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    Like the assassins of Presidents Lincoln and Garfield, anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley at point-blank range. Eight days later, after enduring inept medical treatment, McKinley died.

     by Robert Walsh  

    “I killed the President because he was an enemy of the good people – the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime. I am only sorry I could not get to see my father.” Assassin Leon Czolgosz, while being strapped into the electric chair in New York.

    On September 6, 1901 at the Pan-American Exposition’s Temple of Music, President William McKinley became the third U.S. President to be assassinated. Like his unfortunate predecessors, James Garfield and Abraham Lincoln, he was shot at close range in circumstances that would not have existed given more solid security measures.

    Like so many assassin’s victims, he was the antithesis of his killer. McKinley was an American blue-blood with distinguished reputations in law, politics and the Civil War. After rising from private to major during the Civil War, McKinley practised law in Canton, Ohio before his election to Congress in 1976. After losing office in 1890 he served as governor of Ohio in 1891 and 1893. He won the Republican nomination for President in 1896.

    McKinley’s presidency marked a return to strong economic prosperity after a recession during the 1890’s. It also saw him lead the United States successfully through the Spanish-American War, the assimilation of Puerto Rico, Guam and the Phillipines (all former Spanish colonies), Cuba becoming effectively (if not formally) under U.S. control and Hawaii (then an independent republic) being annexed in 1898. McKinley gained re-election in 1900, again defeating William Jennings Bryan as he had in 1896 on a platform of sound economics and protectionism for U.S. jobs, workers and financial interests.

    Leon Czolgosz, on the other hand, was a penniless, unemployed, immigrant steelworker with deep-rooted bitterness against wealthy, successful, powerful men like McKinley. Czolgosz was also believed to suffer from significant mental imbalance.

    Mental illness isn’t unusual in high-profile assassinations; the "lone wolf" types are often outwardly insignificant until they decide to strike. They often seem outwardly quiet and unobtrusive until impulsively making their move. It’s their very unpredictability that makes them so dangerous. Professional assassins assess the risk, plan ahead and have contingency plans if possible. What bodyguards the world over fear most is a random, unpredictable attacker who isn’t spotted in time to be stopped.

    Leon Czolgosz

    Leon Czolgosz

    Czolgosz was one of seven children, born to poor immigrant parents in Alpena, Michigan on May 5, 1873.  He started work at the age of 10 at the American Steel & Wire Company in Cleveland, Ohio, spending the next decade at the factory amid appalling working conditions that radicalized his politics and, many believe, damaged his mental health. An economic slump in 1893 saw him unemployed,  penniless and embittered against those living lives of luxury and privilege while many ordinary Americans lived either on or below the poverty line. The 1890’s saw him drift from one low-paid job to another, never holding work for long. It was during this period that his politics, already radical, turned towards anarchism.

    Czolgosz began attending meetings and rallies to ingratiate himself with the many fragmented groups passing for a coherent anarchist movement at the time. The groups, however, disliked his social ineptitude, his openly advocating violence and his habit of asking blunt, intrusive questions.  Few habits make anarchists more suspicious than a stranger probing their inner workings. Czolgosz quickly found himself rebuffed, suspected of being an undercover agent, an agent provocateur or both.

    By 1900, Czolgosz was an activist without a movement. Few anarchist groups or individuals (Emma Goldman being a notable exception) would have contact with him. His open support for anarchism also made work harder to find. Perpetual poverty fuelled his sense of injustice and "propaganda of the deed" quasi-terrorist actions of European anarchists further inspired him. He was already headed for some kind of spectacular action, even while his anarchist comrades distrusted or ridiculed him. On September 6, 1901 this insignificant, disturbed nobody wrote his name in history with "propaganda of the deed" inspired by another assassin in another country. The assassin’s name was Gaetano Bresci and Bresci’s victim was King Umberto I of Italy. Bresci’s crime occurred only a year before that of Czolgosz, providing Czolgosz’s strongest inspiration.

    Gaetano Bresc
    Gaetano Bresc

    Bresci assassinated King Umberto in Monza, Italy on July 29, 1900 in retaliation for a riot being brutally put down by Italian troops. It’s said that over 350 Italians were killed, The King’s response was to decorate the general responsible, enraging Italian anarchists both at home and abroad. Bresci was living in Paterson, New Jersey at the time where he bought the Iver Johnson, five-shot, break-open .32-caliber revolver he used for the assassination. When Czolgosz was detained after assassinating President McKinley, he used the same model of revolver, an Iver Johnson ‘Safety Automatic,’ and a newspaper clipping about the Umberto assassination was found in his pocket. Interestingly, Sirhan Sirhan also used an Iver Johnson revolver when he assassinated Attorney General Robert Kennedy, brother of assassinated President John F. Kennedy.

    Isolated, desperate, increasingly unbalanced and equally determined to make his mark, Czolgosz decided to act. During the summer of 1901 he began to track the movements of President McKinley, looking for an opportunity to strike. With McKinley’s forthcoming appearance at the Pan-American Exposition in mind, Czolgosz travelled to Buffalo, New York. He purchased his revolver and awaited a chance to meet the President at close quarters. At the Temple of Music, he got one.

    A Date with Infamy at the Temple of Music

    Charles Cortelyou, McKinley's secretary, had twice removed the Temple of Music from the presidential calendar, fearing potential security implications. Both times McKinley had reinstated the date believing that he had nothing to fear.  Cortelyou did include two Secret Service agents in the presidential entourage and discreetly placed an escort of soldiers in ceremonial uniform around the President when he entered the Temple. This too proved a serious mistake. The soldiers were entirely untrained in close protection, obscured the Secret Servicemen’s view of both the President and the crowd and got in the way when Czolgosz attacked.

    Leon Czolgosz's gun
    Leon Czolgosz's gun

    At 4:07 p.m., Czolgosz struck. President McKinley was moving down a line of guests "pressing the flesh" in customary presidential style when the agents noticed a tall, somewhat dishevelled-looking man in the line. They watched him intently, completely missing Czolgosz who was standing next to and slightly behind the suspect. They also failed to enforce then-standard protocol for anybody approaching the President with one hand covered. Normal protocol stated that nobody should be allowed to approach unless both hands were open and clearly visible. Czolgosz’s right hand was wrapped in a handkerchief, suggesting some kind of hand injury. The handkerchief actually concealed his revolver. If the agents had followed standard procedure, Czolgosz would have been spotted and stopped. They didn’t.

    As McKinley stood before him, having the politeness to reach for Czolgosz’s seemingly uninjured left hand, Czolgosz fired two shots with his right before the crowd descended upon him. One shot glanced off one of McKinley’s buttons, only grazing his torso. The other ripped into his belly and lodged in his spinal muscles, having penetrated both the front and back of McKinley’s stomach. It was a grievous wound. From then on the outlook became increasingly bleak.

    Czolgosz was almost beaten to death before, ironically, his victim managed to utter the words “Go easy on him, boys.” If not for McKinley’s intervention Czolgosz might well have been beaten to death or lynched long before the proper judicial process could swing into action. Instead Czolgosz was detained rather than killed out of hand. He was hurriedly transferred to the 13th Precinct, then to Buffalo Police Headquarters with an armed escort from the 4th Brigade of the National Guard accompanied by detectives. Under interrogation Czolgosz stated that:

    “I am a disciple of Emma Goldman. I killed the President because I done my duty. I did not feel that one man should have all the power while others have none.” Emma Goldman was one of the leading anarchists of her time, had briefly met and encouraged Czolgosz to further his interest in anarchism and, as such, was one of the first people arrested under suspicion of involvement in the assassination which was later disproved.

    While Czolgosz was detained and transferred, emergency medical aid was being sought for the President. An immediate search was also mounted for Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt, then holidaying in the Adirondack Mountains, to deputize for his seriously injured Commander-in-Chief.

    Medical Mistakes and Misjudgements Doom McKinley

    The emergency medical aid wasn’t up to the task. A decision was made to treat the President at the Exposition’s own medical center rather than moving him to the far better-equipped Buffalo General Hospital on the grounds that his injury might be worsened by the journey. In fact, a fully-equipped hospital might just have saved him. There was no doctor at the medical center which was staffed only by nurses and interns. It was more of a showpiece for handling minor injuries at the Exposition and not intended to deal with near-fatal gunshot wounds. Doctor Park, the Exposition’s chief doctor, was summoned from his practise near Niagara Falls. His response was that he had just started a highly delicate neck operation and couldn’t come until it was completed, not even for President McKinley.

    Dr. Herman Mynter was the first physician on the scene, followed by Dr. Matthew Mann. With Dr. Park still unavailable, the decision was made to operate. Dr. Mynter initially administered a dosage of strychnine and morphia to control the President’s pain before surgery began. Had the operation taken place in proper light conditions, the Exposition’s medical center having only a combination of small lamps and natural light (by that time of day the light was already fading) then things might have turned out differently although this is unlikely given the President’s injury. It didn’t help that Mynter had little surgical expertise and Dr. Mann was a gynaecologist, not a trauma surgeon.

    The operation was, by modern standards, botched from the start. In the absence of proper surgical lights and even a lack of basic equipment such as retractors, things were always improvised, hasty and seemingly unlikely to save President McKinley. The light became so bad that an assistant had to reflect light onto the wound using a shiny metal pan. Without retractors to open the wound fully, the bullet inside his abdomen could not be found or removed. A then-new X-ray machine might have found the bullet and one was available, but the doctors chose not to use it, fearing an overdose of radiation.

    There was also the ever-present danger of infection, the usual cause of death with abdominal gunshot wounds, especially prior to antibiotics such as sulphanilamide and penicillin. It was as much gangrene as the wound and the bungled surgery that killed the President, but it was McKinley himself and, shortly afterward, Leon Czolgosz who paid the ultimate price. As is common with abdominal wounds a piece of cloth from President McKinley’s clothing had been embedded deep inside the wound by the incoming bullet. It caused, as anticipated, fatal infection despite being quickly removed.

    After days of delirium, President McKinley died at 2:15 a.m. on September 14. His last words were:

    “We are all going, we are all going. God’s will be done, not ours.”

    In an emotional ceremony, Vice-President Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in to replace his fallen predecessor.

    The Trial of the Assassin

    On September 13 Czolgosz was removed from Police Headquarters, which was undergoing renovation. He was moved under heavily armed escort to the Erie County Women’s Penitentiary and moved again for his own protection to the Erie County Jail before his arraignment. On September 16 he was arraigned before County Judge Embry having been charged with first-degree murder. Czolgosz barely spoke at his arraignment, declining to co-operate with the court or acknowledging its authority to try him at all. It made no difference. He was transferred to the dreaded Auburn Prison in upstate New York to await trial, certain conviction and almost-certain execution. Aside from a brief appearance at his trial, Leon Czolgosz would never leave Auburn.

    Lacking either a lawyer or funds to engage one, Czolgosz was lucky to be granted two very competent defense counsel. Robert Titus and Loran Lewis hadn’t wanted the case, nor did they take it willingly. What they did do was their best to save his life without any chance of actually doing so. Csolgosz’s guilt was undoubted, his crime aroused intense public outrage and Czolgosz himself completely refused to co-operate with them. About his only statements were to admit shooting the President, that he had acted alone and that he still rejected the right of capitalist justice to try him.

    The trial began on September 23, 1901, only a fortnight after McKinley’s death, with Judge Truman White presiding. It was a foregone conclusion. Czolgosz refused to assist his defenders at any point while District Attorney Thomas Penney had the easiest, most famous case of his legal career. Loran Lewis made an insanity plea on Czolgosz’s behalf, a tactic used by the defense during the trial of Charles Guiteau for assassinating President Garfield in 1888. It was a similar plea with a similar outcome. The only difference was that Guiteau had been hanged. Leon Czolgosz would face the then-new method of execution already nicknamed "Old Sparky."

    The prosecution presented its evidence including dozens of eyewitnesses to the shooting. They also made the fullest possible use of the defendant’s self-professed anarchist beliefs. District Attorney Penney called upon the jury to heed public demands for a quick trial and equally quick execution. Czolgosz spent most of his trial simply refusing to speak, denying the court’s authority and seemingly didn’t care that the trial would simply proceed whether he cooperated or not. Lewis made a particularly eloquent plea to both judge and jury to find his client insane but, with public outrage in mind, it was never going to work.

    It didn’t. New York law stated clearly that to accept an insanity plea a defendant had to show he  didn’t know what he was doing and that what he was doing was a crime. During one of his very brief interactions with investigators, Czolgosz made it abundantly clear that he knew exactly what he was doing. Mentally ill Leon Czolgosz undoubtedly was, but legally insane he was not. After deliberating for only a half-hour the jury returned a guilty verdict. In New York at that time a guilty verdict for first-degree murder meant a mandatory death sentence.

    Judge White’s sentencing was brief. He said, “Czolgosz, in taking the life of our beloved President, you committed a crime which shocked and outraged the moral sense of the civilized world.” He then passed sentence of death, ordering that Czolgosz be returned to Auburn Prison for electrocution. Crowds had been gathering outside Auburn almost as soon as it became known that Czolgosz was being held there. Even before the trial began those same crowds had been repeatedly chanting:

    “Give him to us! Give him to us!”

    A Date with "Old Sparky"

    The crowd wouldn’t get Czolgosz, but State Electrician Edwin Davis, the world’s first "electrocutioner" soon would. He had already been notified of the impending execution and he set about preparing with his customary professionalism. He would do his grim task at dawn on October 29, 1901, less than two calendar months after Czolgosz committed his crime.

    At 7 a.m. that day the ritual began. Czolgosz declined a last meal, his head was shaved and he was issued the customary condemned clothing with no metal zips and wooden buttons to avoid a fire when the switch was thrown. Warden Mead was in charge of proceedings. Leon Czolgosz would be the first presidential assassin to "ride the lightning" and only the 15th   inmate in penal history ever to do so. "Old Sparky" wasn’t yet the standard means of execution that it would become, nor had it spread across the 28 States that would eventually adopt it, but it was firmly established in New York. Czolgosz had been surprised not to be transferred to Sing Sing for execution but, like so many people then and now, he didn’t know that at that time New York had three electric chairs, one each at Auburn, Sing Sing and Dannemora. In fact, Auburn’s chair had been used for the very first electrocution, that of murderer William Kemmler in August, 1890. The Kemmler execution had been a disaster, but that of Leon Czolgosz would be a mere formality. Kemmler’s execution, by virtue of being the world’s first-ever judicial electrocution, had been terribly bungled. Not knowing exactly what they were doing, his executioners effectively cooked him after first applying enough electricity to cause terrible suffering, but not cause Kemmler’s death. In the words of noted electrical entrepreneur George Westinghouse: “It would have been done better with an ax.” Ironic when you consider that Kemmler himself had used one when committing his crime.]

