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“Murder Most Foul”

May 2024
23min read

Two shots rang out in the railroad station, and the President of the United States slumped to the floor, mortally wounded

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.


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.

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.

“I was a very pulpy boy until I was at least twenty-two years old,” he remarked once after examining his youthful writings of “slush and gush.” At eighteen, he had joined the Disciples of Christ, an earnest sect that left its mark upon him. The Disciples largely avoided the hysteria and hell-fire preaching of the time, and laid great stress upon human rights, welfare, and education; they established several schools and colleges. Through one of these, the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, young James began to work his way. He preached on Sundays, and drifted steadily toward the ministry—until he transferred to Williams. Here, too, he paid his way, with a little help from his remarkable mother and a sixty-dollar loan from Mark Hopkins. He also learned to have fun, at college foolishness and at mountain climbing. (“I think you are in danger of being too sober and sensible and may get old too fast,” he later cautioned a young Disciples friend he was helping through college.) Returning to Ohio, he taught at the institute, married Lucretia—a childhood playmate—and served briefly in the state senate until the Civil War swept him into a wider world. Elected commander of a volunteer regiment, he studied tactics and strategy—not, of course, neglecting Julius Caesar—while the boys drilled. He was a better-than-average field commander. He was elected to Congress from the Nineteenth Ohio District in the fall of 1862, while still in the Army; and he continued to serve, reaching the rank of major general before taking his seat in Washington in December, 1863. Even then he was somewhat reluctant; but Lincoln, who had good use for a Republican congressman with a knowledge of military affairs, urged him to resign from the Army. He complied.

It is easy to see why the Ohio voters kept sending Garfield to Congress. He was almost the embodiment of the Western Reserve itself, which had moved far beyond its log-cabin days. Though it favored the advance of science and education as the basis for a better material life for all, Cuyahoga County wanted no part of the scandalous Gilded Age that sprang up in Washington, New York, and Newport after the Civil War. Garfield, with his practical idealism, was their man. “The hand of God has been visible,” he would tell the House, “… leading us by degrees out of our prejudices to see that the fortunes of the Republic and the safety of the party of liberty are inseparably bound up with the rights of the black man.” He opposed monopolies, hoped for an eventual world of free trade, backed the sound dollar against greenbacks. He introduced a bill establishing a federal office of education, and another to appropriate funds for the Naval Observatory to observe “the transit of Venus” (a subject upon which his conservative opponents were unbearably witty).

He was probably the best-read man in Congress. He could mentally escape from a dull sermon by translating an ode of Horace; but he also read new books constantly, in trains and omnibuses. “Give me something to read I don’t know about,” he used to tell the Librarian of Congress before starting a journey. He had an engaging way of expecting other people to share his enthusiasms. When the novelist William Dean Howells visited the Garfields in Ohio, and began to talk on their porch one evening about poets he had known, the Congressman could not contain himself. He jumped up and ran across the grass, waving his arms wildly toward all the neighboring porches. “Come on over!” he shouted. “He’s telling about Holmes and Longfellow and Lowell and Whittier.” Obediently, the shadowy figures of his neighbors followed him to the house. “Now go on,” Garfield told his guest.

Like John F. Kennedy, Garfield won the presidential election by a tiny margin—9,464 votes out of over nine million cast—and to the country at large he was not very well known. His legislative box score, in the four months since his inauguration, was virtually zero. Yet the proper test of a Presidency, John Kenneth Galbraith recently observed, is not legislation but the progress made in “dealing with those grievances and reversing those trends which otherwise could destroy us.” And this test Garfield had already begun to pass.

There was then no civil service through which federal jobs were filled, and all appointments were controlled either by political bosses who used them to build the power of their own machines, or by the White House itself. This had been Garfield’s particular bête noire. Of course, as a seasoned congressman he was quite used to dispensing government jobs, but on a retail rather than a wholesale level. Some weeks before the shooting, he wrote that the torrent of White House job seekers “swept away my day … I felt like crying out in the agony of my soul against the greed for office and the consumption of my time.” He himself had never had to ask for a job in his life, and he soon came to hate the “Spartan band of disciplined office hunters who drew papers on me as highwaymen draw pistols.” He had predicted, in fact, that civil service reform would come by necessity after “the wearisome years of wasted Presidents have paved the way for it.”

But this was not the worst of the grievance, for the power of the political bosses and the spoils system always went hand in hand. Among the Democrats, Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall had but lately died in prison after looting New York City of uncounted millions. Among the Republicans the leading bosses were Senators Roscoe Conkling and Thomas C. Platt of New York, who during the two weak administrations of President Grant had virtually run the party and with it much of the country, exercising a veto power over all important federal appointments in New York. They had been temporarily set back by the one-term, reform administration of Rutherford B. Hayes, which had split the party. In 1880, Garfield had been chosen as a compromise candidate who could patch things up between the Stalwarts and the other Republican factions, and win—which he had just barely done.


After his inauguration the country watched to see if he would knuckle under to the bosses. At first he seemed to, filling major appointments from a list approved by Senators Conkling and Platt. But when he came to the Collector of Customs, a choice plum in New York State, he decided to draw the line. Without consulting the two senators, he switched the incumbent Collector to a diplomatic post and sent his own nomination to the Senate.

