The Assassination of James A. Garfield

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At 9:30 am on July 2, 1881, at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C., James Garfield, President of the United States was fatally shot. 

It is an event that, quite frankly, doesn’t really get the attention that other political assassinations have received. The story behind how and why it happened is as fascinating as any in American History.

Learn more about the Assassination of President Garfield and his assassin, Charles Giteau, on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily.


James Garfield doesn’t rank very high on the list of greatest presidents, if for no other reason than he wasn’t president for very long. He was shot only four months after taking office and died about 2 months after that. 

There was very little in the way of policy that can be attributed to him as president because of his short tenure. During his administration, he mostly appointed cabinet officials and managed to reappoint a supreme court justice who the Senate didn’t act upon in the previous Rutherford B. Hayes administration. 

Garfield was born in Ohio and raised on a farm. His father died when he was only two, and he was raised by his mother. He grew up in poverty, was a voracious reader, and eventually worked his way through school and graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts. 

He was probably one of the most intelligent men to ever become president. He was fluent in both ancient Latin and ancient Greek, and it was said he was ambidextrous and could write in both languages simultaneously with both hands. 

He studied law, passed the bar in Ohio, and was elected to the Ohio state senate. 

He joined the Union army in the civil war, and in 1862, at the age of 31, he was promoted to Brigadier General. The same year, while still serving in the military, he ran for Congress in a safe Ohio Republican seat. While accepting the nomination, he refused to campaign, so he could spend more time serving in the war. 

He was a radical abolitionist. He wasn’t fighting to preserve the union, he was fighting to end slavery. He felt that Lincoln was too lenient on the rebel leaders. 

He stayed in the House of Representatives after the war and remained a staunch Republican. 

When he was nominated for president in 1880 he wasn’t seeking the job. He was a compromise candidate chosen on the 36th ballot. He defeated former Union General Winfield Scott in a close election where he won the popular vote by only 1,898 votes. 

The far more interesting part of this story is his assassin, Charles Guiteau.

Of the four men who have killed US presidents, three of them, it could be argued, did so for political reasons. 

Guiteau did so because he was insane, or at least I don’t see how you can hear his story and not come to the conclusion that he was insane. 

Guiteau was born in Illinois in 1841. His mother died when he was young from what was diagnosed as postpartum psychosis, which is one of those 19th-century ailments which doesn’t really exist anymore.

He moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan to attend the University of Michigan, but failed the entrance exam. 

From there he moved to New York State where he joined a religious group known as the Oneida Community. 

The Oneida Community was one of many 19th century utopian Christian communities which had taken root in the United States.

The Oneida Community was……different.  They had a set of beliefs that placed them well outside of mainstream Christianity, especially in the 19th century. If they existed today, we’d probably call them a cult.

For starters the Oneida Community were perfectionists. They believed that Jesus already returned in the year 70, and they were able to create a perfect world here on Earth, now. 

One way they practiced this was through a process of mutual criticism. They would have group meetings where everyone could criticize everyone else. 

They were also extremely bureaucratic. For a community between 100-300 people, they had 27 standing committees and 48 administrative sections.

The most controversial part of the Oneida Community was their practice of Complex marriage. In their eyes, everyone was married to everyone else. They rejected monogamy and practiced, and coined the term, free love. 

All child-raising was done communally and not by the parents, and any children which were born were done so by a committee where the mother and father were selected.

There is a whole lot more to be said on this subject, but I try to keep the podcast clean, and it isn’t really relevant to the subject at hand. 

Charles Guiteau didn’t fit into this community at all. He was there for about five years, and during that time he was rejected by most of the community. He was often called Charles Gitout, which he eventually did.

He eventually filed a lawsuit against the Onedia Community for payment for services rendered, and his own father testified against him saying he was “irresponsible and insane”.  

From there he went to Chicago and got a job as a clerk in a law office. He was mostly in charge of collecting debts, but he would usually collect money, but then not pay the clients the full amount he collected. 

He got married to a librarian named Annie Bunn around this time, and she later testified to how dishonest he was. 

He and his wife fled to New York to stay ahead of creditors and the police who were chasing him from all his schemes. 

There his wife divorced him. Guiteau had visited a prostitute and contracted syphilis. His wife tracked down the prostitute and had her testify in court against him. 

In 1872 he got into politics and supported Horace Greely in the presidential election. He delivered one speech in support of Greely, and somehow he was convinced that if Greely won he would be awarded the ambassador to Chile. There is no evidence he ever even met Greely, but he convinced himself of the importance to his campaign. 

Make note of this as it will become important later on.

