- Historic Sites
My Friend Garfield
One summer brought excitement and glory to the young secretary of a political leader. How could he know that the next one would brim with tragedy?
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
Late in May there were six million dollars of United States registered bonds to be sent to London. It appeared that the custom had grown up of making such tasks a junket for worthy citizens selected by the Treasury or by the President. The latter asked Mrs. Garfield, who was recovering from a serious illness, if she cared to name a candidate. She replied, “Why do you not send your private secretary? From his looks I should say he needed a vacation badly,” and that is how I happened to make my first trip to Europe. Whatever success I have had in life is largely due to the constant kindness of that marvelous friend, Mrs. Garfield.
It is true that the old converted side-wheeler City of Berlin had to be utilized for my trip; that my room companion was an incessant and annoying drinker; that only seven days were available for seeing London, and that our kindly consul general insisted on taking me to see the musical comedy Jeanne, Jeannette and Jeanneton at the Alhambra, which I detested; nevertheless it was a delightful, educational experience and I returned greatly rested. I reported for duty on the last one of my thirty days’ leave of absence. In view of the tragic episode which was soon to occur it was fortunate that I had this bracer. On the evening of my return I saw the President and breakfasted with him the following morning when many things were gone over, as he was to start that day on his first holiday. It was to include a visit, with his entire family, to his Alma Mater at Williamstown, Massachusetts. He was looking forward to it with an almost pathetic longing. Leaving the breakfast table, I went to my office. The force had kept the decks clear of business during my absence and I quickly fell into the usual routine. It was near midsummer [Saturday, July 2, 1881]. Congress was not in session, and as practically all the loaves and fishes had been divided among the faithful by this time there were few visitors. About the middle of the morning my door opened, and the President, accompanied by Secretary of State Blaine, stepped into the room. The carriage was waiting, and my chief had graciously come to say good-bye. Never have I seen two finer looking specimens of men. Clad in attractive, well-valeted summer suits, they appeared, as they smilingly said their farewell, almost debonair or rather like two splendid college boys off for a joyous lark. The President’s last words, the last I ever heard him speak [before his injury], were, “Goodbye my boy. You have had your holiday, now I am going to have mine. Keep a watchful eye on things and use the telegraph freely if necessary.” With a friendly handclasp, he went to his ghastly fate.
In about half an hour one of the doormen came haltingly and timidly to my desk and said, “Mr. Secretary, there is a rumor that the President has been shot.” I seemed suddenly congealed but managed to say with only a fairly good imitation of nonchalance, “Nonsense! The President has no enemies and the story cannot possibly be true,” but even as I said the words there flashed through my mind the memory of the terrific clash between the President and the Conkling group over federal patronage and the possibility of sinister consequences. The thought was promptly dismissed as not only fantastic but unjust to the senator. Hardly had the doorman retired abashed by my rebuff when the mounted messenger, Sheridan, literally staggered to my desk, saying, “Oh, Mr. Secretary, it’s true, they are bringing the President to the White House now.” A disordered mind [Charles J. Guiteau], influenced perhaps by the recent acrimonious contest, did a deed in a second which plunged a nation into gloom, brought the deepest anguish to a loving and devoted family, and condemned a gallant gentleman to eighty days of suffering and ultimate death. No experience of mine in after life offered such a shock. The temple had fallen, and the idols lay shattered.
Even in moments of greatest misery, homely tasks have to be performed, and perhaps they tide us over the worst. The steward was told to prepare a room and bed with all speed. I ordered the gates of the grounds closed, telegraphed the chief of police for a temporary but adequate detail of officers, and requested the War Department to take charge of the proper protection of the situation especially as it affected the Commander in Chief of the Army. Instructions were issued that only officials and newspaper men were to be admitted, and they were given passes which ensured them access at all times to my office in order that full and accurate information could be given to the public. The President had been placed on a pile of mattresses commandeered from a Pullman car and arranged in an express wagon. From the windows, we watched the slowly moving improvised ambulance. Just before it reached the White House I went to the south portico to receive my wounded chief, and as they bore him carefully up the stairway his hand feebly moved in recognition and around his lips hovered a wan smile.
The Executive Mansion was quickly organized into a miniature hospital. All the pomp and circumstance of the previous days vanished. The affectionate interest of a great nation was centered around the sufferer’s bed.