Charles Julius Guiteau’s Plan to Assassinate President James Garfield

Charles Julius Guiteau’s plan to assassinate President James Garfield happened on 2 July 1881 as the President was walking through the Sixth Street Station of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad in Washington D.C. The assassin, Guiteau, who was an American writer and lawyer, falsely believed he had played a major role in Garfield’s election victory and became convinced he should be rewarded with a consulship.

assassinate President James Garfield - the assassin

Charles Julius Guiteau. Author’s collection.

Guiteau’s path to assassinate President James Garfield started after he worked as a clerk at a Chicago law firm. While there he passed a cursory examination and attained admission to bar but was much more successful at collecting bills than being a lawyer. In fact, he only argued one case in court, which is perhaps why he gained interest in politics around 1872.

At the time he identified with Democrats and supported Horace Greeley as the Democratic candidate for president. When Greeley lost to the incumbent Republican Ulysses S. Grant an unhappy Guiteau turned to theology and published a book titled The Truth that was almost entirely plagiarized. In addition, he began to believe that he was divinely inspired and thought he was destined to preach like the Apostle Paul.

On 11 June 1880, Guiteau’s idea of divine intervention was strengthened by an accident between the SS Stonington and the SS Narragansett. He was a passenger on the steamboat Stonington when it collided during the night with the Narragansett. The Stonington was able to return to port, but the Narragansett caught on fire and was so damaged it sank. Of the incident, The Philadelphia Times reported:

“Between 11.30 o’clock last night and midnight the steamers Stonington and Narragansett collided on the Sound. … The steamer Stonington was bound west; the Narragansett east. When seventeen minutes west of the lightship the steamers came in collision in a dense fog. The City of New York … learning from the Stonington that the Narragansett was in distress immediately bore down to her. She was no sooner discovered than the Narragansett seemed almost covered with flames and hundreds of voices were heard, some from on board and others in the water shouting, ‘Back her down!’ The pilot says the water was thickly strewn with floating objects … Many appeared to be women. All had life preservers or rafts. … Whenever voices were heard [they] moved toward them. … Altogether five hours were thus spent, and it appearing that nothing more could be done the captain at once ordered to make for port. By this time all the saloons and staterooms were filled with refugees, usually covered with blankets, many of the previous occupants turning out themselves to make room for the sufferers and giving them any articles of clothing that could be spared.”[1]

The Stonington hitting the Narragansett. Public domain.

Despite no one on the Stonington being injured, Guiteau came to believe he had been spared for a higher purpose and when the 1880 presidential campaign began, he gained a renewed interest in politics this time supporting Republicans. However, there were problems within the Republic Party, and it split into two factions: The Stalwarts who favored traditional machine politics opposed the Half Breeds who did not support machine politics and instead supported civil reforms. The Stalwarts supported Ulysses S. Grant for a third term and were led by Senator Roscoe Conkling The Half-Breeds supported James G. Blaine, an American statesman who represented Maine in the U.S. House of Representatives and then in the Senate.

Ultimately, however, Garfield, who was not associated with either faction, won the Republican nomination primarily. That was because Blaine and his delegates gave him their support and because a compromise was struck to nominate Chester A. Arthur as Garfield’s running mate as that would satisfy Stalwarts. As to the Democratic nominee, Garfield found he would be facing Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, a career military officer from Pennsylvania.

During the campaign for a Republican nominee, Guiteau had supported Grant and written a speech titled, “Grant against Hancock,” but once Garfield became the nominee, Guiteau revised his speech (mainly changing the title) and released it as “Garfield against Hancock.” Copies of Guiteau’s speech were passed out to the Republican National Committee at their summer meeting in New York in 1880 and the speech was delivered no more than twice.

When election time came, of the more than 9.2 million popular votes cast, fewer than two thousand votes separated the two candidates. In the end, the Electoral College gave Garfield the victory over Hancock, 214 to 155. Guiteau was ecstatic when Garfield won and believed he was largely responsible for the win. He then began to insist that he be awarded a consulship and on 8 March 1881 he wrote Garfield:

“I called to see you this A.M., but you were engaged. In October and January last I sent you a note from New York touching the Austrian Mission. Mr. Kasson, of Iowa, I understand, wishes to remain at Vienna till fall. He is a good fellow, I should not wish to disturb him in any event. What do you think of me for Consul General for Paris? I think I prefer Paris to Vienna, and, if agreeable to you, should be satisfied with the Consulship at Paris. … Mr. Walker, of New York, the present Consul at Paris, was appointed through Mr. Evarts, and I presume has no expectation of being retained. Senators Blaine, Loga, and Conkling are friendly to me, and I presume my appointment will be promptly confirmed. There is nothing against me. I claimed to be a gentleman and a Christian.”[2]

Electoral College results for 1880. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

More letters and requests from Guiteau followed. His constant requests were soon turned over to Blaine, whom Garfield had appointed to the preeminent position as Secretary of State because of his support in allowing Garfield to gain the Republican nomination. Unfortunately for Guiteau, he was woefully unqualified and just one of the many job seekers who lined up daily hoping to get an appointment with Garfield’s administration. Despite meeting Blaine a few times, Guiteau faced continually rejection for the posts he desired.