From here he decided to get into theology and preaching. He wrote a book called The Truth, which was totally plagiarized from the leader of the Oneida Community. 

His creditors kept trying to chase him down and they eventually contacted his brother. His brother wrote him asking him to pay off his debts and Guiteau sent him this letter in reply:

Find $7 enclosed. Stick it up your bunghole and wipe your nose on it, and that will remind you of the estimation in which you are held by Charles J. Guiteau. Sign and return the enclosed receipt and I will send you (the money), but not before. And that, I hope, will end our acquaintance.

So much for that member of the family. 

He then went to live with his sister for a few months, and while he was staying with her, he attacked her with an ax. 

In 1880 he was back into politics, and this time he supported the Republican candidate, James Garfield. Well, actually he supported Grant who was considering running for a third term but then shifted his support to Garfield. Grant was the candidate of the Stalwart faction of the Republican party, of which Guiteau considered himself.

As with his episode eight years earlier with Horace Greely, Guiteau wrote a speech for Garfield and then developed a highly inflated sense of his importance. 

The difference was, this time Garfield won, and Guiteau thought he was responsible for the victory. 

This time, Guiteau expected to be assigned to the consulate in Vienna…..or Paris….he wasn’t picky.

He began sending letters to Garfield about the job that he assumed was his. Once such letter said:

I called to see you this morning, but you were engaged. I sent you a note touching on the Austrian mission. The current Austrian Consul, I understand, wishes to remain at Vienna till fall. He is a good fellow (and) I do not wish to disturb him in any event.

What do you think of me for Consul-General at Paris? I think I prefer Paris to Vienna… and I presume my appointment will be promptly confirmed.

He never received a response from Garfield and there is no indication that he ever even seen them.  He began sending letters to his Secretary of State James Blaine. 

Guiteau moved to Washington and began moving from guesthouse to guesthouse when he couldn’t pay his bills. He would go to hotels to find used newspapers to determine Garfield’s schedule. He also started stalking Secretary Blaine until eventually, Blaine shouted at him, “Never speak to me again on the Paris consulship as long as you live!”

Guiteau felt betrayed. After all, in his mind, he was responsible for the election of Garfield, and he was being totally ignored. So, he convinced himself that God wanted him to kill the president.

He borrowed $15 from one of his in-laws, one of the few family members who he hadn’t alienated, to buy a gun. When he purchased the gun which was a .442 Webley  British Bulldog revolver, he had to choose between one with a wooden grip and one with an ivory grip. 

He selected the ivory grip because he felt it would look better in a museum in a future exhibit about the assassination. 

On July 2, 1881, he waited for Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington. Garfield was about to board a train to meet his family for a vacation. 

When Garfield arrived, Guiteau stepped forward and shot him twice in the back. 

As soon as he fired, he surrendered and shouted, “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts. … [Chester A.] Arthur is president now!”

Garfield’s medical care wasn’t great. His doctors kept poking around the wounds with unsterilized fingers and instruments. He developed an infection and on September 19, he died 11 weeks after the shooting. 

Many people believe that Garfield would have lived if the doctors had just left him alone. 

With the death of Garfield, Guiteau was now charged with murder. 

Guiteau submitted a plea of not guilty and wanted to represent himself. The government insisted on an attorney for Guiteau, but he quit within a week. 

It was one of the first high-profile trials where an insanity defense was used. One psychiatrist who testified said “Guiteau is not only now insane, but that he was never anything else.”

During the trail Guiteau’s behavior was bizarre to say the least. He would often swear at the judge. He would read long, rambling, epic poems during the trial. 

He even sent a letter to the new president Chester Arthur saying he should set him free because he made him the president. 

Guiteau was oblivious to how the public perceived him. He thought he was incredibly popular and would often wave the crowds outside the courthouse. He even planned to go on a lecture tour after the trial and running for president in 1884.

In reality, he was the most hated person in the country. 

Not surprisingly, he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. He was hanged on June 30, 1882. On his way to the gallows, he was smiling and waving to the people in attendance. He shook the hand of the executioner and read a poem. He requested an orchestra to perform, but that was denied.

Both Garfield and Guiteau have mostly been forgotten today. 

There is a monument to President Garfield outside the US Capital and there is another monument in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art, which is the building the former train station was located where Garfield was shot. 

Guiteau’s body was exhumed for an autopsy. His skeleton is in storage at the National Museum of Health and Medicine and his brain is currently on display in a jar at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

Garfield is buried in Cleveland, Ohio in one of the largest tombs of any American President. You can visit the tomb almost any day, but I wouldn’t recommend visiting on Monday…..because everyone knows Garfield hates Mondays.