The Life of Thomas Garfield

Thomas Garfield was the second child born to Abram Garfield and Eliza Ballou Garfield. He was born October 16, 1822 in Cuyahoga County, Ohio.  By 1831, the Garfield family had grown to include Abram and Eliza and children Mehetable, Thomas, Mary, and James—the future President of the United States.  The Garfield siblings did have another brother named James Ballou who was born in 1826 but died in 1829.  Thomas was only ten when his father Abram died on May 8, 1833, leaving him as the man of house.  He worked the family farm alongside his mother Eliza and sister Mehetable.  Thomas wanted all of his siblings to attend school while he took care of the farm.  At one point in his young life Thomas had a job chopping wood for .25 a cord.  “When I was fifteen years old mother owed $7 on a wool-carding and cloth bill, and I went to work chopping three-foot wood at twenty-five cents a cord to pay it. I worked all winter at those wages, and that is the way I kept the family.  Those were hard times…”

Thomas was a deeply religious Christian.  Joining the Disciples of Christ at the age of 16, he never drank or smoked a day in his life and thought dancing was sin.

“If I could have my way, there would not be another drop of liquor sold in this country, or                brought into it. I never used tobacco, or tasted liquor in my life, I never bought a cigar, or a glass      of liquor, and never went to a circus or a dance. I went to a menagerie once, when a boy, but I              did not go into the next tent, where a circus was going on. I never owned a watch, nor had a                piece of jewelry. I have always lived a quiet, peaceful life, and have never cared for such things.”

He was a staunch Republican but never wanted to be involved in politics.  “I am an elder in the congregation of Disciples of Christ at Jamestown, and that is the only office I ever held. I have never sought preferment of any kind, and the township offices that have been offered to me I have always refused.”

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This book cover shows one of the few known images of Thomas Garfield, elder brother of President James A. Garfield.  (Kevin Scott Collier)

On October 18, 1849 Thomas married Mary J. Harper, a native of Maine. The couple lived in Solon, Ohio near family until they moved to Michigan. “We sold the farm in Ohio in 1854 and moved to Michigan. I lived three years in Byron Township, this county {Ottawa}, and then went back to Ohio, where I worked around on different farms for ten years. And then I came here to Jamestown Township, Michigan.” One reporter who visited Thomas at his Michigan home wrote, “…I climbed the hilly dooryard to the front door of a one-story house, built of wide pine boards, nailed upright and unpainted.  Through the window of the principal room, which occupied half the house, a spinning wheel, decked with fillets of wool, looked out.”

The Garfields moved to Jamestown, Michigan in 1867 and lived there for about ten years before a fire destroyed their house. Thomas wrote of getting financial help from his Congressman brother: “James helped me pay for it, and when our house burned in 1877, he helped me rebuild in return for what I had down for him.” The Michigan home had many pictures on the walls of James A. Garfield and their mother Eliza Ballou Garfield.  The Garfields had a son on August 25, 1850 and named him James Abram after his uncle. It was said that the baby had the same high forehead and the same features and form as his well-known uncle.  A second child was born to the couple, a girl named Eliza, after her grandmother, born in 1853. Two years later, on April 26, 1855, their last child, Florence, was born.

At the beginning of the Civil War Thomas wanted to enlist but was denied.  “I tried to enlist in the army with James, but they wouldn’t take me.”  There is no documentation as to why he was not able to serve, but it is known that he suffered from seizures (epilepsy).  Some reports said that James did not visit Michigan but Thomas refuted this by saying “James visited me several times.  He was here in 1878, when he spoke in the city on the resumption of a specific payment.  He was always so loving, and affectionate when he came to see me.” It wasn’t until after President Garfield was shot that reporters realized that he had a brother and they wanted the chance to interview him.  A reporter for the Chicago Inter-Ocean asked Thomas why he had not gone to see his brother after being shot.  Thomas’s response was because of the cost of travel, and also because he had been told that nobody would be admitted to see the President.  “My sister Mary and I went to Elberon Cottage before he died, but the doctors wouldn’t let us in.”  Thomas said this of the experience, “Mary was a good nurse, and James called for her in his sickness, and she was very anxious to go in to nurse him, but the doctors wouldn’t let her.  We have always believed he was doctored into death, and if Mary could have taken care of him, he would have lived.” Thomas was 59 years old when President Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881 in Washington, D.C.  After the death of the President the whole Garfield family (siblings, mother, wife and children and any other members) traveled to Cleveland for the funeral. The funeral took place on September 26, 1881.   The same reporter who had asked Thomas if he visited the President asked if he had attended the funeral. Thomas Garfield replied saying “Yes, sir, I was gone from the home for three days, and when I reached Cleveland was directed to go to the house of Mrs. Colonel Shelden, where my mother and sister were.”

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The Garfield funeral procession in Cleveland, Ohio on September 26, 1881.  (Harper’s Weekly)

Thomas Garfield’s name was mentioned during the presidential campaigns of 1892 and 1896.  People opposing the Republican party made it known to others that Thomas Garfield was going to be voting against the party he had always supported.  This claim was false and angered Thomas, who spoke out in papers against this claim but because the remarks were so close to the 1892 election results they were not seen by many. In 1897, he made it known before the election that this was again a false claim given from the other side.

“If my martyred brother were alive his voice would be heard would be heard from ocean to                ocean in favor of the Republican party, and its principles, and I shall not prove myself a traitor to           his memory, and to the people of my country, who placed him in the presidential chair, a                position the highest in the gift of the people, I believe the principles he advocated are as true

Just as the Garfield family in Ohio suffered loss so too did the Garfields in Michigan. Thomas and Mary Garfield lost their daughter Florence Garfield O’Dell in 1887 at the age of 32.   Mary, Thomas’s wife, died January 4, 1900 at the age of 71 from uterine cancer.  Thomas Garfield died at the age of 87 on April 12, 1910. He and Mary are interred in the Hanley Cemetery in Jenison, Michigan.  His daughter Eliza died in 1910 as well. Son James A. Garfield, named for his presidential uncle, died on May 6, 1926 at the age of 75.

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Headstone of Thomas Garfield and his wife, Mary.  (Findagrave.com)

Thomas helped shape the life of his mother and siblings—including his younger brother James, the future President of the United States—for the better.  Thomas and James shared an unbreakable bond all their lives and even President Garfield’s assassination could not break it.  Thomas Garfield was known to some as the “forgotten Garfield,” but today he is revered as one of the most important people in the life of the 20th President of the United States.

-Rebecca Hayward, Visitor Use Assistant

 

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