The National Gallery’s West Building on the National Mall in Washington DC was once the home of the Sixth Street rail station, a part of the Baltimore & Potomac (B&P) Railroad. The building was razed in 1904. But the station played a minor role in the tragic bit of history that occurred there at 9:30 a.m. on July 2, 1881.
On that day, James Garfield, (Above) the twentieth President of the United States was in the station to leave for his summer vacation when he was shot in the back from point-blank range by an odd little man named Charles Guiteau.
Guiteau, was a lawyer who attempted repeatedly to start a political career for himself and was very active for President Garfield during his first campaign in 1880, he even drafted a speech on behalf of the candidate. Although Garfield never used the speech, Guiteau bragged that he did and printed up hundreds of copies of it and handed them out.
Assuming that he would be granted a high position in the new government Guiteau arrived at the White House the day after Garfield’s inauguration in March of 1881, where, oddly enough he was given a private meeting with the President. Garfield made no offers and Guiteau continued to make further attempts to meet with the President until he was officially banned from the White House grounds in May 1881.
Guiteau bought an ivory-handled .44 Webley British Bulldog revolver for $15 and decided to kill the President with it. He later told investigators that he bought the snazzy looking pistol because the weapon would look best in a museum. (The revolver was on display in the Smithsonian museums until the early twentieth century when it was stolen)
He also tried to tour the local jails to see what his future accommodations would look like after he murdered the President.
Guiteau arrived early to the Sixth Street rail station. When the President walked in, without guards, Guiteau Causley and slowly walked up to Garfield, took out his pistol, aimed and fired one shot into his back and another in the shoulder.
He was smiling when he pulled the trigger. He then placed the gun back in his pocket and slowly walked out of the building where he was tackled and arrested by a DC cop named Patrick Kearney. In all the madness, Kearney later realized that he had not searched Guiteau who carried the pistol with him almost into his jail cell before he was searched.
One of the bullets lodged within the President’s back muscles and harmless to any vital organs but a crew of 16 doctors insisted on removing it which led to development of a serious infection, a cracked rib and a punctured liver.
When doctors couldn’t find the second bullet they called in Alexander Graham Bell to use a metal-detecting device to help them. The device Bell arrived with had never been tested before that day and failed to work. All it picked up was a constant hum which, Bell later discovered, was created by the coil spring bed which in essence rendered the device worthless. Infections killed on September 19, 1881, exactly two months before his fiftieth birthday.
Even though it was the doctors who had killed the President Guiteau was charged with murder anyway. Between loudly singing versus of “John Brown’s Body” for the court, Guiteau argued “I deny the killing, your honor please. We admit the shooting.”
He was found guilty on January 25, 1882 and sentenced to be hung. Just prior to be hanged, when asked if he had any last requests, Guiteau asked for an orchestra to accompany the reading of a poem he wrote. Although denied the orchestra, Guiteau was allowed to recite his poem which he titled, “I am going to the Lordy.”