- Historic Sites
“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
In downtown Washington, meanwhile, mobs—encouraged by premature obituaries in several papers—threatened to storm the jail where Guiteau was held; Secretary Lincoln sent troops to guard it. The District police were now clustered at the White House; Lincoln also arranged for troops to relieve them, so that they could prevent any rioting. Inside the White House, Garfield’s bloodstained clothing was cut away and he was put to bed comfortably at last, more than two hours after the shooting. When an attendant, sent out for a pint of brandy, returned with two pints, the President joked that he was getting a double allowance. (He was personally quite abstemious in his use of alcohol but had bitterly resented the attempts of Prohibitionists to enforce tee-totalism on the White House.) Around three o’clock, when fifteen-year-old Jimmy broke into tears, his father said quietly, “Jimmy, my son, hope for the best … the upper story is all right; it is only the hull that is a little damaged.” But when Dr. Bliss told him, “I do not think you can live many hours,” Garfield said, “I’m ready to go if my time has come.”
The house was full of visitors all day long. The Cabinet wives organized themselves into a nursing committee; their husbands could only wait. Secretary Lincoln, who had don,e such a good job all day, remembered his talk with Garfield two nights before and now exclaimed, “My God, how many hours of sorrow I have passed in this town!” Blaine was watching as the weeping Mrs. Garfield arrived about 7 P.M. , and young Jimmy rushed out to greet her, pulling her close and whispering softly to her as they walked upstairs to the sickroom. Blaine, at this sight, broke down. But Lucretia Garfield, who stayed with her husband about fifteen minutes, said afterward that it was the President’s calmness that restored her own composure. “Go now and rest,” he told her. “I shall want you near me when the crisis comes.” The doctors now expected that he might die in half an hour. “The bullet has pierced his liver,” they stated—erroneously—“and it is a fatal wound.”
By evening, shock waves had spread throughout the country. In most of the larger cities, shops and offices closed, and huge crowds gathered outside newspaper offices. In London, 500 Americans went to the Embassy to sign a message of sympathy for Mrs. Garfield, and Queen Victoria asked to be kept informed.
Yet the President did not die that night. With the aid of morphine, he slept. His eliminations became normal, and the liver theory was abandoned. Sunday morning, July 3, respiration and temperature were nearly normal, too, and he seemed rested and cheerful. Awed by his natural powers of recuperation, the doctors decided to leave well enough alone for the time being; they did not press the search for the bullet. On the morning of the Fourth of July, Americans saw with immense relief that the flags were still not at half-staff. Yet the doctors had been so pessimistic that Garfield was still assumed to be dying. It was decided to break the news to his old and failing mother in Ohio. She inquired of a reporter, “How could anybody be so cold-hearted as to want to kill my baby?”
He was her youngest child—the last President to be born in a log cabin, in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, in 1831. She once described his infancy in unaffected pioneer style. “The largest Babe I ever had, He looked like a red Irishman, a very large Head and Shoulders & Body equal to the Head and Shoulders. He was a very good-natured child, he walked when he was nine Months old, when ten months old he would climb the fence, go up the ladder a dozen times a day, he never was still a minute at a time in his whole life.” Without changing very much, James had climbed the ladder to the top.
His mother was widowed when he was a small child, and before he was sixteen the boy was mowing hayfields, earning a man’s wages of a dollar a day. Once, after reading a work entitled The Pirate’s Own Book , and having glimpsed the great ships sailing on Lake Erie, he ran away to become a canal boy. In six weeks he licked a deck-hand bully twice his age, fell overboard and almost drowned, caught malaria, and came home—hoping to go back to the canal. But his mother, he wrote, “captured me.” This she did by never once reproving him. She “simply went about her duties quietly and permitted things to work themselves out.” This would be his own preferred method in politics, too. But he matured slowly.