On this day in 1881, President James A. Garfield, who had been in office just under four months, is shot by an assassin. Garfield lingered for 80 days before dying of complications from the shooting.
Garfield’s assassin was an attorney and political office-seeker named Charles Guiteau. He was a relative stranger to the president and his administration in an era when federal positions were doled out on a “who you know” basis. When his requests for an appointment were ignored, a furious Guiteau stalked the president, vowing revenge.
On the morning of July 2, 1881, Garfield headed for the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station on his way to a short vacation. As he walked through the station toward the waiting train, Guiteau stepped behind the president and fired two shots. The first bullet grazed Garfield’s arm; the second lodged below his pancreas. Doctors made several unsuccessful attempts to remove the bullet while Garfield lay in his White House bedroom, awake and in pain. Alexander Graham Bell, who was one of Garfield’s physicians, tried to use an early version of a metal detector to find the second bullet, but also failed.
Historical accounts vary as to the exact cause of Garfield’s death. Some believe that the physicians’ treatments—which included the administration of quinine, morphine, brandy and calomel and feeding him through the rectum–may have hastened his demise. Others insist Garfield died from an already advanced case of heart disease. By early September, Garfield, who was recuperating at a seaside retreat in New Jersey, appeared to be recovering. He died on September 19. Autopsy reports at the time said that pressure from the festering internal wound had created an aneurism that was the likely cause of death. Upon Garfield’s demise, Vice President Chester A. Arthur became the nation’s 20th president. Guiteau was deemed sane by a jury, convicted of murder and hung on June 30, 1882.
Garfield’s spine is kept as a historical artifact by the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C.