Grave Sightings: James Garfield

Stacy Conradt
Stacy Conradt / Stacy Conradt

Every time we so much as touch a toe out of state, I’ve put cemeteries on our travel itinerary. From garden-like expanses to overgrown boot hills, whether they’re the final resting places of the well-known but not that important or the important but not that well-known, I love them all. After realizing that there are a lot of taphophiles out there, I’m finally putting my archive of interesting tombstones to good use.

If you've ever taken one of those “Can you name all of the presidents?” quizzes, there’s a good chance you forgot about James Garfield. Though he spent nine terms in the House of Representatives, he was president for less than a year, shot by assassin Charles Guiteau just four months into office. He died 79 days later. Only one president spent less time in the role than Garfield—William Henry Harrison, who died just 32 days into office (but we'll save him for another "Grave Sightings").

Had Garfield been shot today, he would have likely survived his injuries. Guiteau fired at the president as he entered the Sixth Street train station in Washington, D.C., headed for a summer vacation. Two bullets struck the president: One in the arm and one in the back. No vital organs were hit, but the bullet in Garfield’s back remained lodged just behind his pancreas. If the bullet had been left alone, Garfield probably would have been just fine. Instead, 12 different doctors prodded at the open wounds—while Garfield was still sprawled on the dirty train station floorwith their ungloved fingers and unsterilized instruments.

Though no one thought he would survive the night, the president lingered all summer. His doctor continued to try to find the bullet, even enlisting Alexander Graham Bell and his new invention, the metal detector. Unfortunately, Bell had two major factors working against him. First of all, Garfield’s doctor insisted that the bullet was on the right side of the body. It wasn’t. Secondly, unbeknownst to Bell, the president was resting on a bed made of metal springs, which, you know, may have slightly affected the accuracy of the metal detector.

To make matters worse, Garfield's doctors starved him. Steak dinners were replaced with eggs, milk, whiskey, and opium. The president dropped 100 pounds in a matter of weeks, leaving him with just 130 pounds on his six-foot frame when he finally died on September 19, 1881. The death had nothing to do with the bullet in his body—it was blood poisoning and other complications from procedures that eventually did him in.

Even Guiteau knew how badly Garfield’s doctors had screwed up. “The doctors killed Garfield,” he later said in court. “I just shot him.”

Devastated by the loss of another president, Americans responded by erecting a 180-foot-tall memorial in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio. It remains one of the most elaborate presidential monuments to this day, with gold mosaics, stained glass windows, marble statues, and granite columns. So far, it’s the only memorial that puts a presidential casket, next to that of his wife, on full display. The ashes of the Garfields' daughter, Mollie, and her husband, Joseph Stanley Brown, are in the two urns in front of the caskets.

Peruse all the entries in our Grave Sightings series here.