James A. Garfield Memorial
Despite serving in office for only 200 days, President James A. Garfield is, in my opinion, one of the most unique and interesting Presidents in history. For this reason, and because it was on this day in 1881 that President Garfield succumbed to wounds inflicted by an assassin 80 days earlier, for this bike ride I chose to ride to the James A. Garfield Memorial. It is located on the grounds of the United States Capitol Building in the circle at First Street and Maryland Avenue (MAP ) in the Downtown area of Southwest D.C.
Born in Orange Township, now Moreland Hills, near Cleveland, Ohio on November 19, 1831, James Abram Garfield was the last of the seven Presidents who were born in log cabins. His father, Abram Garfield, was from Worcester, New York, and came to Ohio to woo his childhood sweetheart, Mehitabel Ballou. When he got there and found out she was married already, he married her sister Eliza, instead. His father died when he was still a baby, and he was raised by his widowed mother and elder brother, next door to their cousins, in virtual poverty.
Before eventually entering politics, Garfield first unsuccessfully tried his hand at being a frontier farmer. Then, after completing his education, he worked teaching Greek and other classical languages for his alma mater in Ohio (now called Hiram College), where he met and eventually married one of his students, Lucretia Rudolph. Together they had seven children, one of whom lived to be 102 and did not die until the 1970’s. He also served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
While still serving in the Army in early 1862, Garfield began his political career. He ran for the U.S. Congress in Ohio’s newly redrawn and heavily Republican 19th District, and won. During his time in Congress, Garfield supported and voted for the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1866. Also during his time in Congress, Garfield served on a specially-created Electoral Commission that decided the disputed outcome of the 1876 Presidential election, giving the presidency to his party’s candidate, Rutherford B. Hayes.
Then, while still serving as a Congressman in 1879, Garfield was elected by the Ohio Senate to replace John Sherman as U.S. Senator from Ohio because Senator Sherman resigned his seat to campaign for the presidency. Garfield then went on, unexpectedly, to beat Sherman in the primaries and then win the 1880 presidential election. As a result, there was a period of time, following the presidential election, where Garfield was a sitting congressman in the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. Senator-elect, and the U.S. President-elect, all at the same time.
Some other interesting aspects of Garfield include that he was the first primarily left-handed President, but he was also ambidextrous. It is said you could ask him a question in English and he could simultaneously write the answer in Greek with one hand and in Latin with the other. Also, as a minister in the Disciples of Christ Christian Church, Garfield is the only President to ever have been a preacher. Also, as a former professor of languages, Garfield was the first President to campaign in multiple languages. He often spoke in German with German-Americans he encountered along the campaign trail.
On the morning of July 2, 1881, just four months into his presidency, President Garfield went to D.C.’s Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station, then located at the corner of Sixth Street and B Street, and the present site of the West Building of the National Gallery of Art. He was there to catch a train on his way to a short vacation. As he walked through the station toward the waiting train, a man named Charles Guiteau stepped behind the President and fired two shots. Guiteau was an attorney and political office-seeker who was a relative stranger to the President and his administration in an era when Federal positions were doled out on a “who you know” basis. When his requests for an appointment were ignored, a furious Guiteau stalked the President, vowing revenge.
In comparison to the enormous amount of security now surrounding the President when he travels, it is incredible to think that when President Garfield was killed he was walking through a public train station with no bodyguard or security detail. He was scheduled to travel alone, and was being seen off at the station by two of his sons and two friends. One of those friends was Robert Todd Lincoln, the son of the first President to be assassinated.
Guiteau’s first bullet grazed Garfield’s arm. The bullet second passed below the president’s pancreas and lodged near his spine, and could not be found by doctors. Doctors made several unsuccessful attempts to remove the bullet while Garfield lay in his White House bedroom, awake and in pain. Alexander Graham Bell, who was one of Garfield’s physicians, invented a metal detector to try to find the location of the bullet but the machine kept malfunctioning, apparently due to the metal framework of the bed Garfield lay in. Because of the rarity of metal bed frames at the time, the cause of the malfunction was not discovered.
By early September, Garfield, who was recuperating at a seaside retreat in New Jersey, appeared to be recovering. However, he took a turn for the worse and succumbed to his injuries. He died 80 days after being shot. Historical accounts vary as to the exact cause of Garfield’s death. Some believe that his physicians’ treatments, which included the constant probing of the bullet wound with unsterile instruments, may have led to blood poisoning. His treatment also included the administration of quinine, morphine, brandy and calomel, as well as feeding him through the rectum. Many believe that the medical treatment he received eventually led to, or at least hastened, his demise. Autopsy reports at the time said that pressure from his internal wound had created an aneurism, which was the likely cause of death. Garfield’s spine, which shows the hole created by the bullet, is kept as a historical artifact by the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
Garfield was the second President to be assassinated, after Abraham Lincoln in 1865. At 200 days, Garfield’s presidency was the second shortest, behind William Henry Harrison’s presidency, of just 31 days. Also, Garfield is the second youngest President to die in office, behind John F. Kennedy, who was 127 days younger that Garfield was at the time of their deaths.
This ride was an interesting one, much like Garfield himself was interesting. And it was not a very long ride, but it was for a President who did not serve for very long in office, and did not live a very long life. Garfield worked as a farmer, a janitor, a bell ringer, a carpenter, a canal boat driver, a college professor, a lawyer, and a preacher. He was also a Brigadere General in the Army, a Congressman, a Senator and a U.S. President. So I guess maybe it’s not about how long you live, but what you do while you’re alive that counts.
[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]