“Murder Most Foul”


Two more operations somewhat like the first were undertaken, and on August 6 the President again rallied—until August 14, when he had another high fever, which also subsided. The President begged for a change of scene. The Garfields had always been great believers in sea air, and the doctors agreed that he could go to Elberon, New Jersey. Streetcar tracks over which the horse-drawn ambulance had to pass to the station were packed with sawdust to prevent jolting. The President’s bed was placed on heavy springs in a car cooled by iceboxes, and the train zipped along, sometimes at almost eighty miles an hour. Too fast? the President was asked. “Oh, no, let her go,” he said.

And after the train rolled up over a special spur to a borrowed cottage, he did begin to rally once more. He even dismissed three of his doctors, and sent Harry and James off to enter Williams College, as he had planned. But he was very weak, and pitifully shrunken. Often he could take only liquid nourishment, and frequently he vomited. The doctors watched apprehensively. On September 17, the President had another “severe rigor,” with chills and fever.

Now Garfield asked for a writing tablet. With his left hand, he wrote his autograph and added three words in Latin, which made it clear that he knew he was dying—and also, why: “ Strangulatus pro Republica .” The following day he asked his secretary, “Old boy! Do you think my name will have a place in human history?” Colonel Rockwell answered, “Yes, a grand one, but a grander one in human hearts. Old fellow, you mustn’t talk in that way. You have a great work yet to perform.”

“No,” said the President after a moment. “My work is done.” The next morning, September 19, his temperature was almost 109 degrees. At 10:35 P.M. Dr. Bliss raised his head from his patient’s chest and said, “It is over.” And now autopsy found the hidden enemy at last. The bullet, although not quite where the doctors had supposed it to be, was harmless in itself. But a huge blood clot, almost the size of a fist, had formed within the congested bullet track and worked its way out by rupturing the splenal artery and finally breaking through the peritoneum into the abdominal cavity. It was at this point, the physicians believed, that death occurred; they listed a secondary hemorrhage as the immediate cause.

With X ray, antibiotics, anticoagulants, and other remedies not then available, Garfield’s life could almost certainly have been saved. But with the equipment they had, the physicians were probably right not to attempt a deep probe, and instead to let their patient’s strong constitution and serene temperament fight the battle. Unhappily, these were not enough.

As the bells of New York’s old church, St. Paul’s, and of All Souls in Washington began to toll simultaneously at 10:50 P.M. , people wept at home, or sought each other’s company. The Court of England, in an unprecedented gesture, declared a week’s mourning. At the Capitol, where the President’s body lay in state, mourners waited an average of three and one-half hours in line. It was the funeral train, however, that provided the closest link with the people. As she accompanied Garfield’s body back to Washington, his widow—just as Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt would do on a similar journey in 1945—kept pushing back the window curtains to see the crowds of mourners at every crossing. From Washington to Cleveland, where the funeral was to be held, the train frequently passed over flower-strewn tracks, between kneeling Civil War veterans and workmen who stood at intervals holding pine torches through the night. The funeral procession in Cleveland was six miles long.

There was no electronic means to permit national participation in the funeral services at Cleveland, but the public flocked, at the same hour, to their own houses of worship, following frequently the same order of service. Many a stirring sermon was preached, and published. “Unmurmuring Submission” was the title of one.

But the people’s mood was a long way from unmurmuring submission. They thought they knew what had killed Garfield, and their demand for civil service reform, which would end control of their federal government by political bosses, became irresistible. Within two years the former spoilsman, now President, Chester A. Arthur, recommended to Congress passage of the country’s first civil service law; it was enacted in 1883.

Another direct consequence, of course, was the trial of Charles J. Guiteau for murder. It was one of the most spectacular, and revealing, trials ever held in this country. The three other accused assassins of Presidents have told us almost nothing. Death silenced both John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald before they could be brought to trial. Leon F. Czolgosz, the anarchist sympathizer who shot McKinley, was swiftly executed after a trial lasting little more than eight hours. But Charles J. Guiteau told all. In him stand revealed all the messianic traits and the delusions of persecution that so often have marked assassins throughout history.