    Czolgosz walked in escorted by several guards and was swiftly seated. He remained silent as the death warrant was read out, glaring around at the official witnesses who’d come to watch him die. He only broke his silence as the straps and electrodes were being applied to utter his final statement:

    “I killed the President because he was an enemy of the good people – the good working people. I am not sorry for my crime. I am only sorry that I could not get to see my father…”

    The switch was thrown. Davis initially applied the full 1,700 volts then standard at Auburn before slowly reducing the voltage over the course of a minute. With a few seconds left he gave Czolgosz another brief burst of 1,700 volts and cut the power. The doctors checked for pulse and found none, but as was standard by then, Davis obeyed a crudely-worded command:

    “Give him another poke.”

    At 7:14 a.m. Czolgosz was finally certified dead and the execution had been completed.

    Czolgosz was autopsied immediately after execution, a legal requirement in New York State. His brain was autopsied by the prison doctor, Dr. Gerin, and noted neurologist Edward Spitzka. Spitka’s father had examined the brain of Charles Guiteau after Guiteau’s hanging for assassinating President Garfield and became an authority on the brains of electrocuted inmates while not approving of electrocution as a method. Gerin, who had instructed Edwin Davis to “Give him another poke.” had been hostile to Czolgosz right from his arrival at Auburn, having no sympathy even while the lynch mob had gathered outside the prison.

    In a break from standard practice, Czolgosz’s body was not returned to his family for burial in spite of their request to have that happen. Instead, his body was interred within the grounds of Auburn Prison in an unmarked grave where it still rests. In order to stop souvenir hunters and Czolgosz’s supposed anarchist network from reclaiming the corpse and using it as some grisly totem, the coffin was filled with sulfuric acid so that nothing would remain after a few hours underground.

    Ironically, given their failure to stop Czolgosz, one result of his crime was that the Secret Service was specifically tasked to protect the President. Today’s security procedures are far more advanced, constantly evolving and rigorously followed, with only one more president having fallen victim to an assassin. That said, presidents remain under constant threat.


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    The assassination of President James Garfield cut short one of the most astounding political careers in U.S. history. Like few presidents before or after him, Garfield possessed a flexible mind and an ability to work well with others. His goal of integrating the recently freed slaves into the mainstream of American life died along with him. 

    by Denise Noe

    On July, 2, 1881, a deluded man named Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield. The disabling and death of Garfield prematurely ended one of the most promising presidencies in American history. Garfield was a man of firm convictions who cooperated well with people and was widely admired. The last president born in a log cabin, Garfield rose from a more humble background than even Abraham Lincoln. Garfield distinguished himself in the Civil War, rising to the rank of Brigadier General at an earlier age that anyone else in American history. He had served nine terms in the House of Representatives, rising to Minority Leader during the presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes.

    U.S. President James Abram Garfield

    Garfield had ascended to the presidency during a time of deep turmoil. Black Americans had been freed from slavery but were still in the bondage of rampant racial discrimination. Garfield was a radical for his time. Even more radical than Lincoln, Garfield was not only a stout abolitionist but a believer in racial equality.

    Another issue tearing the country apart was the question of how jobs in the civil service should be awarded. The patronage system, sometimes called the spoils system, meant granting civil service jobs to those who had supported the current president and worked for his election. However, many people wanted to see the connection between the civil service and political patronage severed. The Democratic Party was largely united in wanting to see a merit system enacted while the Republican Party was deeply divided over this issue. Supporters of continuing the patronage system were called “Stalwarts” for their stalwart defense of this status quo while Republicans favoring reform were called “Half-Breeds” because many considered them only “Half-Republican.”

    The issue of the awarding of civil service jobs was pivotal in the assassination of President Garfield.

    “Providence Only Could Have Saved My Life”

    James Abram Garfield was born on November 19, 1831 to Eliza and Abram Garfield. Abram died in 1833, leaving Eliza with five children to feed and deeply in debt. The family’s poverty was such that little James did not possess a pair of shoes until he was 4 years old. As an adult, he warned against romanticizing the hardscrabble life, saying, “Let us never praise poverty, for a child at least.”

    As Kenneth D. Ackerman observes in Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield, James early became “enamored with reading” and shone in school. Nevertheless, as a youth he did not yearn for a higher education but for the swashbuckling adventures of a sailor.

    At 16, James obtained a position on a canal boat. In six weeks, he managed to fall overboard no less than 14 times. On the first 13, men on deck pulled him up. The 14th fall was different – and traumatizing.

    Falling overboard close to midnight, he screamed for help as he splashed in the water but his screams went unheard because no one was on deck. He grabbed on a rope and pulled himself up.

    In Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, Candice Millard reports, “As he sat, dripping and scared, on the deck of the canal boat, Garfield wondered why he was still alive. The rope was not secured to anything on the boat. When he had pulled on it, it should have fallen off the deck, slipping to the bottom of the canal and leaving him to drown.” Garfield later wrote, “Carefully examining it, I found that just where it came over the edge of the boat it had been drawn into a crack and there knotted itself.”

    Having his life saved by such a happenstance convinced James he was destined for importance. He wrote, “I did not believe that God had paid any attention to me on my own account but I thought He had saved me for my mother and for something greater and better than canalling. . . . Providence only could have saved my life. Providence, therefore, thinks it worth saving.”

    Deciding to make a living with brain rather than brawn, he returned home to Eliza’s log cabin. After studying at local schools, he enrolled in an Ohio preparatory school, the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, attending it from 1851 to the beginning of 1854. Unable to cover tuition, he worked as a janitor in exchange for schooling. By his second year at Eclectic, the school promoted him from janitor to assistant professor. He taught mathematics, literature, and ancient languages.

    In mid-1854, he enrolled at Williams College in Massachusetts as a junior. As American President states, “He thrived intellectually at Williams. He relished the opportunity to hear Ralph Waldo Emerson and the challenge of confronting the strong personality of Williams’s President, Mark Hopkins. He fancied himself a reformer, identifying with the antislavery beliefs of the new Republican Party.”

    Garfield graduated with honors from Williams College in 1856. He returned to the Eclectic Institute – as a teacher. He became Eclectic Institute President at age 26. At Eclectic he met dark-haired, attractive, intelligent but reserved Lucretia “Crete” Rudolph who had been an Eclectic pupil and later worked as a schoolteacher. After a five-year courtship, wedding bells chimed in 1858.

    An Ohio State Senator died suddenly in 1859. Garfield admirers urged him to take the deceased man’s place in the upcoming election. He did and won by a hefty margin. Garfield campaigned for Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 Presidential election. When the Southern states seceded, Garfield supported keeping the Union together and hoped the conflict would eliminate slavery. He asserted, “I am inclined to believe the sin of slavery is one of which it may be said that without the shedding of blood there is no remission.”

    In between teaching at Eclectic, politicking, and setting up housekeeping with Lucretia, Garfield studied law on his own. He did not enroll in law school as that was not then required. In 1861, he passed the Ohio bar exam. As the country exploded into Civil War, Garfield enlisted in the Union Army. Impressed superiors promoted him to lieutenant colonel and then full colonel. Colonel Garfield enthusiastically recruited men into the 42nd Ohio Infantry.

    The Battle for Kentucky

    The 42nd was commissioned to turn Rebels back from Kentucky which held a critical strategic role as a border state and a critical symbolic role as Lincoln’s birthplace. Lincoln asserted, “I hope to have God on my side but I must have Kentucky.”

    Some believed the 42nd had been assigned a hopeless job. Millard notes, “The Confederate force it faced was 2,000 men strong, fortified with a battery of four cannons and several wagonloads of ammunition, and led by Humphrey Marshall, a well-known, well-seasoned brigadier general who had graduated from West Point the year after Garfield was born. In sharp contrast, the 42nd had 500 fewer soldiers and no artillery. Worse, its commander was a young academic who had spent the past decade thinking about Latin and higher math and had absolutely no military experience.”

    After receiving his orders, Garfield studied an eastern Kentucky map. The next morning, he led his men through fog, mud, sleet, and snow until they reached Marshall’s regiment. Garfield had decided on a singularly audacious – and risky – strategy. For the Battle of Middle Creek, Garfield divided the regiment into three smaller groups to attack the rebels from three different sides. Garfield hoped the enemy would have the mistaken impression of being encircled by a much larger regiment. Millard explains, “When Garfield’s first detachment attacked, the Confederates, as expected, confidently rushed to meet them. Then a second force fell upon the rebels from a different direction, throwing them into disarray and confusion. Just as they were beginning to figure out how to fight on two fronts, Garfield attacked on a third.”

    Marshall ordered his regiment to retreat. The Union controlled Kentucky! The daring Garfield was promoted to brigadier general.

    In 1863 political operators encouraged Garfield to run for Congress. Ackerman reports, “Reluctant to leave the army at first, Garfield had visited Washington, D.C., and sought direction from Abraham Lincoln himself.” Ackerman continues that Lincoln “told the earnest young officer that he ‘had more commanding Generals around than he knew what to do with.’ What he needed, he said, was support on the political front.” Thus, in December 1863, Garfield resigned from the Army to serve in the United States House of Representatives. American President comments, “During the war years, Garfield distinguished himself as one of the most radical Republicans in Congress. . . . Garfield supported the seizure of rebel property in the North and the execution or exile of Confederate leaders.” As time passed, Garfield moderated his positions toward the defeated South – but he remained solidly radical in his anti-racism stance. Before the war’s end, Garfield introduced a resolution to allow blacks to walk through Washington, D.C. without carrying a pass. When the war ended, he gave an impassioned speech supporting extending suffrage to black males.

    At one point, scandal besmirched Garfield. Several congressional representatives were accused of accepting money and stock from Crédit Mobilier, a construction company for the transcontinental Union Pacific Railroad that had received government loans and land grants. The representatives were further accused of using their influence to diminish congressional oversight of Crédit Mobilier. Garfield admitted receiving $329 from the company – not a humongous amount even in those days.

    Despite the scandal, he was re-elected in 1874.

    In 1876, Garfield supported Ohio Governor Rutherford B. Hayes for President. Hayes hoped to reform the system by which federal government jobs were filled. However, his proposals met stout resistance from those of his own Republican party designated as “Stalwarts.” In Demand Media, Ashley Portero writes, “Stalwart Republicans opposed the civil service reform measures advocated by the Hayes administration. Instead, the group favored [continuing] a patronage system – known as a ‘spoils system’ – that awarded political supporters with jobs in the federal government.” By contrast, the “Half-Breeds” supported civil service reforms, advocating an end to giving government jobs on the basis of political support. The term “Half-Breed” originated as a term of disparagement by their Stalwart opponents to suggest they were only “half-Republican.”

    Disappointed by his inability to pass reforms made, President Hayes announced at the end of his term that he would not run for a second term.

    Republican Convention: Stalwarts Vs. Half-Breeds

    At the June 1880 Republican convention, most political observers expected that the 1880 Republican party ticket would be headed either by former president and war hero Ulysses S. Grant, who was believed to have a good shot at an unprecedented third term in the White House or by Maine Senator James G. Blaine. A minority of observers believed Secretary of the Treasury John Sherman (and younger brother of General William Tecumseh Sherman) would be nominated.

    Stalwarts solidly supported the nomination Grant while Half-Breeds were divided between Blaine and Sherman.

    Garfield was scheduled to make a speech supporting Sherman. This troubled Garfield because, although he felt obligated to support Sherman because he was a fellow Ohioan, Garfield did not believe Sherman was the best candidate. Garfield was also troubled because he would be thrust into competition with Stalwart leader Roscoe Conkling.
    New York Senator Conkling was one of the most powerful men in America. A decade previously, then-President Grant put Conkling in charge of the New York Customs House, America’s biggest federal office which collected 70 percent of U.S. customs revenue. Millard reports, “Since then, Conkling had personally made each appointment to the customs house. Any man fortunate enough to receive one of the high-paying jobs had been expected to make generous contributions to the Republican Party of New York, and to show unwavering loyalty to Conkling.”

    Garfield and Conkling had some important things in common. Both had stoutly opposed slavery and both supported rights for ex-slaves. Indeed, Conkling had helped draft the 14th Amendment that extended citizenship and other legal protections to former slaves.

    However, Conkling’s strongest commitment was to the patronage system, the source of his personal power. In a reform effort, President Hayes had dismissed a Conkling appointee, Chester A. Arthur, from being New York Customs House Collector. Furious at Arthur’s removal, Conkling attacked Hayes during the rest of his term.

    Conkling also had a long-standing feud with Blaine. They had gotten into a spat in Congress 14 years previously and not spoken to each other since. As might be expected, Conkling was dead-set against Blaine being nominated for the presidency. Conkling fervently wanted Grant nominated.

    When Garfield gave his speech for Sherman, Garfield at one point said, “Gentlemen of the Convention, what do we want?”
    To Garfield’s own surprise, some in the crowd shouted, “We want Garfield!”

    Garfield continued, “I nominate John Sherman of Ohio” – receiving strong applause.

    A total of 379 votes were required to win the nomination. The first ballot had no one with enough to win. Nor did the second or third. However, the third ballot had two new names with one vote each: Indiana Senator Benjamin Harrison (who would become President in nine years) and Garfield.

    As more ballots were taken, more votes went to Garfield – who reacted with distress. Garfield objected, “The announcement contains votes for me. No man has a right, without the consent of the person voted for, to announce that person’s name, and vote for him, in this convention. Such consent I have not given.” The convention leader ordered Garfield to “resume his seat.”

    A groundswell of support surged for Garfield who was described as “pale as death” when he found himself his party’s nominee for president.

    Thus, in the 1880 presidential race, Republican Garfield was pitted against Democrat Winfield S. Hancock.

