Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Unmarked Site of the July 2, 1881 Assassination of President Garfield

Today, the National Gallery of Art’s West Building stretches along the north side of the National Mall  from Fourth to Seventh streets at Constitution Avenue, NW.  From 1872 to 1907, the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Station stood on the site at 6th and Constitution Avenue, then called B Street.  Few are aware of  the assassination of a U.S. President that occurred there on the morning of July 2, 1881. 

Washington's Victorian Gothic inspired B&P Railroad Station, the site of the assassination of President Garfield, adorned with black mourning crepe following Garfield's death.  The B&P served as the powerful Pennsylvania Railroad's connection to the national capital.  (Library of Congress)

Ohio politician James A. Garfield rose to the rank of Major General of Volunteers while serving in the Western Theater during the Civil War .  Garfield resigned his commission to assume a seat in Congress, which he had been elected to in October 1862.  He served in the House of Representatives until elected to the presidency in November 1880 as a dark horse candidate. (Library of Congress)

On July 2, 1881, President Garfield entered the B&P station to board a train for a summer holiday.  The President was accompanied by his son and several Cabinet members, including Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln, but no bodyguards.  Waiting at the depot was Charles Guiteau, a mentally unbalanced office-seeker armed with a pistol who had been stalking the president.  Garfield was walking across the ladies' waiting room at approximately 9:30 AM when he was shot twice and mortally wounded by Guiteau.   The president died from his wounds-- or arguably from the infections that his doctors inadvertently introduced while treating him-- 11 weeks later.  

The Washington Evening Critic expressed the nation’s immediate shock at the senseless act of violence in the midst of peace:  “The assassination of Lincoln, coming as it did at the close of a long and desperate war and as the last expiring hour of that war’s fierce hate and passion, was an infinitely more logical event than this horror.” 

However, there is not a single historical marker or sign on the former site of the depot indicating what occurred that warm July morning in 1881.  Ford’s Theatre and the Texas Schoolbook Depository are infamous buildings in American history.  Even the site of President McKinley’s 1901 assassination in Buffalo is marked with a small plaque.  The former site of the B&P station is the only unmarked presidential assassination site.

A 1881 drawing by W.T. Matthews depicting the assassination of President Garfield in the Ladies' Waiting Room of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Depot.  (Library of Congress)

In December 1881, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company placed a marble tablet on a wall in the depot in honor of the late president.  Additionally, a bronze or brass star was installed in the floor to mark the spot where Garfield had fallen after being shot.  However, an 1897 New York Times article noted that the railroad frequently received "complaints from people who disliked to be reminded of the great crime every time they had occasion to take a train or to enter the waiting room," and that company officials considered the marker to be bad for business.  After a small fire in the station in March 1897, the company quietly removed the star and the tablet from the depot under the guise of making repairs.  They were apparently never reinstalled.

Marker on the wall of the old Washington B&P Railroad station in memory of the late President James Garfield.  This photo, which was colorized, was probably taken sometime before 1897.  The marker consisted of an engraved eagle above a table with the words:  "JAMES ABRAM GARFIELD PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES JULY 2, 1881.  The bronze star on the floor marks the spot where Garfield was standing when he was shot by Charles Guiteau.  It is unknown what happened to the marker, which disappeared sometime before the B&P Station was demolished. (Washingtonia Collection, D.C. Public Library)
With the opening of Union Station in 1907, the the railroad tracks bisecting the National Mall could finally be removed.  The last train departed the B&P Station just after midnight on November 17, 1907.  The Washington Times proclaimed that “the station will always remain an object of reverence of the American people, as it was the scene of the assassination of President Garfield…”   

However, the nation moved on and forgot.  In 1911, The Washington Post noted that the 30th anniversary of the shooting passed largely unnoticed in Washington and not even a wreath was placed on the Garfield statue at the foot of the Capitol.
Under the terms by which the B&P Station was originally erected, the Federal Government re-assumed control of the property following the station’s closure.  Some Washingtonians advocated converting the old station into an armory for the District’s National Guard.  However, President Theodore Roosevelt, as part of an effort to improve the Mall's overall appearance, ordered the historic building torn down without consulting Congress.

The  footprint of the old B&P RR Station in relation to the present National Gallery of Art West Building can be seen on this 1887 Sanborn Fire Insurance map that has been geo-rectified and superimposed onto a modern commercial satellite map.  In 1936, District city engineers estimated that the probable spot of the shooting was near the center of modern (1936) Constitution Avenue, some 30 or 40 feet west of the west curb of Sixth Street.
The vacant lot was selected as the site for a new National Gallery of Art, which opened in 1941.  The Gallery designers apparently considered it inappropraite to install a star or tablet to mark where Garfield had been shot.  In his book Shadowed Ground:  America's Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy, Kenneth Foote notes that there is often "resistance to marking the site of an assassination because of the sense of shame that surrounds it."

