The 50 years that span 1860-1910 were especially tough ones for U.S. Presidents. The Civil War was catastrophic. Reconstruction was painful and expensive. The mending of a fractured Union was difficult. The end of slavery represented (at least for the South) a real paradigm shift in labor laws. And the beginning of an entirely new Industrial Revolution presented vast new challenges. But on top of that, Presidents kept getting assassinated, which probably made the job even less desirable. Lincoln in 1865. McKinley in 1901. And the subject of Today’s (rather brief) History Lesson: President James Garfield.
President Garfield took the oath of office in March of 1881, but barely got his feet wet as Commander-in-Chief before calamity struck. On July 2nd, while on his way to deliver a speech at his alma mater (Williams College), he was gunned down by Charles Guiteau at the Washington, D.C. railroad station. And unlike the killers of Lincoln and McKinley, who carried out their deeds for ideological reasons, Guiteau’s actions were much less noble (as if shooting any President could be considered “noble”). He was upset because he had been denied a government position as U.S. consul in Paris, a job he had asked for numerous times and had no qualification to hold.
Like McKinley’s assassination, two bullets hit Garfield, and one did most of the damage. Like McKinley, doctors could not find the 2nd bullet, which (almost like McKinley) had lodged in his spine. Like McKinley, it would be the rudimentary (compared to today) medical conditions that would lead to the infections that took the President’s life. But unlike McKinley (who lived just 8 days following his shooting), President Garfield would suffer from his wounds for 80 days before succumbing on September 19, 1881.
In a rather strange turn of events, part of Charles Guiteau’s trial defense contended that the doctors were Garfield’s real killers, and the President’s death was on their heads due to poor medical care. Fortunately, the jury didn’t buy it, and Guiteau was executed by hanging (probably with an unsanitary rope) the following June.
President James Garfield tenure, at just over 6 months, was the 2nd shortest (to date) in U.S. history. Only William Henry Harrison, who got sick on Inaguration Day and died a month later, served a shorter term.