Oddly enough, the biggest and most elaborate burial place for a President of the United States belongs not to Washington, Lincoln, or FDR, but to James A. Garfield. The twentieth President served just 200 days, most of which were spent slowly succumbing to what would have been a relatively harmless gunshot wound in the back. Upon his death in September 1881 he had been president a shorter time than anyone save William Henry Harrison, who, as every schoolkid knows, caught a cold at his inauguration and lasted only thirty days.

The motivations of Garfield's assassin, Charles Guiteau, are usually given perfunctorily by describing him as "a disgruntled office-seeker." In reality Guiteau was far weirder than that; the office he sought was the French consulship, one of the prime jobs to be had in Washington, and his sole qualification seemed to be that he was crazy enough to bug the Secretary of State for it. He was sent away, of course, so he determined to kill the president and began honing his shooting skills in the woods along the Potomac. He finally did it on July 2, 1881, at the Washington Depot, grazing Garfield's arm and hitting him in the back.

To give you an idea of just how crazy Guiteau really was, this is the letter he sent to William Tecumseh Sherman right before he went to the depot to kill Garfield:

"To General Sherman: I have just shot the President. I shot him several times as I wished him to go as easily as possible. His death was a political necessity. I am a lawyer, theologian, and politician. I am a stalwart of the Stalwarts. I was with Gen. Grant, and the rest of our men in New York during the canvass. I am going to the Jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the Jail at once. Very respectfully, Charles Guiteau."

His hilariously looney writings continued before, during, and after his trial. At one point he wrote to the new president, Chester Arthur, and demanded a pardon; his reasoning was that, since Arthur wouldn't be president if he hadn't shot Garfield, Arthur owed him a favor. Arthur, quite the ingrate, didn't respond.

What followed the shooting was the real tragedy, for although President Garfield had access to the finest medical care available at the time, medicine in 1881 was dangerously primitive by modern standards. Lack of knowledge about hygiene, germs, and infection led to the worsening of the back wound. Doctors poked around in the hole with unwashed fingers, enlarging it and infecting it. The surgeon general himself punctured the lining of Garfield's liver with his index finger. They enlarged the opening from three inches to twenty festering inches. After his death on September 19, an autopsy found that, had they left it alone, the president would almost certainly have lived, since the bullet had lodged harmlessly in a cyst.

Charles Guiteau claimed in court that he had merely shot Garfield; the presidential medical staff had killed him. He was right, but they hanged him anyway--also despite the fact that he was clearly, indisputably insane.

For a great look at the facts of this case in comic book form, click the frame below.

Read More About President Garfield's Death by Medicine

Garfield's mausoleum is without a doubt the centerpiece of the entire cemetery. Signs on every path point the way to it, and as a presidential monument it's frequently attended to by US soldiers in full regalia. Most presidents who die in office get an impressive burial place (the exception, strangely enough, being Franklin Roosevelt), and Garfield's just barely outdoes Lincoln's for size and decoration.

It's a castle-like structure with a turreted roof topped with a cross, constructed of dark stone blocks and decorated with frescoes. On the second level, which is accessible by way of a narrow, curving staircase, you can step onto a flagstone balcony and look over the rest of the cemetery and much of the city beyond.

Garfield's statue stands in the central atrium of the building, surrounded by scenes from his life and presidency, as well as quotes from his inaugural address and other speeches. But the most interesting part of the tour is in the basement.

In the center of an octagonal room lie the coffins of James A. and Lucretia Garfield. The monument wasn't completed and dedicated until 1890, so the bodies weren't brought here until then, but I still have to wonder if the smell was ever an issue. Clearly at this point, with the hundred-plus years that have elapsed, nobody's worried about that. But my morbid side has to wonder how you can just lay a coffin out in full public view and not expect some of the side effects of decomposition to become a nuisance. At any rate, you can view the coffins through gated archways all the way around the central chamber. The president's coffin is easily identified by the fact that it's draped with an American flag. Two urns at the feet of the coffins contain the remains of the Garfield children.

James A. Garfield National Historic Site
James Garfield.org
American President.org: James A. Garfield
American Presidents.org: James A. Garfield
National Museum of Health and Medicine: President James Garfield's Vertebrae
Bay Images: Lake View and the Garfield Monument



Barr, Glenn and Paul Kirchner. "James Garfield: Martyr to Medicine." The Big Book of Losers. New York: Paradox Press, 1997.