An 1881 political cartoon depicting Charles Guiteau demanding a political appointment at gunpoint. (Image: Public domain)
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.  

This week’s entry: Assassination of James Garfield

What it’s about: James A. Garfield is one of our lesser-known presidents, having only held office for four months before being shot by “disappointed office-seeker” Charles Guiteau on July 2, 1881. He died two months later, and was as likely killed by incompetent doctors as the assassin’s bullet.

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Strangest fact: Twitter user @crushingbort once looked back fondly on “that one time we shoved whiskey and beef bouillon up a president’s butt until he died.” While Garfield wasn’t expected to live through the night, he survived for 80 days, convalescing first at the White House, and then at the Jersey Shore, where doctors thought the fresh air would do him good. As was common practice at the time, his doctors reached into the wound with unwashed fingers and unsterilized instruments to remove the bullet. (Preventing infection was a new-fangled medical practice most doctors put no stock in in the 1880s.) They failed to locate it, as they were looking on the wrong side of his body. (Even when Alexander Graham Bell invented a metal detector to locate the bullet, Garfield’s doctors insisted he only scan the right side of the president’s body.) All their efforts succeeded in doing was give Garfield a nasty infection that killed him.

As his condition worsened, Wikipedia, somewhat less colorfully than @crushingbort, reports that “nutrient enemas were given,” to try and get nutrients into Garfield’s system. In fact, the New York Times article Bort links to suggests the doctors believed the bullet had pierced his intestines (it hadn’t), and limited his food intake, insisting that feeding him rectally would be more effective (it wasn’t). They inserted “beef bouillon, egg yolks, milk, whiskey and drops of opium in this manner,” which is pretty horrific malpractice by modern standards, unless you have a very specific fetish. Garfield lost over 75 pounds, while also fighting off the infection the doctors gave him, dying of blood poisoning, bronchial pneumonia, and a ruptured splenic artery aneurysm on September 19, 1881.

Garfield’s coffin lying in state in the Capitol Rotunda. (Photo: Public domain)

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Biggest controversy: Guiteau immortalized the phrase “disappointed office-seeker,” as that’s generally given as his motivation for killing President Garfield. But it’s a bit more complicated than that. In the run-up to the 1880 election, the Republican Party was split over the issue of political patronage. Jobs in the federal government were generally handed out by political supporters, and Ulysses S. Grant’s administration had been rife with corruption as a result. His successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, pushed a series of civil service reforms during his one term. Now the Republican Party was deeply divided on patronage. Anti-corruption voters rallied around House Speaker James Blaine. Pro-corruption voters (known as Stalwarts) wanted to nominate Grant for an unprecedented nonconsecutive third term. Then-Senate Minority Leader Garfield supported Treasury Secretary John Sherman, also anti-corruption. But when Blaine and Grant were deadlocked at the convention, and Garfield made a rousing speech supporting the third-place Sherman, Garfield became the compromise choice. To appease the Stalwarts, he named Chester A. Arthur, a consummate machine politician who had lost a very lucrative job running New York’s Customs House to Hayes’ reforms.

A monument to Garfield in Washington, D.C., across the street from where he was shot. (Photo: Public domain)

So, Guiteau didn’t just shoot Garfield because he himself couldn’t score a cushy patronage job. He wanted to strike a blow for corrupt politicians everywhere. “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts!” he declared after surrendering to the police. “I did it and I want to be arrested! Arthur is president now!” His plan backfired, however, when Arthur, horrified that a Stalwart would resort to murdering the president, turned his back on that faction and continued Garfield’s work toward reforming the system, which ended up being his signature achievement as president.

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A side note: Guiteau was arrested by Patrick Kearney, a police officer who ran into the train station where the shooting took place, just as Guiteau was running out. Between his shock that the president had been shot, and excitement at apprehending the assassin, Kearney forgot to take Guiteau’s gun away and he remained armed until he got to the local police station!

Thing we were happiest to learn: Garfield could have been a good president. As Garfield’s own page explains, one of his chief concerns was the plight of African-Americans, since his predecessor Hayes abruptly ended Reconstruction. Garfield gave several prominent political appointments to African-Americans, including Frederick Douglass, and planned a federally funded system of universal public education, which he believed would help former slaves who had been denied any education. The idea was far ahead of its time (as late as 1940, only half of Americans had a high school diploma), but sadly died with Garfield.

So did his ambitious foreign policy, which included a Pan-American conference to settle disputes between nations, a modernized navy, and a canal through Panama. Garfield also made good on his intention to root out civil service corruption, breaking up a graft ring in the former U.S. Post Office Department, and the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act was passed after his death.

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Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Charles Guiteau was a bona fide loon. At his trial, his erratic behavior included “constantly insulting his defense team” (led by his brother-in-law), “formatting his testimony in epic poems… and soliciting legal advice from random spectators in the audience via passed notes.” By way of a defense, he claimed he was merely acting out God’s will, and that while he had fired the bullet, the president’s doctors were the ones who actually killed him (a fair point).

Guiteau seemed to have no idea he was the most hated man in America, as he ended an autobiography written for The New York Herald with a personal ad for a “nice Christian lady under 30.” So confident was Guiteau in the “God’s will” defense, he began planning a lecture tour for after the trial, and intended to run for president in the following election. While the insanity defense (then a new concept) was considered, Guiteau insisted he wasn’t insane, although his behavior probably would have convinced a jury otherwise. Even at his execution, he danced his way to the gallows, waved from the gallows, and recited a poem he had written, “I Am Going To The Lordy,” only because his request to set it to music had been denied.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: The obvious follow-up is List of United States presidential assassination attempts and plots. Besides the four successful assassinations—Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy—Wikipedia chronicles attempts on the lives of 14 other presidents (as well as prior unsuccessful attempts against Lincoln and Kennedy), including the famous incident when Teddy Roosevelt’s metal glasses case slowed a bullet enough to save his life; John Hinckley’s attack on President Reagan; and a 1996 plot to kill Bill Clinton masterminded by Osama Bin Laden. With the exception of LBJ, every president since Kennedy has faced at least one assassination attempt.

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Further down the Wormhole: It took a third president being assassinated—William McKinley—before Congress assigned the Secret Service to protect the president. The first president to be killed in office was, of course, Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln’s Wikipedia page features an oil painting of Honest Abe conferring with Generals Sherman and Grant, and Admiral David Dixon Porter. Porter was a Civil War hero, but before the war he had been involved in a venture to bring camels to the United States for military service. We’ll look at the odd history of the U.S. Camel Corps next week.