The Strange, Deranged Mind of James Garfield’s Assassin

Charles Guiteau in a political cartoon created for the cover of Puck Magazine on July 13, 1881. © LoC

On July 2, 1881, James Garfield was shot by a deranged man, and Garfield’s case proves that being on the receiving end of a nineteenth century gunshot is all kinds of torture. Garfield struggled a grueling eleven weeks with a bullet buried deep behind his pancreas before passing away.

His killer, Charles Guiteau, was shoved into a cell, convinced he’d be absolved. In his mind, he committed a necessary act of American patriotism; God simply granted him the power to do what others couldn’t. To a lucid public, however, it was cold murder. When news of Garfield’s death swept the country, Americans were thirsty for Guiteau’s blood. As the events unfolded, they took on mythical proportions: Garfield’s bedridden resilience was Herculean. Guiteau’s delusions were otherworldly. The public’s outrage was moblike.

It’s surprising to consider that the story of this presidential assassination, with all its darkness and dementia, was underplayed in American history until the publication of historian Candice Millard’s brilliant “Destiny of the Republic” last fall. After all, Garfield was an extraordinary president, destined to be one of our best before his sudden departure. A quiet man uninterested in attention, Garfield never even wished to be a part of the presidential race. But upon giving a rousing endorsement for John Sherman, those in attendance at the 1880 Republican National Convention were so moved they added Garfield’s name to the already overpopulated ballot. He wound up winning his party’s nomination, followed by the nation’s Presidency. “There is a tone of sadness running through this triumph,” he wrote after the announcement, “which I can hardly explain.”

Such humility immediately draws you to Garfield’s side as you wind through Millard’s colorful tale. Dwight D. Eisenhower once said that a man eager to be president must be one of two things: egomaniacal or crazy. Therefore the reluctance with which Garfield wore his crown is ultimately a testament to his unique qualifications. With what little time he had, he made haste to change society for the better. He took to purging corruption in government, abolishing the spoils system, and appointing a handful of African Americans (Frederick Douglass included) to federal positions. He had a marvelous blueprint for America’s future, which once again raises the question: how was all this largely forgotten?

Perhaps one of the culprits behind our collective amnesia is the educational system and its emphasis upon the broader strokes of War and Industrialization as the topics that sell in history classrooms. Since Garfield’s assassination followed shortly after the Civil War, an event that almost swallows American history whole, his era is often categorized as “postbellum reconstruction,” forever eclipsed by its own fresh past. Candice Millard dispels that blanket definition with a quick dusting of the historical record. She wields “Destiny” like a lantern, casting light on the hidden cracks of America’s past, coaxing the shadows of science and history out of their corners to flicker once again. The insanity, the murder, the stakes: it’s all been ripe for a modern retelling, and with the wave of her pen Millard summons the era bounding before our eyes.

Her premise is simple: Garfield died an untimely death. We know who shot him and why, and Garfield’s injuries would be deemed little more than a flesh wound by modern medical practitioners. The question becomes: What other factors contributed to the second shortest presidency in American history? For one thing, Garfield was a vulnerable target. Secondly, he was treated by doctors resistant to the most basic antiseptic precautions.

Today, no president in his right mind would sidle down a busy street without hoards of Matrix-suited Secret Service agents flanking him on every side. Millard spends a few important pages discussing the very different context of the nineteenth century, in which a sense of American “immunity” to political killings prevailed. Despite the killing of the Russian czar in the weeks following Garfield’s election and repeated assassination attempts on the life of Queen Victoria during the same period, the American public remained unfazed by a high degree of presidential exposure at home. An excess of protection was considered “un-American” and “too imperial” for a democratically elected nation. Millard enlightens us further: “In fact, Secret Service agents would not be officially assigned to protect the president until after William McKinley was shot in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901.” Too little, too late. Just twenty years before McKinley, Garfield had no bodyguards and was shot point blank while walking arm-in-arm with a good friend at the Washington train depot.

Millard also describes the “Unwashed fingers…unsterilized instruments…[and] soot-covered coats…” of the men who tended to Garfield’s wounds, characterizing typical practice of an average nineteenth-century doctor. Despite valiant scientific war cries from British surgeon Joseph Lister promoting antisepsis at Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition, American doctors met his findings with closed minds and deaf ears. The extent to which doctors balked at Lister’s message, at the continued risk of killing their patients, is astounding: “Judging the future by the past,” wrote George F. Shady, then the famed editor of Medical Record, “we are likely to be as much ridiculed in the next century for our blind belief in the power of unseen germs, as our forefathers were for their faith in the influence of spirits, of certain planets and the like, inducing certain maladies.” It was medical malpractice (in the form of dirty surgical fingers), not a bullet, that sealed President Garfield’s fate. Unfortunately, Lister’s name has been all but forgotten, relegated to the label of the household mouthwash “Listerine.”

In the end, Charles Guiteau dangled from the gallows to the cheer of thousands of vengeful Americans in and outside the execution area. With great success, “Destiny of the Republic” resurrects the legacies of forgotten heroes like Lister and Garfield — legacies even Guiteau couldn’t extinguish — and returns them to their proud places in American history. The result is pure entertainment and an unexpected education.

For her closing epigraph, Millard quotes an 1880 insight from Garfield himself: “There is nothing in all the earth that you and I can do for the Dead. They are past our help and past our praise. We can add to them no glory, we can give to them no immortality. They do not need us, but forever and forever more we need them.” In doing so, she aligns herself with her subject, leaving us with their shared value of the past in examining the present and forging the future.