Is it possible for an American president to be murdered in office and have the world forget about it? The millions who remember precisely where they were that November day in 1963 when John F. Kennedy was shot would say no. They would argue that the terrible event will be forever seared into the nation's conscience. Maybe so. After all, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln still remains vivid well over a century later.
On the other hand, the national memory is selective. Few Americans can name the other two presidents slain in office. Time has obscured the names of James Abram Garfield and William McKinley, yet their violent deaths once traumatized the nation.
Garfield (1831-1881) never actively sought the presidency. The former Civil War general and college president was content to represent Ohio in Congress. After 16 years in the House, he was elected to the Senate in 1880. Before he could take his seat, however, events at the Republican National Convention -- where Garfield was heading the Ohio delegation -- inexorably altered the course of his life.
The party was hopelessly divided between the "Stalwart" faction supporting former president Ulysses S. Grant, who was seeking a third term, and the more progressive "Half-Breeds," who wanted to make Sen. James G. Blaine of Maine the nominee. Out of this disunity, the 49-year-old Garfield's name emerged and gathered momentum, much to his surprise and chagrin.
"General, they are talking about nominating you," a political associate warned.
"My God," Garfield replied in agitation. "I know it. I know it! And they will ruin me. I am here as a friend of [John] Sherman" -- another hopeful Republican nominee -- "and what will he and the world think of me if I am put in nomination? I won't permit it."
Garfield nevertheless received the nomination and proceeded to defeat his Democratic opponent, Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, in the election of 1880. The prospect of being president troubled him. "I am bidding goodbye to private life," he wrote, "and to a long period of happy years which I fear terminate in 1880."
Presidents at the time faced the awesome task upon entering office of filling thousands of government jobs left open when workers from the previous administration were automatically fired in a well-established spoils system. Most of Garfield's brief time as president was taken up with this task, which he found odious.
"My services ought to be worth more to the government than to be thus spent," he lamented.
Everywhere he went, hordes of eager office seekers harassed the new president. Thousands streamed through the White House, trolling for lucrative jobs.
In those days, White House security was almost nonexistent, although Lincoln had been killed only 16 years earlier. Almost anyone could walk in and ask to see the president. Job seekers marauded through the mansion and onto Pennsylvania Avenue, making "the sounds of beasts at feeding time," as the statesman John Hay put it.
"These people would take my very brain, flesh and blood if they could," Garfield groaned.
One of the most persistent hopefuls was Charles Julius Guiteau, who was mentally unbalanced. Consumed with a grand vision of himself and his place in the world, this slight, unimposing 37-year-old, was a failure at everything he tried -- except killing the president of the United States.
He had been frozen out of a semi-religious cult he joined as a young man for what was
labeled "excessive egoism." Undeterred and fully intending to run the sect that had rejected him, Guiteau tried to start a newspaper based on the cult's teachings.
When that plan fizzled before being launched, the tenacious loser tried blackmail, threatening to expose "how nightly innocent girls and innocent young women [in the sect] are sacrificed to an experience easier imagined than described."
Next, Guiteau decided to become a lawyer after passing a less than rigorous bar exam. It appears that he argued only one case, during which he ranted incoherently while evoking God and the rights of man. His client was convicted, and Guiteau settled on a new profession as a debt collector. But he pocketed most everything he recovered, and business soon evaporated.
After another try at religious revivalism, a failed marriage and a stint in prison,
Guiteau turned to politics. Though he quickly proved himself a nuisance while hanging around Republican Party headquarters, Guiteau became convinced that he was responsible for Garfield's election. The office of consul general in Paris, he decided, was a fitting reward for his services.
He sent the president-elect a copy of an unsolicited, disjointed speech that he had written for Garfield during the campaign. "I presume my appointment will be promptly confirmed," Guiteau wrote in a note. "There is nothing against me. I claim to be a gentleman and a Christian."
Intending to press the point in person, Guiteau traveled to Washington and joined the long line of office seekers winding through the White House office of the newly inaugurated president. When Guiteau finally reached Garfield, he handed the bewildered president yet another copy of the campaign speech with the words "Paris Consulship" scrawled on the cover.