By March of 1881, Guiteau was a destitute man living in Washington, D.C. He wore a threadbare suit and owned no hat or coat. To survive, he moved from rooming house to rooming house to avoid paying his lodging and meal bills. He also spent his days inside hotel lobbies reading discarded newspapers, keeping track of Garfield’s schedule, and using hotel stationary to write letters and press his claim for a consulship.

By the spring of 1881, things had not improved. Guiteau was still constantly moving and spending time in hotel lobbies. He also did not have the desirable appointment that he so desperately wanted. Under these circumstances he once again ran into Blaine in Washington. It happened on 14 May and as he had done many times previously, Guiteau pressed his case for an appointment. An exasperated Blaine tired of Guiteau’s continually pestering exclaimed: “Never speak to me again on the Paris consulship as long as you live!”[3]

James G. Blaine. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

This encounter with Blaine did not sit well with Guiteau. Furthermore, he had become convinced that Garfield was going to destroy the Republican Party by scrapping the patronage system and he was also distraught about Blaine’s influence with the Republican Party. He therefore decided he must take matters into his own hands and this was the beginning of his idea to assassinate President James Garfield.

Guiteau believed that God had told him to kill the President and that such an act would be considered a “removal” rather than an assassination. Guiteau also felt Garfield’s death would end contention within the Republican party and that it would also elevate Vice-President Arthur to President. With Arthur as President, he thought he would be able to ingratiate himself with him and thereby gain the coveted position that he so desperately wanted.

It was common at the time for newspapers to regularly highlight the activities and movements of the American President. Papers regularly reported on where he was, where he would be in the future, and when he would arrive and depart. This made him a sitting target for anyone wishing to do him harm, and as Guiteau was so inclined to assassinate President James Garfield, he knew his every move and that the President was going to be leaving Washington for a cooler climate.

Guiteau then borrowed fifteen dollars from an acquaintance saying he needed to pay his boarding bill. Instead he used the money to purchase a gun with a bone handle intending to kill Garfield. For several days he followed the President and despite having several opportunities to kill him, he did not. However, on 2 July, he realized he had to strike, or he would miss his chance because Garfield was leaving by train that morning for New Jersey and would not return for some time.

Guiteau therefore went to the train station at the Sixth Street Station of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad about an hour before the President’s arrival. He shined his shoes and paced the ladies’ waiting room intent on his scheme to assassinate President James Garfield. As Guiteau paced and waited, Garfield arrived with Blaine, who had come to send him off. What happened next was described in a special edition of Harper’s Weekly:

“At a few minutes past nine in the morning the carriage containing the President and Secretary Blaine left the White House for the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Depot. The Sixth Street entrance was reached about 9.20. When the carriage stopped, the President said to Officer Kearney, who stepped forward to open the carriage door. ‘How much time have we, officer?’ To which Kearney replied, ‘About ten minutes, sir.’ The President lingered in the carriage for a few minutes, as if to finish a conversation with secretary Blaine, when he alighted, and, followed by the Secretary, proceeded to the ladies’ entrance, the two gentlemen passing leisurely through the ladies’ waiting-room, arm in arm, the President being on the left of Mr. Blaine.

They had proceeded only a few feet into the general passenger room when two pistol shots were fired in rapid succession from the rear and to the right of Secretary Blaine. … When the President was struck, he turned sharply to the right, but before he could take a step or make another motion he sank heavily to the floor the blood spurting profusely from a jagged wound caused by a ball of the size known as caliber 44. Secretary Blaine turned toward the assassin, but discovering that he was in custody of an officer, his attention was immediately given to the Prostrate President.”[4]

Guiteau had suddenly appeared unnoticed beside Garfield and Blaine. He pulled out his revolver and shot Garfield twice: One bullet glanced off the President’s right arm and the other hit him in the back and shattered a rib. Blaine recognized Guiteau as the shooter, and fortunately he did not get far before Kearney nabbed him. Apparently, Kearney had noticed Guiteau earlier and thought him somewhat suspicious and therefore was on guard and able to capture the assassin before he crossed B Street towards Sixth Street.

assassinate President James Garfield - Guiteau's attempt

Guiteau shown here firing at the President. Author’s collection.

Initially, the public had no idea that a national tragedy was playing out and that an attempt had been made to assassinate President James Garfield:

“People first became convinced that something had happened out of the usual course by the rapid driving of a carriage through Pennsylvania Avenue, clearing the way for the ambulance which followed, carefully driven and attended by a guard of mounted police. From mouth to mouth the intelligence spread, ‘The President is assassinated – was shot at the depôt as he going into the cars.’ … The astonishment following the starting announcement deepened into unbelief, and the people seemed paralyzed with the horror of the moment.”[5]

At the time, many people thought the assassination of Abraham Lincoln had been a fluke. Most Americans believed his death occurred because of all the contention related to America’s Civil War and that therefore there was no reason to guard the president as no one would attempt to kill him. Garfield believed that and therefore did not have anyone protecting him. Moreover, despite the Secret Service Division having been created on 5 July 1865, it was mandated to suppress counterfeit currency and did not begin to guard the President until 1902.

