Death in the White House - James Garfield

James A. Garfield
20th President 1881

James A. Garfield's short term in office was over-shadowed by the struggle with patronage. New York Republican boss Roscoe Conkling tried to stop Garfield's appointment of William Robertson as collector of the Port of New York. The President prevailed, breaking Conkling's grip and ending his career. Garfield also ordered the Postmaster General to investigate charges that mail route contracts were being awarded fraudulently. The investigation showed that members of the Republican Party were involved in the scandal. Garfield ordered that the investigation go on "regardless of where or whom you hit" and "to probe this ulcer to the bottom, but to cut it out." It was estimated that the fraudulent contracts had cost the tax payers $4 million dollars. The revealing of this scandal led to civil service reform.

Charles J. Guiteau was a disappointed office seeker, who had been mentally unstable for some time. He had supported Garfield and sought a diplomatic post as his reward. After being turned down, he came to believe that it was necessary to kill President Garfield. He wrote: "The President's tragic death was a sad necessity, but will unite the Republican party and save the Republic..." Guiteau stalked the President for weeks and on the morning of July 2, 1881, shot the President at the Baltimore and Potomac railroad station in Washington, D.C. He was arrested on the spot. Garfield was hit by two bullets. One grazed his right arm and the other entered his lower back, deflected off a rib, and was lodged near the pancreas.

Garfield was taken to the White House and attended by Dr. D. W. Bliss and a team of surgeons. Immediately reports of Garfield's likely death were reported. However, the President's agony and pain would last for over two months, during which time three separate operations were performed to remove bone fragments and drain abscesses. Doctor's repeatedly probed with bare fingers and un-sterilized instruments looking for the bullet. This was common practice of the time, but led to blood poisoning, which was the actual cause of Garfield's death.

Garfield asked to be taken to Elberton, New Jersey, hoping the sea air would be beneficial and was transferred by special train on September 6, 1881. For almost eighty days the President suffered. At first he seemed to gain strength, but then quickly declined with symptoms of pneumonia as the infections caused from probing spread. Garfield died around 10:30 p.m. on September 19, 1881.

Funeral Procession
Services were held at Francklyn cottage on September 21st, after which the remains were taken by special train to Washington. The body lay at the Capitol Rotunda and by early morning on the 22nd the line of people reached more than a quarter of a mile. One mourner noted:

"The time required to pass from this extreme limit of the line to the catafalque was, at the most crowded period, three hours and a half, and this under a broiling sun and upon a broad asphaltum pavement, which scorched the feet that pressed it."

Services were held at the Capitol Rotunda on September 23rd. At the far end of the catafalque displayed were the numerous and beautiful floral arrangements. A massive wreath, "one of the most beautiful ever seen in Washington" came from Queen Victoria with the following inscription:

"Queen Victoria, To the memory of the late President Garfield. An expression of her sorrow and sympathy with Mrs. Garfield and the American Nation."

There were present family of President Garfield, President Arthur, Secretaries Blaine, Windom, Lincoln, and Hunt, Ex-Presidents Grant and Hayes, and many other members of government. After the services the body was taken back to the train for the journey home to Ohio. The funeral train arrived in Cleveland on the afternoon of September 24th. Public viewing took place on September 25th at Monmouth Park where a special pavilion was erected. Funeral services were held the next day at the park, and a final service was held graveside at Lake View Cemetery.