On The Trail of the Assassined: From Garfield to McKinley

“My work is done.” —James Garfield’s last words, September 19, 1881

“Goodbye all, goodbye. It is God’s way; not ours. His will be done.” —William McKinley’s last words, September 14, 1901

Pat, our fast-talking tour guide at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio, knows a good deal about the twentieth president. About his campaign, at least, which was managed from this front porch in 1880. That was the summer when 17,000 Americans stopped through Mentor to hear the Senator-elect from Ohio speak. (The railroads had to add a temporary stop just to accommodate the travelers injuring themselves hopping off the train to hear Garfield speak.)

But anyway, he was only president for two-hundred days, during nearly half of which he lay dying of gunshot wound (or infection due to malpractice), “pus coming out of his throat and ears.” (My camera ran out of memory just as Pat used the term “pus-sack,” thank God.) And when I ask Pat what Garfield accomplished, she snorts and rolls her eyes.

So what if she’d rather quote from the wisdom of visiting five-year-olds?

“One boy on my tour—he must have been only five or so—tapped me on the leg once with a question.

Kept tapping.

‘Where is it?’ he asked. ‘

Where’s what?’

‘Garfield’s bed.’

I told him it’s upstairs, in Garfield’s room.

‘Too big,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘It’s too big for a cat.’”

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Garfield had only owned the house four years before his untimely demise.

But the Garfield assasination took place in Washington, of course, and little mention is made at either his home in Mentor or birth cabin in Moreland Hills, OH. “Today,” writes historian Kenneth D. Ackerman, the drama “seems like a repressed childhood trauma trapped in the American subconscious—not just forgotten but distorted for more than a century, buried, lost, and rarely thought about.” In fact, the historian continues, “Garfield held a special place . . . martyred for taking a principled stand” (Dark Horse, 453).

Instead, there resonates in the house a profound sense of loss. Of memorial. Garfield’s mother lived with the family before the election, and in her room, on every wall, hangs a different portrait of James A. Garfield. She was the first presidential mother to attend her son’s inauguration.

He was the son she couldn’t bear to live without.

But it was Garfield’s widow, Lucretia, who built the “memory room”—a sort of concrete-walled bomb shelter in which are shelved hundreds of the president’s letters, later annotated, and personal possessions. She never remarried, Pat adds, but preserved his legacy at the home—even built a presidential library of his papers at the site. She thinks for a moment. “I woulda remarried!”

(There’s no room or relevance to discuss it at length here. But suffice it to say the Garfield Assassination is well worth the study and obsession afforded Booth or Oswald, and if you haven’t at least scoped Guiteau’s Wiki highlights, I’ll consider that a start.)

The birthplace cabin, 30 miles away, is just that. A birthplace. Log cabin. A reconstruction. Tucked in the woods, just behind the police station. Blink and you’ll miss it. Orange Township, now Moreland Hills, just outside of Cleveland.

“We’ve driven by it hundreds of times, never thought to stop,” report the people I’m staying with, friends of my father in Beachwood, ten miles from the cabin. “It’s just . . . there.”

“I thought it was, like, an old outhouse for the people who work in the police station or something,” adds their son, 17.

That’s funny, I admit. I drove 500 miles to see it.

* * *

Back in Niles lies another memorial for another Ohio president murdered in another violent political assassination. Two blocks from the modest birthplace, the McKinley National Monument is astounding.

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McKinley was president for a full four years, annexed the Phillipines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, won the Spanish-American War.

And somehow, in Niles, McKinley’s legacy seems faintly beyond memory, just out of reach, in an industrial town that has seen better days.

Sure, they’re proud. “People will come in and request postcards with the memorial on it,” brags Maxine, a postal worker. “We recently had a birthday celebration. We also had a McKinley banquet.”

But when I ask about the president, I get blank stares.

“We particularly like the McKinley house,” says Judy, co-manager of the Niles Senior Center. “Because, despite the historical value, they have put a state-of-the-art computer lab in the basement.” I nod, glad Niles’ seniors have a safe place to learn Google and Ask Jeeves.

So I sit down with a few of the seniors, join their lunch.

And what’s it like living in McKinley’s town, I ask?

“I dunno. Nothing unusual!” Chuckle.

“We weren’t alive when he was born!” More chuckles.

Well, what do you think of McKinley?

“I heard he was a good president. Other than that, I don’t have much to tell ya. Sorry.”

Well, he was shot. Right?

“Oh, yeah. Sure was!”

And so on, until the conversation switches to one woman’s memories of a town in Arizona where her husband was once stationed. It seems to interest her more than Niles.

The postal worker sends me to the Senior Center, and the Senior Center sends me to the mayor’s office, and the mayor’s not in, and the mayor’s assistant scowls when I mention that I was hoping to ask a few questions about McKinley.

“Well, what do you wanna know? It’s all on the plaque.”

“Huh?” His frown deepends. He gestures towards a plaque on the wall, with a portrait of McKinley and the dates of his birth, various offices, and death.

