Despite several plots and attempts over the years, only four U.S. presidents have died as a result of assassinations. Two of those are pretty much universally known. Abraham Lincoln was the first sitting president to die by violence, when John Wilkes Booth shot him in the back of the head in his box at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. John F. Kennedy was the most recent president to die by assassination, when a sniper’s bullet fired by Lee Harvey Oswald struck him during a presidential motorcade in Dallas in 1963. Both shook America to its core, and changed the nation in ways both subtle and dramatic.
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Between those two striking assassinations, however, two other U.S. presidents died by violence, and their names (and ends) are less well-remembered. Yet, the assassinations of James A. Garfield in 1881 and William McKinley in 1901 also had massive reverberations for the country, even if their legacies loom less large than those of Lincoln and Kennedy.
James A. Garfield
Less than four months after he was sworn in as the 20th president of the United States, James A. Garfield was on his way out of Washington for a summer vacation in July of 1881. Someone was waiting for him at the train station, however.
Charles Guiteau was a would-be politician himself, and he believed that his efforts had helped Garfield claim a narrow victory over the Democratic nominee for president, Winfield Scott Hancock. Guiteau’s contribution was composing a speech, which he had printed out and passed around. He also had a few opportunities to deliver the speech, although on at least one occasion he was unable to finish due to nerves.
For his “service," Guiteau expected a diplomatic post in Garfield’s administration and, when one was not forthcoming, he continued to harass the president and various members of the State Department until such time as he was told, in no uncertain terms, to knock it off. He then began planning his revenge, though he would later say that it was not his own will but God’s that he shoot the president down, and that he had done so to unite a fractured Republican party.
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While Guiteau was immediately arrested, Garfield did not die right away. Instead, he spent months in convalescence, as doctors tried in vain to find the bullet that was lodged in his body, using unsterilized hands and instruments. The result was a series of infections and complications that ultimately led to Garfield’s death in September of that same year.
As for Guiteau, he was tried in November, where his bizarre behavior inspired almost as much comment as the act which had placed him before the court. He delivered testimony in the form of epic poems and, even when he was hanged in June of the following year, is said of have “danced” his way up to the gallows before reading an exultant poem of his own composition entitled, “I am Going to the Lordy.”
20 years later, William McKinley was at the height of his power as the 25th president of the United States. Six months into his second term, while attending the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York as part of the Pan-American Exposition of 1901, he was fatally shot by a self-proclaimed anarchist named Leon Czolgosz, with a handgun concealed under a handkerchief.
Like Garfield before him, McKinley was shot twice, with the first bullet ricocheting off a button on his jacket. And like Garfield, McKinley initially survived the attack, dying a little more than a week later after gangrene set in. The trial for his assassin was over in only two days. Czolgosz refused to defend himself, and his attorneys called no witnesses. The jury deliberated for only half an hour before Czolgosz was found guilty and sentenced to die in the electric chair. Ironically enough, were it not for McKinley’s own intervention, Czolgosz may never have survived long enough to stand his brief trial.
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As he was preparing a third shot at the president, Czolgosz was tackled, first by James Parker, who was behind him in line to meet the president, and then by several other onlookers, including Buffalo detective John Geary. As the various men dogpiled the assassin, McKinley called for them to stop a beating that would probably have been fatal, and Czolgosz was arrested rather than slain.
Where parts of Guiteaus’ brain and bones were preserved and are still on display at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia and the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland, acid was reportedly placed in Czolgosz’s coffin prior to his burial, in order to ensure that his body was destroyed.
In the aftermath of previous assassinations, security of the president had fallen to the Secret Service—an agency originally formed to prevent counterfeiting. Yet Congress had made no formal legislation regarding presidential security and, until the death of William McKinley, it tended to vary considerably from one administration to the next. In fact, McKinley’s secretary, George B. Cortelyou, had attempted to remove the appearance at the Temple of Music from the president’s itinerary several times due to security concerns, but McKinley had fatally reinstated it.
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In the aftermath of McKinley’s assassination, calls for reforms to how presidents were protected grew in volume and urgency, appearing in newspapers across the country. The following year, the Secret Service assumed full-time responsibility for presidential protection—a tradition that continues to this day.
The deaths of both Garfield and McKinley had many other far-reaching ramifications. Garfield’s long convalescence affected the eventual passage of the 25th Amendment, which was not ratified until 1967, providing an official procedure for what to do should the president become incapable of performing their duties. Meanwhile, McKinley’s assassination saw a rise in anti-anarchist sentiment and a change in the American character, according to historian Margaret Leech. In a 1959 biography of McKinley, she wrote that after the demise of the president, "the nation felt another leadership, nervous, aggressive, and strong. Under command of a bold young captain, America set sail on the stormy voyage of the twentieth century."
Sources: History.com, Smithsonian Magazine