Modern view of the corner of the National Gallery West Building at the corner of 6th and Constitution Avenues where the B&P Depot stood.  Would it not be appropriate for historical marker to be placed in front of the building?
In 1936, a Washington Post reporter interviewed Sylvester Breen,  one of the last known witnesses of the assassination.  In the interview, Breen expressed his desire  that a permanent marker be erected someday on the spot where Garfield was shot.

In 1952, the  Committee on Plaques for the National Capital Sesquicentennial recommended placing a historical marker on the grounds of the National Gallery to note the site of Garfield's assassination.  However, a marker was never erected.  131 years after the assassination, this tragic episode in U.S. history remains unmarked.
The Garfield Memorial facing the National Mall on the west side of the U.S. Capitol.  The dome of the National Gallery of Art's West Building, which stands on the site where Garfield was assassinated, can be seen in the background on the left-hand side of the photo.  (Courtesy of Author)

Belanger, Dian Olson.  “The Railroad in the Park:  Washington’s Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Station, 1872-1907. “  Washington History, Vol. 2, No. 1 (Spring 1990), pp. 4-27, Washington D.C.:  Washington Historical Society.
Foote, Kenneth E.  Shadowed Ground:  America’s Landscapes of Violence and Tragedy.  Austin, Texas:  University of Texas Press, 2003.
New York Times, March 20, 1897.
Washington Evening Critic, July 2, 1881.
Washington Post, August 7, 1936.
Washington Times, November 17, 1907.


  1. A newspaper clipping at the National Archives annotated "Post, Aug. 30, 1937" suggests the star marking the spot where the president was shot may have resurfaced when the foundation of the planned George Washington Memorial building was razed to clear the site for the National Gallery. (Construction of the George Washington Memorial and World War Victory building, begun in the early 1920s, was halted for lack of funds after the foundation was laid.)

    A metal box found in the cornerstone of the never-completed building was turned over to the George Washington Memorial Association's attorney, A.K. Shipe. The article states: "One ornament on the box created much interest in the offices through which it passed on its way to Mr. Shipe. It is a large gold star and, supposedly, was taken from the floor of the old railway station that was on the gallery site long before the George Washington Memorial thought of being there. According to legend, it marked the spot where President Garfield was standing when assassinated."

  2. Steven:

    I know your focus in on DC in the Civil War, but I wonder if you would be interested in the fight to protect Manassas National Battlefield from a new highway proposal, the biggest threat since Disney's theme park proposal. We really need the help of Civil War historians and preservationists and that blogging community to save the battlefield from an ill-conceived proposal. You can email me at and I'll share our press release with you. The release includes National Trust for Historic Preservation and National Parks Conservation Association. Thank you.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.


  5. What fascinating information. If we DC residents can do anything to push for the historic marker, please let us know. Call our Congresswoman?

    It is so incredibly sad that the B&P Railroad Station was torn down. It was gorgeous!

  6. I was just reading an article stating how DC is one of the fastest growing areas in the US. It's not only the fastest but the most educated as well.

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  11. Thank you for the post. I was aghast to learn that there's no historical marker for Garfield, and hasn't been for over 100 years. The man was quite brilliant, and he very likely would be considered a great president today had he not been senselessly snuffed out almost as soon as his term began. The powers that be in D.C. should be ashamed of themselves.

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  13. I doubt that large tablet with the eagle is sitting in someone's attic or drawer, hard to tell what material it was but it doesn't appear in the photo to have been bronze, it almost looks like it could have been plaster, white painted cast iron, or even wood though unlikely to be wood.
    If it was metal it was probably scrapped, any other material like plaster or wood would have quietly been sent in pieces to the landfill

  14. Ok I missed the line where it said the "tablet" was marble, maybe it was maybe not, the wings of the eagle seem too fragile for a material like marble, but if it was marble instead of valuable bronze or metal, then it's in the landfill somewhere...

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  16. That was a fascinating story that I will think of the next time I visit the National Gallery.
    If you are ever in Cleveland, check out President Garfield's mausoleum. It's this soot stained Gothic pile of granite with a stained glass window depicting every state that existed as Lady Liberty. Garfield and his wife Lucretia are in simple coffins in an iron cage in the crypt. It's open to the public, and even has an observation deck!

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