Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Charles J. Guiteau

July 2, 1881

President James A. Garfield
President James A. Garfield
Despite the heat of the morning, James Garfield was in good spirits.  President since the March, after narrowly defeating fellow Civil War General Winfield Hancock, Garfield had anticipated a tough start, and there had been deep opposition and debate to every appointment and program his administration had suggested. The country was still healing the divisions caused by the War Between the States, and even Garfields Republican party was trying to settle its own conflicts, as the Republicans were divided into two distinct camps: the Stalwarts, who had wanted to nominate former President Ulysses S. Grant for another term, and the Half-Breeds, who had gained just enough ground to get Garfield onto the ballot and into the White House.

President Ulysses S. Grant
President Ulysses S. Grant
But on this July morning, Garfield was taking a break from the conflicts of the presidency and was off for a brief vacation. He was in a good mood, reportedly doing handstands for his sons before dressing and seeing to the final details of the journey.

Soon after 9:00 a.m., Garfield and a few of his political entourage, including Secretary of State James Blaine, arrived at the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad station. They walked quickly through the throng of other holiday-makers and headed toward the lines of departing trains.

An observer in the station that morning would not have noticed anything unusual: the normal activity around the ticket window, a mother disciplining her child, people sitting on benches with their faces hidden by newspapers.

From out of the crowd, a small man approached Garfield from behind and quickly fired two shots at the president -- one shattering bones and puncturing vessels and arteries before coming to rest somewhere deep inside the internal organs.

Feeling more confusion than pain, Garfield crumpled to the floor.

The shooter stepped quickly back into the crowd.

Suddenly there was a panic -- people shouting and running in every direction: to get help, to flee, to get a closer look at what had happened.

The shabbily dressed gunman began to leave the station through one of the many exits, but an observant guard grabbed him and was mildly surprised when the little man put up no resistance.

In the flurry of activity that followed, Garfield was carried out of the station and his assailant hurried off to a local jail.

So began the events that would see Charles Guiteau into the history books as the assassin of President Garfield, the second president in U.S. history to be assassinated -- although Guiteaus bullet was not the actual cause of Garfield s death.

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