    Republican party bigwigs knew it was vital to win New York and that to win New York, Conkling had to strongly back Garfield. As a way of securing Conkling's support, the party offered the vice-presidential nomination to a man so close to Conkling he shared his home: Chester Arthur. Sherman raged, “The nomination of Arthur is a ridiculous burlesque. He never held an office except the one he was removed from!”

    Nevertheless, Arthur became Garfield’s running mate.

    Longtime Loser

    Charles Guiteau
    Charles Guiteau

    One who campaigned for Garfield was Charles J. Guiteau whose life bore striking parallels to Garfield’s. However, in some ways those parallels turn into polar opposites for while Garfield had often snatched victory from defeat – and even had the glory of a presidential nomination thrust upon him -- Guiteau had shuffled from failure to failure.

    Born on September 8, 1841, Charles Julius Guiteau was the fourth of the six children of Luther and Jane Guiteau. Like Garfield, Guiteau suffered the early loss of a parent. In Guiteau’s case, it was his mother who died when Charles was 7 years old. Luther was extremely religious. Charles later recalled, “My father was a father and a mother to me and I drank in this fanaticism from him for years.” Charles was also close to a sister, Frances, who was six years older than he.

    While a teenager, Charles worked for his father who did not consider college worthwhile despite Charles’ strong desire for it. In 1859, Charles received an inheritance from his maternal grandfather. It allowed him to enter the University of Michigan.
    At about this time, Luther became impressed by the “Bible communism” of John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida Community in New York State. Following in his father’s footsteps, Charles studied Noyes’ precepts.

    Noyes taught that human beings could achieve intellectual, moral, and spiritual perfection through the right combination of prayer and education. To aid others in finding this perfection, he founded the Oneida Community, named after the town in which it was formed, in 1848.

    The Oneida Community was a Christian “millennial” organization best known for practicing “complex marriage” or “Free Love.” Noyes believed monogamy was “unhealthy and pernicious.” Those living in the Oneida Community were allowed multiple sex partners. However, to avoid incessant pregnancies, Noyes advocated “male continence” or intercourse “up to the moment of emission,” a practice commonly called “withdrawal.”

    In 1860, Charles left college to enter the Oneida Community. Like most members, he lived in a sprawling brick Victorian Gothic building called the “Mansion House.” Almost 300 people occupied the 35 Mansion House apartments. The private rooms were small but the Oneida Community boasted a range of amenities including theaters and a Turkish bath.

    Charles chafed at Oneida Community rules. Members were expected to accept assignments in the fields and kitchens as needed. Ackerman observes that Guiteau “became moody and complained about doing menial work.” Nursing the longtime belief that God had special plans for him, an indignant Charles Guiteau wrote to Noyes, “You prayed God . . . to send you help, and he has sent me.” Guiteau complained, “I ask no one to respect me personally, but I do ask them to respect me as an envoy of the true God.” Guiteau insisted he was “God’s minute man.”

    Eager to enjoy the benefits of “complex marriage” and willing to practice withdrawal, Guiteau found himself rejected by Oneida Community women who nicknamed him “Charles Gitout.” After nearly six years as a celibate in a Free Love commune, he left the Oneida Community on April 3, 1865, because he believed God had chosen him to spread Noyes’s doctrines by founding a newspaper. Charles went to Hoboken, New Jersey where he founded the Daily Theocrat. The paper flopped and on July 20, 1865, he re-entered Oneida. According to the Charles Guiteau Collection, “Then, just over a year later, he again quit, and on November 1, 1866, he departed with some money that he had originally consigned to the community.” During this time, his sister Frances and her husband occasionally gave him handouts or allowed him to live with them for awhile.

    He decided on a legal career. He clerked in a Chicago law office and passed the Illinois bar exam in 1868. He set up his own law office. Soon after, in 1869, he married librarian Anne Bunn. The marriage was troubled from the start partly because Guiteau’s odd work performance led to few clients and a low income. Defending one client, Guiteau actually jumped over the bar separating him from the jury and waved a fist in a juror’s face. The jury convicted Guiteau’s client without leaving their seats. In another case, Guiteau failed to address the petty larceny of which his client was accused but droned to the jury about such issues as the general rights of man and the nature of divinity.
    Ackerman notes that Anne “grew tired of his short tempter, constant lack of money, hiding from bill collectors, and fleeing apartments for lack of rent. He beat her, punched and kicked her when she disagreed with him, and sometimes for no apparent reason at all. Finally, in 1874, Guiteau purposely slept with a prostitute in New York, where they’d moved after Chicago’s Great Fire, to create legal grounds for a New York divorce.” Anne divorced him. For the next 14 years, Guiteau bounced between New York and Chicago, opening law offices that soon closed.

    In between practicing law, he traveled as an evangelist. In places ranging from Milwaukee, Wisconsin to Buffalo, New York, he rented venues and preached sermons. When traveling by train, he sometimes went on the train without buying a ticket. He said it was not “dead beating” since he was “working for the Lord.” Often conductors took pity and let him ride although some evicted him at the next station. He took a similar approach to accommodations, finding nice boarding houses and slipping out sans payment. On occasion, he found himself in jail for failing to pay a boarding house. In 1874, failure to pay board led to a month-long stay in a New York jail.

    The Charles Guiteau Collection reports, “Increasingly despondent over his prospects, Charles Guiteau conceived of the idea to sue the Oneida Community on a trumped up charge of withholding compensation for the work he professed to have performed under its auspices. For a few months, Guiteau sent threatening letters to Noyes that amounted to blackmail. Eventually, he desisted, when Oneida’s own lawyers threatened to prosecute him for extortion and to use his letters against him.”

    In the summer of 1875, Guiteau was living with his sister and her family in Wisconsin. One day Frances asked if he would “cut up a little wood for us.”

    He cut the wood but, instead of taking it to the shed, he dropped it on the house’s walkway. Rather than risk a quarrel, Frances stooped down to pick up some wood. She later remembered, “As quick as I did that he raised the ax, without any provocation or words. It was not so much the raising of the ax as it was the look of his face that frightened me. He looked to me like a wild animal.” The terrified woman dropped the wood and raced into the house.

    At Frances’s request, the family doctor examined Charles. The physician told Frances that Charles’s “explosions of emotional feeling” indicated severe mental illness and advised institutionalization. Charles left his sister’s home before action could be taken on the doctor’s recommendation. Guiteau traveled for five years. He lived in Boston in 1880 when he suddenly took a strong interest in politics. He became a Republican of Stalwart stripe. He decided to volunteer in the upcoming presidential campaign, convinced that his work in the area would lead to a high-ranking political appointment.

    Like most Americans, Guiteau believed the Republicans would nominate Grant. He believed (correctly) that the Democrats would nominate Union General Winfield Scott Hancock. Hoping to make his mark in the politics, Guiteau wrote a speech entitled “Grant and Hancock.” When the Republicans nominated Garfield, Guiteau refreshed it and changed its title to “Garfield against Hancock.”

    Speech in hand, an excited Guiteau boarded the steamship Stonington along with about 300 other passengers to travel to New York. Guiteau planned to pay a visit to the Republican campaign headquarters.

    Disaster Aboard the Stonington

    Late in the evening of June 11, 1880, Guiteau suffered insomnia. Near midnight, he walked out on deck. Gazing into the darkness, he was suddenly jarred because the steamship Narragansett crashed head-on into the Stonington. Millard writes, “As the tragedy unfolded before him, Guiteau could hear the screams and desperate cries for help, which continued, disembodied, even after the ship burned to the waterline and then sank, plunging the shell-shocked witnesses, once again, into complete darkness. The frightened and ill-prepared crew of the Stonington lowered lifeboats into the water and circled blindly for hours, searching for survivors by their cries and pulling them to safety by arms, legs, clothing, even the hair of their heads. Many, however, had already drowned, or had drifted beyond help, their cries fading as they were carried away by the tide.”

    Some Stonington survivors transferred to a steamship that had come to their rescue. Guiteau was among that lucky group. In a parallel reaction to that of Garfield who survived a near-drowning, Guiteau was convinced that God chose to save him so he could accomplish something vital.

    Most observers believed the Democratic nominee, Winfield Scott Hancock, stood little chance. He had distinguished himself as a Union general but never held elected office. Catty Republicans distributed a pamphlet entitled Hancock’s Political Achievements– filled with blank pages!

    What’s more, despite Hancock having won fame as a Union general, most Americans identified the Democratic Party with the South. Garfield derided it as the “Rebel Party.”

    Hancock supporters sought to smear Garfield with the Crédit Mobilier scandal. They often wrote the numbers “329,” for the amount of money Garfield acknowledged accepting, on sidewalks and on the sides of buildings.

    Ex-slaves were among the most enthusiastic Garfield campaigners because of his support for extending full rights to them. In a speech, former slave turned famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass proclaimed Garfield “right on our questions” and asserted, “He has come from obscurity to fame, and we’ll make him more famous!”

    Holding his “Garfield Against Hancock” speech, Guiteau sought out Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Chester Arthur. Eventually, Arthur gave Guiteau the opportunity to deliver the speech to a New York gathering.

    On November 3, 1880, Garfield was elected president.

    The day after his inauguration, Guiteau took a train from New York to Washington, D.C. Believing his speech had been instrumental in securing the presidency for Garfield, Guiteau was certain the grateful president would reward his efforts. He mailed a letter to Garfield asserting, “We have cleaned them out just as I expected. Thank God!”

    In December, Garfield made a vital political appointment. He put James G. Blaine in the top Cabinet position, that of Secretary of State. His appointment to that office had been a masterstroke. Ackerman observes, “By this one action, Garfield had managed to shift the axis of power in American government. Instead of the New York Stalwarts who had won him his election and demanded tribute, Garfield would now anchor his line to James G. Blaine, the ‘magnetic man’ from Maine, who’d shown himself fully able and not the least bit hesitant to deal with Roscoe Conkling.”

    Lines of Office Seekers

    A typical day for the new president included trying to get away from the lengthy lines of office seekers waiting outside his front door. A large section of the day, from 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Monday through Friday was taken with about a hundred such seekers. Garfield complained, “My day is frittered away by the personal seeking of people when it ought to be given to the great problems which concern the whole country.” Office seekers also haunted the Secretary of State Blaine.

    As usual for Guiteau, he spent his time in Washington D.C. moving from boardinghouse to boardinghouse to avoid paying rent. In some cases, he staved off landlords by saying he was soon to come into a lucrative political appointment.

    An early Guiteau letter to Garfield stated, “I, Charles Guiteau, hereby make application for the Austrian Mission.” The puzzled President read this letter and commented to an associate that it was an “illustration of unparalleled audacity and impudence.”

    As months passed, Guiteau experienced a change of heart. In a letter to Garfield, Guiteau wrote, “I think I prefer Paris to Vienna and, if agreeable to you, should be satisfied with the consulship of Paris.” He also enclosed a copy of the speech he had presented in New York, telling Garfield it had “resulted in your election.” Guiteau regularly visited the White House. One time, he actually met Garfield. Guiteau introduced himself as applying for the Paris consulship and handed Garfield the campaign speech. Guiteau left, certain the Paris consulship would soon be his although he continued his regular visits to the White House.

    Guiteau's pistol
    Guiteau's pistol

    For months, he waited for an appointment that never came. In May 1881, Guiteau had an idea that he later said came upon him “like a flash.” That idea: “If the President was out of the way, everything would go better.” He was certain this idea did not come from his own mind but had been placed there by God. However, he later said he had not wanted to heed God’s direction in this instance. He said he was “horrified” by the idea and “kept throwing it off.” Nevertheless, “It kept growing upon me, pressing me, goading me.”

    Guiteau later recalled praying daily for two weeks, hoping God would indicate that He did not really want Guiteau to kill Garfield.  However, on June 1, 1889, Guiteau accepted that God wanted him to assassinate the President – and that he would fulfill God’s order.

    Guiteau selected a gun with an ivory handle because he believed it would look better when eventually displayed in a museum as the gun that felled a president.

    Although he would be described as a “disappointed office seeker,” Guiteau denied he wanted to kill Garfield for that reason. He explained, “The Lord inspired me to attempt to remove the President in preference to someone else because I had the brains and the nerve to do the work. The Lord always employs the best material to do His work.”

    The President Is Shot!

    On July 2, 1881, Garfield prepared for a planned trip to New England with his older sons, Harry and Jim. The group would meet up with Lucretia, who was recovering in New Jersey from a recent illness, and then head to Massachusetts where Garfield would attend the Williams College 25th class reunion and help Harry and Jim get settled for the academic year.

    It was early that morning when Garfield, Blaine, Harry, and Jim arrived at the Washington D.C. train station located at Sixth and B Streets. Ladies’ waiting room matron Sarah White noted that the President of the United States walked through the station “absolutely free from any affectation whatever.” His free and easy attitude contrasted sharply with that of a man who had arrived earlier and caught White’s attention. That man appeared oddly ill at easy, slouching, his head often held at an angle, and his eyes shuttling nervously around the station.

    (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

    Moments after Garfield entered the station, Guiteau drew his revolver, aimed it at Garfield’s back, and shot.

    Garfield’s arms shot up in shock and he exclaimed, “My God! What is this?”

    The first bullet pierced Garfield’s right arm and passed into a toolbox carried by a terrified but luckily unharmed station worker.

    As Garfield turned to look at his assailant, Guiteau fired his second shot. Garfield fell to the floor, vomiting as a huge wet red stain covered the back of his suit.

    Screams filled the station.

    Guiteau raced for the door leading to the street and his carriage. A man blocked the door. Guiteau turned and raced for another exit but was caught by ticket agent Robert Parke who shouted, “This is the man!” Officer Patrick Kearney ran to Park’s side to hold Guiteau. As he was grabbed, Guiteau exclaimed, “I’m a Stalwart and Arthur will be president!”

    In an unusual twist, a group of black men – so often the victims of lynching -- gathered, shouting, “Lynch him!”

    Realizing the danger posed by the crowd, Guiteau said, “I want to go to jail” to Kearney. The officer hurried Guiteau into a police vehicle that transported him to the District Jail. On his way, Guiteau said to a detective seating beside him, “You stick to me and have me put in the third story, front, at the jail. General Sherman is coming down to take charge. Arthur and all those men are my friends, and I’ll have you made Chief of Police.”

