Born in a log cabin in Ohio, Garfield was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives while serving as a Union colonel in the Civil War. He later became a U.S. senator and in 1880 was unexpectedly nominated as the presidential candidate of the Republican Party. Successfully appealing to his humble roots, he was elected the 20th U.S. president over his Democratic opponent, General Winfield Scott Hancock.
On July 2, 1881, only four months into his administration, President Garfield was shot as he walked through a railroad waiting room in Washington. His assailant, Charles J. Guiteau, was a disgruntled and possibly insane man who had unsuccessfully sought an appointment to the U.S. consul in Paris. The president was shot in the back and the arm, and Guiteau immediately surrendered.
Garfield, mortally ill, was treated at the White House and then taken to the seashore at Elberon, New Jersey, where he attempted to recuperate with his family. The president never left his sickbed and performed only one official act during the 80 days before he died: the signing of an extradition paper. While Garfield was attempting to get well, Vice President Chester A. Arthur generally served as acting president, but there was confusion over whether he had the authority to do so, as the Constitution was ambiguous on the matter of presidential succession.
On September 19, President Garfield died of blood poisoning. The following day, Arthur was inaugurated as the 21st president of the United States. Garfield had three funerals: one in Elberon; another in Washington, where his body rested in state in the Capitol for three days; and a third in Cleveland, where he was buried. Charles Guiteau was convicted of murder and hanged in jail in Washington in 1882.