The Execution of Charles Guiteau

On this day 135 years ago-June 30, 1882-Charles Julius Guiteau was led to the gallows and executed for murder.  Guiteau was no ordinary killer, though: his victim was James A. Garfield, the twentieth President of the United States.  Guiteau stalked President Garfield around Washington, D.C. for several weeks before shooting him in a train station on July 2, 1881.  Garfield had been president for just four months.

Even by nineteenth century standards, Guiteau was obviously mentally ill.  He considered himself a loyal Republican, and his narcissistic personality convinced him that his work for the party was critical to Garfield’s election to the presidency in 1880.  In fact, Guiteau had made just a few speeches in New York to small and disinterested crowds; the speech itself, which he originally prepared based on the assumption that Ulysses S. Grant would be the presidential nominee, was nonsensical.  Guiteau simply went through the speech, crossing out any mention of Grant’s name and replacing it with Garfield’s.


Charles Julius Guiteau, assassin of President James A. Garfield.  Guiteau was mentally unstable; today, he might be found not guilty by reason of insanity and sentenced to psychiatric treatment rather than death.  (Library of Congress)

When Garfield took office in early 1881, Guiteau made his way to Washington to collect his reward: a plum patronage job that he was sure was his for the taking.  He visited both the White House and the State Department on multiple occasions to plead his case for an overseas posting to Paris or Vienna.  Clearly unqualified, he eventually so annoyed Secretary of State James Blaine that Blaine angrily told him, “Do not ever mention the Paris consulship to me again!”

Garfield was soon embroiled in a very public squabble with New York’s powerful senior Senator, Roscoe Conkling, over the nation’s most coveted patronage job: Collector of the Port of New York.  Conkling eventually resigned from the Senate to protest Garfield’s choice for the job.  Convinced that Garfield was going to destroy the Republican Party by scrapping the patronage system, Guiteau decided the only solution was to remove Garfield and elevate Vice President Chester A. Arthur—a Conkling acolyte—to the presidency.  This would not only save the party, but would also result in Guiteau receiving the patronage job he believed was rightfully his.  Surely a grateful President Arthur would reward Charles Guiteau.

An Office or Your Life

Puck magazine caricature of Charles Guiteau from shortly after he shot President Garfield.  (Puck)

Guiteau’s plan did not work out as he envisioned.  President Garfield survived for eighty days after being shot, suffering horrendous medical care from doctors untrained in Listerian antiseptic methods.  When Garfield finally died on September 19, the government prepared to try Guiteau for murder.  At trial, the assassin Guiteau stated that, “I did not kill the President.  The doctors did that.  I merely shot him.”  The jury did not agree, and after a trial that lasted nearly two months and often had a circus-like atmosphere, Guiteau was convicted of murder in January 1882.

This brings us to the events of 135 years ago today.  It was just two days shy of the one-year anniversary of Guiteau’s attack on President Garfield.  Before his sentence was carried out, Guiteau was permitted to recite a poem he had written entitled “I am Going to the Lordy.”  These were his final words.

I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad,
I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad,
I am going to the Lordy,
Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah!
I am going to the Lordy.
I love the Lordy with all my soul,
Glory hallelujah!
And that is the reason I am going to the Lord,
Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah!
I am going to the Lord.
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!
I wonder what I will do when I get to the Lordy,
I guess that I will weep no more
When I get to the Lordy!
Glory hallelujah!
I wonder what I will see when I get to the Lordy,
I expect to see most glorious things,
Beyond all earthly conception
When I am with the Lordy!
Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah!
I am with the Lord.

Charles Guiteau

An image of Charles Guiteau taken while he was imprisoned for murdering President James A. Garfield.  (Library of Congress)

Upon completion of his recitation, the executioner placed a hood over Guiteau’s face and the noose around his neck.  Guiteau continued to hold the poem in his hand; he had arranged with the executioner beforehand to drop the paper when he was ready to die.  When he did so, the trapdoor opened and the noose broke Charles Guiteau’s neck.  His body was buried in the jail yard, but later disinterred and sent to the facility that eventually became the National Museum of Health and Medicine.  His brain and enlarged spleen were preserved.

For most of the country, Guiteau’s death marked an end to the year-long saga of President Garfield’s assassination.  For the Garfield family, though, the pain and sadness of the previous year would continue for years and decades to come.


-Todd Arrington, Site Manager


Dr. Willard Bliss: A Man of His Time?

“If I can’t save him, no one can,” stated the overconfident Dr. Willard Bliss after the July 2, 1881 shooting of President James A. Garfield.  What drove Dr. Bliss to decide that he was the only one who could save the president?  What drives anyone to believe they stand above everyone else?  Why didn’t he consult with the leading surgeons of the time?  How did he manage to position himself above other doctors who had more knowledge and connections with the Garfield family? It is not my purpose to determine if Dr. Bliss was negligent in his service to President Garfield; history has already determined that.  He believed in his abilities above all else, and positioned himself within the situation to be in control.


Dr. D. Willard Bliss (U.S. National Library of Medicine).

Doctor (his actual first name!) Willard Bliss grew up not far from James Garfield , and the two appear to have known one another as youngsters.  Bliss graduated from the Cleveland Medical College in 1849 or 1850, then married and moved to the Grand Rapids, Michigan area where he joined the local medical community.

At the start of the Civil War in April 1861, Dr. Bliss offered his services to the Union cause.  He was assigned as regimental surgeon of the Third Michigan Volunteer Infantry. After the first battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), Bliss and his brother Dr. Z.E. Bliss received a letter of praise from the staff of the 3rd Michigan for their actions during the battle.  In May 1862, Willard Bliss was placed in charge of the Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C., a large facility with over 1,000 beds. Armory Square Hospital received some of the most severely injured soldiers from the many bloody battles in Virginia.  Bliss served the rest of the war in this position.

There is no clear record of Bliss having treated President Abraham Lincoln after he was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865. It appears that Bliss’s presence at the Petersen House (across the street from Ford’s Theater and where Lincoln was carried after he was shot) was requested by Dr. Charles Leale, one of the first doctors on the scene after the shooting.  In his post-assassination reports, Dr. Leale wrote that he “sent for the Surgeon General, J.K. Barnes, the family physician Robert K. Stone and the Commander of the Armory Square Hospital, D.W. Bliss.”  Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s eldest son, may have actually met Dr. Bliss at his father’s deathbed.


Patients in Ward K of the Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. in 1865.  Dr. Willard Bliss was in charge of the Hospital for much of the Civil War.  (

How did Bliss position himself above everyone else after President Garfield’s shooting sixteen years later, in July 1881?  Dr. Smith Townsend was the first doctor to arrive on the scene after the shooting, followed by Dr. Charles Purvis.  While these doctors were treating the President, Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, just forty or so feet away from Garfield when assassin Charles Guiteau attacked, called for Dr. Bliss.  Historical evidence suggests Robert Todd Lincoln also knew of the childhood connection between Garfield and Bliss.  Whether it was that connection or his service at the Armory and at Lincoln’s deathbed that led him to call for Bliss, Robert Lincoln’s decision would have lasting effects on history.

Was Bliss the best doctor for the job?  The end result suggests not, but judging the outcome based on twenty-first century medical standards is hardly fair.

As soon as Dr. Bliss arrived on the scene at the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad station just minutes after the shooting, he took charge-not a surprise based on his position and prior military experience.  He continued to insist on his own medical preeminence after the President was moved to the White House.


Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881.  The President endured extremely poor medical care–even by 1881 standards–at Dr. Bliss’s hands for the next 80 days.  (Wikipedia)

There were many factors involved in him becoming the President’s primary physician.  First, he was called to the scene by Lincoln.  Robert Todd Lincoln made this decision because he knew Dr. Bliss.  Once at the White House, Dr. Bliss refused to allow anyone to see the President without his approval–including the Garfield family physician.  He carefully chose with whom he would consult, mostly doctors who agreed with him about the case.  He “fired” all the other doctors who had been assisting, telling them that their services were no longer needed or relegating them to nursing duties.  He did this in the name of the President.  In fact,  neither James Garfield nor any member of his family ever requested that Bliss be the primary physician.

Dr. Bliss’s excising of the other physicians from the case carefully removed anyone questioning his authority.  Despite Bliss’s objection, First Lady Lucretia Garfield did manage to bring in two doctors she trusted to try to aid in the President’s care.  These were Dr. Susan Edson and Dr. Silas Boynton (the President’s own cousin), both of whom stayed at the President’s side even as Dr. Bliss ignored them and refused to listen to their medical opinions about President Garfield’s condition and care.

Throughout this period, the painful probing of Garfield’s wound with unwashed fingers and instruments continued, even as the President became noticeable weaker on many days.  Despite his patient’s failing health, Dr. Bliss’s arrogance continued to grow.  The procedures that Dr. Townsend—the first doctor on the scene–had used (unsterilized equipment and dirty hands) were common in the United States during this period.  Many American doctors of the day failed to believe in the unseen germs that Joseph Lister had proven were present.  The fact that “80% of operations (were) plagued by hospital gangrene and a nearly 50% mortality rate” had little effect on Bliss’s thinking or treatment.  Doctors continued to unnecessarily probe the wound until “his initial wound, a 3 inch deep harmless wound, was turned into a 20 inch long contaminated wound oozing more pus each day.”  It was infection introduced by Bliss and other doctors that killed the President on September 19, 1881, 80 days after the shooting.


