After this encounter, Guiteau decided that he had been commanded to kill the ungrateful President. Guiteau borrowed fifteen dollars and went out to purchase a revolver. He knew little about firearms, but did know that he would need a large caliber gun. He had to choose between a .44 Webley British Bulldog revolver with a wooden handle and one with an ivory handle. He bought the one with the ivory handle because he wanted it to look good as a museum exhibit after the assassination. (The revolver is not in the Smithsonian; it was lost after the shooting.) He spent the next few weeks in target practice—the kick from the revolver almost knocked him over the first time—and stalking the President. He wrote a letter to Garfield, saying that he should fire Blaine, or "you and the Republican party will come to grief. It was ignored, as was all the correspondence Guiteau sent to the White House.
Guiteau continued to prepare carefully, writing a letter in advance to General William Sherman asking for protection from the mob, and writing other letters justifying his action as necessary to heal dissension between factions of the Republican Party. He spent the whole month of June following Garfield around Washington. On one occasion, he trailed Garfield to the railway station as the President was seeing his wife off to a beach resort in New Jersey, but he decided to shoot him later, as Mrs. Garfield was in poor health and he didn't want to upset her.
President Garfield had come to the Sixth Street Station on his way to his alma mater, Williams College, where he was scheduled to deliver a speech. Garfield was accompanied by two of his sons, James and Harry, and Secretary of State James G. Blaine. Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln waited at the station to see the President off. Garfield had no bodyguard or security detail; with the exception of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, U.S. presidents never used any guards.
As President Garfield entered the station Guiteau stepped forward and pulled the trigger from behind at point-blank range. Garfield cried out "My God, what is this?!". Guiteau fired again and Garfield collapsed. One bullet grazed Garfield's arm; the other lodged in his spine in the first lumbar vertebra but missing the spinal cord.
Guiteau put his pistol back in his pocket and turned to leave the station for the cab he still had waiting outside, but he was apprehended before he could leave by policeman Patrick Kearney, who was so excited at having arrested the man who shot the president that he neglected to take Guiteau's gun from him until after their arrival at the police station. The rapidly gathering crowd screamed "Lynch him!", but Kearney took Guiteau to the police station a few blocks away. As he surrendered to authorities, Guiteau uttered the exulting words, repeated everywhere: 'I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts. .. Arthur is President now!!'" (New York Herald, July 3, 1881). This statement briefly led to unfounded suspicions that Arthur or his supporters had put Guiteau up to the crime. The Stalwarts were a Republican faction loyal to ex-President Grant; they strongly opposed Garfield's Half-Breeds. Like many Vice Presidents, Arthur was chosen for political advantage, to placate his faction, rather than for skills or loyalty to his running-mate. Guiteau, in his delusion, had convinced himself that he was striking a blow to unite the two factions of the Republican Party.
Garfield, conscious but in shock, was carried to an upstairs floor of the train station. One bullet remained lodged in his body, but doctors could not find it. Young Jim Garfield and James Blaine both broke down and wept. Robert Todd Lincoln, deeply upset and thinking back to the death of his father, said "How many hours of sorrow I have passed in this town.
Garfield was carried back to the White House. Doctors told him that he would not survive the night, but the President did not die. He remained conscious and alert. The next morning his vital signs were good and doctors began to hope for recovery. A long vigil began, with Garfield's doctors issuing regular bulletins that the American public followed closely throughout the summer of 1881. His condition fluctuated. Fevers came and went. Garfield struggled to keep down solid food and spent most of the summer eating little, and that only liquids.
In an effort to relieve the sick man from the heat of a Washington summer, Navy engineers rigged up the world's first air conditioner. Fans blew air over a large box of ice and into the President's sickroom; the device worked well enough to lower the temperature twenty degrees. Doctors continued to probe Garfield's wound with dirty, unsterilized fingers and instruments, attempting for no particular reason to find the location of the bullet. Alexander Graham Bell devised a metal detector specifically for the purpose of finding the bullet lodged inside Garfield, but the metal bed frame Garfield was lying on made the instrument malfunction. Because metal bed frames were relatively rare, the cause of the instrument's deviation was unknown at the time.
On July 29 Garfield met with his Cabinet for the only time during his illness; the members were under strict instruction from the doctors not to discuss anything upsetting. Garfield became increasingly ill over a period of several weeks due to infection, which caused his heart to weaken. He remained bedridden in the White House with fevers and extreme pains. Garfield's weight dropped from over two hundred pounds to 135 pounds as his inability to keep down and digest food took its toll. Blood poisoning and infection set in and for a brief period the President suffered from hallucinations.
On September 6, Garfield was taken to the Jersey Shore to escape the Washington heat, in the vain hope that the fresh air and quiet there might aid his recovery. Garfield was propped up in bed before a window with a view of the beach and ocean. New infections set in, as well as spasms of angina. He died of a massive heart attack or a ruptured splenic artery aneurysm, following blood poisoning and bronchial pneumonia, at 10:35 p.m. on Monday, September 19, 1881, in the Elberon section of Long Branch, New Jersey. The wounded president died exactly two months before his 50th birthday. During the eighty days between his shooting and death, his only official act was to sign an extradition paper.
