Three Presidential Assassinations Preceded Killing Of Kennedy
By Tom Emery
The 1963 killing of John F. Kennedy was the fourth instance of an American president dying at the hands of an assassin.
While a conspiracy has been speculated in the Kennedy assassination, the killing of Abraham Lincoln leaves no doubt. The sixteenth President was shot while attending the play Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater in Washington around 10:15 p.m. on Good Friday, April 14, 1865. Lincoln’s death was part of an otherwise failed plan to remove the heads of American government.
The nine-person conspiracy was led by John Wilkes Booth to avenge the misery he saw as inflicted on his beloved South. A nationally respected stage actor who earned $20,000 annually, Booth could count Lincoln among his many fans.
Booth, 26, crept into Lincoln’s private box and fired a single shot into the left back of the President’s skull. He died at 7:22 a.m. the next morning, just six days after the surrender of Robert E. Lee at Appomattox.
Another conspirator, semi-literate wagon painter George Atzerodt, was to enter Vice-President Andrew Johnson’s hotel room that same evening with a knife. Atzerodt lost his nerve, but fellow conspirator Lewis Paine, a violent ex-Confederate, barged into the home of Secretary of State William Seward and stabbed the secretary and family members repeatedly. Seward, who lay in bed recovering from a debilitating carriage accident, suffered disfiguring wounds.
Booth fled into the countryside of Maryland and Virginia and died on April 26 after being shot by a zealous Union soldier at a farm in Caroline Co., Va. On July 7, four conspirators, including Atzerodt and Paine, were hanged. Others received prison sentences.
Though Lincoln was heavily criticized while in office, his death rocked the nation and caused a deep outpouring of grief. “There has been a tendency to depict Lincoln’s death as an act of martyrdom,” said Dr. Cullom Davis, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Illinois - Springfield. “There was tremendous shock and sadness throughout the North.”
The shooting of James A. Garfield is less remembered today. Inaugurated just four months before, Garfield was walking with Secretary of State James Blaine in a Washington train depot on July 2, 1881 when a lone gunman approached from behind. Two shots were fired at Garfield, one piercing the right side of his back.
Garfield languished for eighty days, first in the White House and then at Elberon, N.J., a favorite vacation spot, where he was moved on Sept. 5. He died at Elberon on Sept. 19. Many believe he suffered from medical care that was both incompetent and hampered by the limitations of the era.
Dr. Todd Arrington, chief of interpretation and education at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio, notes that many Americans saw Lincoln’s death as the final tragedy of the Civil War, and never expected to see another Presidential assassination.
“There was great sympathy for both Garfield and his family,” said Arrington. “The nation was riveted by the press coverage of Garfield’s recovery over those two and a half months, as the papers provided extreme detail on his condition.”
Garfield’s assassin was Charles Guiteau, 40, a failed lawyer and self-styled theologian from New York whose derangement was obvious. A supporter of Garfield in the 1880 election, the Illinois-born Guiteau visited the White House several times seeking high-level patronage jobs such as the consulship to Paris.
Curtly rebuffed, Guiteau decided to kill Garfield, calling it a “political necessity.” Prior to his hanging on June 30, 1882, Guiteau sang a hymn he had written for the occasion.
The other President to be assassinated was William McKinley, who was shot while shaking hands in a receiving line at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo on Sept. 6, 1901. He died eight days later, the third Presidential assassination in just 36 years.
His killer was Leon Czolgosz (CHOLE-gosh), a Detroit anarchist of Polish parentage. Disenchanted with the American social system and cut off from society over his radical views, Czolgosz, 28, stood in the line with a bandaged right hand that concealed a pistol. He fired two bullets, one of which struck McKinley in the abdomen and proved fatal. Like Guiteau, Czolgosz purchased an expensive handgun for the moment and readily admitted his crime, declaring “I done my duty.” He died in the electric chair that Oct. 29.
McKinley easily won election in both 1896 and 1900 and was considered the most popular President since Lincoln up to that time. His death was widely mourned.
“He was very well-liked,” said Christopher Kenney, director of education at the William McKinley Presidential and Museum in the President’s hometown of Canton, Ohio. “He was much admired for how he lived his life, both personally and professionally.”
Much of America ground to a halt for his funeral on Sept. 19. “Transportation came to a standstill, and telegraph service and trading activities were suspended,” said Kenney. “McKinley’s death deeply affected the entire country. A lot of Americans would have remembered all three of those Presidential assassinations, which was certainly another factor in their grief.”
Tom Emery is a freelance writer and researcher from Carlinville, Ill. He may be reached at 217-710-8392 or firstname.lastname@example.org.