No one ever believed that anyone would try to assassinate President James Garfield. Yet it had happened and as word of the tragedy was relayed from one person to the next, Americans were shocked. When journalists reported on the shooting, they declared it would be a great “calamity” if the President died and that “all American citizens,” despite their differences, were appalled and felt “deep damnation” that such an attempt was made on the President’s life.

As to Guiteau when he was captured, he did not struggle. In fact, he willingly admitted he had shot the President. He also offered no resistance as he was led away and instead cried out:

“I did it, and I want to be arrested. I am a ‘Stalwart,’ and Arthur is president now. I have a letter here that I want you to give to General Sherman. It will explain everything. Take me to the police station.”[6]

assassinate President James Garfield

Commotion after the assassination of President Garfield. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

When Guiteau’s remarks hit the presses, there was great rage against the Stalwart faction. Fortunately, however, the President wasn’t dead even if he was seriously wounded. Immediately after the shooting, the wounded President was taken to a private office upstairs at the railway station and then transferred. However, before he left the railway station, he  worried about his wife’s reaction and had a telegram sent to her in Elberon, New Jersey, from a Colonel Rockwell:

“The President wishes me to say to you from him that he has been seriously hurt – how seriously he can not yet say. He is himself, and hopes you will come to him soon. He sends his love to you.”[7]

The physician who took charge of the President’s case was Doctor Willard Bliss. His probe of the wound with unsterilized fingers and instruments to find the bullet would complicate things, and although for a time, Garfield seemed to improve, it was not long before he took a turn for the worse. He developed a fever and an abscess, which doctors again probed hoping to find the bullet. Most historians agree that massive infection contributed to his death on 19 September 1881 at 10:35pm.

President James Garfield’s Funeral Train. Courtesy of Library of Congress.

About a month later, on 14 October, Guiteau was indicted for his murder. His counsel used a temporary insanity defense. Guiteau vehemently insisted that because God had taken away his free will and so he although he had been legally insane at the time of the shooting, he was not medically insane. This caused a major rift between him and his lawyers and a chaotic trial ensued. In addition, Guiteau could not be controlled at trial, argued throughout it, and frequently interrupted the proceedings.

Among the witnesses that saw Guiteau assassinate President James Garfield was Edmund L. Du Barry. He testified that he saw Guiteau fire at the President and saw Kearney arrest him. In addition, Du Barry reported during cross examination that he thought Guiteau had a “bad face” and when Guiteau’s lawyer asked him “if he had ever said ‘the prisoner ought to be hanged.’ The witness replied very emphatically, ‘I have.’”[8] The jury also thought Guiteau guilty despite his insanity plea and punished him by sentencing him to death.

Over the years, Guiteau has been diagnosed as being a narcissistic schizophrenic, a psychopath, or someone who had neurosyphilis, a disease that causes physiological mental impairment. Whatever his exact diagnosis, he was executed on 30 June 1882. Because of his infamy, the famous wax museum of Madame Tussaud’s in England soon placed him and President James Garfield on exhibit. The museum’s 1883 catalog stated:

“This miscreant, who murdered President Garfield, boasts in his ‘Autobiography,’ that he descends from the famous Nicholas Guiteau, Court Physician to Catherine de Medicis. He was born forty years ago in New York of a respectable family. As a boy he embraced the peculiar tents of the Oneida Creek community, but was finally expelled. He then tried preaching, journalism, and even politics, but everything he did failed from his lack of stability and honesty. He conceived a great hatred of Mr. Garfield, because that gentleman would not appoint him Consul to Paris, a position he was wholly unqualified to sustain. It was doubtless in spirit of revenge that the wretch assassinated the estimable President, the details of which infamy are only too fresh in the minds of all.”[9]


  • [1] The Times, “Many Lives Lost,” June 13, 1880, p. 1.
  • [2] G.B.S.A. Post, The Boston Medical and Surgical Journal (1882), p. 148.
  • [3] G.B.S.A. Post. 1882, p. 148.
  • [4] Harper’s Weekly, “The Tragedy at Washington,” July 8, 1881, p. 474.
  • [5] Ibid.
  • [6] Birmingham Daily Post, “Attempted Assassination of the American President,” July 4, 1881, p. 8.
  • [7] Harper’s Weekly, p. 474.
  • [8] The Philadelphia Inquirer, “Guiteau,” November 19, 1881, p. 1.
  • [9] Madame Tussaud and Sons, Exhibition Catalog: Containing Biographical & Descriptive Sketches of the Distinguished Characters which Compose Their Exhibition and Historical Gallery (London: B. George, 1883), p. 42.

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