Imagined view of President Garfield’s death on September 19, 1881.  This view shows him surrounded by his cabinet and his wife and daughter crying at his side.  Dr. Bliss is to the President’s right with his hand on Garfield.  Behind and to Bliss’s right is Dr. Susan Edson, whom Mrs. Garfield hoped could help Bliss save her husband’s life.  (Wikipedia)

Did other doctors think Bliss was the best surgeon for the job of treating President Garfield?  Certainly Edson and Boynton did not, and there were others that tried to speak up but to no avail.  What is clear is that Bliss’s arrogance played a significant role–and was perhaps the deciding factor– in the President’s demise.

Even Garfield’s autopsy was viewed by some as a cover up, with medical statements about his death that were not true. The original cause of death was listed as rupturing of a blood vessel injured by the gunshot.   In fact, his death was caused by a heart attack resulting from the infection introduced by his doctors. This autopsy should have been an independent investigation into the cause of death, but many of the doctors present had attended to the wounded president–including Bliss, which surely skewed the outcome.  This would hide the poor treatment Garfield received from his doctors.

Charles J. Guiteau

Charles Guiteau, the President’s assassin, argued that while he had shot Garfield, the doctors-not he-had killed the President.  (Wikipedia)

Charles Guiteau, the president’s mentally disturbed assassin, stated on the opening day of his murder trial “General Garfield died from malpractice, according to his own physician, he was not fatally shot.  The doctors who mistreated him ought to bear the odium of his death, and not his assailant.”  Though the jury didn’t buy it and eventually convicted Guiteau and sentenced him to death, his statement that “I did not kill the president; the doctors did that.  I merely shot at him,” was one of the few lucid things he said during his two-month trial.  Today, most historians and doctors agree with Guiteau’s assessment that botched medical treatment led by Dr. Willard Bliss killed President James A. Garfield.


-Mark A. Lombardi, Volunteer


Mourning President Garfield

“The waves of emotion that swept over the country, moreover, were fed not only by the fact that America’s president had been attacked…but that that president had been Garfield.”
-Candice Millard, Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
President James A. Garfield was only in office just four short months before Charles Guiteau’s attempted assassination. While his time as President was brief, his effect on the nation was not. Out of the many things that stand out about James A. Garfield, his effect on the nation is one that must not be over looked. His death has been compared that of John F. Kennedy. Both were bright, articulate, hopeful presidents who had set out to unite America.
On July 2, 1881, President Garfield became the second president to be shot. Walking through Washington, D.C.’s Baltimore & Potomac train station, heading toward his New England-bound train, President Garfield was shot twice by Charles Guiteau, a man who until recently had hoped to work for the President.

Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881.  Secretary of State James G. Blaine was standing next to the President when Guiteau attacked.  Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln was about 40 feet away and walking toward Blaine and Garfield.  (

Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881. Secretary of State James G. Blaine was standing next to the President when Guiteau attacked. Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln was about 40 feet away and walking toward Blaine and Garfield. (Library of Congress)

In 1881, Presidents did not have guards surrounding them or security escorts when traveling. Americans believed the President should be accessible to everyone. The only guard between the President and the people when he was at the White House was his secretary, Joseph Stanley- Brown. Even President Garfield, desperate to cling to any remaining freedoms after taking office, argued that he needed no more protection than the average American.
This mindset, the ability to relate with the general public, was one of the things the nation loved about Garfield. He was human to them, someone with whom nearly everyone could identify. He had grown up in extreme poverty in northern Ohio. His father had died young, and that left only his mother to raise him and his older siblings. He attended school, much of which he paid for by working before and after his classes. Entering the army during the Civil War, he rose up the ranks to become a Major General, only leaving to take a seat in Congress to which his fellow Ohioans had elected him while he fought. However, he remained a farmer and a family man, constantly challenging his children both physically and intellectually. These facts made him different than many of the presidents before him. His life story made him relatable to the average citizen. He welcomed all to his farm in Mentor, Ohio. During his campaign he spoke to all with the same tone of respect, regardless of their place in society.

1880 view of the Garfield home and property, which became the focal point of Garfield's 1880 presidential campaign. (Wash drawing by delineator L.C. Corwine, Library of Congress)

1880 view of the Garfield home and property, which became the focal point of Garfield’s 1880 presidential campaign. (Wash drawing by delineator L.C. Corwine, Library of Congress)

It was Garfield as a person, not a president, that made his death heartbreaking to many Americans. With his death, Americans united with a common feeling of loss, and a common sense of patriotism that had not been seen since before the Civil War, if ever before that.
For many, President Garfield represented not just who America was, but also what it hoped to become. With his death, Americans lost the figurehead they had made Garfield, and that loss was felt by all, regardless of race, gender, or statehood. He was someone who would not tolerate discrimination but also managed to make many in the South feel as though the government was their government, too. This was something they had not felt in years. His background allowed him to connect to the pioneers heading west, while also relating to the immigrants arriving from the east. James A. Garfield was someone that many Americans not only trusted, but loved almost as family.
For 80 days, from the shooting on July 2 to his death on September 19, the public read every newspaper and waited for each bulletin from the President’s doctors hoping for news of Garfield’s recovery. With the announcement of his death, the entire nation mourned, and many traveled to the Washington, D.C. Over 100,000 people went to the nation’s capital to view the President’s body. Everyone from poor farmers to wealthy women and African American laborers came to pay their respects. Mollie Garfield, the president’s daughter wrote in her diary about how the whole city was covered in black. From the White House to the poorest homes, the city was in full mourning. Many who could not afford anything more tore up black clothing and hung it in their windows.

The White House with mourning decorations in September 1881, after the death of President James A. Garfield.  (Library of Congress)

The White House with mourning decorations in September 1881, after the death of President James A. Garfield. (Library of Congress)

Americans were not inactive in their mourning. Over $300,000 was raised to help Lucretia and her children. Hundreds of people wrote letters sending their condolences to Lucretia, many of which she kept in the Memorial Library she created after her husband’s death. Large amounts of memorabilia for the late president were also made, and could be seen in many homes across the country. His monument at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio was one of the biggest and most elaborate mausoleums of its time. People wanted a lasting memorial to Garfield, much like his wife wanted when she created the Memorial Library at their home in Mentor.

Lucretia Garfield had the Memorial Library constructed in 1885-86 to preserve her husband's book collection and memory for herself and their children.  She added the

Lucretia Garfield had the Memorial Library constructed in 1885-86 to preserve her husband’s book collection and memory for herself and their children. She added the “Memory Room” to store the papers of his public career, thus creating the nation’s first presidential library. (NPS photo)

Garfield was the last president to be born in a log cabin. He was the last of many things, but the first of many more. More important than any of Garfield’s achievements during his brief presidency was the impact he had on the American people. His death truly united citizens as Americans. A man who in life had made everyone feel welcome in the United States in death made them feel as though they truly were the United States.

-Rachel Gluvna, Volunteer

“A Certain Fatality”: Robert Todd Lincoln and Presidential Assassinations


Robert Todd Lincoln, eldest son of President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, felt cursed. One of his brothers, Edward, died as a boy in Springfield, Illinois long before their father became president. A second brother, William, died in the White House on February 20, 1862. The death of “Willie” made the Civil War’s dark days that much darker for the Lincoln family. Robert Lincoln’s last brother, Thomas, whom their father had called “Tad,” died at age 18 in 1871. In the years after his father’s death, Robert Lincoln also watched his mother, Mary, descend into financial hardship and manic depression. At one point, he committed her to an asylum. His mother died at age 63 in 1882.

Sadly, Robert Lincoln was very familiar with death. However, it was not the deaths of his brothers or his mother for which he is most famous or for which he believed himself to be cursed. Rather, it was his close connection to three presidential assassinations in just 36 years.

A young Robert Todd Lincoln in 1865, the year his father was assassinated.  Robert was not present when President Lincoln was shot, but was by his father's sided when he died.  (Library of Congress)

A young Robert Todd Lincoln in 1865, the year his father was assassinated. Robert was not present when President Lincoln was shot, but was by his father’s side when he died. (Library of Congress)

President and Mrs. Lincoln invited their son, then Capt. Robert T. Lincoln of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s staff, to Ford’s Theater to see a performance of Our American Cousin on the night of April 14, 1865. The younger Lincoln declined, telling his father that he planned to retire early that night. Several different people claimed to have been the one to inform him of John Wilkes Booth’s attack on his father at the theater, and Lincoln himself remembered only that numerous people came to him that night with the awful news. He immediately left for the Petersen house, where his father, unconscious but alive, had been taken after Booth shot him. Future Secretary of State John Hay, one of Abraham Lincoln’s private secretaries and a lifelong friend of Robert’s, wrote that, “After a natural outburst of grief, young Lincoln devoted himself the rest of the night to soothing and comforting his mother.” Robert was there at 7:22 a.m. on April 15 when President Lincoln died.

Over the next decade-and-a-half, many Republicans tried to talk Robert Lincoln into running for political office. Lincoln always declined, partially due to lack of interest but also because he knew his greatest appeal to the Republican Party was not his ability but his surname. In early 1881, however, he relented and agreed to serve as Secretary of War under President James A. Garfield.

