President Garfield dies on September 19, 1881, and Seattle mourns on September 27, 1881.

  • By Greg Lange
  • Posted 6/15/2000
  • Essay 2496

On September 19, 1881, the Seattle telegraph office receives the words “The President dead.” Eighty days after being struck by an assassin’s bullets, U.S. President James A. Garfield (1831-1881) dies of his wounds. In Seattle on September 27, 1881, mourners numbering 3,000 to 4,000 attend a memorial service.

Communicating the Disaster

On July 2, 1881, a few hours after Garfield was shot, there was a premature announcement of his death. This news took seven hours to travel from Washington, D. C. to Seattle. By September 19 the nation’s telegraph operators had apparently prepared to quickly inform the nation of the president’s fate. It took exactly 16 minutes for those three words “The President dead” to be transmitted from the president’s bedside on the New Jersey coast to Seattle. This was likely the quickest transmission to date of news from the East Coast to Seattle.

In the early morning hours of September 20, 1881, the day after the president's death, the tolling of Seattle’s church and fire station bells woke up the people. Most residents who did not already know about the president quickly surmised the significance of the ringing bells. For nearly a month President Garfield’s condition was critical and it was felt that news of his death could come at any time.

When the news came, Seattle went into mourning. Every business and most residences draped their buildings in black crepe. Flags flew at half mast from buildings throughout town and from the masts of steamboats and sailing ships in Elliott Bay. Seattle’s newspaper The Daily Evening Fin-Back printed black borders along its columns. At construction sites, work stopped, and some businesses closed for the day.

From Log Cabin to White House

James A. Garfield had served as president for just four months before the assassin’s bullets hit him. He was born to Abram Garfield and Eliza Ballou in a log cabin in Ohio, and his father died when he was two years old. His mother raised him on the family’s 30 acre farm. Garfield left home to attend college, graduating from Williams College in Massachusetts. He procured a teaching position (professor of ancient languages) at Ohio’s Hiram College and within a short time became college president. He married Lucretia Rudolph and began a family that included seven children (two died in infancy).

When the Civil War started in 1861, Garfield resigned and became a Lieutenant Colonel in the Union Army Ohio volunteer infantry. In early 1862, he became the youngest Union Army Brigadier General and in 1863 was promoted to Major General. Republican Garfield served in the U.S. House of Representatives from Ohio from late 1863 to 1880. In 1868, he voted with the majority to impeach President Andrew Johnson (1808-1875) whose lenient policies toward the South angered the Radical Republicans of Lincoln's party. In 1876, James Garfield became Republican Minority Leader.

During his lighter moments, as a parlor game to amaze his guests, James Garfield would simultaneously write in Greek with one hand and Latin with the other.

The 1880 Election

Garfield arrived at the 1880 Republican Convention strongly supporting Ohio Senator General John Sherman for president. Before nominating their candidate for president, the convention approved the Party’s platform, which included opposition to polygamy, opposition to the use of public funds for religious schools, and limits on laborers arriving from China. In its presidential nominations, the convention deadlocked among Sherman and two other main candidates. During the first 33 ballots, Garfield received two votes. To break the three-way deadlock, Garfield became the compromise candidate. Even as he attempted to withdraw his name from consideration, on the 36th ballot, the convention nominated James Garfield for president of the United States.

The 1880 presidential election was extremely close. Of nine million votes cast, Garfield received 4,446,158 (48.27 percent) and Democrat General Winfield Hancock, a Civil War hero, received 4,444,260 (48.25 percent), a majority of just 1,898 votes for Garfield. The two candidates also split the 38 state votes, each winning 19. The states Garfield won had more electoral votes, giving him 214 votes compared with 155 votes for Hancock. On March 4, 1881, James Abram Garfield became the 20th president of the United States.

Four months later, on July 2, 1881, while on his way to visit his ill wife, Garfield was shot in the back at the railroad station in Washington, D.C. by Charles J. Guiteau, a disappointed office seeker with messianic visions.

Seattle Mourns

The president’s funeral was set for Tuesday, September 27, 1881 in Cleveland, Ohio. Memorials on the same day were planned in towns throughout the nation, including Seattle. Seattle Mayor Levi P. Smith issued a proclamation requesting that businesses and shops close on that day “out of respect to the memory of one so universally beloved and lamented” (Intelligencer September 21, 1881). A stand for the memorial service was erected at Occidental Square located on Front Street (1st Avenue) between Mill Street (Yesler Way) and James Street.

In Seattle, on the Tuesday of the president’s funeral, it was a bright and beautiful day. Just as the sun was rising, a cannon boom jarred residents awake from their slumbers. For the memorial, organizers had placed the cannon in the center of town. The blast broke windows, frightened pets and babies, and annoyed most everyone else.

The residents recovered in time to greet trainloads and boatloads of passengers arriving from the surrounding area to attend the memorial. Included were men, women, and children arriving from Bainbridge Island on the Port Blakely sawmill’s tugboat. Also attending were laborers who took the day off from constructing the West Point lighthouse near Magnolia Bluff.

A Huge Funeral Procession

The funeral procession formed on Mill Street (Yesler Way) and at about 2 p.m. started south on Commercial Street (1st Avenue S) for an eight block walk. The Seattle Police Department led the procession, followed by Grand Marshall George Hill. The Pacific Cornet Band consisting of former prisoners of the Confederate Army's Andersonville prison carried the U.S. flag.