Frustrated by the lack of response to his request and growing increasingly belligerent, Guiteau appeared repeatedly at the White House demanding to see the president. His erratic behavior soon earned a ban from the premises.
Guiteau became convinced that Garfield was deliberately foiling his rightful destiny and that, as Guiteau later stated, "if he was out of the way, everything would go better."
Garfield had been in office only three months when his assassin began stalking him around Washington, awaiting the perfect opportunity. That came a month later, on July 2, 1881, when the president arrived at the Baltimore & Potomac railway station -- on the site now occupied by the National Gallery of Art -- to embark on a summer-long vacation. Guiteau had been lurking there all morning, anticipating Garfield's well-publicized arrival.
Deep in conversation with Secretary of State James Blaine, the president was oblivious to his killer's presence. Guiteau rushed up behind him and, from just a yard away, raised a pistol and fired at Garfield's back. "My God! What is this?" the stunned president exclaimed, staggering from the shot.
As Garfield crumpled to the ground, the assassin took two steps forward and shot him again. "I am a Stalwart," he screamed, "and [vice president Chester] Arthur is president now."
"I had no ill will toward the president," Guiteau had written in a note to the press earlier in the morning of the murder. "His death was a political necessity."
A police officer on the scene pounced on Guiteau, who was struggling to escape, while agitated onlookers demanded that he be lynched on the spot.
Garfield, meanwhile, lay on the station floor. One bullet had grazed his arm, but the other penetrated deeply. At the time, rigorous sterilization was not yet commonplace, and a physician, seeking the bullet, probed the wound with his fingers.
Believing that the president was hemorrhaging internally, the doctor nevertheless reassured him, saying, "I don't believe the wound is serious." But Garfield, pale and quickly losing strength, knew otherwise. "Thank you, doctor," he said with a weak smile, "but I am a dead man."
The president was taken to the White House, where he lingered near death as a shocked nation kept vigil. Medical advice poured in from all over the country. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, made several appearances at Garfield's bedside with a primitive metal detector he had rigged to locate the bullet in the absence of X-rays, which would not be discovered until the 1890s.
Though the bullet was never found, the president rallied enough to be taken to a seaside cottage in Elberon, N.J. Infection overtook him, however, and he died
Sept. 19, 1881, 2 1/2 months after being shot.
As Americans mourned the fallen president they never really knew, Garfield's murderer was put on trial in Washington. It was a spectacle from the beginning. Guiteau, who had pleaded not guilty by reason of temporary insanity brought about by "divine power," constantly disrupted the proceedings with his ranting. He called the prosecutor a "low-livered whelp" and prosecution witnesses "dirty liars."
At one point he jumped up and told the judge, "I had a very happy holiday," and at the conclusion of the lengthy trial, he insisted on making his own summation before the jury. "God told me to kill," he shrieked. "Let your verdict be that it was the Deity's act, not mine."
Guiteau was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging at the Washington Asylum and Jail -- on the site now occupied by D.C. General Hospital. He went to the gallows, thrilled to be the center of attention, reciting an epic poem he had written for the occasion. It was called, "I Am Going to the Lordy."
Twenty years after Garfield's assassination, William McKinley met the same fate. Like Garfield, McKinley (1843-1901) was from Ohio, served in the Civil War and represented Ohio in Congress. Unlike his predecessor, however, McKinley served a full term and more in the White House before being murdered.
During that time, the United States was emerging as a world leader, winning the Spanish-American War in 1898 and taking possession of Guam, Hawaii, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and part of Samoa. American confidence was growing; big business was booming, and new technology was changing the nation.
"We have prosperity at home and prestige abroad," McKinley said as he was elected to a second term in 1900.
Although he had once favored growth of big business, McKinley modified that position at the beginning of his new term, fearing monopolies and the resulting high prices. He also changed his views on protective tariffs designed to help U.S. businesses against foreign competition. McKinley now favored reciprocal trade agreements with other countries and introduced the new policy in a speech at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., on Sept. 5, 1901.