Robert T. Lincoln as U.S. Secretary of War.  He was about 40 feet away when President James A. Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881.  (Library of Congress)

Robert T. Lincoln as U.S. Secretary of War. He was about 40 feet away when President James A. Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881. (Library of Congress)

On July 2, 1881, President Garfield was scheduled to leave for a trip to New England. While some cabinet members and their wives were scheduled to go on the trip, Lincoln was unable to depart until the following day. He went to Washington, D.C.’s Baltimore and Potomac train station that morning to meet the President and let him know that the Lincolns would be along on July 3. He was about forty feet away and walking toward President Garfield and Secretary of State James G. Blaine when Charles Guiteau approached from behind and shot Garfield twice. By Lincoln’s own recollection, “I think I reached him in fifteen seconds.” Secretary Lincoln immediately sent for Dr. D.W. Bliss, then ordered four companies of soldiers to immediately come to the train depot for security. When Garfield was moved back to the White House, Lincoln made sure that “all intruders were out of the grounds and a strong military guard on duty there and another at the jail to prevent lynching and a reserve between.” As historian Jason Emerson notes, Lincoln’s decisive actions after the attack on Garfield were reminiscent of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s on the night Booth shot Abraham Lincoln. However, the memory of his father’s murder sixteen years before haunted him. “My god,” he said to a New York Times reporter the day after the shooting. “How many hours of sorrow I have passed in this town.”

President James A. Garfield died on September 19, 1881, eighty days after being shot. Vice President Chester A. Arthur was sworn in as the 21st President of the United States and traveled to Elberon, New Jersey, where Garfield died, to escort his predecessor’s body back to the capital. After Garfield’s late September funeral and once Congress convened in December 1881, Arthur kept only one cabinet officer appointed by Garfield: Robert Todd Lincoln, who served as Secretary of War until the end of the Arthur presidency.

Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881.  Secretary of State James G. Blaine was standing next to the President when Guiteau attacked.  Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln was about 40 feet away and walking toward Blaine and Garfield.  (

Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881. Secretary of State James G. Blaine was standing next to the President when Guiteau attacked. Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln was about 40 feet away and walking toward Blaine and Garfield. (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

After finishing his time as Secretary of War, Lincoln returned to private legal practice, then served as U.S. Minister to the Court of Saint James (the United Kingdom) under President Benjamin Harrison from 1889-1893. While living in England, Lincoln’s son, Abraham Lincoln II, called “Jack,” died of a post-surgery infection at just 16 years old.

After returning from England, Robert Lincoln became general counsel of the Pullman Palace Car Company. When founder George Pullman died in 1897, Lincoln was elevated to the company’s presidency. In 1901, the Lincolns vacationed all summer in New Jersey. As they traveled back to Chicago in early September, they decided to make a stop in Buffalo, New York to visit the Pan-American Exposition, a world’s fair intended to promote trade and friendship between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The Lincolns’ train pulled into the Buffalo train station on the evening of Friday, September 6. A Pullman employee was waiting and immediately handed Lincoln a telegram that read: “President McKinley was shot down by an anarchist in Buffalo this afternoon. He was hit twice in the abdomen. Condition serious.”

Lincoln immediately went to the home of John G. Milburn, president of the Pan-American Exposition, where McKinley was resting after a seemingly successful surgery to repair internal damage caused by Leon Czolgosz’s bullets. Lincoln spent a few minutes with the President and was convinced that McKinley would be fine. Lincoln saw the President again two days later and still believed he was improving, saying, “My visit has given me great encouragement” for McKinley’s recovery. He and his family left Buffalo for Chicago having enjoyed a visit to the Exposition and glad that McKinley was on the mend.

A week later, McKinley was dead of infection. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt had visited the wounded president at the same time as Robert Lincoln the previous week and then departed for a trip to the Adirondacks. Roosevelt hurried back to Buffalo and was sworn in as the 26th President of the United States on September 14, 1901. Shortly afterwards, Lincoln sent President Roosevelt a letter that read in part, “I do not congratulate you, for I have seen too much of the seamy side of the Presidential Robe to think of it as an enviable garment.”

Leon Czolgosz shoots President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on September 6, 1901.  Robert Lincoln and his family were approaching Buffalo via train when the shooting occurred.  (

Leon Czolgosz shoots President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on September 6, 1901. Robert Lincoln and his family were approaching Buffalo via train when the shooting occurred. (Library of Congress)

Amazingly, Robert Todd Lincoln had very close ties to three presidential assassinations. While the rational mind scoffs at the idea of any human as “cursed,” the emotions lead us to wonder if such a thing might actually be possible. However, the popular old stories about Robert Lincoln being “present” at the three murders are certainly untrue. He was not with his father when Booth attacked on April 14, 1865, though he was at the Petersen house when the elder Lincoln died the next morning. He was across the room but walking toward the President when Charles Guiteau felled Garfield on July 2, 1881. Lincoln personally attended and spoke with Garfield while the President lay on the train station floor. Finally, he was just entering the city of Buffalo when McKinley was shot on September 6, 1901.

While Robert Lincoln was certainly not cursed, it is understandable that many people-including Lincoln himself-feared he may be. More likely, however, is that Lincoln’s last name and his positions in life put him in close proximity to presidents far more often than most people. Also, Lincoln lived a very long life in times of great social and political upheaval that often resulted in violence. The cataclysmic Civil War, passionate debates over patronage and civil service reform, fears of government growing so powerful that anarchy seemed a plausible alternative—all of these issues came to the fore during Lincoln’s life and resulted in murders of American presidents. That his name was Lincoln and he attained high office and business success made Lincoln far more likely to be near presidents than most people, and the upheavals of the era made attacks on presidents far more likely. In other words, it was something of a macabre numbers game.

That certainly and understandably did not ease Robert Lincoln’s mind, though the idea that after McKinley’s death Lincoln refused to ever go around presidents again is a myth. Supposedly he once scoffed at an invitation to an event at the White House by saying, “If only they knew, they wouldn’t want me there. There is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.” While there is no direct evidence that Lincoln ever actually said this, it certainly seems like a thought that might have crossed his mind.

Robert Lincoln’s last public appearance was on May 30, 1922, when he attended the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. President Warren G. Harding presided over that dedication. Harding, of course, died in office just fourteen months later. Since he was not assassinated, however, it does not appear that anyone tried very hard to attribute his death to having shared a platform with Robert Lincoln just over a year earlier.

Robert Todd Lincoln (right) at the May 30, 1922 dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.  At left is William Howard Taft, former President of the United States and then Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  At center is President Warren G. Harding.  (National Park Service)

Robert Todd Lincoln (right) at the May 30, 1922 dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. At left is William Howard Taft, former President of the United States and then Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. At center is President Warren G. Harding. (National Park Service)

Robert Todd Lincoln died on July 26, 1926, just six days before his 83rd birthday. He was seemingly surrounded by death his entire life, yet persevered to carve out his own successes and legacy while also honoring his famous name. His was a long, extraordinary, and accomplished life, and he certainly deserves to be remembered as more than just his father’s son or the subject of silly myths about curses.

-Todd Arrington, Chief of Interpretation & Education

Captain Henry of Geauga, Part II

Henry was always grateful to Congressman Garfield for the railroad job. It allowed him to earn a decent living and not worry too much about farming. He began to pay attention to men having conversations about politics, particularly those in Garfield’s district. Charles wrote letters to his friend reporting on what he heard and how it related to the Congressman. Before long Charles became Garfield’s political agent. He asked questions of local folks on their views of politics in general and on important issues of the day. This was a great help to Garfield who did not have the means to keep close tab on his constituents. Henry sent newspapers to Washington for Garfield to read and decide which editors were favorable to him. Anybody in Garfield’s district that wanted a postmaster job had to have an unofficial visit with Mr. Henry before being recommended.

In 1873 Charles got a promotion to special agent of the post office department. He got a significant raise, free railroad transportation, a gun, and three dollars a day for meals. His new job allowed him to settle disputes between postmasters, investigate people for mail fraud and stealing. His duties allowed him time to stop at various points in Garfield’s district and determine which way the political winds were blowing. He reported any areas where Garfield might be losing support and what to do about it. Charles visited men who supported Garfield to make certain they were doing their utmost to keep the Congressman in office.

Congressman James A. Garfield.  Charles Henry became an important politial advisor and operative for his former commanding officer.  (Library of Congress)

Congressman James A. Garfield. Charles Henry became an important political advisor and operative for his former commanding officer. (Library of Congress)

As special agent, Charles made about one arrest per month. He had a system for catching postal clerks who stole money out of envelopes. He would visit the post office suspected, usually wearing farm clothes so as not to arouse attention. When he had an idea who might be stealing he put several marked small bills, into two envelopes. He then addressed the envelopes for the next town on the route. Charles visited the intended post office and identified himself and alerted the postmaster to watch for the letters. He went back to the suspected post office, mailed the letters there and waited to see if they would arrive at their destination. If they did not he confronted the suspect, searched him and would find the marked money. He would make the arrest and escort the guilty party to the nearest United States marshal’s office.

Henry’s work for Congressman Garfield did not go unappreciated. In the summer of 1874 he visited the Garfields at their Washington home. Charles got a guided tour of all the sights including Mt. Vernon, Arlington and the Smithsonian. Later in the week Garfield took Charles to the White House for a visit with President Grant. His trips to Washington became more frequent, highlighted by an army reunion and dinner with General Phil Sheridan and Colonel George Custer.

Col. George Armstrong Custer.  Charles Henry met Custer, Gen. Philip Sheridan, and other notables during his summer 1874 visit to the Garfields' in Washington.  (Library of Congress)

Col. George Armstrong Custer. Charles Henry met Custer, Gen. Philip Sheridan, and other notables during his summer 1874 visit to the Garfields’ in Washington. (Library of Congress)

Throughout the 1870’s Charles kept a close watch on local and national politics. He counted on friends and political allies to get him inside information he could relay to Congressman Garfield. His most effective work came during Garfield’s bid for a seat in the Senate. Charles canvassed the entire state to determine how much support the candidate had. In February of 1879, Charles wrote to Garfield, “Everything looks hopeful to me and I shall be very much disappointed if you do not have a walkover.”