“This,” he said, “brings on the contest at once and will settle whether the President is registering clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the United States.” If Conkling should attack, the President promised, “he will find it no rose-water war.” The public was delighted to see its big, good-natured schoolmaster President stand up to a bully, as the canal boy long ago had done. Messages poured into Washington. (“My Dear Sir, Stick. The Constitution, the Lord God and the People are with you.”) It was soon clear that the Senate would confirm the President’s nominee, and the disgruntled Senators Conkling and Platt resigned.

It was thus a popular President who lay wounded in the White House in 1881, and a most unpopular assailant, the unsuccessful job seeker Guiteau, who settled comfortably in the District jail. The press was already raving, on this sad Fourth of July. “ MURDERED BY THE SPOILS SYSTEM !” exclaimed the angry New York Tribune .

But the President, as a matter of fact, seemed to be improving. He received visitors daily, giving each a smile and a firm handshake. After July 9, when the doctors reported him actually on the road to recovery, even the job seekers returned. How many were admitted to the sickroom is not known. But nothing could keep the job seekers away, not even a grave series of crises which developed as summer advanced.

The doctors soon reported discharges of pus, which they called “of healthy nature,” but the wound was not draining well. A channel descending toward the groin, which the doctors mistook for the track of the bullet, was really formed by pus that had not been able to drain out. On July 23 the patient had a “severe rigor,” his temperature rising to 104 degrees. To improve drainage, the doctors removed a small piece of bone from a rib the bullet had fractured. It was apparently not thought safe to place the President under ether, but during this painful operation he did not murmur or complain. “Never had physician such a patient before,” remarked Dr. Bliss. A small platoon of distinguished doctors was usually in attendance, but Dr. Bliss, whom Garfield had personally asked to take charge of his case, stayed close by the President night and day.

It was very hot in Washington in the summer of 1881; the public, reading the weather bulletins, suffered for their suffering President. They subscribed more than a quarter of a million dollars to a benefit fund for his family. They sent hundreds of letters and telegrams daily, with much medical advice. There was great fear lest the Potomac flats, traditionally called Foggy Bottom, should cause malaria, and Garfield was given quinine daily. The state of the White House itself caused anxiety. Rotten timbers in its basement and green, slimy brickwork were vividly described in Congress. A distinguished engineer came to look at the venerable plumbing.


Everyone tried to help. Alexander Graham Bell produced an electrical device, with primary and secondary coils, an interrupter, and a telephone hearing-piece, to locate the bullet in the President’s body. The results were inconclusive, perhaps because of the metal bedsprings. It was not thought advisable to probe and remove the bullet. “We suspected and dreaded some internal injury which no mortal could have dared to explore,” said Dr. Bliss. An air-conditioning unit put together by a specialist in ventilating mine shafts was more successful. Lengths of drenched cotton sheeting drawn tight on frames, an iron chest with 500 pounds of salted ice, and a fan turning at 1,400 revolutions per minute were the essentials of a system that forced cool air, purified by charcoal, into the upstairs bedroom. Its temperature was kept at 81 degrees or lower, a remarkable achievement.

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.

“I come here in the capacity of an agent of the Deity in this matter,” he declared to Judge Walter S. Cox, of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, at the opening of the trial on November 14. For two and a half months he ranted on. Sometimes the Judge reprimanded him severely, but for the most part Guiteau was allowed to have his say. (Cox, it was noted, had been counsel to two of John Wilkes Booth’s associates in 1865 and was determined that this time there would be a full and fair trial, as had hardly been the case before.) Many of the facts of Guiteau’s fantastic life were already known, and others came out, in garbled and distorted form, during his ravings.

It was just about a month before the shooting that Guiteau had at last been turned away, not only from the executive offices which he had been haunting but from the White House front door. He was one of the most persistent as well as preposterous job hunters who had ever come to Washington. Yet his interest in politics was really quite recent. He had turned to it after having failed at everything else.

Ten years younger than the President, Guiteau had grown up in Freeport, Illinois, the son of a respectable Republican, a bank cashier with only one marked eccentricity: the senior Guiteau was a devout follower of the Reverend John H. Noyes, founder of the Oneida Community, a collective farm where not only Christian communism but plural marriage and eugenic breeding were practiced, and where strange theories of divine inspiration were preached. Here young Guiteau, who had been a restless boy unable to settle down and concentrate, arrived in 1860. He was given unpleasant jobs in the kitchen and workshops, but apparently found some satisfaction in the religious teachings and the companionship of the female members; he stayed throughout the Civil War. In April, 1865, he went to New York City with, as he put it, “the Bible for my textbook and the Holy Ghost for my schoolmaster.” He lived over a bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey, on a subsistence diet, claiming to be in the employ of “Jesus Christ & Co.” and drafting plans for a chain of religious dailies. Nothing came of that.

