On this day 136 years ago, James Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, died after succumbing to gunshot wounds he received 79 days earlier by a deranged job seeker. Few would rate Garfield as a great American political figure, but I believe that is because he never had a chance to accomplish many of his goals. Like so many people who have died because of targeted violence, Garfield had great potential and his memory is now defined not by what he accomplished but what he could have accomplished. His untimely death serves as an example of the importance of identifying red flags in targeted violence situations and the terrible toll such an attack can take.

Garfield’s Great Potential

The youngest of five children, Garfield grew up impoverished in Ohio. Nonetheless, he showed great potential as a young man, and his mother gave him her life savings of $17 to enroll in college. To make ends meet he initially worked as a janitor at the school, but by his second year he was so ahead of his peers that he became a professor.

At the outbreak of the Civil War Garfield was commissioned a colonel in the Union Army and distinguished himself in combat, later receiving a promotion to general. While fighting on the front, he was elected to Congress without even campaigning when friends back in Ohio nominated him. Despite reservations about leaving his military command, Abraham Lincoln convinced him that he was needed more in Congress than in the war. At the 1880 Republican Convention, Garfield gave a speech to endorse another presidential candidate, but it so moved the delegates that they began switching their votes to him and he was nominated for president, eventually going on to win the general election.

For many Americans at the time, Garfield showed great promise in ending the corruption of machine politics that dominated the Gilded Age and newly established Jim Crow laws in the South. In his last public speech before the attack, Garfield laid out a plan for civil rights and equality that was decades ahead of other serious politicians. As Frederick Douglass said before the 1800 presidential election, “James Garfield must be our president. … He is a typical American all over. He has shown us how man in the humblest circumstances can grapple with man, rise and win.” Although Garfield was by no means perfect and the way he died obviously showed he made enemies in his life, his life represented a great rags-to-riches story, and his political agenda begs the question of how American history may have been different had he lived.

Familiar Red Flags of a Deranged Attacker

All of Garfield’s great potential was lost when Charles Guiteau, a man who helped Garfield’s campaign for president and sought a job, shot the president at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. on July 2, 1881. It is amazing to think today that the president could be walking around D.C. without security protection, but that was standard then, even though Lincoln was assassinated just 14 years prior. It was not until 20 years later, when William McKinley was assassinated by anarchist Leon Czolgosz, that the Secret Service finally was tasked with protecting the president.

Although targeted violence was not the same issue in Garfield’s day as it is today, Guiteau’s erratic behavior and numerous red flags foreshadowed the grave threat he posed to Garfield. If these risks were understood at the time and mitigated, Garfield’s life may have been saved. When a threat of violence first surfaces to clients there are three threat assessment priorities for the Hillard Heintze team:

  1. Determining whether the individual poses an immediate threat of violence
  2. Assessing the person’s potential for violence
  3. Employing best practices to increase security and actively manage the threat by integrating and coordinating critical involvement by multiple parties

Although perhaps there is no single area in Guiteau’s past that could have foreshadowed his attack on Garfield, when taken together there were numerous troubling actions he had taken and pieces of his past that may have contributed to his attack and unfortunately, there was no effort to mitigate the threat he posed.

  • A Troubled Childhood: Guiteau grew up with an abusive father who beat him for having a stammer and his mother died when he was very young, causing even more trauma. While not necessarily a warning sign that he would attack the president, Guiteau’s sad childhood is common among attackers.
  • Delusional Beliefs: As a young man, Guiteau survived a horrendous steamboat crash and believed divine intervention saved him. He then began having delusional beliefs that he was on an extraordinary path designed by God.
  • A Lifelong Failure: Despite his belief that he was extraordinary, he actually was a failure at every profession he pursued: law, journalism, debt collection, preaching and service on Garfield’s campaign and later in his administration. Once again, not necessarily a warning sign, but important in understanding his background.
  • A Lack of Stable Relationships: Guiteau was transient in nature and moved from boarding house to boarding house, leaving before he paid rent. He constantly sought belonging and joined the Oneida Community in New York, a radical organization for the time that practiced communal living and free love. Once again, Guiteau failed here and never formed any bonds, leaving disappointed and unaccepted.
  • Infatuation with Garfield: Guiteau became completely infatuated with Garfield when Garfield became the Republican nominee for president, including writing speeches for Garfield’s campaign. Despite the fact that his speeches made little sense and were ineffective, Guiteau believed he contributed greatly to Garfield’s victory and that he deserved a position in Garfield’s administration. In fact, Garfield’s secretary remembered seeing Guiteau at least 15 times at the White House seeking a counsellorship position in Paris.
  • Sudden Fascination and Acquisition of a Weapon: Having never shot a weapon before, Guiteau had a sudden interest in firearms and bought the most expensive gun he could afford, assuming it would one day end up in a museum. He also began target shooting on a regular basis.
  • Ideas of Grandeur: He believed that the murder would make him famous and people would hail him as a hero. He even believed Vice President Chester Arthur would reward him for shooting Garfield and give him a position in his administration.
  • Stalking His Victim and His Family: When he was denied the consulate position, he became furious and believed that God told him to kill the president. Guiteau began stalking Garfield, following him everywhere and even sitting near him in church. Shortly before he was shot, Garfield noted in his diary that Guiteau had stood up and shouted at the minister at a church service. He also had a strange encounter with Garfield’s wife, Lucretia, in which Guiteau handed her his card and carefully pronounced his name so she would remember it.

Protecting Against Lost Potential

It is impossible to assess “what could have been” after the loss of someone like Garfield, but it still raises the question: what if he had not been killed and had a chance to change the course of American history? As the editorial board of the Washington Post wrote on Presidents Day in 2013, “We are left to wonder today what a president of conviction and conscience such as Garfield might have done to rouse the country and lead it against the vicious new institutions of repression and virtual re-enslavement that were taking hold in the American South, with the silent acquiescence of the North.”

While few people will ever rise to the levels of power and influence like Garfield, there is still potential for greatness in everyone. As Garfield said in his last public speech, “ideas outlive men,” but that is only if they have a chance to live a full life and share their ideas. Similar to Guiteau’s very troubled background and behavior, many of the individuals we look into in our threat assessments have clear signs that they might be on a pathway toward violence. That is why it is so important for organizations to seek professional help to assess and mitigate the situation.

If you are interested in learning more about the life and death of Garfield, I recommend reading Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard and watching the PBS American Experience episode “Murder of a President.” These are my two sources of information about the life and death of Garfield.

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