Soon he opened a campaign office in Columbus, handing out literature and cigars to members of the state legislature. By November he was able to report sixty-four of the ninety members were solidly behind Garfield. The actual election was unanimous, a complete victory. Charles spent only a paltry $148.60 on the campaign. When Garfield came to Columbus for his acceptance speech he grabbed his campaign manager in a bear hug and swung Charles around several times. He had done the same thing almost twenty years ago at the Hiram College graduation. Their friendship was as strong as could be.

James A. Garfield never served a day in the United States Senate. In June of 1880 he unexpectedly received the Republican nomination for President. He won the general election in November to become the 20th President of the United States. Once in office he did not hesitate to appoint Captain Charles Henry as United States Marshal to the District of Columbia. Charles officially took office in May, ready to rid the streets of Washington of all criminals. He had no inkling his first major assignment would be protecting Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President Garfield. Charles did his best to put aside his hatred of Guiteau and make sure his prisoner stayed alive during his confinement. There were two attempts to kill Guiteau along with a number of unsigned letters all swearing that the prisoner would be murdered at any moment.

Charles E. Henry as Marshal of the District of Columbia.  His old friend and commanding officer, President James A. Garfield, appointed him to this position.  (From the book "Captain Henry of Geauga")

Charles E. Henry as Marshal of the District of Columbia. His old friend and commanding officer, President James A. Garfield, appointed him to this position. (From the book “Captain Henry of Geauga”)


Charles managed to keep Guiteau healthy throughout his trial and all the way to the execution. How he kept his composure during the ordeal is a testament to his sense of duty and personal honor. Very few men have been put to the test like Marshal Henry.
With a new President in the White House Charles knew his time in office would be brief. He survived until November of 1882 when Chester Arthur dismissed him from service. He returned home to Bainbridge to once again take up farming. For several years he produced great quantities of maple syrup and wrote article for several newspapers. Charles enjoyed being home with his family, but farm life did not agree with him. He was quite relieved when a letter from Don Pardee, now a federal judge, arrived. Pardee employed him on behalf of the court to travel to Texas and investigate a railroad labor strike. The job took several years to complete and paid Charles several thousand dollars.

Due to his success in sorting out the railroad problems, other opportunities presented themselves. In December of 1892, attorneys Harry A. and James R. Garfield, the eldest sons of the late President, called on Charles to assist them in an embezzlement case. Their clients, a lumber company in Cleveland had lost $20,000 to one of their agents in Philadelphia. The alleged embezzler Harpin A. Botsford, pocketed company receipts and fled to Brazil where there was no extradition agreement with the United States. The Garfields believed Charles had the skills to track down the fugitive. All he had to work with was a photo of the suspect and a sample of his handwriting.
On Christmas Eve Charles boarded a steamer out of New York. His initial destination was Rio de Janeiro, a place where felons where known to frequent. After twenty-six days at sea Charles arrived in port. He immediately paid a call on the American consulate who filed the necessary paperwork for Charles to make the arrest. The Brazilian government agreed to allow Charles to take the fugitive out of Brazil should he find the culprit.

The detective work began in earnest. Charles showed the photo to a number of locals. One of the men recognized Botsford and told Charles the man in the photo was said to be on his way to Sao Paulo to buy a coffee plantation. Captain Henry located the office of a United States coffee broker who gave another positive identification of the photo. The broker knew that the suspect, now using the name H. B. Ford was on the move. Charles boarded the first train to Sao Paulo, arriving fifteen hours later.

Now hot on the trail, Charles visited the town hotels and reviewed the guest registers. At his third stop he found the name H. B. Ford, December 27, 1892. The trail was burning up. A walk to the local coffee warehouse found a worker from Scotland who had seen Mr. Ford. Charles learned through his new friend that the suspect had gone north on a narrow road to the back country. The two men boarded the only train running and arrived at a small village some twenty miles north.

Charles E. Henry around 1900.  This is the last known photo of him.  He died in November 1906.  (From the book "Captain Henry of Geauga")

Charles E. Henry around 1900. This is the last known photo of him. He died in November 1906. (From the book “Captain Henry of Geauga”)

The trip turned out to be well worth the effort. Mr. Ford had been there less than a week ago. Charles learned that Botsford/Ford had hired a guide and rented mules to take him further north. They were no more than twenty miles away. Captain Henry hired the same guide to take him where he might find the fugitive. They traveled slowly through the dense, tropical forest. The road was quite rough, forcing them to dismount their mules and lead them forward. Despite encountering groups of monkeys and the occasional snake, Charles arrived at Jacutinga where his adversary was hiding. He drew both of his revolvers and moved forward.

It had been almost thirty years since Charles had worn his Union uniform but he quickly fell back to soldier mode. Ford opened his front door carrying a revolver and a machete in his boot. He looked curiously at Charles who marched up the steps, grabbed the revolver and machete and advised Ford he was under arrest. They mounted the mules and started south for the long journey that would take them back to the United States. The trip took several months, not arriving in home until April 2, 1893. For his efforts Charles received $2,000 plus extensive coverage in the newspapers.

Due to his remarkable adventure, Charles received a job offer from the American Surety Company to serve as an inspector. He continued to bring embezzlers and thieves to justice for a number of years. He did some farming, spent time with his family and kept in touch with old friends from the 42nd OVI. His eyesight began to fail and his heart weakened but Charles carried on into the 20th century. Six years later he passed away on November 3, 1906. He was seventy years old.

Captain Charles Henry was an extraordinary man: soldier, political ally, lawman, and dedicated family man. His strength of character and honesty brought him to a plateau few men occupy.

-Scott Longert, Park Guide

The Remarkable Roscoe, Part III

Even though Conkling’s supporters endorsed reform at the 1877 New York Republican Convention, he thrashed reformers verbally, suggesting that they were amateurs, phonies, or hypocrites. He referred to the Civil Service as the “Snivel Service,” and called supporters of reform “man milliners,” who paraded “their own thin veneering of superior purity” while attacking Grant. “Their stock in trade is rancid, canting self-righteousness,” he said.

Yet, despite all the self-interested antagonism that he directed at Hayes, he still agreed with the President on important monetary policy matters. He stood with Hayes in opposition to the Bland-Allison bill, which called for the remonetization of silver. He called this an idea of “a nearly equal mixture of idiots and knaves.” Conkling voted against the measure, but failed to do anything to prevent a Senate override after Hayes vetoed it, and Bland-Allison became law.

As President, Rutherford B. Hayes sometimes had Roscoe Conkling's support.  Conkling did not, however, back President Hayes's efforts to reform the nation's civil service.  (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)

As President, Rutherford B. Hayes sometimes had Roscoe Conkling’s support. Conkling did not, however, back President Hayes’s efforts to reform the nation’s civil service. (Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Center)

Conkling also stood with Hayes in the matter of “riders” to appropriations bills. In 1879, House Democrats attempted to “de-fund” the U.S. Army; to prevent it from “interfering” with Congressional elections in the South. Five times the Democrats attached such riders to appropriations bills, and five times Hayes vetoed them. Conkling supported Hayes every time, denouncing the efforts to compel Hayes “to give up his convictions, his duty, and his oath, as the price to be paid a political party for allowing the Government to live.”

But these were rare moments of good will. When the presidential election year of 1880 came around, he was anxious to replace the retiring Hayes with former president Grant. His support for Grant began in February 1880, soon after the latter’s return from a much publicized and praised trip around the world. Conkling led a pro-Grant majority at the New York state convention. It seemed as if Conkling had unified New York’s delegation to support Grant at the national convention. This was an illusion.

An intra-party power struggle played out in May, when state senator William Robertson (always a thorn in Conkling’s side) announced that he would vote for James G. Blaine, of Maine. Soon, a revolt against Grant that began in the New York delegation spread throughout the national convention that met in June. The “unit rule,” that pledged state delegations to vote as one for the candidate who had majority support in each came under attack. William Robertson led that fight in New York and Congressman James A. Garfield of Ohio fought the unit rule in the Rules Committee.

William H. Robertson caused Conkling a great deal of trouble, first by publicly announcing his support of Blaine for President in 1880; then by being named by President Garfield to be Collector of the Port of New York.  Robertson was not a "Conkling man," and therefore NOT acceptable to Cokling for the Collectorship.  Robertson's appointment put Garfield and Conkling on a collision course over the issue of who controlled the civil service in New York: the state's senior senator, or the President.  (

William H. Robertson caused Conkling a great deal of trouble, first by publicly announcing his support of Blaine for President in 1880; then by being named by President Garfield to be Collector of the Port of New York. Robertson was not a “Conkling man,” and therefore NOT acceptable to Cokling for the Collectorship. Robertson’s appointment put Garfield and Conkling on a collision course over the issue of who controlled the civil service in New York: the state’s senior senator, or the President. (

Irony of ironies, it was General Garfield – who hadn’t sought the nomination – who won it. Grant’s defeat angered Conkling. He didn’t think any better of Garfield than he did of Hayes. To many Grant Republicans, the Democratic nominee, General Winfield Scott Hancock, looked like a winner. Roscoe Conkling thought James Garfield was a beaten man. That wouldn’t be so bad; he could run Grant again in 1884.