    Guiteau thought he had accomplished God’s mission and expected to reap rewards for it. He talked volubly with the arresting officers, saying, “I am a native-born American, born in Chicago and am a lawyer and theologian.” Asked his motive, he replied, “To save the Republican party. . . I am a Stalwart . . . with Garfield out of the way, we can carry all the northern states.” Guiteau shot the President to preserve the political patronage system – even though Guiteau had failed to gain office through that system.

    Doctors rushed to the station to attend Garfield.

    Neither bullet caused a fatal injury although two of Garfield’s ribs were broken and an artery grazed. The bullets missed his spinal cord and all vital organs. However, doctors believed it imperative to remove from Garfield’s body the second bullet that had lodged in his back.

    District of Columbia Health Officer Dr. Smith Townsend arrived five minutes after the wounding. Nine more doctors joined Townsend within an hour.

    Townsend gave Garfield sips of brandy and aromatic spirits of ammonia. When Garfield was conscious enough to talk, the doctor asked Garfield where he hurt worst and Garfield indicated his lower body. Townsend stuck a fingers into Garfield’s back wound in an unsuccessful effort to find the bullet. At Townsend’s request, station workers brought out a mattress upon which they lifted him. The group carried Garfield from the waiting room to a large room upstairs.
    Garfield moaned and vomited as he drifted in and out of consciousness. He managed to say, “I think you’d better telegraph Crete.” His wife was informed by telegraph that he had been shot.

    A doctor who joined Townsend was the remarkable Dr. Charles Purvis. Purvis was one of the first African-Americans trained in medicine. On this day, he became the first black physician to treat a U.S. president.

    Another physician summoned to Garfield’s side was the prominent Dr. D. Willard Bliss who had lived near Garfield’s home when Garfield was a child and was well-acquainted with Garfield. Bliss had served the Union Army as a surgeon during the war and been in private practice in Washington D. C. since 1865.

    When Bliss arrived he questioned Purvis and Townsend before essentially assuming control of Garfield’s treatment. Bliss took a long probe out of his doctor’s black bag and stuck the probe into one of Garfield’s wounds to search for the bullet.

    Lister vs. Bliss of the “Good Old Surgical Stink”

    Doctor Willard Bliss

    Bliss could not find the bullet and removed the probe. He probed with a finger but this too failed.

    Bliss had the injured President transferred to a room in the White House for recovery. As was common in those days, doctors came to what was made into a sickroom rather than taking Garfield to a hospital.

    Millard writes that later observers wondered, “how Bliss came to be in charge of the case.” A doctor recalled, “He just took charge of it.” Ackerman writes that the day after the shooting, Bliss summoned all the attending physicians together. Ackerman writes that Bliss “told them he’d had a private talk with the president and Mrs. Garfield and they had made a decision. The President had complained that there were too many physicians treating him and he’d suffered through too many painful examinations. Bliss alone would be in charge now. Only a handful of doctors could stay, he told them; the rest would have to leave.” Some doctors objected and there was some heated conversation but eventually most acquiesced to what they took to be Garfield’s wishes.
    However, Lucretia later stated there had been no such conversation. Nevertheless, Bliss was in charge from that point forward.

    Bliss had inserted probe and finger without cleaning. Like most American physicians of the time, Bliss scorned the antiseptic theories of Joseph Lister who had enjoyed great success with convincing European doctors that germs, though they could not be seen, were omnipresent and that sterilizing wounds and surrounding areas was essential. Bliss and others held that these “invisible germs” were as much a figment of the imagination as the “invisible humors” of the past. History House quotes an American physician writing in 1878, “In order to successfully practice Mr. Lister’s Antiseptic Method, it is necessary that we should believe, or act as if we believed, the atmosphere to be loaded with germs.” Around that same time, George Shrady, The Medical Record editor, wrote, “We are as likely to be as much ridiculed in the next century for our blind belief in the power of unseen germs, as our forefathers were for their faith in the influence of spirits.” Bliss and similar thinking American doctors believed European physicians wasted time with their newfangled practices of washing their hands and using sterilized instruments.

    Dr. Joseph Lister

    America’s physicians generally prided themselves on the “good old surgical stink” of their hospitals and believed a stained surgeon’s coat, covered with layers of crumbling dried puss and blood, was a tribute to the physician’s professional experience.

    A minority of American doctors were impressed by Lister’s theories and concerned about the treatment Garfield was receiving. Dr. E. L. Patee wrote Lucretia, advising, “Do not allow probing of the wound. Probing generally does more harm than the ball.” He also urged, “Saturate everything with carbolic acid.”

    Bliss scorned such advice. Bliss announced he believed Garfield would recover.

    Although he rarely complained, Garfield suffered agonizing pains. He described a sense of “tiger’s claws” seizing. He steadily lost weight because he could not keep food down. He suffered many attacks of vomiting in a day. Despite his agony, he was unfailingly kind to those attending him.

    Garfield managed to avoid complaining even though his condition meant he could no longer take care of his most intimate body functions. As a physician commented, “Every passage of his bowels and urine required the same attendance bestowed upon a young infant.”

    Blaine visited Garfield shortly after the President was taken to the White House room that had been transformed into a sickroom. Garfield inquired as to the identity of the shooter. Blaine said it was office seeker Charles Guiteau. Garfield said, “Why did that man shoot me? I have done him no wrong. What could he have wanted to shoot me for?” Blaine said Guiteau must have been disappointed over failing to get an office. Garfield never again asked about Guiteau.

    While the normally stout Garfield rapidly lost weight, the heretofore thin Guiteau gained it. Guiteau enthusiastically chowed down the tasteless jail food because he was so happy. Certain the American people applauded his actions and confident President Arthur would pardon him, Guiteau was cheerful. He relished talking to journalists – who often experienced disgust when interviewing him. Reporter Edmund Bailey wrote, “His vanity is literally nauseating. Guiteau has an idea that the civilized world is holding its breath waiting to hear of the minutest details of his career.”

    When Guiteau’s jailors photographed him, he seemed to revel in it. To the photographer, Guiteau said, “I don’t want to appear strained and awkward. If my picture is taken at all it must be a good one.” After one photograph, Guiteau eagerly asked, “Did you get me good that time? I want to look natural.”

    He read with interest newspaper accounts about him but seemed nonplussed by the universal contempt and hostility expressed toward him.

    A Deteriorating President

    Over a month after the shooting, the bedridden President was completely helpless, often vomiting and regularly bathed in sweat. On July 22, an enormous amount of pus leaked from his wound. A piece of bone about one eighth of an inch long and cloth fragments that the bullet had dragged into his back accompanied the vile liquid profusion. On July 23, Bliss sent for other surgeons. Dr. David Hayes Agnew and Dr. Frank Hamilton joined Bliss and the trio of physicians operated on Garfield’s back and inserted a drainage tube.

    Millard reports, “Two days after the first surgery, Agnew again operated on the President, enlarging the opening he had earlier made over his rib and pulling out fragments of muscle, connective tissue, and bone, one piece of which was an inch long.”

    Doctors were desperate to find the bullet, believing that removing it was key to Garfield’s recovery. Unfortunately, the X-ray would not be invented for another decade. Nevertheless, famous inventor Alexander Graham Bell, whose telephone would so transform the world, believed he might have the answer to finding the bullet in an invention Bell called the “induction balance.” Ackerman describes it as “a rudimentary metal detector whose electrically charged needle supposedly could locate a hidden object inside a patient’s body.” Bell tried it on Garfield but the machine failed to find the bullet. The failure may partly have been the result of it being thrown off by metal springs in the bed. Another explanation for the failure, as Ackerman writes, was that Bliss instructed Bell “to look for it in the wrong place, near the liver.”

    Infection spread throughout Garfield’s increasingly weakened body. Along with chills, sweating, and regular vomiting, lumps full of pus, nicknamed “septic acne,” appeared on Garfield’s arms and back.

    At Bliss’s direction, Agnew operated on Garfield on August 8 to allow pus to escape. He cut open Garfield to insert drainage tubes that released pus.

    However, two weeks after that surgery, an abcess formed between Garfield’s mouth and an ear. It caused part of his face to swell and then exploded, spurting so much pus onto Garfield that he almost drowned in it.

    As Garfield lost weight, Bliss resorted to feeding through an “enemata.” Food was mixed with opium and inserted into Garfield’s rectum. History House notes that, at one point, charcoal was substituted for egg in the enematas because doctors believed that the egg might have contributed to the extreme flatulence Garfield suffered – and from which those treating him also suffered due to the overwhelming odor.

    After two months of agony, Garfield decided his only hope was a change of atmosphere. On September 5, he emphatically told Bliss he wanted to be taken to an area by the sea.

    Garfield was on a train the next day and transported to Elberon, New Jersey. At Elberon, Garfield was placed in a room at the Franklyn Cottage, the summer home of a wealthy man who had offered it to Garfield as long as it was wanted. As Garfield was carried into the room, he saw that the bed was turned from the window. At his request, it was moved so the ailing man could have a clear view of the ocean. Garfield welcomed that view but it could not save him from the consequences of massive infection. On the evening of September 19, the unconscious Garfield shouted in pain before his breathing turned fast and shallow. Lucretia hurried into the room and was terrified by his appearance. She bent over and kissed him as an attendant ran to fetch Bliss.

    At 10:35 p.m., of September 19, 1881, Bliss realized that Garfield was dead. Bliss said, “It is over.”

    Chester Arthur was sworn into office as President of the United States on September 20.



    On the same day Arthur officially became president, doctors autopsied Garfield. The Dr. D. S. Lamb of the Army Medical Museum led the autopsy. He was assisted by a local physician and six of those who had treated Garfield, including Bliss, Hamilton, and Agnew.

    When they cut open the stomach, they saw the bullet’s track. To their surprise, it had traveled to the left side of Garfield’s body, behind his pancreas.
    Along his right was a long channel of which the autopsy report stated, “This long descending channel was supposed during life to have been the track of the bullet” but was seen by the autopsy doctors as a channel of “pus.” Indeed, his entire body showed signs of infection. Ackerman observes, “There were collections of abscesses below his right ear, in the middle of his back, across his shoulders, and near his left kidney. He had infection-induced pneumonia in both of his lungs, and there was an enormous abcess, measuring half a foot in diameter, near his liver.”

    The doctors were dismayed at the implications. The bullet itself had not killed the President. Infection, brought about to a large extent by attempts to heal Garfield, had killed him.

    Six months after Garfield’s demise, The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal published a piece by respected German physician Friedrich Esmarch asserting, “It seems that the attending physicians were under the pressure of the public opinion that they were doing far too little. But according to my opinion they have not done too little but too much.”

    That minority of American physicians who championed Joseph Lister’s antiseptic doctrines blasted the traditionalist position Bliss and others maintained. An American physician who had just returned from Europe where he studied the “Listerian method of wound treatment,” Dr. Arpad Gerster, wrote, “None of the injuries inflicted by the assassin’s bullet were necessarily fatal.” Taking a jab at the doctor who had taken over Garfield’s treatment, Dr. Gerster elaborated, “Ignorance is Bliss.”

    Bliss asserted that infection had not killed Garfield. Bliss claimed he had given Garfield the best treatment possible and presented Congress with a $25,000 bill. Congress paid only $6,500. Angered by the relatively paltry amount, Bliss refused any payment.

    Although he never admitted error, Bliss’ reputation suffered as did his practice. He died seven years later of a stroke.

    The Last of Charles Guiteau

    On October 14, standing before Judge Walter Cox, Guiteau stated in response to a charge of first-degree murder, “I plead not guilty to the indictment.” He elaborated that his plea was one of “insanity” because “it was God’s act and not mine. The Divine pressure on me to remove the President was so enormous that it destroyed my free agency, and therefore I am not legally responsible for my act.” He also said he was certain God was overseeing the trial and would ensure Guiteau’s freedom. Guiteau commented, “I have entire confidence in His disposition to protect me and to send me forth to the world a free and innocent man.”

    The trial started on November 14. Guiteau’s brother-in-law George Scoville was the defense attorney.

    The judge refused Guiteau’s request to make his own opening statement. Guiteau handed a written statement to reporters sitting in a row behind him. That statement argued, “General Garfield died from malpractice. According to his own physicians, he was not fatally shot. The doctors who mistreated him ought to bear the odium for his death, and not his assailant. They ought to be indicted for murdering James A. Garfield, and not me.”

    Days later, as a witness testified to the shooting, Guiteau interrupted, saying, “I deny the killing, if your honor please. We admit the shooting.”

    All during the trial, Guiteau made interruptions. At one point, he shouted at his own attorney, “Don’t spoil the matter on cross-examination! That is the way you generally do. You spoil everything by cross-examination.” Guiteau also called Scoville a “jackass.”

    At one point, a witness testified that a fund was set up for the President’s widow and children. Guiteau yelled, “The rich men of New York gave Mrs. Garfield $200,000 or $300,000. It was a splendid thing – a noble thing. Now, I want them to give me some money.”

    Guiteau’s outbursts made his insanity evident and doctors testified to it. Psychiatrist Dr. George Beard testified about the defendant’s mind, “All the links in the chain are there but they are not joined but rather tossed about hither and thither, singly, like quoits, each one good and strong of itself, but without any relation to each other.” Beard asserted of the defendant, “His insanity forces itself constantly to the front, breaking in upon his eloquence.”

    Prosecutors called Dr. John Purdue Gray, superintendent of the New York State Lunatic Asylum. He testified that Guiteau’s problem was “only depravity.”

    On January 26, 1882, the jury convicted Guiteau of first-degree murder.

    Thunderous applause broke out from courtroom spectators. The judge demanded quiet and they ceased clapping. In the silence, Guiteau yelled, “My blood be on the head of the jury!” He continued, “God will avenge this outrage!”

    Guiteau went to the scaffold on June 30, 1882. He pitched his voice high like a child’s as he recited from a poem of his own composition: “I am going to the Lordy, Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah! I am going to the Lordy!” When he finished, he was hanged.

    President Chester A. Arthur

    The New York Times wrote about the start of the presidency of Chester A. Arthur, “No man ever assumed the presidency of the United States under more trying circumstances; no president has needed more the generous appreciation, the indulgent forbearance of his fellow citizens.
    To a large extent, the American people granted that forbearance – and Arthur earned their appreciation. His first official act as President was to proclaim the day Garfield was buried – September 26, 1881 – a national day of mourning.

