Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Death of the President

On July 2, 1881, at 9:20 a.m., James A. Garfield was shot in the back as he walked with Secretary of State Blaine in Washington's Baltimore and Potomac train station. The proud President was preparing to leave for Williams College—he planned to introduce his two sons to his alma mater. The shots came from a .44 British Bulldog, which the assassin, Charles J. Guiteau, had purchased specifically because he thought it would look impressive in a museum. Garfield's doctors were unable to remove the bullet, which was lodged in the President's pancreas. On September 19, 1881, the President died of blood poisoning and complications from the shooting in his hospital rooms at Elberon, a village on the New Jersey shore, where his wife lay ill with malaria.

Guiteau, age thirty-nine at the time, was known around Washington as an emotionally disturbed man. He had killed Garfield because of the President's refusal to appoint him to a European consulship. In planning this violent act, Guiteau stalked Garfield for weeks. On the day Garfield died, Guiteau wrote to now President Chester A. Arthur, "My inspiration is a godsend to you and I presume that you appreciate it. . . . Never think of Garfield's removal as murder. It was an act of God, resulting from a political necessity for which he was responsible." At his trial, the jury deliberated one hour before returning a guilty verdict. Sentenced to be hanged, Guiteau climbed the scaffold on June 30, 1882, convinced that he had done God's work.