So, as in 1876, Conkling did not go out of his way to support the 1880 national ticket. He troubled the nominee with his demands over control of New York appointments and cabinet appointments in a future Garfield administration. Once again, Conkling’s self-interest guided his thoughts and actions. Conkling and Garfield met on more than one occasion after the surprise Republican nominee became the surprise Republican victor. Conkling’s insistence that he control New York patronage was an irritant and a warning to the President-elect.

This Puck cartoon shows outgoing President Hayes (background) leaving civil service reform (in the form of a screaming baby) on incoming President Garfield's doorstep.  (Puck)

This Puck cartoon shows outgoing President Hayes (background) leaving civil service reform (in the form of a screaming baby) on incoming President Garfield’s doorstep. (Puck)

Garfield was determined to avoid what Hayes had gone through. When Garfield appointed William Robertson to be the new Collector of the Port of New York, a political battle between the new president and Conkling rivaled anything that had gone on between Conkling and Hayes. It was a months-long battle of wills that led Conkling to resign from the Senate, in the belief that he would be reelected, and thereby be placed in a stronger position to defeat the Robertson nomination and prevail over Garfield. Conkling’s gamble failed. Republicans in the New York Legislature were not about to defy their own president. Conkling was not reelected.

Meanwhile, a demented Charles Guiteau, having followed the course of the Garfield- Conkling fight in the press, assassinated the President. His distorted sense of reality led him to believe that removing Garfield would reunite the Republican Party – and save the country.

The combination of political defeat and Guiteau’s bullet brought Conkling’s political career finally and irrevocably to an end. Conkling acknowledged as much when he said after Garfield’s death, “How can I speak into a grave? How can I battle with a shroud? Silence is a duty and a doom.” Later he said, “I am done with politics now and forever.” He meant it.

After 1881, Conkling devoted himself to his law practice. Among his clients were financier Jay Gould, and the young inventor, Thomas Edison. He was a defense lawyer in the Supreme Court case, San Mateo County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad. It was a landmark case in which the Supreme Court declared that the “equal protection” clause of the 14th amendment was intended to protect corporations as well as individuals.

Sunday, March 11, 1888 was a miserable day in New York City. A heavy rain turned into sleet, and the sleet into snow. It was not long before the city was a mess, with traffic stopped, the elevated railway disabled, and shops closed. The next day the wind gusts were clocked at 75 mph. After spending the morning in court, Roscoe Conkling trudged two-and-a-half miles through huge drifts of snow to his home. He wrote late, “I had an ugly tramp in the dark…drifts so high that my head bumped against the signs… and fallen telegraph wires.” Upon arriving home, he collapsed.

This image shows New York City during the March 11, 1888 blizzard through which Conkling walked home.  He became ill and died about five weeks later, at just 58 years old.  (Library of Congress)

This image shows New York City during the March 11, 1888 blizzard through which Conkling walked home. He became ill and died about five weeks later, at just 58 years old. (Library of Congress)

Soon he was confined to bed, the victim of an abscess in his right ear. Ironically, Dr. D. Hayes Agnes, who had attended President Garfield, was called to Conkling’s bedside. By early April, an operation was necessary. A hole was drilled into Conkling’s head with a mallet and chisel to relieve a buildup of pus. It was hoped that the strong, athletic Conkling would pull through. He did not. He fell into a coma and died on April 18, 1888, at the age of 58.

What could be made of this man who once so towered over his competitors? The noted agnostic Robert Ingersoll eulogized Conkling, acclaiming him as a man who “stood for independence, for courage, and above all for absolute integrity …Roscoe Conkling was an absolutely honest man.”

This was not the view of all men at the time, and Conkling’s reputation remains largely negative because of all the controversy that he stirred in defense of his political machine. True, he could be principled, as when he urged President Grant to veto the inflation bill of 1874 and when he sided with President Hayes over the appropriations riders. He took the high road when he stood by Mississippi Senator Blanche K. Bruce, as their white colleagues altogether avoided the first elected black member of that body.

This statue of Roscoe Conkling stands at the southeast corner of Madison Square Park in New York City.  Conkling seemed destined for greatness, but his reputation is largely negative today due to his personality and unwillingness to compromise on issues like civil service reform.  (

This John Quincy Adams Ward-sculpted statue of Roscoe Conkling stands at the southeast corner of Madison Square Park in New York City. Conkling seemed destined for greatness, but his reputation is largely negative today due to his personality and unwillingness to compromise on issues like civil service reform. (

Conkling’s poor reputation, however, remains. He contributed no lasting positive record. The economic forces that were transforming the United Stated were controlled by men like Gould and Fisk, Rockefeller, Morgan and Carnegie. It was a transformation that Roscoe Conkling did not attempt to understand or guide. Intra-party squabbles, not the welfare of the nation, preoccupied Conkling. He repeatedly “let himself be caught up in inconsequentials.” Why did he allow this? Was it a basic insecurity that drove Conkling to act as he did? Was he just a mean-spirited individual who needed to dominate others? Alas, herein lays a mystery.

What is clear is that in his battles with two successive presidents, Roscoe Conkling helped to forge the start of a new path for the institution of the presidency that would make it in our time the most influential and watched position in American politics – and the world’s. In this, Conkling’s career in politics, after more than one hundred thirty years, still echoes.

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

Stalwarts, Half Breeds, and Political Assassination

Most summaries of the assassination of President James A. Garfield describe his attacker, Charles Guiteau, as nothing more than a “disappointed office seeker.” When police apprehended him after he shot Garfield on July 2, 1881, Guiteau calmly told them, “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts…Arthur is president.” Were these just the ramblings of an almost surely mentally unbalanced murderer? Or was there something more to Guiteau’s statement? Understanding the factionalism in the Republican Party during this era helps one understand not only how James A. Garfield ascended to the presidency, but also that his murder was wholly political in nature. 

One main issue led to the split in the Republican Party: patronage. Under the patronage system, the winners of congressional and presidential elections had the power to appoint whomever they chose to fill numerous federal jobs. Experience and qualifications mattered little (if at all). Powerful politicians loved the so-called “spoils system” because it allowed them to put friends and relatives into lucrative positions and ensure loyalty from everyone they appointed. According to author Kenneth D. Ackerman, “Senatorial courtesy—deferring to senators of the president’s party on local positions—helped the party in power to build a national base. Breaking the system apart would threaten everyone.” Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York was the undisputed king of the patronage system, and the key weapon in his spoils arsenal was the position of Collector of the Port of New York.

Roscoe Conkling was the senior Senator from New York and the undisputed king of the spoils system. He controlled the most nation’s most prized patronage position: Collector of the Port of New York. (

Conkling was also the leader of the Republican faction that came to be known as “Stalwarts.” These Republicans strictly adhered to the patronage system and continued to believe that sectional appeals (“waving the bloody shirt”) were still valid even after the Rutherford B. Hayes administration of 1877-81 began to gradually end Reconstruction in the South. Senator James G. Blaine of Maine was Conkling’s counterpart on the other side of the issue, leading the faction that came to be known as “Half Breeds.” Blaine and his followers “were known as ‘Half Breeds’ because of their willingness to depart from Stalwart orthodoxy,” writes historian Lewis L. Gould. Many of this faction, including President Hayes, believed that the patronage system contributed to the scandals and graft that had recently embarrassed the party during the eight years of Ulysses S. Grant’s presidency. Civil service reform—the idea that candidates for federal jobs should have some qualification besides just their political affiliation or connections—became a popular cause among the Half Breeds.

Much of the nation’s trade flowed through the Port of New York. Because the Collector of Customs there received a percentage of the customs duties, the job was the most prized appointment in the country. Roscoe Conkling demanded that he alone select the man to fill this politically important and personally lucrative position. President Hayes, seeking to wrest control from Conkling, nominated two different men as Collector. Conkling rallied his Senate colleagues to defeat both and eventually succeeded in getting his own choice, an acolyte named Chester Alan Arthur, appointed instead. In 1878, President Hayes and Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman fired Arthur from his position for turning a blind eye to corruption inside the Customs House. In response, Conkling had Arthur named chairman of the New York Republican committee and made plans to have Arthur elected as the junior U.S. Senator from New York in 1880.

Chester Alan Arthur was Collector of the Port of New York until fired for corruption by President Rutherford B. Hayes. He was a Conkling loyalist who was eventually placed on the 1880 ticket with Garfield to appease the Stalwarts. (

Led by Conkling, Stalwarts encouraged former president Ulysses S. Grant to seek an unprecedented third term in the White House in the 1880 election. Despite the many scandals of Grant’s two previous terms (1869-1877), the former Union general was still immensely personally popular with the American public. Grant was disheartened at Hayes’s attempts to dismantle the patronage system and, in consultation with Conkling and other Stalwart allies, agreed to run again. Conkling looked forward to reclaiming control of the New York Customs House and once again serving as President Grant’s right hand man, just as he had done during the earlier Grant administrations. On the other side of the aisle, Half Breeds supported none other than James G. Blaine for the Republican presidential nomination. The personal hatred between Conkling and Blaine, dating back to their early service together in the House of Representatives during the Civil War, made the issue that much more heated and complicated.