    Although Arthur had been placed on the ticket as a Stalwart, Garfield’s assassination led Arthur to re-examine his position on the issue. He embraced his martyred predecessors position for reform. In 1883, Arthur signed the Pendleton Civil Service Act into law that basically dismantled the patronage system. While some Stalwarts hoped to repeal the Act after it was initially made law, it soon became evident that the new, merit system was superior to the patronage system. Thus, demand for repeal faded away. By about 1890, both Stalwarts and Half-Breeds had also faded away as identifications.

    Arthur tried for the Republican Presidential nomination in 1884 but the Republicans nominated Blaine who lost to Democrat Grover Cleveland. Seven months after leaving office, Arthur died of a kidney disease.

    A Look Back

    The Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds have largely been forgotten, a fact that the wise Garfield would have well understood. In his inaugural address, he spoke of “leaving behind the battlefields of dead issues” and noted, “We do not now differ in our judgment concerning the controversies of past generations, and 50 years hence our children will not be divided in their opinions concerning our controversies.”

    Unfortunately, President Garfield has also been forgotten. However, recent biographies such as those by Ackerman and Millard may have acquainted more of the populace with this extraordinary and gifted man whose presidency was so cruelly cut short.


    Ackerman, Kenneth D. Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. Carroll & Graf Publishers. New York. 2003.

    “American President: James A. Garfield (1831-1881).”

    “Charles Guiteau Collection.”

    “Garfield I: Who Shot Garfield.” History House.

    “Guiteau, Convicted and in Jail, Declares He is Not a Lunatic.”

    “James A. Garfield.” C-SPAN Home.

    “James A. Garfield Inaugural Address.”

    King, Gilbert. “The Stalking of the President.” Jan. 17, 2012.

    Millard, Candice. Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President. Doubleday. 2011.

    Portero, Ashley. “What Issue Divided the Republican Party in 1880?” Demand Media.



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    Lincoln Assassination

    Five days after General Lee surrendered to General Grant at Appomattox, ending the Civil War, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln at Ford's Theatre.

    by Cal Schoonover

    By the time President Abraham Lincoln and his party arrived at Ford’s Theatre, the play Our American Cousin had already begun. Lincoln, along with his wife Mary and two other guests, Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Clara Harris, had a box reserved for them. As the party made its appearance, the play was stopped and the tune "Hail to the Chief "began. The crowd rose and applauded the President as his group made its way to the awaiting box. Lincoln nodded and waved to the crowd of his admirers.

    Once the President was seated, the play resumed. It was just after 8:30 p.m. and Lincoln, although exhausted, was anxious to relax and enjoy the play. The last few years had been rough not only on President Lincoln and his family, but the country as well. In April, 1861 the Civil War began and turned the nation into complete chaos. Brother against brother, father against son and neighbor against neighbor. The devastating effect of the Civil War cost the country over 600,000 lives. The war ended just five days prior on April 9 and the night of April 14, Good Friday, Lincoln was looking forward to putting his thoughts of war to rest.

    A few minutes before 10 p.m. the play was near the half-way point and it was around this time that legendary actor John Wilkes Booth entered the saloon next door and ordered a whiskey. After finishing his drink, Booth exited the saloon and walked over to Ford’s Theatre. As he entered he made his way up stairs. Upon arriving at the top of the stairs, Booth saw the balcony was filled with people. There were several people standing against the wall Booth noted and after a few minutes of looking around, he made his way across the rear circle. “I walked with a firm step through a thousand of his friends,” Booth would later write in his diary.

    Nearing the door to the presidential box, Booth encountered Charles Forbes, Lincoln’s personal valet. Forbes had taken a seat just outside of the box and when Booth approached, Forbes stood and Booth handed him something. While it is not known for sure what Booth handed Forbes, it has been assumed by historians and writers that it was Booth’s personal calling card. Either way, Forbes looked at it and allowed Booth to proceed into the box. Booth entered the box and waited for the right moment to strike.

    President Lincoln sat in a rocking chair directly beyond the door and was in the perfect position for Booth. Having only a matter of seconds to act, Booth had to make his attempt count and as he took a step forward, he drew his derringer from his vest. He cocked the hammer on the pistol and slowly approached behind Lincoln.

    As he stepped forward, he raised the derringer to Lincoln’s head. Booth was less than two feet away when he squeezed the trigger. The loud explosion came and the lead ball the size of the tip of a finger tore through the back of Lincoln’s head. The President slumped in his chair and Major Rathbone leaped from his seat toward the assassin. While the two struggled, the theater grew quite. The sharp scream let out by Mary Lincoln startled the audience and gave an indication something was terribly wrong.

    Besides being armed with the derringer, Booth also had a large knife. He drew the knife and began slashing at Major Rathbone as the major tried to stop him from exiting the box. Rathbone received a deep wound between “the shoulder and elbow.” Booth was able to free himself from the major’s grip and he leaped over the banister of the presidential box and onto the stage. History tells us here that Booth broke his ankle as he landed, but there is evidence to contradict this theory and it is more probable that Booth actually broke his leg when his horse fell while making his escape from Washington.

    Upon landing on the stage, Booth regained his balance and ran across the stage shouting “Sic Semper Tyrannis” ("Thus always to tyrants") and exited the back door. Booth’s horse was waiting, so his escape was rather easy. Making his way across town, Booth arrived at the Navy Yard Bridge that goes into Maryland and when he was allowed to pass by Sgt. Cobb, Booth was on the run and the chase for Lincoln’s killer was about to begin.

    John Wilkes Booth Gun
    John Wilkes Booth's gun

    Back at Ford’s Theatre, the President was being looked after by a young army surgeon named Charles Leale. Upon entering the presidential box he later wrote, “As I looked at Lincoln he appeared dead. His eyes were closed and his head had fallen forward.” Leale felt for a pulse but could not find one and chose to lay Lincoln on the floor. As he did so, he saw his hand that had been on the back of the President’s head had blood on it. Not knowing where exactly the wound was or for that matter what exactly caused the wound, Leale used a pen-knife and started cutting away Lincoln’s collar and then split his shirt open from his neck down.

    When no wound was found, Leale lifted one of Lincoln’s eyelids and noted the left eye was dilated, which is an indication of a brain injury. Leale ran his fingers through Lincoln’s hair and finally found the wound. Behind Lincoln’s left ear was a small round hole which had begun to clot at this time. Leale carefully removed the clot and suddenly Lincoln began breathing again. “The history of surgery fails to record a recovery from such a fearful wound and I have never seen or heard of any person with such a wound, and injury to the sinus of the brain and to the brain itself, who lived even for an hour,” Leale wrote in his 1909 account. He then stated “His wound is mortal; it is impossible for him to recover.”  

    It was suggested by someone in the crowd to move Lincoln to the White House. However, fearing the long and bumpy ride back would cause more damage to Lincoln, that idea was disregarded. Leale knew he had to get Lincoln out of the theater and fast. When Lincoln’s breathing became steady, he would have Lincoln moved “to the nearest house.”

    While Leale was tending to Lincoln, two other doctors arrived to help. They were Dr. Charles S. Taft and Dr. Albert F. A. King. Dr. Leale “expressed the desire to have the President taken, as soon as he had gained sufficient strength.” When that time came, Dr. Taft was assigned by Leale to “carry his right shoulder, Dr. King to carry his left shoulder and detailed a sufficient number of others” to assist in carrying the President. They lifted Lincoln’s body and made their way through the heavy crowd and once outside the theater, Lincoln’s body was brought across the street to the home of William Petersen. Petersen had been standing on his porch as Lincoln’s body was brought out and he yelled for them to bring Lincoln inside. Once inside the house, the men carried Lincoln into a small bedroom located at the far end of the hallway.

    The bed located in the room was too small for Lincoln’s 6-foot 4-inch frame so he was laid diagonally. The bed was pulled away from the wall as well, making it easier for the doctors to maneuver around the bed since the little room had filled with members of Lincoln’s cabinet. Dr. Leale did his best to make the President as comfortable as possible, knowing there was nothing more that could be done. “It is not probable that the President will live through the night,” wrote Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.

    The room was ordered cleared by Dr. Leale except for medical personnel who needed to continue to treat Lincoln. When Lincoln’s breathing became labored again another clot was removed from Lincoln’s wound. In Dr. Leale’s 1909 account, he doesn’t say how he removed the blood clots, but in his original 1867 report Leale writes “I passed the little finger of my left hand through the perfectly smooth opening made by the ball…” He continued with “when I removed my finger which I used as a knife an oozing of blood followed…”

    Shortly after the assassination, Mary Lincoln sent word to have the President’s personal physician, Dr. Robert King Stone, examine her husband. Dr. Stone stated in May, 1865, “I proceeded to examine the President, and found that he received a gun-shot wound in the back part of the left side of his head, into which I carried my finger.” Historians and students of modern medicine today debate weather Lincoln could have survived his wound had treating doctors not stuck their fingers into his brain. While fingers to the brain most definanitly caused damage and likely infection, chances are the President would have died given due to the medical profession's limited knowledge about brain injuries.  

    Secretary Stanton moved to the back parlor and began issuing orders and taking witness statements. Within two hours of taking testimony there was enough evidence to order the arrest of John Wilkes Booth. “It is now ascertained with reasonable certainty that two assassins were engaged in the horrible crime, Wilkes Booth being the one that shot the president,” Stanton wrote. The other assassin, who at this time was not known, was Lewis Thornton Powell, who had attacked Secretary of State William H. Seward the night of Lincoln’s assassination.

    As the night wore on, Lincoln’s breathing became labored. At 7:22 a.m., April 15, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln died. He was the first President to be assassinated.

    The people in the death room were in grim silence. It wasn’t until Stanton asked the doctor to say a few words that the silence was broke. Stanton then spoke his famous words, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

    Some people closest to Lincoln blamed themselves for allowing him to be killed. General James H. Van Alen, in a letter to the President, asked him not to attend the theater. Lincoln, on the day of the assassination, responded to Alen with a letter. “My Dear Sir: I intend to adopt the advice of my personal friends and use precaution…”

    The Chase

    The manhunt was well under way by the time the public was notified of Lincoln’s death. Booth along with his co-conspirator David Herold, rode their horses about 13 miles into Maryland to their first stop. The destination was Surratt’s Tavern, owned by Mary Surratt. It was at Surratt’s Tavern that Booth, along with Herold, Powell and John Surratt, Mary’s son, plotted kidnapping Lincoln as recently as March 1865. There Booth and Herold picked up supplies; included were two carbines and shells. Whiskey was also a must for the ailing Booth.

    John Wilkes Booth Wanted

    After picking up what they needed, the two men rode on and sought out medical treatment for Booth. They arrived at a small community called Beantown and two miles beyond that, was the farm of Dr. Samuel Mudd. Booth and Herold arrived at the farm around 4 a.m. and knocked on the door, waking the Mudd family. When the door was answered by Mudd, who was dressed in a long nightshirt and holding a candle. Herold spoke first, he explained to the doctor his friend was hurt after his horse fell. A few feet away, sitting on his horse sat Booth.

    The two men were asked to step inside and upon examining Booth’s leg, Mudd determined it was broken and asked Herold to help get the injured Booth upstairs to one of the bedrooms. Mudd set Booth’s leg with a splint and allowed him to rest for the night. The two men rested for the night and later in the day of April 15, Dr. Mudd had to ride into town. According to Mudd, it was there he learned of Lincoln’s assassination and then it may have clicked to him about his 4 a.m. visit. Leaving town as quickly as possible without causing suspicion, Mudd went back to his farm.

    When Dr. Mudd arrived he told the two men about the soldiers in town and asked the men to leave his farm. Abraham Lincoln was not poplar in the Mudd home, but Mudd did not want to be tied to Lincoln’s murder. However, not wanting to betray Booth, Mudd gave the two men a few names of people that could aid their escape. The two men left and it was not long after that the  Federal authorities had been on the move south and they soon learned Dr. Mudd had treated a person fitting Booth’s description. A search of Mudd’s house revealed a boot with the initials J.W.B scratched on the inside. Dr. Mudd was later arrested and taken into custody for his role in harboring the assassin.

    John Wilkes Booth
    John Wilkes Booth

    Herold, who knew the country better than Booth, led them toward Virginia where they thought they would be safe. Over the next several days, the two men stopped at one of the houses Dr. Mudd had mentioned to them. It was the home of Samuel Cox. Herold knocked on the door while Booth waited on his horse. When Cox answered, he claimed he had a sense something was wrong. After talking to Herold for a few minutes, Cox did not believe what Herold told him. Booth pleaded with Cox for help and finally Cox invited the two men in for rest.

    A few hours later, Cox knew it was not safe for his two guests to stay, so he told them he would hide them in a pine thicket. Cox assured the two men they would be safe there and no one would think to look for them there. It had been two days since the assassination and the two fugitives knew they could not stay in one location for long. Cox had his overseer lead the two men to safety and assured them someone would be along to help aid their escape.

    At the pine thicket, Booth and Herold tied off their horses and rolled out their blankets on the damp ground. The two men were exhausted from their travels and could not do anything now but wait. When the sun started shining, Booth woke and started writing in his diary.

    Thomas Jones, a friend of Samuel Cox, arrived at the pine thicket to aid Booth and Herold. Jones, during the Civil War was a master at navigating the Potomac River. On more than one occasion Jones ran Confederate spies, supplies and mail across the river. Avoiding detectionfrom the patrolling Union Army, Jones was considered one of the better Confederate agents in the Maryland area.

    Jones told Booth and Herold he would help them, but they needed to wait until he felt it was safe enough to cross into Virginia. Jones stressed to the two men they must wait in the pine thicket for however long it takes. Booth did not like hearing this, but knew he had little choice.

    After five days in the pine thicket, Jones saw the time was right and put his plan in action. After dark on April, 20, Jones met up again with Booth and Herold. He led the two fugitives out of the pine thicket and down a public road, walking slowly and carefully doing their best to avoid detection. Finally, Jones arrived back at his own farm and retrieved food for the men. The men ate and Jones then led them down to the river where a small boat was waiting.

    Jones and Herold helped Booth get settled into the boat. Once Herold was in, the two men started off again on their own. Herold grabbed the oars and rowed toward the Virginia shore, two miles away. Herold rowed the boat for more than five hours before realizing something was wrong. At the mouth of a creek the two men could see a farm Herold recognized. The bad news was they were still in Maryland. The two fugitives had been turned around and Herold was exhausted from rowing all night.

