There have been four presidential assassinations in United States history; two occurred in the nineteenth century and two in the twentieth. As our nation pauses today to remember the tragic death of John F. Kennedy, I am reminded of the cowardly shooting of another chief executive, James A. Garfield. Born in Ohio on November 19, 1831, Garfield had several connections to Wellington and the small town felt personally touched by his loss.
I am not going to review Garfield’s entire life history. Those curious to know more about his early years or political career can find an overview of it here. Garfield was an ordained minister and an elder of the Disciples of Christ Church. He attended the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute, an educational institution founded by the Disciples and later renamed Hiram College. After completing his own education, Garfield served as the principal–what would today be called the president–of the institute, from 1857 until he left to serve in the Civil War in 1861.
It was in his capacity as head of the school and minister that Garfield came to Wellington to dedicate a new Disciples Church. Ernst Henes claims in Historic Wellington Then and Now that “if it is not the only church to be dedicated by a U. S. president certainly it is among the very few” (pg. 18). Garfield is, to date, the only member of the clergy to serve as president.
I have seen several sources that date the Wellington dedication to 1859; the church itself, now called Christ Community Church, claims it occurred on October 5, 1860. The Lorain County News recorded on November 7, 1860 that the dedication occurred “Sunday last” (pg. 3). The serving minister at the time was The Reverend Samuel Willard, father of painter Archibald Willard; the family moved frequently as Samuel was reassigned to new congregations, and had only settled in Wellington a few years prior to Garfield’s visit.
Garfield returned to the village in September 1879. He apparently spoke at Wellington’s (third) Town Hall and John Houghton wrote on the occasion of his funeral that “General Garfield…[was] a strong man, with a physical frame that promised as many more years of usefullness [sic] in public life as he had already given. Who could have imagined such a career for him as was to be crowded into two years that have just closed?” (The Wellington Enterprise, 9-28-1881, pg. 2).
When Garfield ran for president in 1880, the predominantly Republican town backed him and his running mate enthusiastically. The Enterprise reported, “As you pass Horr & Huckins’ box factory put on your specks and note the beautiful streamer and the sound sentiment thereon displayed, ‘Solid for Garfield and Arthur,’ and then, on the 2d of November, go and do likewise. This applies to Democrats as well as Republicans” (10-14-1880, pg. 3).
Just four months into his term, on July 2, 1881, James Garfield was shot in the back and arm while walking through a Washington D. C. train station. His assailant was Charles Guiteau, a mentally unbalanced individual who believed that Garfield owed the winning of the 1880 election to his (imaginary) efforts and demanded an appointment as United States consul to Paris as a reward. Since he had absolutely no qualifications to fill such a position, Guiteau’s application was denied and he sought revenge through violence.
Much has been written about Garfield’s lingering and painful death. An outline of the basic facts can be found here. News of the attack spread very quickly across the country, but the first printed record appeared in the Enterprise on July 7th. During the long, hot summer the newspaper carried weekly updates on Garfield’s condition as he rallied and then declined. Interestingly, because of the way the newspaper was laid out for printing, all updates on the assassination (including Guiteau’s trial and 1882 execution) were found on page two. Only an occasional reprint of an article from a larger city paper made the front page.
Garfield eventually passed away late in the evening of September 19, 1881. Coverage appeared in the Enterprise just two days later. The world was such a different place at that time that Vice President Chester A. Arthur was at home in New York when Garfield finally died and had to be informed via telegram that he was now president. On October 5, 1881, an engraved image of the new national leader appeared on the front page of Wellington’s paper; though the first photograph appeared in an American newspaper as early as 1880, it would be three more decades until it was a common practice.
“Prominent business houses of Wellington are appropriately draped,” the Enterprise reported on September 21st. President Garfield’s body was moved by train to Ohio for burial. The citizens of Wellington organized their own memorial services. The commemorations at the Methodist, Congregational, and Disciple Churches were summarized in the newspaper; the speaker at the Disciple Church noted that Garfield “had preached at the dedication of the church in Wellington just twenty-one years before the day of this funeral,” which seems to confirm the church’s assertion that the event happened in 1860.
The village also hosted a public service, officiated by Mayor John Wilbur, and featuring speakers including Charles Horr and his brother Senator Roswell Horr, Edward Tripp, and Watson Wean. Perhaps the most moving remarks were offered by black businessman R. J. Robinson, who ran a bakery in town. Robinson “spoke of the peculiar bitterness of bereavement brought about by an assassin’s hand. He knew what it was by experience. A son of his had been killed that way some years ago in Kentucky” (The Wellington Enterprise, 9-28-1881, pg. 2).
James A. Garfield was buried at Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio. He died just two months prior to his fiftieth birthday, making him the second youngest president to die in office. The youngest was John F. Kennedy.