At the Republican convention in Chicago, Half Breeds worked tirelessly and successfully to block Grant’s nomination. In turn, the Stalwarts gave absolutely no consideration to supporting Blaine. After the first several ballots, it was clear that neither man could obtain the necessary votes to capture the nomination. A compromise candidate was needed. James A. Garfield of Ohio, longtime member of the House of Representatives and currently Ohio’s Senator-elect, was liked and respected by members of both factions. Garfield had traveled to the convention to nominate another candidate Conkling and the Stalwarts would never support: Treasury Secretary John Sherman. On the 36th ballot, Garfield, still stunned that his name had been forwarded as a candidate at all, received the nomination. To appease the Stalwart faction, Conkling disciple Chester A. Arthur, just two years removed from his New York Customs House firing, received the party’s vice presidential nomination.

This cartoon depicts Roscoe Conkling trying to solve “the great presidential puzzle” and deduce who would be the Republicans’ best candidate in 1880. Conkling hoped to see U.S. Grant nominated for a third term, but many Republicans, including James A. Garfield, opposed a third term. (

Garfield went on to defeat Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock by a razor-thin popular vote margin in the 1880 election and assumed the presidency on March 4, 1881. If the Arthur nomination was intended to be an olive branch to the Stalwarts, that branch cracked when Garfield made James Blaine his Secretary of State. The branch then splintered into a thousand pieces when the new president nominated William H. Robertson to be Collector of the Port of New York without consulting Conkling. Historian Heather Cox Richardson notes that Conkling was “a famously touchy character” and that he was “undoubtedly personally affronted.” However, as Richardson points out, Conkling opposed Robertson’s nomination by claiming that the Senate’s role to advise and consent to presidential appointments gave senators the power of appointment itself. “What was really at stake,” writes Richardson, “was whether or not Conkling would control New York.”

Conkling devised a bold plan to force the issue and embarrass President Garfield. He and New York’s other senator, Thomas Platt, resigned their seats in protest and fully confident that the New York legislature would immediately reappoint them. (Recall that at this point the people did not elect their senators; rather, they were chosen by state legislatures.) Conkling and Platt miscalculated; the New York legislature was happy to be rid of them and promptly elected others to fill their seats. The Senate confirmed Robertson as head of the New York Customs House, and James A. Garfield won the only political victory of his very brief term in the White House.

So what does any of this have to do with Charles Guiteau and his attack on Garfield? Guiteau considered himself to be a Stalwart Republican. He had supported U.S. Grant for the party’s nomination in 1880, even preparing a nonsensical speech he hoped to give for the Grant campaign throughout New York. When the Republicans ended up choosing Garfield instead, Guiteau simply crossed out all references to “Grant” in his speech’s text and replaced them with “Garfield.” During the campaign, Guiteau hounded Republican officials to let him give his speech, which he finally did to a small and puzzled crowd. This odd performance led the mentally unbalanced Guiteau to believe that he had helped Garfield win New York, the most coveted electoral prize of the 1880 contest and the state that put Garfield over the top and into the presidency. His contribution to the party’s victory entitled him, he felt, to a patronage position, and he soon went to Washington, D.C. to present himself for consideration for the American consulship to Paris. Of course, he had no skills, qualifications, or experience to warrant such a position, but lesser men had received prized jobs under the patronage system.

Charles Guiteau was almost certainly mentally unstable, but he also thought of himself as a Stalwart Republican who opposed President Garfield’s intention to reform civil service. Guiteau was more than just a “disappointed officer seeker.” He was a political assassin. (

Once he got to Washington, Guiteau was sorely disappointed. His efforts to secure the Paris appointment failed, and he became a nuisance to the new administration. He aroused the ire of Secretary of State James Blaine, who at one point thundered at Guiteau, “Do not ask me about the Paris consulship ever again!” Once Guiteau realized that he would not get the position he wanted and that the Garfield administration was serious about scrapping the patronage system all together, he decided that “removing” Garfield was his best option. Making Chester A. Arthur president would not only save the country from a Half Breed Republican like Garfield, but would also, considering Arthur’s past affiliation with Roscoe Conkling, save the patronage system and quash civil service reform once and for all. As a nice by-product, Guiteau would also surely receive the Paris consulship from a grateful President Arthur.

Guiteau bought a pistol and stalked the President of the United States around Washington before finally shooting him on July 2, 1881. Garfield lingered for eighty days and suffered horrendous medical treatment before dying on September 19. Rather than being heralded as a hero for saving the Republican Party, Charles J. Guiteau was incarcerated, tried, and found guilty of murder. (In what was probably one of the most lucid statements he ever made, Guiteau, when accused of murdering Garfield during his trial, replied, “The doctors did that. I merely shot at him.”) Guiteau was hanged on June 30, 1882.  He died a “disappointed office seeker,” to be sure, but to describe him as that and nothing more only tells part of the story. He was also a political assassin that killed President Garfield in an attempt to force the Republicans to change course on civil service reform. The Republican Party’s factionalism, clearly responsible for the selection of Garfield as its standard bearer in 1880, also led to the president’s murder at Guiteau’s hands.

This “Puck” cartoon depicts Guiteau threatening murder if not given a patronage job. He sought the American consulship to Paris; he eventually said he would accept the appointment to Vienna instead. Of course, he had no qualifications or experience, but that mattered little under the spoils system. (

-Todd Arrington, Chief of Interpretation and Education

The Federal Civil Service and the Death of President James A. Garfield

     Any standard history textbook today will tell you that Charles Guiteau, the assassin of James Abram Garfield, the twentieth President of the United States, was “a disappointed office seeker.” That’s an accurate description, as far as it goes, but there is much more to the circumstances of President Garfield’s tragic murder than that simple phrase suggests. The assassination of James Garfield was not the product of a pathetic, demented megalomaniac; it had its origins in the domestic politics of his time.

July 2, 1881: Secretary of State James Blaine (left) reacts to the shooting of President James A. Garfield (right). Assassin Charles Guiteau is being subdued at far left of image. (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

     By that I mean to say that it was the political culture of the 1860s and 1870s that led to the President’s death in 1881. Specifically, it was “the spoils system” that was as much the cause of Garfield’s assassination as were Guiteau’s actions. 

     The Federal bureaucracy had been growing since the days of Andrew Jackson in the 1830s. Many government employees working in federal agencies owed their positions to the Congressmen and Senators who had recommended their appointments to the President. These workers were expected to perform political work for their patrons as part of the job. Federal employees were also “assessed” a portion of the salaries, usually about five percent, to fund campaigns.

     Reform-minded individuals in the political parties and in the press wanted to put an end to this kind of thing. The first legislation to reform the Federal civil service appeared in December 1865 when Rhode Island Congressman Thomas Allen Jenckes introduced a bill to create a Civil Service Commission, to formulate rules for civil servants, and establish examinations for certain positions in the federal service. Jenckes’ 1865 bill did not pass.

     In 1871, Congress finally passed legislation permitting President Grant to create the first Civil Service Commission.  Congressional support was not strong, however, and Grant abandoned the effort.

President Ulysses S. Grant. (Library of Congress)

     Grant’s successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, was determined to reform the federal civil service, and in doing so, he confronted the colorful New York Senator, Roscoe Conkling.  He battled Hayes’ attempts to reduce his influence with civil service appointments in his state, mainly through replacing Conkling’s henchmen at the Port of New York, including the Collector, Chester Alan Arthur. It was this 1870s political donnybrook that would lead to assassination in 1881.

     By attacking Arthur, Hayes was attacking Conkling, and Conkling fought back. In the end, though, Hayes was triumphant, and Arthur was gone – but not for good!

Senator Roscoe Conkling was the undisptued king of patronage in his home state of New York. (Wikipedia)

 The Hayes-Conkling fight in 1877-1878 became the Garfield-Conkling fight three years later. Just as Rutherford B. Hayes had wanted to reduce the influence of Senators – and specifically Senator Conkling – in making presidential appointments, so too did James A. Garfield. During his own squabble with Roscoe Conkling, he confided to his diary in the spring of 1881 that he was bound to determine “whether I was the registering Clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the government.”

     What were the circumstances that caused President Garfield to make that comment? To begin with, President Hayes did not seek re-election in 1880. James Garfield was nominated after the leading contenders, including former President Grant, were unable to prevail. Conkling had strongly supported Grant, and he was displeased by Garfield’s surprise nomination.

      After Garfield won the election, Senator Conkling, ever the power broker, tried to win concessions from Garfield over control of New York political appointments.

     In the fall and winter of 1880-1881, the president-elect needed to satisfy the various factions in the Republican Party regarding his cabinet and various diplomatic and domestic posts.  Senator Conkling, meanwhile, sought to insure that the political attacks he had suffered under President Hayes would not be repeated by the new President.

     In January 1881, Garfield was fully aware of the need to accommodate Conkling as much as possible. The President-elect invited the Senator to his Mentor, Ohio home to talk. Conkling’s response to the invitation hinted ominously at his future course if his demands were not met: “I need hardly say that your administration cannot be more successful than I wish it to be.”  The meeting was not a great success and the tensions between the two continued.

     Nevertheless, President Garfield nominated five New York Stalwarts for government posts on March 22. He also nominated William Robertson, Conkling’s adversary, for that most important post of Collector of the Port of New York. Robertson’s nomination was a bombshell, recognized throughout the Republican Party and the national press as a challenge to Conkling.

     A compromise intended to achieve peace with Conkling fell through when Conkling reneged on a promise to meet with Garfield.  When Garfield heard this, he refused to rescind Robertson’s nomination to the Collectorship.

