History's Lesser-Known Presidential Assassinations Were Utterly Gruesome

Illustration for article titled History's Lesser-Known Presidential Assassinations Were Utterly Gruesome

As countless films, books, and conspiracy theories have recounted, the presidencies of John F. Kennedy and Abraham Lincoln came to dramatic ends when the men were struck by assassins' bullets. Lesser-known are the deaths of James A. Garfield and William McKinley, who suffered the same fate, though both clung to life for days after.


The 20th president, Garfield (pictured above) was shot in the arm and the back on July 2, 1881 in Washington, DC. His assailant was Charles J. Guiteau, a ne'er-do-well lawyer whose mental instability manifested in an obsession with Garfield; allegedly, he yelled "This is the hour of your doom!" as he drew his pistol. The president had only been in office for four months, and he held on until September 19, when he died from "an infection and internal hemorrhage."

It was worse than that simple statement suggests, according to a Smithsonian article charting his long, agonizingly painful demise:

The president was taken to the White House. Over the next 24 hours, more than 15 doctors stuffed their unwashed fingers into his intestinal wound, trying to locate Guiteau’s bullet and ultimately causing sepsis. They repeatedly injected him with morphine, causing the president to vomit; they next tried champagne, which only made him sicker. Joseph Lister, a British surgeon and pioneer of antiseptic surgery, had been advocating since Lincoln’s death for more sterile procedures and environments, but American doctors ridiculed him. “In order to successfully practice Mr. Lister’s Antiseptic Method,” one doctor scoffed in 1878, “it is necessary that we should believe, or act as if we believed, the atmosphere to be loaded with germs.”

As the weeks passed, Garfield’s body became engorged with pus. His face began to swell and had to be drained. Initial meals of steak, eggs and brandy were soon replaced by eggs, bouillon, milk, whiskey and opium. He lost nearly 100 pounds as his doctor’s starved him. Doctors inserted drainage tubes and continued to probe for the bullet; at one point, they brought in Alexander Graham Bell, who had invented a metal detector and thought he might be able to locate the slug by passing it over the president’s abdomen. All was for naught.

Guiteau was executed in June 1882, after a trial in which he defended himself and had the cheek to insist, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”

Illustration for article titled History's Lesser-Known Presidential Assassinations Were Utterly Gruesome

McKinley was the 25th president, and his end came about thanks to anarchist Leon Czolgosz, who shot him twice in the chest outside the "Temple of Music" at the Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York, on Sept. 6, 1901. Though the president initially seemed to be recovering from his wounds, he succumbed on Sept. 12, unable to overcome the gangrene that had been festering internally. His death inspired the formal assignment of the Secret Service to protect future presidents, starting with his successor, Theodore Roosevelt.

As for the fate of his assailant (who barely survived the beating he suffered at the hands of the crowd in the aftermath of the shooting, until a faintly conscious McKinley intervened), History.com gives this account:

Czolgosz was convicted and executed in an electric chair on October 29, 1901. The unrepentant killer’s last words were “I killed the president because he was the enemy of the good people—the working people.” His electrocution was allegedly filmed by Thomas Edison.


McKinley assassination drawing by T. Dart Walker


Garfield's death was such a sad waste as he had the potential to be a fantastic President. He was self-made, being born in a cabin and raised by his widowed mother on a farm in Ohio. He became a carpenter, then a preacher, then paid his way through college by being hired as the janitor. By the end of his three years he was teaching there full-time. He served in the Union army, was not a big fan of "politicking," and could write Latin in one hand and Greek in the other...at the same time.