"By sensible trade relations which will not interrupt our home production, we shall extend the outlets for our increasing surplus," he said. "The period of exclusiveness is past," he concluded. It would be his last speech.
The next day, the president appeared at the exposition's Temple of Music for a mass reception. Always affable and outgoing, McKinley was eager to shake as many hands as possible. A dense crowd had assembled, erupting into great applause when the president arrived. Among the thousands was a 29-year-old anarchist by the name of Leon Czolgosz. He had come to kill.
A disaffected youth who had grown up in poverty in Michigan, Czolgosz became obsessed with anarchist literature of the day. He hated the American system of government and believed that killing anyone branded an "enemy of the people" by anarchist leaders was just. He was thrilled to learn that King Humbert I of Italy had been assassinated by an anarchist in 1900, and soon set about to make his own mark.
Reading that McKinley would be in Buffalo for the trade exposition, Czolgosz
staked out the grounds there, including the Temple of Music where he knew the president would be appearing. He purchased a small revolver and waited.
On the morning of Sept. 6, Czolgosz arrived at the temple and joined the milling thousands waiting for the president. He had wrapped the revolver in a handkerchief, knowing he would have to pull it out unseen when the president greeted him.
"Let them come," McKinley said with a smile as he arrived at the temple amid a fanfare of music. Crowds immediately poured in, and the president began shaking hands in earnest. In the line moving forward, his face expressionless, was the assassin. Agents guarding the president didn't notice anything unusual as Czolgosz repeatedly took out the handkerchief wrapped around the gun and pretended to wipe his forehead.
When the killer reached the president, McKinley graciously extended his hand to greet him. In a flash, Czolgosz slapped it away and fired two shots into McKinley's midsection from inches away. As the president clutched his abdomen in shock, six agents rushed the the assassin and knocked him to the floor. Seeing this, McKinley weakly told an aide: "Don't let them hurt him. Be easy with him, boys."
McKinley had always been devoted to his wife, Ida, who was in frail health and suffered from epilepsy. Looking up at his secretary George Cortelyou, McKinley whispered: "My wife, be careful, Cortelyou, how you tell her -- oh, be careful!"
The president was taken to a small hospital on the exposition grounds, where it was decided that an immediate operation was necessary. With no electricity in the makeshift hospital, physicians used a mirror to reflect the sun's dying rays as they worked.
One bullet had grazed the president, possibly deflected by a button, but the other had pierced his stomach front and back. The doctors cleaned the peritoneal cavity and sutured the stomach. The wound was closed and covered with an antiseptic bandage, and McKinley was taken to a friend's home to recuperate.
Initially, it seemed that the 57-year-old president might recover. But gangrene set in, and doctors argued among themselves about whether McKinley was strong enough to withstand another operation. He grew progressively weaker and lapsed into a coma a week after being shot.
McKinley revived briefly to say to those around him: "It is useless, gentlemen. I think we ought to have a prayer." The Lord's Prayer was recited, with the dying president silently moving his lips to the words. He then said, "Goodbye, goodbye, all," adding, "It is God's way. His will, not ours, be done."
With death very near, the president drew his beloved wife closer and whispered the words of his favorite hymn, "Nearer, my God, to Thee, nearer to Thee." After Ida McKinley was led away weeping, the president groped for a hand to hold. A doctor took it as McKinley drew his last breath on Sept. 14, 1901.
"I killed President McKinley because I believed it was my duty," Czolgosz told reporters from his jail cell. He was tried for the crime, never denying his guilt. He emphasized his anarchist beliefs and maintained that he followed the teachings of Emma Goldman, an American anarchist leader.
Czolgosz was sentenced to death. Asked if he had any last words as he was being strapped in the electric chair, he responded, "I am not sorry for my crime."
Although Americans grieved for the murdered president, crowding the funeral route and erecting memorials across the country, McKinley's death soon was overshadowed by the dynamic vice president who succeeded him, Theodore Roosevelt.
It would be another six decades before a presidential assassin would successfully strike again. When he did, Americans thought back almost a century and remembered Lincoln.