Reaching Your Highest Achievement and Standing There All Alone (Part 1)

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First Sergeant
Aug 6, 2016

First Lady Lucretia Rudolph Garfield
Wife of James A. Garfield, 20th President

Library of Congress (Public Domain)

She’d serve 120 days as First Lady of the United States, and she’d watch for another 79 days until her husband would pass away from the bullet that entered his body fired from the gun of Charles Julius Guiteau . Mrs. Garfield arrived in Washington ready to be “First Lady”, but was not necessarily interested in the social duties expected from the wife of a president. For a woman in her day, she was an educated, intelligent, curious lady. Her husband valued her opinion on his appointments and she had a sharp intellect to advise the president in these matters. She loved history and longed to make the White House the cultural center of Washington. She visited “The Library of Congress” to throughly research the history of this house that was now her historic home. Unfortunately, she contacted malaria and was forced to recuperate to a New Jersey seashore town, Elberon. It was there she’d be summoned back to Washington after the shooting of her husband. Together they returned to Elberon where he died on September 19, 1881.

Who Was This Woman?

She was born the eldest child of a farmer and his wife. Her father Zebulon was involved in the religious faith called the “Disciples of Christ”. Neither of her parents were affection to their children (or each other), so Lucretia grew up in a “loveless” family and consequently she found release in the joy of reading and learning. It was a lifetime joy for her. Her father realized the value of education and was determined his daughter would be educated.

She met her future husband while they were attending high school in Chester Township, Ohio. At Geauga Seminary, they received studies in classical education and were both living away from home for the first time. Lucretia boarded at the third floor of the school, while James lived with other boarders nearby. They were strictly classmates and had other love interests however Lucretia did take note of - - -

the tall, blue-eyed, “strange genius” who had the look of “an overgrown, uncombed, unwashed, boy.” {1}


Geauga Seminary - Ohio
(Public Domain)

Western Reserve Eclectic Institute

Five months separated them in age with James being older. They would meet again in the fall of 1851 at the Westeren Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram Collage). Lucretia’s family were faithful followers of The Disciples of Christ and her father had been one of the founders of this institute. It so happened at the time James Garfield was a student there, yet unliked many of his fellow students, he was forced to work while attending college. When the Greek teacher was ill, James was an extremely smart student and ahead in his class, so he was asked to fill-in. It was at this time that he began to - - -

“notice the petite, delicate, pretty girl with the dark, deep-set eyes. They both had intelligent, curious minds and loved learning, literature, and reading.” {1}


Western Reserve Eclectic Institute

(Public Domain)

In addition to Greek, Lucretia studied French, Latin and German. She loved reading classical, British and French literature. She helped organize a literary society and often would debate and give presentations. What did she like to discuss - Women’s Rights!!

They would officially begin their courtship in 1853, but due to Lucretia’s upbringing and lack of love, she would have a difficult time expressing her feelings to James Garfield. This would, at times, cause much dissension in the relationship. Lucretia was shy and reserved the exact opposite of the rather out-going and charming Garfield.

The years between 1854-1858 were difficult ones for the couple. Lucretia was not a passionate woman, and there were several times when he questioned if she was the right woman for him. Lucretia was teaching during these years determined to make a career for herself on the off-chance that she never married. During this time James was “seeking his passion in other places” which put additional concerns in the relationship.

Finally in 1858 during a spring buggy ride they decided that they would try to make a marriage work and on November 11th they formalized their relationship.


James & Lucretia Garfield - 1858
(Public Domain)

The Dark Years
It seems odd to call the beginning of a marriage “the dark years”, but that is what James and Lucretia called them. In 1857, Garfield was made president of the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute a job that required him to be away from home for long period of times, when the truth was he wanted to be away. During their first 5 years of marriage they were together 20 weeks. He wasn’t quite ready to be a husband and a father (their first child a daughter Eliza was born in 1860).

It would take reaching the bottom before they could walk to the top. Lucretia tried hard to be a wife and mother, but she did not have an example in her own family, so she turned to writing her emotions in her diary. There she poured all her feelings and disappointments in her marriage, but more importantly in the written word she expressed how much love she had for her husband. In desperation during the “Dark Years”, she showed her husband her diaries, and a step forward began in their relationship.

