The newly-elected President James Garfield was standing at the train station in Washington, D.C. railway, deep in conversation with his secretary of state while waiting for his ride when Charles Guiteau drew an ivory-handled .44 caliber pistol, which he carefully selected thinking it would look good in a museum later on, and fired at the President. The first shot hit his elbow, while the second shot made its way in his back. In his mind, the President had wronged him, and Guiteau believed Garfield’s death was needed to save the country.

The assassin tried to escape, but the crowd converged him as the President yelped, “I am dead!” but he wasn’t. He lived for the next two months in agony before succumbing to the infected wounds he got during surgery in failed attempts to locate and remove the bullets.

The Would-Be Assassin

Charles J. Guiteau (Bell, C. M. (Charles Milton), approximately 1849-1893, photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Before the very act of shooting the Garfield, Charles Guiteau’s life had been a whirlwind from the very beginning. After inheriting $1,000 (which amounts to around $29,000 in 2020) from his grandfather, he went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to attend the University of Michigan. However, due to his insufficient academic preparation, he failed the entrance exams. His father kept writing him letters to ask about his progress. He soon decided to quit and join a utopian religious sect called Oneida Community, which his father had close affiliations with. Guiteau greatly looked up to the group’s founder, John Humphrey Noyes, seeing him as a perfect being.  The Oneida’s were part religious cult and part utopian socialists living a communal existence, practicing group marriage and believed Christ had already returned and they could create a heaven on Earth.  The cult never had more than 100 members and when they eventually dissolved a part of them became suddenly capitalist and formed a joint-stock company called Oneida Community Limited to run their small business operations.  This eventually led it to become the Oneida that makes silverware and cutlery today.

Despite being an active member, his fellows were not too fond of Guiteau in the entirety of his five years stay. He left the community and started a newspaper called The Daily Theocrat. When it failed, he went back to sue the Oneida Community, demanding payment for the work he had supposedly performed for them. This greatly embarrassed his father, who thought he was either insane or possessed by the devil. His sister, who was initially on his side, withdrew her support after he threatened her with an ax.

He soon worked as a clerk at a Chicago law firm and passed a cursory exam to attain admission to the bar. He was a failure as a lawyer, handling only one case in court. He soon married and moved with his wife to New York City, running away from the pile of bills chasing them. He identified himself with the Democratic Party and supported Horace Greeley in the 1872 presidential election. During that time, the best way to persuade people into voting for a specific candidate was through public speeches. He prepared a disorganized speech for Greeley, who lost anyway. In Guiteau’s head, he would’ve been given the ambassadorship of Chile post had Greeley won. This, of course, was just a delusion.

Unmet Expectation

And so, in the 1880 Presidential election, he again delivered a speech in support of the Republican nominee, James Garfield, and when he won, he was convinced that he played an instrumental role in his election. And so he wrote a letter to Garfield, requesting a post as the ambassador to Austria,

Being about to marry a wealthy and accomplished heiress of this city, we think that together we might represent this nation with dignity and grace. On the principle of first come first served, I have faith that you will give this application favorable consideration.

None of that was true, be it the heiress or the dignity he wrote in his letter. When he received no response, he wrote another letter, this time asking for the post in Paris, which he said would suit him better. He didn’t receive anything for the second time, and he admitted that “hurt me very badly.”

He would spend most of his days in Lafayette Park, across the White House. In his mind, the President left him no choice but to kill him.

Plotting the Kill

He spent his next days planning the assassination. At first, he thought of using dynamite, but he was worried it might explode in his hands as he was inexperienced in handling it. He was also afraid that he might kill innocent bystanders, which to him, according to Smithsonian Magazine, was “too Russian, too barbarous. No! I wanted it done in an American manner.”

Maybe he could use a stiletto? But he considered the President was too strong for him, and it would be impossible to approach him with a knife. Thus, he settled on a pistol, with his plan that he “could creep up behind him and shoot him in the head, or through the body opposite the heart.”

As he was broke, he borrowed $10 from a friend to buy a short-barreled British Bulldog revolver, making sure that it’ll look good in an exhibit in the President’s assassination.

The cover of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper from July 23, 1881, depicts James A. Garfield comforted by his wife and child after Charles Guiteau shot him. (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 23, 1881, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

He practiced day and night and, on multiple occasions, came close to killing the President, but his nerves would always stop him. He would lie awake at night thinking, “Well, you are no good; your President comes right to you to be shot, and you let your heart get in the road of your head and your hand. This will not do.”

Determined to accomplish his plan, he even wrote a letter to the White House and another letter to General William Sherman, commanding general of the Army, saying, “I have just shot the President…. I am going to the jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the jail at once.” He placed the letters in his pocket and went on his way to the train station. As related above, he found Garfield there and shot him twice.

Death of the President

Garfield’s Doctors Consulting. (James Dabney McCabe, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

When all was said and done, Garfield was brought to the White House at his request, where doctors would desperately probe his wounds with unsterilized tools and uncleaned hands, with the bullet lodged harmlessly in the soft tissue near his vertebrae. That gunshot would’ve only required a few days in the hospital today, but the medical mistakes caused the President’s body to be filled with pus that his face had to be drained once it swelled. He lost almost 100 pounds as his doctors starved him, all while continuing to insert tubes and using metal detectors in search of a lead bullet. Garfield died on Sept. 19, 1881.

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As for Guiteau, his defense was that it was the doctors that killed him. Obviously, the jury would have things differently, he was convicted and hanged the following summer in June of 1882.

What Happened to the Pistol?

As Guiteau hoped his pistol did end up being donated to the Smithsonian Institute and Museum, which photographed it carefully and then promptly lost it, never to be found again. But Guiteau is never the less in a museum somewhere. After his hanging, a portion of his brain was removed and placed in a jar with a label that read, “What is left of the brain if Guitreau.” It can be found today on some shelf at the obscure Otis Historical Archive, National Museum of Health and Medicine in Silver Spring, Maryland. Just ask to see specimen, “AFIP 385111.”