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“Murder Most Foul”
Two shots rang out in the railroad station, and the President of the United States slumped to the floor, mortally wounded
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
It was the same man Kearney had noticed earlier querying a hack driver about getting away in a hurry—a slender, sallow man with thin, dark-brown whiskers. He had been loitering around the station since before nine o’clock. He was Charles Guiteau, age thirty-nine, accurately described by the New York Times as “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 of the country.” In Washington, he had been known for not paying his bills at a succession of boarding houses, and in recent weeks he had begun to look almost like a tramp. Yet for this occasion he had managed a clean suit and a shoeshine. There was twenty cents in his pocket.
Now he declaimed, “I did it and will go to jail for it. I am a Stalwart and Arthur will be President.” The Stalwarts were the anti-reform wing of the Republican party, including the political bosses and spoilsmen with whom Garfield had recently been at odds, and Vice President Chester A. Arthur was of their number. “The President’s tragic death was a sad necessity, but it will unite the Republican Party and save the Republic,” said a letter found in Guiteau’s pocket. It was soon evident that he really did intend to go to jail. It was in anticipation of mob violence that he had arranged with a hack driver to take him away from the station, so that he could make his way later to the safety of jail. He had already been to the jail, in fact, to look it over in advance, and had decided that it would do. Some days earlier, when Garfield took his convalescent wife to New Jersey, Guiteau had planned to kill him at the station but had been touched, then, by Lucretia’s frailty and by the obvious affection between husband and wife. He had also spied on the President in church—which seemed an ideal place for anyone to die—but had not drawn his gun for fear of hitting innocent persons. In recent weeks Guiteau had been sitting night after night on a bench in Lafayette Park, facing the White House, waiting for the President to appear, trying to make up his mind to shoot. He had no doubt been there on the evening of June 30 while Garfield had been speaking to Robert Todd Lincoln about his father’s assassination.
A few minutes after Guiteau had been led away, the first physicians arrived, among them the District of Columbia Health Officer, Dr. Smith Townsend. He found the President still on the depot floor, still in shock. He administered half an ounce of brandy and aromatic spirits of ammonia, and ordered him carried upstairs and laid on a mattress in an office. Secretary Lincoln, meanwhile, had summoned Dr. D. W. Bliss, a physician who was a lifelong friend and old neighbor of Garfield’s in Ohio. Bliss made the first examination of the President. One bullet had only grazed an arm, but the other had entered his back near the spine. He was extremely pale, apparently in “perfect collapse,” and his pulse was feeble and fast. He had vomited and was sweating freely, but he was now fully conscious and complained of “a sense of weight and numbness,” and of pain in his legs. Bliss gently probed the wound, but under the circumstances did not feel it safe to press down far. He ordered the President removed to the White House, and temporary dressings were applied.
Meanwhile the wounded man asked his private secretary, Colonel Rockwell, to send a telegram to Mrs. Garfield in New Jersey: “The President wishes me to say to you from him that he has been seriously hurt—how seriously he cannot yet say. He is himself and hopes you will come to him soon. He sends his love to you.” Rockwell also arranged for a special train to bring Lucretia Garfield back to Washington, and then he telegraphed her, on his own, the comforting words spoken by young Congressman Garfield sixteen years before: “God reigns, and the Government at Washington still lives.”
At 10:45 A.M., a police ambulance took Garfield home, followed by silent crowds who watched outside the White House as, to quote the Times , “the large fine form of the President was tenderly lifted from the vehicle, with the pallor of death stamped on his countenance.” Looking up at the windows, Garfield recognized familiar faces, smiled, and raised his hand in military salute.