Prior to the erection of the National Gallery’s West Building in 1941, this locale was the former site of the Sixth Street rail station (razed in 1904) that was a part of the Baltimore & Potomac (B&P) Railroad. At 9:30 a.m. on July 2, 1881, the twentieth President of the United States, James Garfield, was about to embark on a leave for his summer vacation when he was approached by Charles Guiteau and shot in the back from point-blank range.

The tale of Mr. Guiteau is a bizarre and yet intriguing one that is chalk full of ironies and jaw-dropping moments. Guiteau was a former lawyer who attempted to crack into politics and also campaigned for Garfield during his first Presidential election campaign in 1880. During Garfield’s campaign, Guiteau even drafted a speech on behalf of the future president. Although the speech was never publicly declared, Guiteau printed up copies of it and handed them out. Believing this to be a decisive element in Garfield’s victory, Guiteau paid the President an in-person visit at the White House to accept his perceived due reward. Guiteau did not waste any time for his visit and arrived the day after Garfield’s inauguration in March of 1881. On this occasion, Guiteau was surprisingly enough granted a meeting with the President; however, he failed in his ultimate objective to receive a job offer. Disgruntled, Guiteau continued to make further attempts to meet with and convince Garfield of his worth. He was finally banned from the White House in May 1881, although he continued to chase other members of Garfield’s cabinet in the ensuing months. Guiteau also began to stalk Garfield at other locales including Lafayette Square Park and Garfield’s church.
Eventually frustration kicked in and Guiteau decided to take matters into his own hands. He purchased an ivory-handled .44 Webley British Bulldog revolver for $15 and planned to assassinate the President. The particular make/model of gun he purchased was primarily driven by (according to Guiteau) that weapon which he perceived would look best in a museum after he murdered the President. In making preparations for his plot he even decided to visit his potential future home when he inquired of one of the local jails for a tour. Even here, however, he was turned away.
On the day in question, Guiteau arrived in advance of the President at the Sixth Street rail station. When the President walked into the station (sans security guards), Guiteau simply walked up to him and shot him once in the back and one in the shoulder. Shocked observers then watched as Guiteau began to casually stroll out of the station before being apprehended at the last minute by a local policeman named Patrick Kearney. Kearney, in all of the excitement, realized later that he had failed to disarm Guiteau who maintained the revolver during his entire journey to the police station. This famous revolver would be displayed within one of the Smithsonian museums until the early twentieth century until it was reportedly discovered as missing (possibly via a theft).

While Guiteau was being processed on charges for attempted murder, Garfield was taken back to the hospital where doctors haphazardly began to try and save the President’s life. The first doctor’s attempt to ease Garfield’s pain via brandy was promptly thrown up. Subsequent doctors (of which there were sixteen in total) took turns probing the back wound with unsterilized tools searching for the bullet which they felt needed to be removed. Unknown to the doctors, the bullet was lodged within the President’s back muscles and harmless to any vital organs. Instead, the multiple efforts of probing not only led to development of a serious infection, but also led to the President receiving a cracked rib and a punctured liver as well.
Baffled doctors, distraught over their inability to find the missing bullet, engaged the services of famed inventor Alexander Graham Bell to employ a metal-detecting device on the President. The device, which consisted of two coiled wires attached to a battery and a telephone, emitted a humming noise when it was near metal. When approached on using the device on the President, Bell decided to test the machine first on some veterans at the nearby Old Soldiers Home in Washington D.C. where the tests proved successful. Bell subsequently attempted to use the invention on the President; however, the device emitted a continuous hum which proved unhelpful in the bullet search. Later, Bell would discover that the President had in fact been laid upon a coil spring bed (a rarity in those days) which in essence rendered the device worthless.
Unable to stave off infections as a result of his medical attention, President Garfield would pass away on September 19, 1881. In his final days the President had been transported to the Jersey Shore in hopes that a cooler climate would assist his growing fever. Unfortunately the transport did not have the desired effect and Garfield passed away exactly two months before his fiftieth birthday.
As for Guiteau, he would stand trial in November of that year for charges of murdering the President. Guiteau vehemently fought the charges proclaiming that it was not his bullet that killed the President but the ineptitude of the doctors servicing him. He proclaimed at his trial, “I deny the killing, your honor please. We admit the shooting.” Guiteau commenced with further antics throughout his trial including singing a song of “John Brown’s Body.” He was eventually 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.”