President Garfield nominated Willliam H. Robertson to be Collector of the Port of New York without consulting Sen. Conkling. (Wikipedia)

     The situation was once again in turmoil due to Conkling’s peevishness, and as Kenneth D. Ackerman writes, “James Garfield seemed to cross a psychological bridge…Conkling could not be dealt with nor tolerated.” Whitelaw Reid, the publisher of the New York Tribune, wrote to Garfield, telling him that this latest crisis was the turning point of his administration. If Garfield surrendered, Conkling would in effect be the President of the United States. Garfield’s response indeed showed backbone: “Robertson may be carried out of the Senate head first or feet first…I shall never withdraw him.”

     At this point, let us turn our attention away from president and the senator and introduce into the narrative President Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau.

     Guiteau was born in Illinois in September 1841.  His journey through life up to the time of the assassination had been a troubled one. His mother died when he was seven, and his father, Luther Guiteau, was often abusive toward him. As an adult, he pursued a career in the law, and then took up theology. He was successful at neither.

     Charles Guiteau was a megalomaniac, and in 1880, having failed so far in life, he came to believe that his way to fame and fortune was in politics. He went to New York after Garfield’s nomination, where he ingratiated himself with Republican officials. He altered a pro-Grant speech he had written to a pro-Garfield speech. He got permission from the Vice Presidential nominee, Chester A. Arthur, to deliver it at a rally for the Republican ticket. When the Garfield-Arthur ticket won in November, the self-deceiving Guiteau believed that he was instrumental in the victory. Therefore, he reasoned, he deserved a political reward: a job in the government.

    He believed that he would make an excellent Consul to Paris – even though he had no prior experience in diplomatic service. He made repeated attempts to see President Garfield about it. Guiteau also badgered James G. Blaine, Garfield’s political confidante and Secretary of State. Early in the administration, Guiteau regularly visited the Secretary of State at his office.     

James G. Blaine, another Conkling enemy, became Secretary of State under President Garfield. Blaine went on to lose the presidential election of 1884 to Grover Cleveland. (

Charles Guiteau considered himself a Stalwart Republican, and he pestered the Garfield administration for a job before shooting the president. (Wikipedia)

     While Guiteau was making his maneuvers, the fight between President Garfield and Senator Conkling was coming to a head in the U.S. Senate.  The President of the Senate was Garfield’s Vice President, Chester Arthur. The role he chose to play in the fight between his mentor, Roscoe Conkling and his President, James Garfield, must be one of the most remarkable in the history of the nation.

     Chester Arthur, of course, was the man President Hayes had fired from the Collectorship of the Port of New York in 1878. He had become the vice presidential nominee in 1880 though Conkling urged him to drop the idea as if it were “a red hot shoe from the forge.” Arthur did not. The Vice Presidency was, he said, “a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining.”

          Arthur and Conkling were a team in the effort to block the nomination of Robertson. On April 2, according to Kenneth D. Ackerman, Chester A. Arthur, Vice President of the United States, gathered together several New York associates “to plan the defeat of his own president’s most important political decision to date,” to kill the Robertson nomination. He saw no irony in this. 

      When Garfield withdrew all the New York nominations except Robertson’s to force a vote on Robertson, Roscoe Conkling and the junior New York Senator, Tom Platt, resigned their seats. They planned to return to Albany and win reelection. In so doing they would return to Washington politically stronger and able to defeat the President. Chester Arthur even went to New York to lobby on their behalf! 

     At this point, events moved quickly. With Conkling and Platt gone, the Senate ratified Robertson’s nomination on May 18.  President Garfield had achieved an important political victory – but it was a victory that would cost him his life.

     It seemed that the Republican Party was becoming more divided. The deranged Charles Guiteau, disappointed in his own hopes for the Paris Consulate, believed that Garfield had to be “removed” in order to save the Republican Party and the country. He purchased an English bulldog revolver – with borrowed money – from a shop in Washington.  He saw himself as a patriot and believed that the American public would rally to his support. He also believed that God – “the Deity” was the term he used – was telling him to remove President Garfield.

     Guiteau began stalking Garfield. One morning in June, he followed him to the Disciples church where the President worshipped. Guiteau couldn’t shoot a man at his devotions.

      Next, Guiteau followed Garfield to the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station on June 18. The President was accompanying his wife Lucretia to New Jersey, where she was to complete her recuperation from an attack of malaria. Guiteau couldn’t shoot Garfield there, either. Mrs. Garfield looked so frail, standing by her husband, that Guiteau said later that he “did not have the heart to fire upon him.”

     On a third occasion, Guiteau watched the President and his Secretary of State, James Blaine (who had been so rude to him) walking arm in arm on a Washington street one evening. He followed the pair for some time, but did not act.

      But Guiteau knew that he had one more chance to remove the President. It was announced in the newspapers. President Garfield would be taking a train to New Jersey, on Saturday, July 2 to meet his wife and continue on to a vacation in New England and New York.  The train would depart the Baltimore and Potomac Train Station at 9:30 a.m.

      This time he was prepared to act. He knew he would be arrested, so a few days before he checked out the Washington Jail. He thought it would be a nice place to be confined.

     Guiteau was already at the station when the President arrived a few minutes past nine, with Secretary Blaine by his side. The President and Secretary were crossing into the main waiting room when Guiteau fired two shots. One grazed Garfield’s right arm, while the other tunneled into his back. The President collapsed.

The Baltimore and Potomace railroad depot in which Guiteau shot Garfield. Note the black bunting and half-staff flag. Today, the National Portrait Gallery is found where this depot once stood. (

     Charles Guiteau was immediately apprehended. Addressing one of the arresting officers, he said, “I did it. I will go to jail for it. I am a Stalwart and Arthur will be President.”

     Guiteau became something of a celebrity in the press; his photograph was taken many times, and interviews and articles by and about him appeared in print. He always insisted that he was the agent of “the Deity” and that what he had done was for the good of the country.  Garfield lingered for 80 days before dying on September 19, 1881.  Guiteau, so sure he would be revered for his actions, was hanged on June 30, 1882, two days shy of the first anniversary of his attack on President Garfield.

     It is worth noting that the National Civil Service Reform League took advantage of President’s assassination by distributing a letter nationwide connecting the “recent murderous attack” on Garfield to promote reform legislation.  That legislation, the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act, was signed into law by President Arthur on January 16, 1883.

     So, President James Abram Garfield was assassinated not simply because a mentally deranged individual was “a disappointed office seeker”; a long-standing and divisive effort to reform the machinery of the Federal government created such a poisonous political atmosphere that that same disturbed individual saw himself as the person equipped to put and end to this factional and personal dispute.  Regretably, his solution robbed the country of the leadership of the intelligent, thoughtful, talented man who was the 20th President of the United States.

-Alan Gephardt, Park Ranger

“As a Matter of Fact, I Presume I Shall Live to be President”: A Brief Biographical Sketch of Garfield’s Assassin

From the year he was born in Freeport, Illinois in 1841, Charles Julius Guiteau had lived a life of nearly constant instability.  His mother died when he was just seven years old and his father was harsh and often negligent, and as a result he was usually looked after by his older sister Frances.  According to Frances, he was very late in learning to speak and always seemed in constant, excited motion.  However, Guiteau apparently strove for self-improvement and worked to educate himself.  In 1859 he used an inheritance to attend the University of Michigan, but he was slow to make friends and left after a year to join a religious commune in Oneida, New York.  He struggled to fit in with the community there as well and was described by most of his acquaintances as moody and egotistical.

The Oneida community as it looked in the mid-to-late 1800s. (New York Public Library)

This theme of instability in Guiteau’s life progressed and grew with time.  He spent his adult years travelling from city to city, trying his hand at a variety of vocations and wild business schemes, but all ended in failure.  One such idea was to start a theocratic newspaper in 1865, but the venture fell apart after three months.  A few years later he tried the more direct approach of buying out a Chicago daily paper and reprinting New York Tribune articles.  However, no one would loan him the money for his outlandish plan, despite a supposed promise to make one of his investors President of the United States if he would contribute. 

Nearly everyone who crossed paths with Guiteau noted his odd behavior, such as rapid mood swings and his habit of never looking someone in the eye while talking.  Many family members and acquaintances believed him to be insane.  His egotistical personality from his days at the Oneida Community seemed to intensify and his grandiose plans for himself continued unabated.  Guiteau married a librarian named Annie Bunn in 1869, but after years of abuse and instability she divorced him in 1874. She would later recount Guiteau’s interest in the 1872 election and his hope that he would be appointed Minister to Chile if Horace Greeley won.  He limped through a less-than-thorough examination for the Illinois bar (he was apparently asked three questions and got two correct, a score of 66%) but he rarely participated in trials, mostly working as a bill-collector.  Guiteau ran into legal problems as a bill-collector, though, and spent brief stints in jail for scamming clients of their legal fees.  He then tried the life of a traveling preacher for a few years in the late 1870s, where most in his audience struggled to make sense of his confused and disjointed speeches.

Charles Julius Guiteau. He would allow portraits to be taken (for a fee) and signed numerous autographs during his murder trial. (Smithsonian-National Portrait Gallery)

Guiteau finally believed he had discovered his purpose in early 1880 when he once again became interested in politics and the upcoming election.  This time he attached himself to former President Ulysses S. Grant, Horace Greeley’s opponent in the 1872 election.  He moved to New York City and tried to befriend the leaders of the Stalwart faction of the Republican Party, who supported Grant’s reelection.  He even wrote a rambling, clichéd speech for the Republican frontrunner titled “Grant against Hancock”; when Garfield ended up with the nomination in June of 1880 Guiteau kept the speech largely the same and simply substituted Garfield’s name for Grant’s.  After repeated requests, the Stalwarts allowed him to give his speech one time in front of about two dozen spectators.  Despite his minimal audience, Guiteau claimed that it was his ideas that had won Garfield the presidency.

