The Assassination of James A. Garfield

James A. Garfield was the 20th President of the United States, who was fatally shot and assassinated at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C in 1881. His assassination had a massive impact on America and its politics. 

It had only been four months since becoming a president until he was murdered. Some say that it was a politically motivated attempt but the Guiteau who shot the President was caught and executed a year later. So let’s take a look into what events led to this unfortunate event. 


The background of the assassination of James a Garfield begins with Charles Guiteau who entered politics after failing in several ventures. As a result, Guiteau came up with many speeches especially “Grant against Hancock” in an attempt to support Ulysses. S Grant at the time. 

Although his speeches were not made public at the time but they were distributed in written form. Upon Grant losing to James Garfield, Guiteau shifted his attention to Garfield and revised his speech “Garfield against Hancock”. 

Even though the speech was in written form but was ineffective. As Guiteau hurried, he made an incomplete effort to replace references to Grant with references to Garfield. As a result, Guiteau accidentally gave Garfield the credit for accomplishments instead of Grant. 

However, he had convinced himself that his speeches played a huge role in Garfield’s narrow victory over Winfield Scott Hancock. Guiteau believed that he should be awarded a government position and lingered around the Republican headquarters in New York City hoping that he would be rewarded for his speech but nothing came his way.

Guiteau arrived in Washington, D.C in 1881, a day after the inauguration ceremony of Garfield. He was still hoping of being rewarded and roamed Washington while staying at rooming houses without paying for his meals and lodging. He went back and forth between the State Department and the White House but to no avail. 

In 1875, the Guiteau family had declared him insane and wanted to have him committed but he managed to escape. By now, Guiteau had told his mother that a higher power had ordered him to kill the President. As a result, Guiteau borrowed $15 from a relative and bought a revolver. 

At the time, Guiteau knew very little about firearms. Since he believed that he would need a larger caliber gun, he visited O’Meara’s store in Washington and chose a .442 caliber British Bulldog revolver with an ivory grip. The reason he did this was that he thought that it would look good in a museum after the assassination. 

However, he could not afford the extra dollars, so the shop owner reduced the price for him. Guiteau practiced carefully and stalked Garfield. He wrote several letters threatening the killing of the President but all his letters were ignored. He even visited the District of Columbia jail and asked them to give them a tour of the vicinity where he would be incarcerated but they told him to come back later. 

Guiteau followed Garfield for an entire month until one day he found Garfield meeting his wife but did not want to shoot him as Garfield’s wife was known to be in poor health and did not want to upset her. 



The assassination of President Garfield in 1881 shook the world. Garfield was scheduled to leave Washington on July 2, 1881, for summer vacation and Guiteau lay in wait for him at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station. Garfield delivered a speech before embarking on his vacation and had his sons along with other important government personalities. 

However, at the time, the Presidents did not employ security. They were mostly surrounded by close people. As Garfield entered the waiting room of the station, Guiteau stepped forward and shot him twice at point-blank range. As a result, Garfield cried out “My God, what is that?”. 

After shooting the President, Guiteau put his pistol back inside and left for the cab waiting for him outside the station but he collided with a policeman who was rushing upon hearing the gunfire. 

The policeman Patrick Kearney was excited to have the shooter arrested but did not retrieve the gun until they reached the police station. Guiteau was asked several times as to why he shot the president but he refused. 

Finally, he shouted, “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts! I did it, and I want to be arrested! Arthur is President Now!”. This led to the public believing that Vice President Chester A. Arthur or his supporters provoked or ordered the killing of Garfield through Guiteau.

President Garfield was rushed and carried amidst security while he was conscious but in shock. He would spend the next several weeks in the White House where the physicians and doctors would try to locate the bullet and keep him in stable condition. 

Garfield remained stabled until he stopped digesting the food. As a result, his weight came down from 210 pounds to 130 pounds. He suffered from extreme fever and extreme pains. 

As a result, Sepsis and infection set in, leading to the President hallucinating for some time. His condition was getting worse and he passed away due to a ruptured splenic artery aneurysm. Most historians and medical experts believed that Garfield could have been easily saved if the doctors were capable. 

At the time, the doctors were not trained enough to treat infections and sepsis. At one instance, it is said that several inserted their unsterilized fingers into the wound to probe the bullet and one even punctured Garfield’s liver during the process. Soon, the President developed pneumonia in the lungs, which made his condition even worse according to the autopsy report. 

Final Word

Guiteau’s trial was one of the first high-profile cases in the United States. Although he continuously repeated that he was legally insane at the time of the shooting but he wasn’t really medically insane. This created a rift between his defense lawyers and the jury believing that Guiteau was denying to take responsibility. 

While Guiteau was making plans to start a lecture tour after his release, the jury found him guilty and he was hanged in 1882. Therefore, putting an end to a case that kept the country shook for several years to come.