“Murder Most Foul”


Early on the morning of July 2, 1881, President James A. Garfield was awakened in the White House by his two older sons, Harry, seventeen, and James, fifteen. Their mood was sportive, for they were all about to leave on a vacation together. They challenged their father to jump over the bed. Garfield, whom Thomas Wolfe included in that procession of “gravely vacant and bewhiskered faces” between Lincoln and McKinley, was indeed bewhiskered. But he was not a stuffed shirt: he jumped over the bed.

Others of the President’s five children were with their mother at Elberon, New Jersey. Here Lucretia Garfield, to whom he had been happily married for almost a quarter of a century, was recuperating by the seashore from a month-long siege of malaria that had proved nearly fatal. Her recovery was yet another reason for rejoicing in the prospect of this happy day. First, the family planned to do a little yachting at a millionaire’s estate on the Hudson; then they would proceed to Williamstown, Massachusetts, where Garfield was to speak at the commencement exercises of his alma mater, Williams College. It would be the twenty-fifth reunion of the President’s class. Best of all, his old friend and personal hero, Mark Hopkins, who was still teaching at Williams, would go with them afterward into the White Mountains for some climbing. Garfield, who had taught school himself, liked to say that his idea of a college education was “Mark Hopkins on one end of a log and a student on the other.” He wanted his two boys to meet Hopkins.

Now, after breakfast at the White House, the door was opened for them by Thomas Pendel, a curly-headed, stately Negro who often recalled that he had opened the door on an April night in 1865, when Abraham and Mary Lincoln had left for an evening at the theatre. On this July morning the presidential party, including several members of the Cabinet who were to see the Garfields off, travelled briskly to the railroad depot, at the site now occupied by the National Gallery of Art. At 9:20 A.M. a policeman opened the carriage door; when the President asked how much time they had, he answered, “About ten minutes, sir.” So Garfield sat chatting sociably with Secretary of State James G. Blaine.

There was still no Secret Service, and, just as in Lincoln’s time, the safety of the President was left to the local police. But Officer Patrick Kearney, on guard by the carriage, was sober, conscientious, and intelligent. He was no doubt sorry that Garfield had come so early, for there was something else he wanted to do. A few minutes before, he had overheard a stranger outside the depot ask a hack driver if he could “get away from the station in a hurry.” The man had looked respectable, but Kearney had thought the remark vaguely suspect and would have liked to investigate. There was no chance for it now.

Garfield himself had never—with one recent and striking exception—shown any particular concern about his safety. He had been President only four months, but he had been in public life since 1863 as congressman from Ohio, and before that had displayed personal courage on the field of battle. The risk of assassination, he had written to a friend the previous November, “can no more be guarded against than death by lightning; and it is not best to worry about either.” However, just two nights before this July 2, he had done an uncharacteristic thing. He had asked his Secretary of War, who was Robert Todd Lincoln, to sit down and describe in detail the assassination of his famous father. Garfield had never been personally very close to his Secretary of War. The President belonged to the liberal wing of the Republican party; Lincoln, a corporation lawyer, was a conservative and sat in the Cabinet chiefly because of his illustrious name. But of course he complied with the President’s request, and for more than an hour, from his store of painful memories, answered questions. He may have told the story that Lincoln himself, shortly before his death, had dreamed of hearing weeping in the White House, seeing a coffin there, and asking a soldier who it was. “The President,” the dream soldier had replied.

Now the ten minutes until train time was almost up. Garfield and Blaine descended and entered the ladies’ waiting room at the B Street entrance of the station, walking arm in arm toward the main waiting room.

At the door between the two waiting rooms they disengaged, and the President walked ahead—but only for a step or so. Suddenly two quick shots rang out close behind him. He cried out, “My God, what is this?” and collapsed, bleeding heavily, as Blaine leaped to his aid. The station had been sparsely occupied, and there was little commotion. A station janitor called police and doctors. Officer Kearney, meanwhile, had quickly arrested the assailant, who in fact made no great effort to escape.