The Garfield Assassination

By Benjamin Shapell, Sara Willen | July 2, 2012

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It didn’t matter to President Garfield that presidents had been shot at since Jackson, in 1835, and even killed, as President Lincoln was, sixteen years before. As the leader of a free republic, he felt he ought to be able to walk freely, without bodyguards, among his fellow citizens.” He wasn’t worried, then, when he received a letter warning that he was in serious danger …

“The letter of Mr. Hudson of Detroit… came duly to hand. I do not think there is any serious danger in the direction to which he refers. Though I am receiving, what I suppose to be the usual number of threatening letters on that subject. Assassination can no more be guarded against than death by lightning and it is not best to worry about either…”

An engraving of James A. Garfield's assassination, published in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper. Published on 16 July 1881. Images of American Political History.

Garfield wasn’t worried, either, as he walked through the Baltimore and Potomac Railway Depot on the morning of July 2nd, 1881, heading for the train platform, on his way to leave Washington for his summer vacation. What he was, was surprised, when from a yard away, the assassin Charles Guiteau fired, twice, into his back. “My God!” the President cried, “What is this?”

When, over two agonizing months later, Garfield died of his wounds – and medical malpractice – on September 19, 1881, he became the second President to be assassinated. But it would take a third death, McKinley’s, before presidents were systemically and continuously protected – and even so, there have been five attempts, and one assassination, since.

Garfield’s shooting wasn’t, however, the only irony of that terrible day. Present at the depot, waiting on the train platform to see him off, was Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln who, having been on hand for his father’s assassination and destined, years later, to be on hand at McKinley’s, would there catch his second. The awful distinction of having been, then, on hand for three presidential assassinations, is his alone – and eventually, legend has it, he wouldn’t attend any presidential functions at all. He brought, he believed, bad luck.

JAMES A. GARFIELD. 1831 – 1881. The 20th President of the United States.

Autograph Letter Signed (“J.A. Garfield”), as President-Elect, 2 pages, octavo, Mentor, Ohio, November 16, 1880. To Treasury Secretary John Sherman.

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