    Booth was frustrated. Like he had done just after the assassination, he wrote his thoughts down in his diary: “After being hunted like a dog through swamps, woods, and last night being chased by gun boats till I was forced to return wet cold and starving, with every mans (sic) hand against me, I am here in despair. And why; for doing what Brutus was honored for... And yet I for striking down a greater tyrant than ever knew am looked upon as a common cutthroat.”

    Herold ended up going ashore and meeting up with a friend, who provided food and sent them on their way. This was Friday, April 21. One the evening of April, 23, Herold made another stop at a person’s home who his last contact mentioned. She was a 39–year-old widow named Elizabeth Quesenberry and she was a Confederate signal agent during the war. She prepared food for Herold, never setting eyes on Booth, and sent Herold away.

    After Booth and Herold finished their meal, the two men met up with a man named Thomas Harbin, who arranged to get horses for them. Harbin led the two men to a few more locations before parting company. Booth and Herold were finally in Virginia.

    The End of the Chase

     Their next stop was at a small tobacco farm near Port Royal, Virginia, owned by the Garrett family. The farm's owner, Richard Garrett, met the two men and allowed them to take shelter in his barn. However, as the night continued, fearing the two men who he felt acted odd, would steel his horses he locked the barn door. Booth and Herold were trapped. Little did anyone know, Federal troopers were only three miles away.

    The 12-day chase was finally drawing to the end for the escaped assassin and his co-conspirator. On April 26, 1865, Federal troops arrived at the Garrett farm before sunrise. Booth and Herold remained hidden in the barn refusing to come out. Finally, Herold surrendered, but Booth would not. Given several chances to surrender, a trooper set the barn on fire. Booth, who had in his hands a carbine, raised it as if to shoot. Sergeant Boston Corbett, who was peering into the barn was able to see Booth raise the rifle, fired his pistol and struck Booth in the neck. Booth dropped to the ground, seriously wounded.

    The bullet passed through a cervical vertebra, severing the spinal cord and paralyzing Booth. The troopers had no orders to kill Booth, so every effort was to be made to make sure he would be brought back to Washington and stand trial. A doctor was sent for and he arrived shortly after dawn. Booth was still alive, but was fading fast. After examining Booth, the doctor determined there was nothing that could be done. The assassin of President Lincoln was going to die from this wound. Shortly after 7 a.m. John Wilkes Booth died.

    Meanwhile back in Washington, while awaiting news from the troopers about Booth, several arrests had been made. Mary Surratt, the owner of the bar where the kidnap plot against Lincoln was planned, had been arrested on April, 17, along with Lewis Powell who was assigned by Booth to kill Secretary of State William Seward. Seward survived the attack, but just barely.

    Vice President Andrew Johnson was also a target of assassination. His would-be assassin, George Azterodt, backed out at the last minute and instead of killing Johnson, got drunk. Five days later, in the early morning hours of April 20, Azterodt was arrested. One thing that gave Azterodt away was he talked in depth of Lincoln’s assassination to several people and seemed to know more than what had been reported by the press.

    With Booth dead and Herold, Surratt, Powell and Azterodt now in custody at the Old Capitol Prison, the government had the task of building its case against the conspirators.

    The Trial

    Assassinating Abraham Lincoln was only part of Booth’s plan to cripple the United States government in revenge for his beloved southern states. By the time the trial of all the conspirators began, it was revealed that not only was President Lincoln and Secretary of State Seward a target, but so was Vice President Andrew Johnson and General of the Armies Ulysses S. Grant. Out of the group of conspirators, Booth was the only one who carried out his part of the plan.

    What saved Grant from his own attempted assassination was he had a change of plans on the afternoon of April 14, and instead left town with his wife to see their kids. Secretary William Seward barely survived his attack by Lewis Powell. Powell, who had viciously attacked Seward along with several people in Seward’s house, disappeared into the night after he thought he killed his target. He was arrested the same night of Mary Surratt when he showed up at her tavern as she was being questioned by Federal authorities.

    The trial of the conspirators took place in front of a military commission at the order of Edwin M. Stanton. Rather than take the time and try them one at a time, it was chosen one trial for all the conspirators would be quicker. Stanton argued by using a military tribunal the government would be in total control of the proceedings and deliver the much needed justice the people wanted for the murder of President Abraham Lincoln.

    The trial commission met for the first time on May 10, 1865, at 10 a.m. During the opening remarks by the commission, President Andrew Johnson’s executive order establishing the commission was read followed by the charges being brought against the defendants. Each one of the defendants had specific charges but all of them were charged with conspiring to murder Abraham Lincoln.

    The taking of testimony began on May 12 and continued until June 29. A total of 49 days and over 366 witnesses gave testimony about what they knew either about the defendants or what they had been witness to.

    On the third day of trial, two lawyers for the defendants rose and spoke against the use of a military trial when the civilian courts were open. It was argued by Mary Surratt’s attorney, Reverdy Johnson that the military had no jurisdiction and since all of the defendants were civilians, not soldiers and the trial should not be heard in front of the military. The commission overruled the objections and ordered the trial to continue as scheduled.

    On June 30, 1865 the military commission ruled as follows: Lewis Thornton Powell, charged with conspiracy and the attempted assassination of Secretary William Seward, was found guilty and sentenced to death. David Herold was charged with conspiracy and aiding Booth on his 12-day escape after the assassination, was found guilty and sentenced to death. George Atzerodt, charged with conspiring with Booth to kill Vice President Andrew Johnson,was found guilty and sentenced to death. Mary Surratt, the boardinghouse owner, was charged with conspiring with Booth and according to Vice President Andrew Johnson, “keeping the nest that hatched the egg,” was found guilty and sentenced to death. All four were hanged on July 7, 1865.

    Dr. Samuel Mudd was charged with conspiring and aiding Booth, during his escape. Mudd was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison. Two years after starting his prison sentence and outbreak of Yellow fever broke out. Mudd, who was the only doctor did his best to treat all the sick people, which included guards. After the epidemic subsided, all the people who survived petitioned President Andrew Johnson to release Dr. Mudd. President Johnson in February of 1869, granted the pardon and Mudd returned home in Maryland where he lived until his death from pneumonia on January 10th, 1883.




    Basler, Roy P., ed- The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. 9 vols. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953.

    Leale, Charles. Lincoln’s Last Hours. 1909 account.

    Rhodehamel, John, and Louise Taper, eds. Right or Wrong, God Judge Me: The Writings of John Wilkes Booth. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997.

    Schoonover, Cal. In Jumping broke my Leg: Another look at the Lincoln Assassination Legend., 2014.

    Steers, Edward. Blood on the Moon: The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The University Press of Kentucky, 2001.

    --The Trial: The Assassination of President Lincoln and the Trial of the Conspirators. The University of Kentucky Press, 2003.

    U.S War Department. The War of the Rebellion: A compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1890-1901.


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    In small villages throughout England, the killing of people alleged to be witches was not uncommon. In 1945, the murder of Charles Watson is considered to be the last of this phenomenon.

    by Chuck Lyons

    The murder of Charles Walton is considered the last witch killing in the United Kingdom. The 74-year-old farm laborer was found dead on Valentine’s Day 1945, his neck cut open and the prongs of a pitchfork jammed through his throat, pinning him to the ground. A rude cross had been carved into his chest. Walton, who had resided in the village of Lower Quinton in Warwickshire, England all his life and was apparently well-known in the area, had nonetheless sometimes been considered odd. To some, he was just the simple farm laborer he appeared to be, but other local residents believed he had been “stained” by a childhood encounter with a mysterious black dog—and some considered him a warlock.

    The British Islands and especially England have a long and tarnished history of witches and witch killings, and the Cotswolds, that hilly area of south central England in which Lower Quinton is located, has a well-earned “historical and modern reputation for the practice of witchcraft.” From at least the 10th century onward, literally hundreds of people in England and Scotland were accused of being witches, were prosecuted, and executed, the last being a Scottish woman named Janet Horne who was sent to the stake in 1727. Twenty supposed witches and warlocks were also executed in Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 and four more died in prison.

    But Janet Horne was not the last witch.  Far from it. 

    In 1944, as World War II raged, two elderly women, Helen Duncan and Jane Yorke, were subjected to full criminal trials in London’s Old Bailey and carted off to jail under terms of the 1735 Witchcraft Act. (It has been claimed by Duncan’s supporters that she was arrested and imprisoned by the military from fear she would reveal the secret plans for D-Day, information she had presumably gathered by extrasensory means). 

    Throughout the centuries in England’s small villages local witches—or at least suspected witches—were often dealt more directly and outside the law.

    In 1945 was it Charles Walton’s turn?

    Charles Walton's Last Day

    A widower, Walton shared a small cottage with his 33-year-old niece, Edith Isabel Walton, who he had adopted 30 years earlier when her mother died. Walton was a loner who did not socialize much with other villagers. He seemed to be more comfortable with animals and had developed a reputation as a good trainer of horses. He was not disliked in the community, but rumors about him circulated among at least some of his fellow villagers who gossiped that wild birds ate out of his hand and dogs were attracted to him, that he raised giant toads and practiced horse-whispering, a dark art that allowed him to communicate with animals. Some of his neighbors held him responsible for the poor crops the following autumn had produced despite weather that should have brought a lush harvest

    On February 14, 1945, he was seen to leave his cottage with a pitchfork and a slash hook (a curved blade on a rod used in pruning) and to have limped—he walked with a cane—through the village between 9 and 9:30 a.m. He was not regularly employed and sought out casual farm labor as it became available. For several months, however, he had been working for Alfred Potter who managed a farm known as The Firs. On this day, Walton was known to be heading out to cut back hedges in a field known as Hillground on the slopes of Meon Hill.

    Potter would later describe Walton as "inoffensive type of man but one who would speak his mind if necessary."

    When Walton did not return home at the expected time that afternoon, Edith Walton and a neighbor went to The Firs where they enlisted Potter, and the three went to the field where Walton had been working. There they found Walton’s body.  He had been beaten over the head, apparently with his own cane, and his neck had been cut open with his slash hook. The pitchfork had been jammed into the ground with prongs on each side of Walton’s neck pinning his body to the ground and its handle wedged under the nearby hedges, probably to keep it in place. The slash hook had been left in Walton’s neck. Early accounts, though this was not repeated later in the case, also said a rude cross had been carved in his chest—probably with the slash hook.

    This was not unusual. Other alleged witch killings in which people were murdered by those who believed they had been cursed or given the evil eye often included such a carved cross on the body of the dead witch.

    Scotland Yard Investigates

    Scotland Yard was quickly brought into the case, and Chief Inspector Robert Fabian of Scotland Yard was sent out from London to investigate.

    The killing, he concluded, was “clearly the ghastly climax of a pagan rite.” 

    Early in his investigation Fabian became aware of a book written in 1929 by the Rev. James Harvey Bloom, rector of a church in the nearby hamlet of Whitchurch. In the book, entitled Folklore, Old Customs and Superstitions in Shakespeare Land, Rev. Bloom had written that a local plough boy named Chares Walton had in 1885 been confronted by a “phantom black dog” several nights in succession including once when the dog was accompanied by a headless woman. On that night the boy Walton learned his sister had just died.

    Was this boy the same Charles Walton who had been murdered?

    The murdered man would have been about 15-year-old at the time, so he could well have been, but some evidence also works against that conclusion. For one thing, he did not have a sister who died in 1885. Fabian also discovered many in the neighborhood held a belief that February 14 corresponded in the old Julian calendar to the date of Imbolc, a pagan festival that marks the beginning of spring and that Imbolc was the best day for a blood sacrifice that would help the earth recover from hardships of the recent winter.

    Was this killing a reaction to the poor crops of the previous season?

    In addition, Fabian determined that there also appeared to be significance in the location of Walton’s killing at the edge of Meon Hill. The area had given birth to a number of strange tales.  Those tales included ones of devilish doings and of the (presumably black) phantom hounds of the Celtic king Arawyn hunting on the hill at night. Lower Quinton is also only a few miles from the Rollright Stones, a stone circle similar to Stonehenge but much smaller. There at Rollright on May 12, 1949, four years after Walton’s killing, two woman reported they had witnessed a witches’ gathering with “shadowy figures dancing in a queer fashion and bouncing up and down,” mumbling a chant, and following a leader who was wearing a “goat-face mask.”

    More evidence?

    Fabian also mentioned several times in later years that he had met “a wall of silence” when he tried speaking with residents of the area.  "The natives of Upper and Lower Quinton and the surrounding district are of a secretive disposition,” he said, “and they do not take easily to strangers.”

    A British television reporter who took a look at the case 50 years after Fabian’s remarks seemed to have encountered the same stonewalling. “The people (of Lower Quinton) I spoke to were friendly,” he said, “but impenetrably tight-lipped.”

    Was there perhaps a village-wide conspiracy to rid Lower Quinton of Walton?

    The Prime Suspect

    Italian prisoners of war being kept in the area as well as local and visiting British and American soldiers were interviewed without success as well as numerous area residents. Alfred Potter, the man who managed The Firs and was employing Walton, became the prime suspect and was rumored to have owed Walton money. In his own defense Potter said he had been in a local pub with another farmer and had left about noon to attend to some livestock. Crossing the fields on his way back to The Firs, he said, he had seen Walton working some 500 yards away but had not bothered speaking to him. Once home, he said, he read the newspaper for a while and then went outside to help another man laboring on the farm before returning to the house for his mid-day meal. His wife collaborated his story.

    Local medical examiners estimated Walton had been killed between 1 and 2 p.m.

    The trousers Potter admitted having worn on the February 14 were also examined by specialists and two marks on the front of them were “believed” to be blood stains. Investigators reported, however, that the trousers had been cleaned too thoroughly for a positive identification. A number of local residents also spoke out in support of Potter, and a man named Harry Beasley who did farm labor in the area and was known to be a friend of Walton’s told police that "Potter had a reputation as a decent man to work for.”   

    Potter stayed to his story—except for some jumbled details—for the remainder of the investigation.

    The Scotland Yard investigators eventually returned to London without have made any progress in their investigation while a local policeman, Detective Superintendent Alex Spooner, continued to investigate the murder for years also without success. 

