On the assassination of several US Presidents

George Brown
By George Brown

Last week we commemorated the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and rightfully so; but what about the memory of other U.S. Presidents who have died at the hand of assassins? Have we forgotten that three U.S. Presidents were assassinated within a span of only 36 years, between 1865 and 1901? Because of his place in history, the assassination of Abraham Lincoln has been well documented, but what about the other two? I suspect most Americans cannot even remember their names. These men (and even President Lincoln for that matter) received no notable recognition on the 50th anniversary of their deaths. The assassinations of William McKinley and James Garfield are but a footnote in history, but are they any less deserving of remembrance and recognition?

Our failure to remember the life, service, and death of William McKinley is not for lack of his leadership and popularity with the American people. Born in Niles, Ohio in 1843, McKinley served as a Major in the Civil War. After serving as a U.S. Congressman and one term as Governor of Ohio, he was elected as the 25th President of the United States in 1896, defeating the renowned orator, lecturer, and populist Democrat, William Jennings Bryan. During McKinley’s first term he presided over an era of financial recovery, and easily defeated Bryan a second time in the election of 1900.

On September 6, 1901, just six months into his second term, McKinley was gunned down inside the Temple of Music at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York by Leon Czolgosz, an avowed anarchist who blamed McKinley for his own economic misfortunes. One bullet grazed McKinley but the other lodged in his abdomen. If McKinley’s doctors had had the benefit of the knowledge and technology possessed by the doctors who operated on Ronald Reagan, he might have survived to complete his second term. Instead, McKinley developed gangrene and died from the infection on September 14, 1901.

McKinley was succeeded by his second term Vice President, Theodore Roosevelt. We remember Teddy Roosevelt for his Presidential leadership, but did you know he also was the target of an assassin? Roosevelt completed McKinley’s second term and a full term of his own (1901 – 1909). After being out of office for four years, he tried to reclaim the presidency by running as the candidate for the “Bull Moose Party”. Just days before the election a deranged saloon keeper took aim at Roosevelt with a .38 caliber pistol at close range. The assailant, John Schrank, was pointing the gun at Roosevelt’s head but a bystander intervened, hitting Schrank’s arm, causing the bullet to enter Roosevelt’s chest instead of his head. The folded papers in Roosevelt’s pocket that contained a speech he was about to deliver cushioned the entry of the bullet, preventing it from entering deeply into his chest. Doctors determined that no attempt should be made to remove the bullet and after a brief period of recuperation Roosevelt fully recovered. He lost the election and wisely decided to pursue other endeavors thereafter.

Perhaps the reason we have forgotten about the assassination of James Garfield is that his tenure as President lasted only 200 days, and, as history records, his physicians shared a hand (no pun intended) in his death.

Garfield was elected as the 20th President of the United States in 1881. Like McKinley, he was Republican, hailed from Ohio (Moreland Hills), served with distinction in the Civil War (a Brigadier General), and served in the U.S. Congress; in his case for 16 years.

At the Republican National Convention of 1881, three rivals competed for the nomination – John Sherman (brother of William Tecumseh Sherman), James Blaine, and Ulysses S. Grant. After being out of office for four years (the Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, also an Ohioan and Civil War veteran), Grant was seeking a third term. (As a personal note, this seems to me to be a little known fact of history and one that I do not recall reading in Grant’s memoirs.) None of the three rivals could capture enough votes to secure the nomination, so the deadlocked delegates finally selected James Garfield as a dark horse nominee.

You would think unexpectedly being asked to run for President of the United States and then winning the election would be every career politician’s dream, but for Garfield this dream resulted in a horrible and untimely death.

On the morning of July 2, 1881, just four months into his Presidency, Garfield was on his way to deliver a speech, accompanied by, among others, Robert Todd Lincoln. As Garfield walked through the train station in Washington, D.C., he was shot twice from behind by Charles Guiteau, a man who was angered by Garfield’s refusal to grant him a governmental position.

One of the bullets grazed Garfield’s arm but the second, as an autopsy would later reveal, lodged behind his pancreas. Doctors close by (no fewer than 12) came to the rescue, and while Garfield was still lying on the train station floor they began taking turns poking their fingers and instruments into the bullet wound in his back, trying to find the bullet, and with complete disregard for the risk of germs, which at the time few American doctors believed existed.

One of these doctor’s, D. Willard Bliss, took charge and later called upon Alexander Graham Bell to bring his recently invented “metal detector” to Garfield’s bedroom in the Whitehouse to try to find the bullet, but the device’s signal was thought to be distorted by the metal bed springs so Dr. Bliss curtailed use of the device and gave up on attempts to find and remove the bullet. Garfield hung on for two and a half miserable months as a raging infection consumed his body. His weight dropped from 210 to 130 pounds before he mercifully passed away on September 19, 1881.

Serving as President of the United States is indeed a dangerous occupation. One historian has observed, in addition to four Presidents being assassinated, there have been more than 20 plots and attempts to kill seated Presidents, former Presidents, or Presidents-Elect. This is a topic that deserves further reading.

The attempt I find most interesting was that made upon Andrew Jackson. A brief account of the incident is that Jackson was standing just outside the Capitol Building when Richard Lawrence (later judged to be insane), approached and at close range took aim at Jackson with two pistols. But for the fact that both pistols miraculously misfired, Jackson would have no doubt died on the spot. Instead of fleeing the scene, an infuriated Jackson lived up to his reputation as Old Hickory by beating the assailant with his cane until someone finally pulled Jackson off and secured the assailant.

Let us hope and pray that there will never be another attempt on the life of those who dare to serve as President of these United States.

George Brown is a freelance writer. He and his wife, Yvonne, live in Jackson Township.