggest obstacle was Guiteau himself, who frequently interrupted the trial to declare that he was sane. While on the stand, Guiteau said that God had instructed him to kill Garfield and that he considered himself a patriot, recounts Lidner. Guiteau declared, “Some of these days instead of saying ‘Guiteau the assassin’, they will say ‘Guiteau the patriot.’”

The trial ended in January; the jury needed just an hour to convict Guiteau of murder. He was hanged on June 30, 1882.

Biographies: Garfield and Guiteau

James A. Garfield
Garfield grew up in a poor farming family near Cleveland. He worked his way through college and earned a law degree before joining the Union Army. After the Civil War he was elected to the House of Representatives and would become affiliated with the "Half-Breeds" faction of the Republican Party.

In 1880, the Republicans were divided on who to nominate for presidential election; the Half-Breeds wanted James Blaine and the rival Stalwarts wanted former President Ulysses S. Grant. Garfield was nominated as a compromise candidate, and he chose Stalwart Chester A. Arthur for his vice president. He narrowly defeated Democrat Winfield S. Hancock to become president, but would serve only 100 days before being shot.

Charles J. Guiteau
Guiteau was, according to History House magazine, “mildly deranged but exceedingly depraved to boot.” Rejected by the University of Michigan, he joined the Oneida Community, a free-love utopian community in upstate New York. The women, who found him odd and unattractive, rejected his advances and gave him the nickname “Charles Gitout.”

He would become a lawyer and debt collector, but was jailed several times for shady business practices and failing to pay his own debt. He briefly toured the country charging audiences to hear his incoherent religious speeches.

History House provides a newspaper account of one of his speeches: “Is There a Hell? Fifty Deceived People [are] of the opinion that there ought to be. The man Charles J. Guiteau … has fraud and imbecility plainly stamped upon his countenance.”

The Georgetown University Library hosts a collection of Guiteau’s correspondence, affidavits and other printed material. In a characteristically delusional letter, he wrote to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman requesting assistance.

It read: “I have just shot the President. I shot him several times as I wished him to go as easily as possible. His death was a political necessity. I am a lawyer, theologian, and politician. I am a stalwart of the Stalwarts. ... I am going to the Jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the Jail at once.”

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