After another stay at Oneida and another unsuccessful sojourn in New York, Guiteau decided to try Chicago. There he managed to pass the bar—then a relatively simple matter—and practiced as debt collector, keeping for himself most of the money he collected. He met, and married, a good-looking sixteen-year-old girl who worked in a Y.M.C.A. library. Periodically he and his young wife were thrown out of their lodgings for nonpayment, or fled voluntarily just before rent day. He left a chain of bills at hotels, lodginghouses, and haberdasheries across the country. He never paid railroad fare, usually telling the conductor, “I am travelling for the Lord.” If this didn’t work, he would get off at the next station. After almost five years of this uncertain life, his wife divorced him for adultery; he did not deny that he had spent some of her money on prostitutes, and had caught syphilis.

About 1876 Guiteau began to attend prayer meetings of the Moody and Sankey revivals in Chicago, where he served as an usher and was sometimes permitted to preach. This started a new phase of his career. Now, wherever he could rent a hall or borrow a church, he began to lecture on the Second Coming, giving as his own the doctrines he had learned from the Reverend Mr. Noyes at Oneida. His audiences were sometimes a hundred or more, sometimes only two or three. He also sold copies of a book called The Truth , in which he plagiarized Noyes’ ideas. But in the spring of 1880, having done poorly with a lecture called “Some Reasons Why Two-Thirds of the Human Race Are Going Down to Perdition,” he began to be interested in the coming GOP national convention.

He expected General Grant to be nominated for a third term, and wrote a campaign speech intended for him. When Garfield was nominated instead, it was not difficult to revise the speech. Guiteau had copies printed and took them, uninvited, to an August meeting of Republican leaders at the old Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York. No one used the speech in the campaign—it was dreadful. But he did get from the politicians a few kind words, and somehow conceived the notion that the GOP owed him a job.

His days in Washington, where he arrived on borrowed money on March 5, 1881, were discouraging and lonely, but he persisted. Once, pushing his way through a crowd of office seekers, he managed to see Garfield, who was of course courteous, and gave the President a copy of his speech. (He also sent him at least four other copies.) First, Guiteau asked for an ambassadorship; then for the consulship at Paris. In the White House he would help himself to stationery, write a note (“Can I have the Paris consulship?”), and leave it with a clerk. He also pestered Grant, Blaine, and Vice President Chester A. Arthur, and he asked many members of Congress to sign a petition on his behalf to obtain the consulship—with complete failure.

After he was barred from the White House door sometime in May, Guiteau wrote a vaguely threatening letter to Garfield—of the kind the Secret Service would automatically be notified of today. It went unanswered. And it was, naturally, about this time that he turned against Garfield and began to brood about the President’s “removal,” as he called it. On June 8, borrowing fifteen dollars from a cousin, he purchased a 44-caliber British revolver with a white bone handle. (A cheaper model was available with a wooden handle but, he said later, he wanted one that would look well in a museum.)


“That will make a good noise,” Guiteau told the gun-seller, who replied, “That will kill a horse.” Guiteau, who had never fired a gun, went to some woods along the Potomac and practiced shooting at trees. Thereafter he began to haunt the President.

His trial was a spectacle. Crowded every day, the courtroom often resounded to boos and laughter. At first, Guiteau was allowed to receive visitors in his cell. He demanded that President Arthur, since he had achieved office by the “removal,” should contribute funds for his defense. He attacked witnesses, the prosecutors, even his own attorneys, who were led by George Scoville, his brother-in-law. The defense plan was to plead insanity—but Guiteau demolished his own case by telling an alienist in jail, before the trial, “I knew from the time I conceived the act if I could establish the fact before a jury that I believed the killing was an inspired act, I could not be held to responsibility before the law.”

Perhaps the most important parts of Guiteau’s sayings and writings are those that reveal how verbal violence, following Garfield’s defiance of Conkling and Platt, had given the assassin the backbone he otherwise lacked to commit murder. Garfield had not, of course, defeated the Stalwart bosses without causing fierce controversy. A marked editorial from the Brooklyn Eagle , found in Guiteau’s pocket after he shot the President, had predicted the disintegration of the Republican party. Guiteau said, “After I saw the President and General Grant and Conkling and that kind of men were wrestling and at loggerheads, I saw that this nation was coming to grief.” Enough Americans agreed with him so that he sometimes received in his prison cell as many as a hundred favorable letters and telegrams a day. Others so thoroughly detested him that while in custody he was twice shot at. Once one of his own guards fired at Guiteau; the bullet missed its mark. Again, an assailant on horseback fired into the police van which was taking the prisoner between jail and courtroom.

On January 25, 1882, after only about an hour’s deliberation, the jury found Guiteau guilty. He was hanged on June 30, exactly one year after Garfield had talked with Robert Todd Lincoln about his father’s assassination. Guiteau was allowed to recite on the scaffold a poem he had written that morning, purporting to be the words of a dying child; he told reporters that it would sound better if set to music. It went in part,

I saved my party and my land; Glory Hallelujah! But they have murdered me for it And that is the reason I am going to the Lordy. Glory Hallelujah! Glory Hallelujah! I am going to the Lordy.

He was still saying “Glory,” as the trap was sprung.

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