Assassin stalks President Garfield

The temperature was already climbing into the high 60s early on the morning of July 2, 1881, a Saturday, bringing with it all the promise of another muggy and humid summer's day in Washington.

President James A. Garfield entered a White House bedroom to wake his two sons, Harry and Jim. They were about to embark with their father on a railroad journey to the Jersey Shore to meet their mother, Lucretia, who had been convalescing there after suffering an attack of malaria.

Garfield attempted to rouse his sleeping sons with a rendition of "I Mixed Those Babies Up," his favorite song from the new Gilbert and Sullivan opera, "H.M.S. Pinafore."

"He plucked his teenage sons out of bed, tucked one under each arm, and swung them around 'as if we were in fact two babies,' Jim would later recall," writes Candace Millard, in her recently published book, "Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President."

"Wriggling free, Jim turned a flip over the end of his bed and said triumphantly to his father, 'You are President of the United States but you can't do that.' To his sons' astonishment and delight, Garfield, six feet tall and just a few months shy of his fiftieth birthday, not only did the flip but then hopped across the room balanced only on his fingers and toes," writes Millard.

Across town at the Riggs House, a boarding house, a deranged office-seeker, Charles Julius Guiteaurose in the pre-dawn and quickly dressed into a freshly pressed dark suit. A failed lawyer and evangelist, he believed he had elected Garfield and thus deserved to be appointed an ambassador.

Into his pocket he jammed a .44-caliber British Bulldog revolver, and after eating breakfast and retrieving a package from his room, he set out for the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Station at B Street (now Constitution Avenue) and Sixth Street Northwest.

It was now only a matter of minutes before the paths of the president and assassin, who had been eerily stalking Garfield for weeks, would intersect.

A little after 9 a.m., Garfield bid farewell to Joseph Stanley Brown, his private secretary, and then stepped into a waiting White House carriage with his sons and Secretary of State James G. Blaine for the short journey to the station.

Guiteau, who arrived at the station a half-hour before the president, deposited with a news dealer several letters and a manuscript of "The Truth," a rant he had written on the ills of the world.

One letter written on a telegraph blank was addressed to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman: "I have just shot the President. I shot him several times, as I wished him to go as easily as possible."

Another letter was addressed to the White House, which he deliberately kept folded in a pocket.

"The President's tragic death was a sad necessity, but it will unite the Republican party and save the Republic," he wrote. "Life is a fleeting dream, and it matters little when one goes. I presume the President was a Christian and that he will be happier in Paradise than here."

As the presidential party entered the station — there was no Secret Service protection then for the nation's chief executive — Guiteau waited for the right moment. He allowed the president to pass before he pulled the trigger, firing two shots into his back.

"My God! What is this?" said Garfield throwing up his arms, and then Guiteau fired again.

"As he sank heavily to the carpeted floor, vomiting violently and barely conscious, a bright red stain blossomed on the back of his gray summer suit," writes Millard. "There was a moment of stunned silence and the station erupted into screams."

Guiteau, who made no attempt to escape and was quickly arrested, turned to police for protection as a gathering mob in the station screamed, "Lynch him!"

He was incarcerated at the District Jail, where he would remain until his trial and execution on June 30, 1882.

Find out next Sunday what happened after President Garfield was shot.

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