Most historians and medical experts now believe that Garfield probably would have survived his wound had the doctors attending him been more capable. Several inserted their unsterilized fingers into the wound to probe for the bullet, and one doctor punctured Garfield's liver in doing so. This alone would not have brought about death as the liver is one of the few organs in the human body that can regenerate itself. However, this physician probably introduced Streptococcus bacteria into the President's body and that caused blood poisoning for which at that time there were no antibiotics.
Chester Arthur was at his home in New York City when word came the night of the 19th that Garfield had died. After first getting the news, Arthur said "I hope—my God, I do hope it is a mistake." But confirmation by telegram came soon after. Arthur took the oath of office, administered by a New York Supreme Court judge, then left for Elberon to pay his respects before going on to Washington. Garfield's body was taken to Washington, where it lay in state for two days in the Capitol Rotunda before being taken to Cleveland, where the funeral was held on Sept. 26.
Represented by his brother-in-law, George Scolville, Guiteau became something of a media darling during his trial for his bizarre behavior, including constantly badmouthing his defense team, formatting his testimony in epic poems which he recited at length, and soliciting legal advice from random spectators in the audience via passed notes. He claimed that he was not guilty because Garfield's murder was the will of God and he was only an instrument of God's will. He sang "John Brown's Body" to the court. He dictated an autobiography to the New York Herald, ending it with a personal ad for a nice Christian lady under thirty. He was blissfully oblivious to the American public's outrage and hatred of him, even after he was almost assassinated twice himself. At one point, he argued that Garfield was killed not by himself but by medical malpractice ("The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him"). Throughout the trial and up until his execution, Guiteau was housed at St. Elizabeths Hospital in the southeastern quadrant of Washington, D.C.
Guiteau's trial was one of the first high profile cases in the United States where the insanity defense was considered. Guiteau vehemently insisted that while he had been legally insane at the time of the shooting, he was not really medically insane, which was one of the major causes of the rift between him and his defense lawyers and probably also a reason the jury assumed Guiteau was merely trying to deny responsibility.
To the end, Guiteau was actively making plans to start a lecture tour after his perceived imminent release and to run for President himself in 1884, while at the same time continuing to delight in the media circus surrounding his trial. He was dismayed when the jury was unconvinced of his divine inspiration, convicting him of the murder. He was found guilty on January 25, 1882. He appealed, but his appeal was rejected, and he was hanged on June 30, 1882 in the District of Columbia. On the scaffold, Guiteau recited a poem he had written called "I am Going to the Lordy". He had originally requested an orchestra to play as he sang his poem, but this request was denied.
Garfield's assassination was instrumental to the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act on January 16, 1883. Garfield himself had called for civil service reform in his inaugural address and supported it as President in the belief that it would make government more efficient. It was passed as something of a memorial to the fallen President. Arthur lost the Republican Party nomination in 1884 to Blaine, who went on to lose a razor-close election to Democrat Grover Cleveland.
The Sixth Street rail station was later demolished. The site there is now occupied by the National Gallery of Art. No plaque or memorial marks the spot where Garfield was shot, but a few blocks away, a Garfield memorial statue stands on the southwest corner of the Capitol grounds.
The question of Presidential disability was not addressed. Article II, section 1, clause 6 of the Constitution says that in case of the "Inability [of the President] to discharge the Powers and Duties of the said Office, the same shall devolve on the Vice President", but gives no further instruction on what constitutes inability or how the President's inability should be determined. Garfield had lain on his sickbed for 80 days without performing any of the duties of his office except for the signing of an extradition paper, but this did not prove to be a difficulty because in the 19th century the federal government effectively shut down for the summer regardless. During Garfield's ordeal, the Congress was not in session and there was little for a President to do. Blaine suggested the Cabinet declare Arthur acting President, but this option was rejected by all, including Arthur, who did not wish to be perceived as grasping for power. (If Garfield had lingered into December, when Congress was scheduled to convene, the Cabinet might have been forced to adopt Blaine's plan.)
Congress did not deal with the problem of what to do if a President was alive but incapacitated as Garfield was. Nor did the Congress take up the question 38 years later, when Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke that put him in a coma for days and left him partially paralyzed and blind in one eye for the last year and a half of his Presidency. It was not until the ratification of the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution in 1967 that United States law provided a procedure for what to do if the President were incapacitated.
Nor did the Congress take any measure to provide for Presidential protection. It was not until after the murder of William McKinley twenty years after Garfield that the Congress charged the United States Secret Service, originally founded to prevent counterfeiting, with Presidential security.
The Garfield Tea House, built by the citizens of Elberon, New Jersey with the rails that had been laid down specifically to give Garfield's train access to their town, still stands today in Long Branch.