    A newspaper that appeared at the time of the ninth anniversary of Walton’s death linked the death of Ann Tennant almost 75 years earlier with that of Walton. On September 15, 1875 Tennant had left her house in Long Compton, another Warwickshire hamlet, to do some shopping. On her way back, she met a group of farm workers returning home, a group that included a man named James Heywood. Without warning Heywood attacked Tennant with a pitchfork, stabbing her in the legs and head. A local farmer ran to Tennant's aid and restrained Heywood until police arrived.

    But it was too late. Tennant died that night of her injuries.

    Heywood claimed to police that Tennant was a witch. He also said there were other witches in Lower Compton and he would kill them as well. He was found not guilty of Tennant’s murder on grounds that he was insane and spent the remainder of his life committed to Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Stories were later circulated that Tennant had been pinned to the ground with a pitchfork and slashed with a billhook, which is similar to a slash hook, but those stories are unsubstantiated. It was also revealed that Walton was a relation of Tennant’s, though the exact nature of that relationship remains unclear.  It is possible, however, that Tennant was Walton’s great-grandmother.

    In the end, the killing of Charles Walton remained unsolved.

    Despite all the interviews with Italian POW’s, with English and American soldiers, and with residents of the Lower Quinton and vicinity, the spotlight of suspicion continued to shine on Alfred Potter. But suspicion is not proof, and neither Potter nor anyone else was ever charged in the killing of Charles Walton.

    And no one knows what really happened at the base of Meon Hill that Valentine’s Day 70 years ago.  Was a Cotswold witch killed or simply a quiet man who was kind to animals?  His killer or killers are the only ones who know what happened.

    They are also the only ones—if even they know—why it happened.


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    By Mel Ayton

    In 2014 my book, Hunting the President, was published. The new revelations included previously unknown or little-known assassination attempts against U.S presidents from the time of FDR to President Obama. My latest book covers the presidencies of George Washington to Herbert Hoover. It includes never-before- told stories of incidents when the president’s life was put in danger, including attempted stabbings, shootings and bombings. They have remained largely hidden from the public; some buried in newspaper archives and others in government reports, presidential memoirs, bodyguard memoirs, Secret Service agents’ memoirs, the National Archives, the Library of Congress and presidential libraries.


    Individuals or groups who attempts to kill U.S leaders or threaten to assassinate them go all the way back to General George Washington. Before he was president, Washington was the target of an assassination plot involving members of his bodyguard but it was discovered and the plot failed. President Monroe was so frightened of assassins he hid sharpshooters in the trees of the White House and in 1818 had an iron fence constructed around the grounds. President Tyler feared he would fall victim to bombs. He instituted the Washington Metropolitan Police in 1844 partly to improve presidential security and at one point made the White House ushers defuse a package he thought contained a bomb but which instead held a cake.


    However, threats or attempts against early American presidents were a rare occurrence for a number of reasons. The absence of any fear for the president’s safety resided in the fact that the country had only a small population. The year Jefferson entered the White House the population of the United States was 5,308, 473, nine-tenths of which resided east of the Alleghenies. Eight percent of the population lived in the countryside and the absence of public transport for the common man resulted in only a small number of people who could travel to meet with the president. The early presidents also did not go "electioneering" as the public considered it "unseemly." This meant that the president did not place himself in harm’s way by exposing himself to danger in large crowds. It was indeed a paradox. The American people did not want their president acting like a king but neither did they want him campaigning like an ordinary politician.


    Additionally, while the lives of the presidents were widely publicized their faces were not. They went about their business unrecognized for most of the time. Each day at 1p.m., Thomas Jefferson liked to go horseback riding usually riding alone. Few knew his identity as he often stopped to converse with locals. On one occasion a man told him how angry he was with the president. Jefferson invited him to the White House.  (1) In 1817 President James Monroe and his aides called at an inn in Altoona, New York and went about their business unrecognized until the president revealed his identity during supper. (2)  On a visit to New York City in 1847 President James Polk was frequently mistaken for his travelling companion, Alabama Senator Dixon Hall. However, with the advent of new inventions like the daguerreotype and photography and the publication of the presidents’ portraits in the press, the risks of assassination increased. The first photograph of a president was not taken until the 1840s, however, and not until the end of the 19th century did the press publish the president’s photograph. (3)


    As the country grew and the nation expanded so did the dangers presidents faced.

    From the time of Richard Lawrence’s attempt to shoot President Andrew Jackson in 1835, most of America’s presidents have survived  "near lethal approaches" whereby would-be assassins have breached the president’s security but the assassination attempt has been thwarted, either by presidential guards, White House guards, White House doormen, Secret Service agents or local law enforcement officers.

    Particularly shocking are the previously unknown attempts to assassinate Presidents Buchanan, Arthur, Hayes, Cleveland, Harrison, McKinley, Roosevelt, Taft, Wilson, Harding, Coolidge and Hoover.

    It has been assumed that James Buchanan passed through his presidency without any attempts to assassinate him. Yet there is compelling evidence to suggest otherwise. When a group of Civil War army veterans met in Saratoga in 1887 one of them revealed a plot to kill Buchanan.


    In the spring of 1858 the would-be assassin arrived in Washington to see for himself "the lay of the land." A month or so later he returned to Kansas and reported to his fellow conspirators that the task of killing the president would be “easy.” The plotter revealed that Buchanan would be an easy target as he was known to "loiter" in the grounds of the White House and had been observed on the streets of Washington unaccompanied. The plotter was sure he could kill the president and make his escape back to Kansas; he was “assured of protection” once he arrived home. (4)


    However, as the day of the planned assassination drew near another Civil War veteran tipped off the authorities after hearing plotters discuss the assassination in a Lawrence, Kansas, tavern. In April 1858 the informant and the would-be assassin arrived in Washington at the same time. After the would-be assassin was observed purchasing a gun for $25 he was arrested. (5)


    Ulysses S. Grant said there had been a “deliberate attempt” on the life of President Andrew Johnson during a visit to Indianapolis. Johnson and his party, including Grant, were staying at a hotel in the city during the visit. When they gathered in one of the rooms booked for the party a shot was fired from a second-story window on the opposite side of the street from the hotel. The bullet struck a Chinese lantern near where the president was standing and passed within three feet of Grant’s head. Local law enforcement agencies made no arrests. (6)


    A gunman, William Meyers, stalked President-elect Hayes and plotted to kill him during the inauguration ceremonies at the Capitol in March 1877. The plot was investigated by Washington Police Chief Major Richards. The assassin was eventually tracked to the city’s Imperial Hotel and was immediately arrested with the "unofficial assistance" of two U.S. Secret Service agents who happened to be in the hotel’s vicinity. (Author’s Note: The Secret Service did not take on the duties of presidential protection until the time of President Teddy Roosevelt but the agency did provide unofficial presidential protection during the presidencies of Cleveland and McKinley)  


    During questioning Meyers admitted to his assassination plans. He said he intended to shoot President-Elect Hayes, “then proclaim himself president, and to be sworn in amid the ringing of bells and the firing of cannon.” Convinced Meyers was insane the police authorities sent him to an insane asylum. He was incarcerated for a period of around six months then released to the supervision of his sons with the assistance of a nurse. (7)


    President Hayes was informed of the plot to kill him. He thanked the officers for their diligence and promised compensation. He rewarded Maxwell by arranging an appointment as a second lieutenant of the 20th Infantry shortly after his inauguration. In August 1881 the assassination story was corroborated when an assistant district attorney, Joseph E. Hayden, told reporters he was the man who had “saved President Hayes’ life”  by turning over to the police “ a lunatic” who had planned to kill the president on his inauguration day. (8)


    President Arthur was the victim of two previously unknown assassination attempts. The first attempt was made at the Butler Mansion in Washington, D.C. and the second attempt occurred at the White House. When Chester Arthur was staying in the Butler mansion prior to moving to the White House he escaped an assassination attempt, according to an 1888 report in the Charlotte Democrat. A “shot was fired at a reporter for the Cincinnati Enquirer who was sitting talking to Senator John P. Jones...the villain took the reporter for Arthur.” The shot came through a window but missed the target. The incident was corroborated in a statement Senator Jones gave to the Philadelphia Times many years later. (9)


    The second incident occurred on October 31, 1881. Dr. John Noetling, a “prominent doctor from Colesville, Snyder County, Pennsylvania,” arrived at the White House armed with a pistol. When he was challenged by the doorkeepers he fought with them until he was overpowered. When the doorkeepers confiscated Noetling’s seven-shot revolver they discovered every chamber was loaded. The guards believed Noetling was there to assassinate the president. He was taken to a local police station and later sent home to Pennsylvania. (10)

    Presidents Harrison and Cleveland were also the victims of previously unknown assassination attempts by lone gunmen.

    Although there were numerous rumours of assassination attempts throughout Harrison’s presidency there is compelling evidence that a serious attempt on the president’s life actually occurred in 1890 but was covered up by White House aides.

    A U.S. Senator had received letters threatening to kill President Harrison. The letters were turned over to Secret Service Chief John S. Bell who conducted an unofficial investigation as the Secret Service, although used as a detective agency by government departments during this period, did not have official sanction to investigate threats to the president. The letter writer was tracked down by the two agents Bell had assigned to the case. They scoured Petersburg and managed to locate a suspect, a Virginia shop-keeper. On May 23, 1890 the agents followed the suspect to Washington and observed the would-be assassin stationing himself on Pennsylvania Avenue at around 9:30 in the morning. It was known to be part of the route taken by President Harrison on his carriage rides. (11)


    The would-be assassin was approximately 20-feet away from Harrison as the president passed by. As he attempted to draw his revolver he was quickly subdued by the agents and taken to police headquarters. Washington police took possession of a .38 calibre Smith and Wesson revolver, together with a number of letters which chronicled the would-be assassin’s grievances and the reasons why he had targeted the president for assassination. During his interrogation the Virginia shop-keeper confessed “boldly” that he had intended to kill the president. Later, he was quietly adjudged to be insane and was confined to an insane asylum near Richmond. On November 26, 1890 the by now ex-Chief Bell, who had been visiting the capital on business, confirmed the story to newspaper reporters and “verified it in every particular.” The White House denied the assassination attempt had occurred. (12)


    After President Cleveland had completed his first term in office and shortly before he began his second term he was the victim of an assassination attempt. During the 1892 presidential election campaign, Cleveland, who had been living at his New York home, went about his business unguarded. However, his friend Superintendent Thomas Byrnes of the New York Police Department kept a special watch on the former president.


    Cleveland had been dining with his good friend and personal physician, Dr. Joseph Bryant, when a young German immigrant arrived at Cleveland’s New York house and asked to see him. The former president had just finished dinner with Dr. Bryant and stepped forward to greet his caller. The young man drew a .44 revolver, pointed it at Cleveland and pulled the trigger. The gun failed to fire. Cleveland rushed towards his assailant, threw his arms around him and pushed him against a wall. He held him there until Dr. Bryant and the servants assisted in tying the would-be assassin up. When Byrnes arrived at the house the police officer who was first on the scene was instructed to, “forever to keep his mouth shut concerning the affair.”(13) Byrnes took the would-be assassin to his home where he was kept overnight. The following day Dr. Bryant and another physician examined the young German and “took out a certificate of lunacy.” By noon Cleveland’s assailant had been transported to Bloomingdale Asylum.  Cleveland and Bryant decided to cover up the story because it was “...likely to stir up a large crop of cranks.” (14)


    The story of the attempted assassination was confirmed by a “member of Congress” who had been told the story by the doctor who accompanied Dr. Bryant when the would-be assassin was declared insane. (15) According to acclaimed journalist of the time, Frank G. Carpenter of the Deseret News, “Through Dr. Bryant and Superintendent Byrnes the matter was kept out of the papers and today no one but the president and his most intimate friends know the exact facts of the case.” (16)   The story was also confirmed by the Chicago Herald’s special correspondent in Washington.  (17)


    A serious assassination plot to kill President McKinley was hatched four years before his actual murder in 1901.It was only months after his accession to the presidency when Joseph Bloomfield Jackson, who came from Meriden, Connecticut, sent letters to local newspapers containing threats against “high officials.” Shortly after the letters were sent Jackson arrived at the gates of the White House and, after a confrontation with one of the guards, shouted “mysterious boasts about what he was going to do to a high official.” The White House police on duty stopped Jackson and searched him. He was discovered to be “heavily armed” and carrying a loaded revolver.


    As the law stated at the time Jackson could only be charged with vagrancy and carrying a concealed weapon. It was no different from many other cases, according to White House guards. “Hundreds of other cranks...who created disturbances” had been removed from the White House grounds.


    However, the Washington police officers who were on duty at the executive mansion believed that had the president driven out that afternoon instead of being detained by visitors he would have been shot by Jackson. The police also believed their actions in confronting Jackson prevented President McKinley’s assassination. (18)


    In 1899 Harry Mitchell, who lived in Virginia, travelled to Washington, D.C. with the express purpose of assassinating President McKinley. He was tried and found guilty of threatening to assassinate the president but after he was later examined by psychiatrists he was found to be insane and sent to the Virginia State Hospital for the insane. Mitchell was kept there until the time of McKinley’s assassination when he persuaded his doctors he had recovered from his bout with insanity. (19)

    The assassination attempt against ex-President Theodore Roosevelt by John Schrank in 1912 is widely regarded as the only serious assassination attempt Roosevelt suffered. However, the commonly accepted notion amongst presidential historians that Roosevelt was never the victim of an assassination attempt whilst in office is now seriously undermined. There were at least three occasions when armed assassins breached the president’s security placing Roosevelt within seconds of assassination. Two attempts to kill him were made at his summer home and one attempt occurred at the White House.

    The two most dangerous threats to Roosevelt’s life occurred early his presidency when two men, in separate incidents, attempted to shoot him. In September 1903 Roosevelt came within a hair’s breadth of assassination when Henry Weilbrenner pointed a loaded gun at him. The incident has been reported in a number of journals and books. (20)


    However, a relatively unknown incident involving an alleged assassination attempt occurred a month later after an armed man, Peter Elliott, breached the president’s security.


    Peter Olson Elliott had changed his name from Peter Olson in the hope a more American-sounding name would help him secure a government job.  However, President Roosevelt rejected his application. Elliott also said he was going to marry Alice Roosevelt, and kept numerous newspaper clippings of the president’s daughter.