A large crowd along the streets watched the procession pass by. It included the Civil War group Grand Army of the Republic, seaman of the U.S. revenue cutter ship Wolcott, the Mayor, City Council, and memorial speakers. Walking along Jackson Street and then 2nd Avenue (Occidental Avenue) were members of the Seattle Fire Department, King County officers, and various fraternal organizations including Masons, Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Ancient Order of United Workmen, and Knights of Phythias. There were "scores and hundreds of Indians” (Intelligencer September 25, 1881) crowding Seattle streets in recent days to trade and spend money earned from picking hops and catching salmon. It is not known how many of them attended the memorial.

The four-block-long procession snaked back to Commercial Street (1st Avenue S) and returned to Occidental Square.

The Service

A crowd estimated at from 3,000 to 4,000 assembled at Occidental Square for the memorial service. As a backdrop to the speakers stand was a large portrait of President Garfield by well known painter and Seattle confectioner A. W. Piper. Roger S. Greene, Washington Territory Supreme Court Chief Justice, made some introductory comments followed by a prayer led by Episcopal Chaplain the Reverend J. F. Ellis.

After a dirge by the Pacific Cornet Band, the Honorable Orange Jacobs, a former Seattle mayor and a judge who knew President Garfield, gave the eulogy. Following is a portion of his long speech.

Eulogy to a President We Hardly Knew

“Fellow Citizens … James A Garfield, the popular idol of the nation, is no more. His spirit has passed the bourne [sic], from whence there is no return. We have, in time of our greatest need, lost one of our greatest statesmen and purest patriots. … His sun of life has set forever. It fell from its meridian splendor as falls a star from the blazing galaxy of heaven. … As the sun of the physical world – the brightest and grandest of all the luminaries of the firmament sinks to rest ... so Garfield, the sun and intellect of this nation, has gone to his repose reflecting the light of his noble deeds and unfaltering patriotism ....

"James A. Garfield was the popular representative of American patriotism. As President he possessed no powers but those freely delegated to him by his fellow citizens. … In the faithful discharge of these duties, he was suddenly struck down by an assassin. … The shot meant the annihilation of delegated powers, and as such reached the fountains of popular vitality.

"The people in the exercise of their inherent sovereignty, may elect, says the shot of assassin, but if he does not suit the desperado, he shall not live. Such assassinations are extremely dangerous to liberty and constitutional government. If the will of the majority is defeated in this manner, popular government will not long survive. Anarchy and bloodshed, and general civil war will succeed the rebound of the popular heart. The popular frenzy which developed itself in mobs in many sections of our country, on the reception of the tidings of Lincoln’s death, are but the logical sequences of the assassin’s stroke at civil liberty and popular rights. Then it behooves every well-wisher of this country on such mournful occasions to give emphasis and intensity to the nation’s woe. For mark you, fellow citizens, there is a smothered volcano of wrath and vengeance in the great popular heart upon such occasions. A word may vent it, and fill all this fair land with the lava of blood and ashes.

"… What will be the effect and consequence of this horrid murder considered with reference to national affairs? … This we know, the time elapsing between the assassin’s shot and the lamented death of his victim, has been sufficient for the supremacy of reason and subjugation of passion so far as to prevent any immediate dire results to free government. The American people, yea the Anglo Saxon race, are believers in law and order. … Passion may triumph for an hour, but the sober second thought of the masses is sure to assert itself.

[Here Jacobs gives a summary of the president’s life and character.]

"… [Garfield] entered on the discharge of his duties as President under the most auspicious circumstances. We were at peace with all the world. The wounds of the [Civil] war had been healed, and the work of reconciliation had been fairly accomplished. Prosperity reigned supreme – the good time had come and the people rejoiced. … [F]ree from domestic dissensions [sic] he could turn his entire attention to the internal machinery of government. He determined to distinguish his term of office by its purity of administration and economy of expenditures. Only four months was he at the helm … In that brief time [as president] he routed the army of contracting thieves from their intrenched [sic] position in the post office department, and established a standard of official integrity and honor that carried dismay to the spoil hunter and dishonest official” (Intelligencer September 27, 1881).

Following Orange Jacobs's eulogy, the Episcopal choir sang a burial anthem. After another prayer, all in attendance stood and sang a hymn. There were three more short speeches including one by Washington Territory Governor Ferry, the singing of "God Bless Our Native Land," and to conclude the memorial services, a benediction by Reverend J. A. Wirth.

Four decades later, the Seattle Public Schools named Garfield High School after President James Garfield.


Congressional Quarterly, Congressional Quarterly’s Guide to U.S. Elections (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 1994), 305-306, 440; James T. Havel, U.S. Presidential Candidates and the Elections (New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1996), Vol. 2, p. 51-54; “James Abram Garfield,” The World Book Encyclopedia (Chicago: World Book, Inc., 2000), vol. 8 ‘G’, 40-42; The Daily Evening Fin-Back (Seattle) September 20, 1881, p. 3; Ibid., September 21, 1881, p. 3; Ibid., September 27, 1881, p. 1, 3; Ibid., September 28, 1881, p. 3; The Daily Intelligencer (Seattle) September 21, 1881, p. 3; Ibid., September 24, 1881, p. 3; Ibid., September 25, 1881, p. 3; Ibid., September 25, 1881, p. 3; Ibid., September 27, 1881, p, 3.

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