James finally came to the realization that he needed to be faithful to his wife and after a “regrettable affair” he sought and received Lucretia’s forgiveness and guidance. The Civil War was raging in the country and at the age of 30 James Garfield was Brigadier General Garfield and during the war they celebrated and cried over the births and deaths of children. (Son Harry was born October 11, 1863; daughter Eliza died December 3, 1863). They began to reflect on what brought them together as a couple - their love of education and their religious faith.

A job change for Garfield also helped with their relationship. In November 1862 James Garfield was elected to serve as a Republican in the 38th Session in the House of Representatives. The members were seated March 4, 1863 but due to his military service he resigned from the U.S. Army and filled his seat in December of 1863. He was home and for the 1st time in their marriage, and they were living a “family life”.

The “Metamorphosis of their Relationship”

There is no doubt that when the dark years were over, they looked forward, not back. They went on to have 5 more children, although 2 would not survive into adult age. A letter written from James to Lucretia in December, 1867 speaks volumes - - -

“We no longer love because we ought to, but because we do. Were I free to choose out of all the world the sharer of my heart and home and life, I would fly to you and ask you to be mine as you are.” {1}

A few years later another letter surfaces, this one from Lucretia to James dated September, 1870 - - -

“I stopped amazed to find myself sitting by our fireside, the loved and loving wife, …lifted up from the confusions and out from the entanglements…I felt that we are not living on the same plain [sic] as heretofore, that we are scarcely the same beings, but like conquering sovereigns we live in high isolation, wedded in heart and soul and life.” {1}

They shared 23 short years together and just when Lucretia arrived to put her imprint on the White House an assassin stopped her plans, her dreams and her love. The opposites in personality grew forward in love and devotion, supportive of each other. Mrs. Garfield kept the letters to show her children - - -

“She wanted them to understand the metamorphosis of the relationship and depth of their love.” {1}

What a special gift of love a parent could bestow. She lived another 37 years until she joined him in death. During those years she stayed a private person. She lived at “Lawnfield” the family home and 4 years after his assassination, she added a Memorial Wing where she spent her time organizing his papers and memorabilia. She is credited with establishing the 1st Presidential Library. She lived there off and on until her death in 1918, and in 1936 the Garfield children donated the home and it’s contents to the Western Reserve Historical Society to use as a museum. The United States Congress declared it a National Historic Site.


Photo (National Parks Service)

The Miller Center at UVA sums up her life the best when they wrote

“Because her husband's presidency was cut short, Lucretia Rudolph Garfield will be remembered mostly for her loving devotion to her dying husband. . . . [she] was much more than simply a helpmate and a nurse; she was also a scholar and an intellectual, a fitting role model for future First Ladies who wanted to be more than just their husbands' wives and their nation's social hostesses.” {5}

* * * * * * *


NH Civil War Gal

1st Lieutenant
Forum Host
Feb 5, 2017
My husband graduated from Hiram College and we've been back there (not for years) but it is still a quiet and intellectual spot. I read somewhere that poor Garfield died from all the probing the Doctor's did and the resulting infection. Do you know if that's true?
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First Sergeant
Aug 6, 2016
According to this article - I would say that the answer is “yes” not only dirty hands, but a painful death - - -

“Focused on finding and removing the bullet, Bliss and the other doctors stuck their unwashed fingers in the wound and probed around, all for naught and without applying the numbing power of ether anesthetic. In late 19th century America, such a grimy search was a common medical practice for treating gunshot wounds. A key principle behind the probing was to remove the bullet, because it was thought that leaving buckshot in a person’s body led to problems ranging from “morbid poisoning” to nerve and organ damage. Indeed, this was the same method the doctors pursued in 1865 after John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln in the head.

President Garfield was taken back to the White House where the medical treatment truly became brutal. Still hellbent on finding and removing the bullet, the doctors argued whether it damaged the spinal cord (Garfield complained of numbness in his legs and feet) or one of the many organs in the abdomen. Dr. Bliss even recruited Alexander Graham Bell to apply his newly invented medical detector to find the errant bullet.

As the summer waned, Garfield was suffering from a scorching fever, relentless chills, and increasing confusion. The doctors tortured the president with more digital probing and many surgical attempts to widen the three-inch deep wound into a 20-inch-long incision, beginning at his ribs and extending to his groin. It soon became a super-infected, pus-ridden, gash of human flesh.”
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