    Elliott travelled to Washington on a freight train after purchasing a "Bulldog" five-shooter pistol and lodged at the city’s St. James Hotel on September 30. He wrote a letter to the president requesting an interview and enclosing a photograph of himself. Secretary Loeb read Elliott’s letter and concluded the writer was “insane.”Loeb informed White House police officers on duty they should be on guard for him.


    Shortly before 12 noon on October 5, 1903, Elliott walked up to the main door of the White House, stepped inside and asked police officer James Cissell if he might see the president. Chief Usher Thomas Stone recognized Elliott as the person he had been warned about. Stone interrupted Cissell and began to humour Elliott telling him he could not see the president at that time but he might be able to arrange a meeting. Stone and the officers led Elliott through the basement of the White House to the guard room at the east end of the building where he was told the president would see him momentarily.


    While Elliott waited a police van was summoned. However, Elliott was becoming increasingly disturbed and began to act violently towards the officers. After a brief struggle he was overpowered and taken to the police van which was waiting at the southeast gate. During the altercation Elliott grabbed his pistol but was subdued by White House police officers. When Elliot’s pistol was examined it was discovered he had prepared the bullets with poison.  The Secret Service concluded that the only purpose for coating the bullets in such a way was to kill President Roosevelt. (21)


    Elliott was sent to St Elizabeth’s hospital in Washington, D.C. for a short time then to St. Peter Hospital, Minnesota. However, in November 1903, he escaped, which greatly alarmed the Secret Service. Elliott was recaptured but later released. On May 23 1904 he hanged himself from a bridge in south Minneapolis. (22)


    The most serious threat to President Taft’s life occurred in California in October 1911.Taft was visiting the state for speeches in Los Angeles and Pasadena. The plot to kill Taft was discovered by the sheriff of Santa Barbara County, Nat Stewart, who relayed the information about the plot to special detectives of the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Secret Service. The sheriff said the plot involved blowing up a long bridge, the Cartian Viaduct, 20 miles north of Santa Barbara over which the president’s special train was to pass early on the morning of October 16, 1911. Twenty-one sticks of dynamite were found under the bridge but the culprits were never arrested even though an extensive manhunt had been undertaken.Secret Service agents concluded there had been “complete evidence” of a plot to kill the president. (23)


    In 1919 President Woodrow Wilson also became the victim of a previously unknown attempt to kill him.  John Rogofsky had recently been released from the Massachusetts State Mental Hospital at Worcester when he tried to gain admittance to President Wilson’s suite at the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston. Agents blocked his route and Rogofsky was arrested. After he was searched he was found to be carrying a .32 calibre revolver with 60 rounds of ammunition and a blackjack. Rogofsky was handed over to local police officers. He was arraigned in Central Court but was only charged with "carrying dangerous weapons" even though he admitted to police he, "intended to get the president and save the world" and that he had been instructed by the "Supreme Being" to carry out his mission. Rogofsky was judged to be insane and sent to a mental hospital. (24)

    Wilson was also targeted by anarchists. A man who had stockpiled bombs, dynamite and nitro-glycerine in his hotel room in Hoboken, New Jersey, confessed he was plotting, along with 14 others, to assassinate the president.

    In 1918 another anarchist plot to assassinate President Wilson was concocted in Leavenworth Prison by 20 men and led to successful prosecutions.  The conspirators had drawn lots to determine who would be the assassin. They also vowed to kill the assassin if he failed to carry out the assassination. Pietro (Sam) Pierre had been chosen. He was eventually arrested, tried and found guilty of conspiring to assassinate the president. He was sentenced to three and a half years in prison. (25)


    In 1922 a would-be assassin stalked President Warren G. Harding but the assassination attempt was covered up. Dr. Henry A. Cotton, medical director of the Trenton State Hospital in New Jersey, said that one of his patients revealed he planned to kill the president. The unnamed man was a storekeeper and an unsuccessful inventor. Frustrated by his failures to patent his inventions he became bitter against the government. The mentally unstable would-be assassin stalked Harding and was going to kill him at the president’s vacation home at Pinehurst, North Carolina. He arrived at Pinehurst with two automatic weapons but during his time at the resort he confessed his plans to a Christian minister who in turn notified the authorities. He was arrested by the Secret Service in Camden, New Jersey and was later admitted to a state hospital. The assassination attempt was kept from the public until Dr. Cotton’s revelations in 1933. (26)


    In 1934 a plot to kill President Calvin Coolidge during his visit to Cuba in 1928 was revealed by the Cuban authorities. The plotters planned to shoot the president from the window of an apartment opposite the presidential palace in Havana. Agents and Cuban police arrested a Spaniard, Claudio Bouzon and a Russian, Nosko Yalob, who had rented the apartment and were left-wing radical leaders However, the two men did not stand trial. On the orders of President Machado they were taken from jail and murdered. (27)


    In 1928 a plot to bomb President-elect Herbert Hoover’s train in Argentina was foiled by the Secret Service and local police. It has been assumed by historians that this was the only assassination attempt made against Hoover. However, a second attempt to bomb the presidential train was made in 1932 but was not widely reported. The assassination attempt involved plans to bomb the train as the president was travelling to his Palo Alto, California, home. A bomb was planted where the Southern Pacific tracks were crossed by the Western Pacific, at an underpass near Palisade, Nevada. A watchman discovered the dynamite and when he confronted the would-be assassins, a gun was levelled at him as the would-be assassins escaped. A bundle of dynamite sticks were found and another dozen sticks were discovered in a nearby sack. Despite an intense manhunt the two bombers were never found. (28)




    Many assassination plots were hidden from the public because of presidential secrecy and a fear that publicity would inspire others.(29) As the Minneapolis Journal revealed to its readers in 1901, “...there are more of the ...dangerous cranks than the public ever hears anything about.”(30)


    At least since the time of Lincoln’s assassination, presidential aides and friends have conspired to cover-up numerous assassination attempts against U.S. presidents. In 1901 a clerical employee at the White House told the Boston Evening Transcript, “Few persons realize how vital a subject at the White House the possibility of presidential assassination always has been. Of course, nothing of this discussion gets out except in the cases where a shot is actually fired or some other overt act committed which startles the country. Of the larger number of seemingly suspicious cases that, whether alarming or not, are nipped in the bud, little is ever known.”(31)


    White House guard William Crook noted in his memoirs that, “Episodes of (violent behaviour) were a frequent occurrence in the White House. We dealt with them quietly and they rarely got into the newspapers.”   (32) The plot to assassinate President Hayes during his inauguration was “kept from the public” by “his request.” (33)Even before he became president Ulysses S. Grant was the subject of assassination attempts and his reaction was to tell his aides to keep them secret as he believed it would lead to further attacks. (34)


    The assassination attempts against Cleveland were covered up partly due to the intervention of Henry T. Thurber, the president’s secretary during his second term. President Cleveland’s aides believed publicity would only inspire copycat attacks. Following the assassination attempt in New York in 1892, shortly before Cleveland’s election to a second term as president, New York Police Superintendant Thomas J. Byrnes and Cleveland’s doctor, Joseph D. Bryant, conspired to keep the incident a secret. However, the details of the assassination attempt were revealed by a doctor friend of Bryant’s who attended the president when he was attacked. An acclaimed journalist of his time, Frank G. Carpenter, of The Deseret Weekly, wrote, “Through Dr. Bryant and Superintendent Byrnes the matter was kept out of the papers and today no one but the president and his most intimate friends know the exact facts of the case.”  (35)


    Additionally, a statement Henry Thurber made to Washington, D.C.’s Evening Times, a few years before his death in 1904, partly supports the claims of a cover-up. “Nobody will ever know,” Thurber said, “the extent of my efforts to protect President Cleveland unless he should be assassinated.”(36)


    In Harrison’s case the president was unaware of the plot to kill him as, according to U.S. Secret Service Chief John S. Bell, the president’s aides and political friends kept the incident from the president and were "sworn to secrecy." Supportive evidence of the cover-up resides in the discovery by this author that the president’s private secretary, Elijah Halford, had been lying when he told the press that the assassination story was false.(37


    During Roosevelt’s administration, William Loeb, secretary to the president, also attempted to cover up assassination attempts. In September 1903 he told the Washington’s Evening World that Henry Weilbrenner’s attempt to shoot President Teddy Roosevelt had the effect of, “arousing all the mental freaks” that held the president responsible for “everything that happens” and that it was for this reason “many frustrated attempts upon the life of the president (were) kept secret.” (38)


    In October 1903 Loeb met with Secret Service Chief John E. Wilkie about how the agency could effectively carry out its protection duties. Loeb announced his intention to suppress every fact in connection with the arrest of "cranks" at the White House. Loeb also said he would "make trouble" for any police officer or Secret Service agent who failed to observe his orders in this respect. The policy decision was extended to the Washington police force. The Washington Times stated, “....the police authorities have decided not to give out reports of cranks or insane persons who have been hanging around the White House for the possible purpose of injuring the president.  (39) A Copper Country Evening News report of 1897 stated, “The policemen and doorkeepers at the executive mansion do everything in their power to suppress news of cranks.” (40)


    However, in an open democracy like the United States it was often difficult to keep many attempted assassination stories from the public especially when reporters often spent a good deal of their time in the White House front door vestibule. They were able to observe the efforts of White House doormen in keeping mentally unstable individuals or political fanatics from attempting to approach the president. Despite efforts by White House staff to keep the assassination attempts from the public, news often leaked out. Additionally, personal papers and diaries kept by presidential secretaries, obscure government reports and newspaper archives have confirmed the efforts made to hide the risks presidents have always taken when carrying out their duties.



    1. Whitcomb, John and Whitcomb, Claire  Real Life At The White House – 200 Years of Daily Life At America’s Most Famous Residence Rutledge, New York 2002,  20

    2. Ellis, Richard J. Presidential Travel – The Journey From George Washington To George W. Bush University Press of Kansas, 3 

    3. Presidential Travel, 2

    4. Los Angeles Herald, Vol: 27 No 145, August 28, 1887, “A President’s Escape – How Kansas Man Plotted To Kill Buchanan,” 11

    5. Los Angeles Herald, Vol: 27 No 145, August 28, 1887, “A President’s Escape – How Kansas Man Plotted To Kill Buchanan,” 11


    6. The Weekly Caucasian, September 26, 1866, “Attempt To Assassinate The President,” 4

    7. The Evening Star, Washington, July 7, 1881, “The Project To Assassinate Hayes,” 1


    8. The Evening Star, Washington, April 26, 1880, “Pardoned By The President,” 1

    9. The Charlotte Democrat, July 20, 1888, Untitled, 3 AND The Roanoke Times, 3 July 1891, “Cranks In Washington” by Smith D. Fry, 6


    10. Memphis Daily Appeal, November 1, 1881, “Another Crank At The White House” 1

    11. The Pittsburgh Press, November 16, 1890, “A Second Guiteau – How An Attempt To Assassinate Harrison Failed – The Crank Went To Washington And Was Ready To Shoot When Arrested,” 1

    12. The Weekly Press, November 19, 1890. “A Would-Be Guiteau – The Story Of An Attempt To Kill President Harrison Last May,” 2 AND

     Democratic North-West, 27 November 1890, “A Follower of Guiteau,” 6


    13. The Laurens Advertiser, October 3, 1893, “A Startling Revelation,” 1


    14. The Laurens Advertiser, October 3,1893, “A Startling Revelation,” 1


    15. Lewiston Daily Sun, November 6, 1893, “The Crop Of Cranks,” 4

    16. The Deseret Weekly, December  16,1893, “The President A Brave Man,” 820 

    17. The Laurens Advertiser, October 3, 1893, “A Startling Revelation,” 1 (Author’s Note: The story cannot be confirmed by Secret Service reports as the agency did not then have responsibility for protecting presidents or former presidents. However, it is known that Cleveland had a history of keeping unpleasant facts from the public. When he discovered he was suffering from cancer he conspired with Dr. Bryant to keep his illness a secret lest it create panic in Wall Street and have a deleterious effect on the nation. There are no records of the assassination attempt in presidential biographies or records in the Grover Cleveland Presidential Library.) 


    18.The Milwaukee Journal, September 21, 1897, “After McKinley – Man With A Gun Arrested At Door Of The White House,” 1

    19. New York Times, “Threatens Edison; In Cell,” October 26, 1912, ,


    20. The Evening World, New York, September 3, 1903, “Larger Guard For Roosevelt,” 1


    21. The Evening Statesman, Walla Walla, May 7, 1909, “During Roosevelt’s 8 Years In Office 87 people Were Arrested At The White House” 6


    22. St John Daily Sun, May 24, 1904 “Lunatic Suicides” 3


    23. The New York Times, October 17, 1911, “Dynamite Mines Menaced Taft” 1

    24. The Pittsburgh Press, February 25, 1919, “Intended To Kill President, Says Crank At Boston, To Save World” 1

    25. The New York Tribune, April 25, 1920, “Loyalty To Wilson Rewarded” 10


    26. Reading Eagle, February 16, 1933, “Harding Death Plot Revealed” 3


    27. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, June 29, 1934, “Plot Revealed To Kill Coolidge” 1


    28. Ellensburg Daily Record, November 8, 1932, “Attempt To Wreck Hoover Train” 1


    29. See:

    30. The Minneapolis Journal, October 14, 1901, “Cranks That Visit The White House” 4

    31. Boston Evening Transcript, September 10, 1901, “Danger For Presidents” 7

    32. Through Five Administrations by William Henry Crook, 93

    33. The Carroll Herald, Carroll City, Iowa, 10th August 1881, “Untitled” 1

    34. Smith, Jean Edward  Grant  Simon and Schuster, 2001, 462

    35. The Deseret Weekly,  December  16, 1893, “The President a Brave Man” by Frank G. Carpenter, 820

    36. The Evening Times (Washington DC), “Mr. Thurber’s Public Service March 12, 1897, 4

    37. Email to the author, December  18, 2014. See: The Lilly Library, Volwiler mss, 1898-1958, 


    38. The Evening World, New York, September 3, 1903, “Larger Guard For Roosevelt” 1

    39. The Washington Times, October 7, 1903, “Cranks At The White House” 6

    40. The Copper Country Evening News, April 7, 1897, “Passing of the Crank” 4


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