“I said, it’s all on the plaque! What more is there to know?”

* * * *

BONUS MATERIAL: Here’s the full interview with Pat at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site.

How long have you worked at the Garfield site?

This is my fifth summer.

What brought you here?

A postcard! I got a postcard, and I had taught for 32 years, I worked ten years for a travel agency as their IT person, they went out of business, and I was suddenly adrift, and I got a postcard that said, “Would you like to work at James Garfield’s? Would you like to work in the gift store? Would you like to dust? Or would you like to be an interpreter guide?

It’s never gonna say on my tombstone I want to dust more! And do you know how exciting it is for me to have people pay to hear me speak and listen? After 32 years of high school? It’s the best job I’ve ever had.

What makes the James Garfield site unique?

Part of it is how much original furniture and fixtures and things still exist. This place looks like you could move in today. Very comfortable.

What about the Garfield Memory Room?

“The Vault”? The fact that it’s like a panic room? Concrete walls, steel shutters, house could burn down, she [Garfield’s widow] could keep all the stuff that she was saving for posterity in there.

His wife?

His wife, Lucretia. Who never remarried! And lived until 1918. She eventually lived summers in Mentor and winters in Pasadena because her daughter and her husband lived in Pasadena, but she didn’t live with her daughter—she wasn’t like her mother-in-law [Garfield’s mother, who lived with her son and daughter-in-law in Mentor].

What’s the strangest visitor you’ve ever had to the James A. Garfield site?

Well, occasionally—occasionally—I get one person at 4:15. And I had a man with Asperger’s. And it’s just hard to deal with a man who keeps talking when you’re talking and he’s kind of creepy and you’re all alone up here. Not like I think anything’s going to happen, but still, it made me nervous.

And the kid who asked about Garfield the Cat?

He was so cute! [laughs] He was only five! And I used to say when grandma died they laid her out in the parlor. Then I had to mention a coffin there because the kids visualized the whole body on the floor.

Do people ask you about the assassination?

Occasionally! We focus more on 1880, when he’s living here. We don’t focus too much on his politics or things because he’s only president 200 days. You can only do so much in 45 minutes, and of course my 45-minute tour is usually an hour.

How do you feel about Garfield’s legacy? What’d he accomplish during those 200 days?

[eye roll] Uh . . . nothing important! But! But! But! My other line about Garfield—you know the difference between the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds?

Yes. Arthur was a Stalwart.

Right! And Garfield was a Half-Breed. Now Garfield was the one who wanted civil service. He wanted the little jobs to be under civil service. So after he died, they passed the Pendleton Act. Which started Civil Service. I always felt that that was an important legacy of his.

That was Arthur carrying out Garfield’s agenda?

Well, no, Arthur’s kind of a nonentity. He doesn’t do much, either. Most people don’t even remember him. Remember, people are really upset now. Guiteau killed Garfield because he didn’t get a job. If it had been under Civil Service, it wouldn’t have happened.

Why do people put so much money and energy into preserving this home?

What do they say? If you don’t learn by the past, you know, you’re in trouble? You know, I travel in Europe a lot, every summer. And they preserve so many things. And you come here, and you hear, “Oh, we used to have the Octagon House, we used to have this and that, and they just cut it down and put in a parking lot or something.” So I think it’s sad that you don’t get to see what it looked like to live through this time period.

What do people say about Garfield in Mentor?

“We drive by all the time, we’re gonna stop some day.” Which I hear all the time. And I was one of those. The National Park Service has only been in charge here for actually three years. It was a partnership between the Western Reserve Historical Society and the National Park Service. And now the NPS has taken over the entire running of and financing of things. But the Western Reserve Historical Society still owns all the material in here.

Except now that the Park Service came along, things are much tighter. I have to wear a uniform; before I could just enjoy myself in real clothes. And there are certain things you just can’t do.

Does the site reflect Garfield’s career or presidency in any way?

I think just the time period. And it’s interesting, because this was one of the wealthiest counties in the United States in the late 1800s. We have Rockefeller, we have a lot of people in Cleveland, and their summer estates were here in Mentor. On a little mountain. They all had something wonderful. Like a fancy gate, or a waterfall, or something else, or a view. And so she put up that windmill so she would have some memorial too, because she wanted to make him important in her life.

Lucretia?

Lucretia.

She focused a lot on memorializing Garfield after he died?

Oh yeah! I would’ve remarried! She had all that money. She didn’t remarry. She was also very well-educated. I read the other day she was also involved in women’s rights. But she had a not more freedom not being married anymore. She could do what she wanted.

What’s one thing about Garfield that goes unmentioned?

Well, I did a talk on his death and the medical care he got and how bad it was. They didn’t believe the Germans were right about germs. He had seventeen doctors, they were all putting their fingers in his wounds, they actually probed so hard they punctured his liver. He had a pus-sac forty inches long when he died; he was having pus coming out of his throat and his ears. They fed him on big enemas. He lost a pound a day. I wouldn’t have lasted a day and a half!

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