Convinced he had earned himself a prestigious appointment as a “personal tribute” for his work during the campaign, Guiteau was a regular presence in the White House reception room.  He wrote to Garfield numerous times and once even received a brief audience with the President where he requested an appointment to the Paris consulship.  But after months of waiting it eventually dawned on Guiteau that he would not receive the position he believed was owed to him. Shortly after this realization, he concluded that God wanted him to “remove the President for the good of the American people.”  In support of his “revelation”, he recalled his numerous brushes with death, such as surviving a shipwreck and being thrown from a moving train, and he thus believed he had divine protection.  Believing he would be viewed as a hero for saving the Republican Party from Garfield’s desire to reform civil service by ending the patronage system, Guiteau borrowed money from an old acquaintance (he was nearly penniless at this point) and purchased an ivory-handled pistol.  He was sure that the ivory handle would look better should the pistol ever be put on display in a museum.  Guiteau stalked the President for weeks before finally shooting Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac train station in Washington D.C. on July 2, 1881.

Harper’s Weekly sketch of Guiteau during the trial. He often feigned disinterest in the proceedings by reading a newspaper. (University of Missouri-Kansas City,

Guiteau’s trial began in November 1881, two months after Garfield’s death.  Guiteau insisted that he had been temporarily insane and denied having any responsibility for his actions because, in his mind, he was merely the “appointed agent” of God’s will.  Guiteau argued that “It was transitory mania that I had; that is all the insanity that I claim” and said that he never would have shot the President under his own free will.  Guiteau also maintained that it was malpractice that had actually killed the President, stating “The doctors did that. I simply shot at him” and “…we acknowledge the shooting, but not the killing.”  But while Guiteau claimed temporary insanity, his lawyers argued that he was entirely insane by pointing to testimonies from family and acquaintances regarding his long history of odd behavior. However, at the time the insanity defense relied on the M’Naghten rule, which held a defendant responsible if he knew his actions to be unlawful and understood the consequences; Guiteau was clearly aware of these two facts.  The prosecution also maintained that even if Guiteau was insane he was still sane enough to know what he was doing and was thus accountable for his actions.

Even at the end of his trial, Guiteau clung to the belief that he was a hero.  In a “Christmas Greeting” sent to newspapers Guiteau compared his patriotism to that of George Washington and Ulysses S. Grant and declared “As a matter of fact, I presume I shall live to be President.”  In the trial he denied being a disappointed office-seeker and maintained that Garfield’s death was a political necessity, commanded by God, in order to unify the Republican Party and save the nation from a second civil war.  His defense, which was lead for the most part by his brother-in-law George Scoville, tried to keep him quiet but Guiteau interrupted virtually every testimony with clarifications and insults (even taking numerous opportunities to insult his lawyer, Scoville, for his inexperience with criminal trials).  The proceedings lasted nearly three months but after deliberating for just under an hour the jury found Guiteau guilty. He was hanged in Washington DC on June 30, 1882, just two days shy of a year after he shot President Garfield.

Guiteau being escorted from the courthouse. The courtroom was usually packed with spectators, and there were several attempts to shoot Guiteau. (“Guiteau the Assassin,” by George B. Herbert)

-T.J. Todd, Visitor Use Assistant

The Tragedy…and Triumph of President James A. Garfield and Alexander Graham Bell

Scene at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station after President Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau. Printed in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 16, 1881. Library of Congress.

       “I am a dead man…” said President James A. Garfield as he lay in a pool of blood on the floor of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station July 2, 1881. As onlookers stared in awe and wept, several men accompanying the President apprehended the shooter, Charles Guiteau, and the others quickly swept up the President and transported him to the White House.

       The question of the bullet was a curious one. Exploratory surgery was not done in the 19th century and X-rays were not yet invented, so the doctors attending James Garfield used the most primitive instruments – their fingers – to probe the entry wound in his back and try to manually locate the bullet. Bedridden, stoic, and even conversational, Garfield endured this crude method of examination for three weeks with no firm conclusion.   Then a glimmer of hope came from an unlikely source – the inventor of  the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell.

Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, photo courtesy of IEEE History Center.

By 1881, Mr. Bell was at the height of his career. The telephone, patented in 1876, earned the Bell Telephone Company its first million, the first corporation to achieve that benchmark inside of one year. Bell constantly invented and improved his creations, and a week after the shooting Bell felt he could help the President’s case by applying his telephone technology to a machine developed by Simon Newcomb, called the induction balance machine. The idea was that the machine could create an electric current and by passing coils over a mass, in this case a human body, any trace of metal would be detected and create a sound by interrupting the current. The amplification device which allowed telephone users to hear a voice from the other end of a phone line would be used to magnify the sound of the interruption on the induction balance machine, thus allowing Bell to pinpoint the location of the bullet.

Professor A. Graham Bell’s induction balance for ascertaining the location of a bullet in a human body, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 20, 1881. Library of Congress.

        From the time he arrived in Washington on July 26, 1881 Bell worked tirelessly with his assistant, William Taintor. The pair scrounged for parts to connect the amplifier to Newcomb’s apparatus, and experimented with lengths and locations of the coils which would be used to scan the President’s body.  When the machine was in working order, they conducted several trial runs to test the ability of the coils to pick up the presence of lead. Both men hid bullets in their cheeks, in sacks of cotton, in corpses the approximate size of the President, and finally inside of raw beef. Met with success every time, the professors brought the contraption to the Army War Hospital and used it on Civil War veterans with spent bullets in their bodies. All trials were successful, and with some minor tweaking an anxious Bell was ready to try it on his most famous patient: the President of the United States.

       A confident Bell and Taintor arrived at the White House with high hopes the morning of July 26. Those hopes were replaced by shock as Bell caught his first glimpse of the sleeping President.  “His face is very pale – or rather it is of an ashen grey colour which makes one feel for a moment that you are not looking upon a living man,” Bell observed. Feeling the sense of urgency, the anxious orchestrator immediately began setting up the equipment.

       When Garfield awoke, his attending physicians prepared him for the experiment. His dressing gown was pulled to one side, and with support from an attendant, Garfield slowly rotated his body to expose the wound and surrounding areas.  “A calm peaceful expression” came across Garfield’s face, and he closed his eyes as the testing began. Dr. Willard Bliss, the doctor in charge of Garfield’s case, took the coils from the induction balance machine and scanned the President’s body near the bullet hole in his back. This puzzled Bell, since Bliss predicted the bullet was near Garfield’s abdomen in the front of his body. Nonetheless, Bell took his place behind the President, listening in anticipation of that magic sound coming through the telephone earpiece. 

Two scenes of Bell’s attempt at using his induction balance to determine where the bullet was lodged. Left: “The Wounded President: Ascertaining the location of the bullet.” Harper’s Weekly, August 13, 1881. Right: “The attempted assassination of the President – The Discovery of the Location of the Bullet by Means of Professor Bell’s Induction Balance.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 20, 1881. Library of Congress.

        “THE PATIENT STILL MAKING GOOD PROGRESS – SUCCESSFUL EXPERIMENTS WITH THE INDUCTION BALANCE—THE BULLET IN THE PLACE FIRST DECIDED UPON BY THE SURGEONS” was the morning headline on August 1, 1881. The New York Times printed a report given by Alexander Graham Bell on his attempt to locate the bullet: “…on July 26, a feeble tone was perceived…but too feeble to be entirely satisfactory.” Based on Bell’s earlier attempts at concealing bullets in meat, corpses, etc, he expected a louder sound when the coils were placed near the bullet in Garfield’s body. Bell took the machine back to his lab, made some further modifications, conducted some more bullet-in-flesh experiments, and returned confidently to the White House on August 1 for a second try.   The Times reported after this attempt that “it is now unanimously agreed that the location of the ball has been ascertained with reasonable certainty…” in Garfield’s abdominal wall toward the front of his body below and to the right of his belly button. 

       Bell was guardedly pleased at the positive response from the doctors, although he himself knew the truth. The induction balance machine did not record a significant difference in sound when waved over different parts of Garfield’s body on August 1. Bell was not satisfied, but the medical professionals had closure and the matter was laid to rest. 

Headline from The Chicago Daily Tribune, September 20, 1881

       On the morning of September 20, 1881 the newspapers, which for 80 days had religiously detailed the President’s medical condition, had a new headline: “He is Dead.”  Upon autopsy of the President’s  body, the bullet was found to the right of Garfield’s spinal cord, rendered harmless by a layer of scar tissue that formed around it. Bell was understandably upset by these results, which showed the bullet was nowhere near where the doctors thought it was. Had he been permitted to scan Garfield’s body thoroughly during his examination, Bell quite possibly could have located the bullet. Despite the successes of his earlier experiments, Bell returned home a defeated man, fearing his reputation was soiled and the lifesaving potential of his machine’s lost on this bad news.

       After mentally healing from the death of President Garfield, Alexander Graham Bell rose above tragedy to triumph.  He mended whatever reputation he believed damaged from his failure to save the President and went on to perfect the induction balance machine, known today simply as a metal detector. These machines are commonly available and affordable. People use them as a form of recreation to find coins, old nails, and perhaps treasure, but very few hobbyists realize the contraption they are holding was first conceived to save a wounded and dying President.

-Allison Powell, Park Ranger