Artifacts of assassination, Pt. 2
The best documented presidential deaths in the Political History collections are those associated with assassinations. In Part 1 of this post, we examined some of the many objects in our collections connected to the death of Abraham Lincoln. In this post, we’ll be looking at objects tied to later presidential assassinations in U.S. history.
President James Garfield
Only 16 years after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the nation was plunged into mourning again when James Garfield was assassinated in 1881. The event was witnessed by Garfield’s Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln (son of Abraham), who one can only imagine had hoped never to be in proximity to a presidential assassination ever again. As with Abraham Lincoln’s death, Garfield’s spurred the collection of associated items as people struggled to process the event.
In July 1881 James Garfield had been president for only four months. He was at the Baltimore and Potomac train station preparing to board a train to Williams College, his alma mater, to give a speech. While at the station Charles Guiteau, extremely upset that he had failed to be assigned a government post in Vienna or Paris despite repeated visits to the White House and even meeting the president once, approached Garfield and shot him twice. One bullet grazed his arm while the other became lodged in his back. Garfield cried out, “My God, what is this?” He was helped to the floor and Robert Lincoln called for a doctor. The tile where Garfield fell was later removed and presented to Garfield’s son.
Garfield was taken to the White House, where numerous doctors poked their unsterilized—not to mention unwashed—hands in his wounds.
As the wound became pus-filled, Garfield experienced fevers and chills, and his body became ravaged with infection. It was decided to take the president to Long Branch, New Jersey, for fresh air, in hopes that it would aid his recovery. Quickly, a railroad spur was built to the Franklyn Cottage, the home that was lent to Garfield for his recovery, one half mile from the nearest station.
While at the cottage in Long Branch, reports on Garfield’s condition were sent back to the White House several times a day.
After being at the cottage for two weeks, Garfield died from an onslaught of infection, blood poisoning, organ damage, and pneumonia. His funeral train brought his body back to Washington, D.C., on the same track that brought him to Long Branch. Nearly 100,000 people came to the Capitol Rotunda while Garfield lay in state.
After Garfield’s death, the railroad was torn up. The ties were used to build the Garfield tea house, the only structure from that time that remains in the town where he died. Many railroad spikes were saved as souvenirs and mementos of a president who barely had a chance to serve.
President William McKinley
While we don’t have quite as many objects that commemorate the assassination of William McKinley as for his predecessors, we do have some remarkable and important pieces to tell his story. (To see more items from this event, be sure to look at the earlier entry in this blog series that focused on the preservation of presidents' last moments).
William McKinley gave a speech at the Pan-American Exposition World’s Fair in Buffalo on September 5, 1901. The following day he attended a reception at the Temple of Music, including a “meet and greet” with the public, during which a man with a bandage on his right hand approached the president. As the president reached to shake the man’s left hand, the bandaged right hand raised and pointed a pistol at McKinley. Anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot McKinley twice. One bullet ricocheted off a button on his coat, but the other went through his stomach.
A surgeon came to the aid of the president and managed to stop the bleeding and suture the wound in his stomach. Initially, McKinley responded well to treatment but then blood poisoning and gangrene set in. After eight days, the president died.
We have seen numerous portraits and photographs of presidents, but those are all two-dimensional. It is rather startling to see a three-dimensional image of a person when you’ve only ever seen a flat photograph. Death masks are eerie because, well, it’s a death mask. It’s an exact representation of a person in a way that seems much more intimate than a photograph. A representation of a person you’ve never physically seen. A person who is dead. Unexpectedly open a storage drawer to find a dead man staring at you, pieces of his hair still visible, and you’ll know what we feel.
President John F. Kennedy
While we have a plethora of objects in the collection related to the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and James Garfield, and a decent amount for William McKinley, we have very few related to the assassination and death of John F. Kennedy. Perhaps the lack of Kennedy material has to do in part with the inception of the presidential library system, which is part of the National Archives. The libraries are now the first repository for most items of a president’s legacy. Or perhaps we don’t have an abundance of Kennedy material because the Kennedy assassination is still in living memory for so many people, who are still holding on to the objects they personally saved from that traumatic event. There is the potential that as the baby boomer generation ages, their children will clean out the basements and the attics of their childhood homes, discover the mementos of their parents’ youth, and donate them to the national collection.
Whether out of grief, reverence, or morbid curiosity, assassinations have spurred the most personal collecting of all presidential deaths. The personal, sometimes private nature of the items kept makes them some of the most interesting, and perhaps most likely to evoke strong emotion, in the collection.
Click here to read the first part of this post, which focused on artifacts connected to the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln. This is the sixth and final post in the blog series “Death in the Presidential Collections.” Click here to read parts one, two, three, four, five.
Sara Murphy is a museum specialist and collections manager in the Division of Political History.