Two Assassinated Ohio Presidents and their continuing legacy

Ohio Presidential history is filled with stories about the seven Presidents that hail from Ohio. The stories of James A. Garfield and William McKinley, who were assassinated only twenty years apart, begs the question, “what if they had survived?”  Garfield was said to be the ‘best-prepared person for the presidency.” McKinley had served in the Civil War and worked to heal the wounds of the war and was a popular president. While we will never know how their administrations would have succeeded or failed, their legacies endure.   

James A. Garfield National Historic site 

James A Garfield National Historic Site
James A Garfield National Historic Site

The James A. Garfield National Historic site in Mentor, Ohio, serves as the continuing legacy of our 20th president.  Garfield was born in Moreland Hills, Ohio, in 1831 and was the last president to be born in a log cabin. He was from a religious family and lost his father at the age of two. His mother knew the importance of education and saw that he received a proper education.  She would be the first mother to see her son inaugurated president and would outlive him.


Education became of paramount importance to Garfield. He attended Hiram College, where he would later become the president of the institution.  He met his wife, Lucretia, at school. He graduated from Williams College as a salutatorian in 1856. In 1861, he passed the bar exam.

An excellent public speaker, but Garfield was turned off by the politics and politicians of the day. “Politics are now raging with great violence. I am profoundly ignorant of its multifarious phases and am not inclined to study it. I am exceedingly disgusted with wire pulling of politicians and the total disregard for truth in all their operations.”  It was after a seven-day debate with atheist where he defended the creation of life in Book of Genesis that he caught the eye of the Republican Party.  The party wanted him to run for the state senate.


He and Lucretia married in 1858.  She once stated that their marriage in jeopardy because, in the first four years of marriage of the marriage, they had spent only twenty weeks together.  She called those the ‘the dark years.’  It was during the war in 1862 when Garfield was home with “camp fever” that he and Lucretia found each other and were finally able to be a happy couple. They would have seven children, four boys and one daughter would survive.

Civil War

With the beginning of the Civil War, he was made a Colonel and given command of the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry. His success at the battle do Middle Creek earned him the rank of Brigadier General. 


Garfield was elected to Congress in 1862 while he served in the Union Army. In Washington, he worked with Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase and became an excellent economist. President Lincoln asked him to resign his commission to work on the national budget and deficit that had grown exponentially because of the Civil War. 

By 1876, he had built a house in Washington DC and bought the 160-acre farm in Mentor Ohio as a retreat.  He was elected to the U.S. Senate by the Ohio General Assembly in 1880, and his term was not to commence until March 1881. Garfield won the Republican presidential nomination in 1880. 

He conducted his front porch campaign for the presidency in 1880 from Lawnfield, his home in Mentor.  While the Presidential nomination came unexpectedly, he worked hard to get elected. He was one of the first candidates to use press releases.  He was the best-prepared man to become President.  He believed there was no department in government he could not master.

Garfield was never a seated member of the U.S. Senate and was sworn in as President on March 4, 1881.  He appointed one Supreme Court nominee and advocated for civil service reform.  He was also a lifelong believer in education.

One of the many duties of the President was to see numerous people seeking positions in the government. He met Charles Guiteau, the day after the inauguration, who was seeking a government job. Since Guiteau did not receive a government job, he decided to kill Garfield.


Garfield was accompanied by his two sons on the way to Jersey shore to join his family on July 2, 1881. As Garfield and his chief of staff entered Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station, Garfield was shot in the back by Guiteau. The assassin was quickly captured. 

Reportedly, the President told the attending doctor that he was a dead man. Garfield lingered for eighty days and died on September 18, 1881at just 49 years old. The public idolized Garfield, and the outpouring of grief was said to be more than there had been for Lincoln, sixteen years earlier.  

Garfield's Deathbed at the James A Garfield National Historic Site
Garfield’s Deathbed


Lawnfield Garfield's home in Mentor, Ohio

Garfield purchased the nine-room home in 1876. The family of nine lived there along with Garfield’s mother.  A substantial addition was added after Garfield’s death.

Lucretia’s father came to live with the family in 1879, and later, her brother, Joe Randolph, lived there as a caretaker for their father. Joe was the last family relation to inhabit in the house with his wife and two sons. Lucretia died there in 1918, and Joe in 1934.

Garfield Memorial at the James A Garfield National Historic Site
Garfield Memorial

Garfield’s mother moved with them to the White House. In her room, she kept many pictures of Garfield.  She said she wanted to see him everywhere she looked.  A stained glass memorial was given to her by the wives of the Congressmen of Ohio. 

Lucretia was always in need of a project. In 1886 she installed gaslighting and added the addition to the home that Garfield never saw.

The family gave the house to the Western Historical Society to preserve Garfield’s legacy. The house opened to visitors in 1936.  All the items in the home are original. The National Park Service took it over in 1980, and restoration in the 1990s took three years.

A short video at the site

Memorial Library

Memory Room at the James A Garfield National Historic Site
Memory Room

Lucretia should be credited for the idea of the first Presidential Library.  She was concerned that the people would not remember Garfield since he was only president for 200 days.  She wanted a memorial to her husband. She collected all of Garfield’s books and all of his papers.  She created the memory room, which has a vault of cement and steel for documents.  Metal doors serve to protect the room.

The library was not open to the public when the family was living there.  Eventually, Garfield’s papers were given to the Library of Congress.  The memorial wreath sent by Queen Victoria adorns the wall in the memory room. Preserved in wax and is 138 years old.  It was said that Queen Victoria only sent white flowers to heads of state.

Queen Victoria's Wreath at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site
Queen Victoria’s Wreath

Garfield’s children were all well accomplished, three were attorneys, and one was an architect. There were thirteen grandchildren and

Garfield's Campaign Office  at the James A Garfield National Historic Site
Garfield’s Campaign Office

Garfield’s campaign office is just outside the main house, where he ran his presidential campaign.


The National Park Service maintains a small museum dedicated to President Garfield. Here you can see many artifacts from Garfield’s short term in office as well as the bed in which he died.

Memorial Tomb

Garfield's tomb marker in Lakeview Cemetary
Garfield’s tomb marker in Lakeview Cemetary

Garfield’s tomb at Lakeview Cemetary is currently under renovation.

The McKinley Presidential Library and Museum

William McKinley Presidential Library
William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum

William McKinley, Jr., our 25th President, was born in Niles, Ohio, on July 29, 1823.  He has the distinction to be the last President to have served in the Civil War and the only one to have volunteered for service in the Union Army. He enlisted in the 23rd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, where he served as a cook and was in charge of supplies for the troops.  By the end of his service, he was promoted to the rank of Major. 

After the war, he began to study law and attended Albany law school. He moved to Canton, where he thought he would find lots of work due to a large number of taverns in the town.  He had a successful practice and purchased several buildings that provided him with a steady rental income.


Ida McKinley photograph at the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum
Ida McKinley

He met Ida Sexton, a beautiful woman from a prominent Canton family, and they married 1871. Ida was not the healthiest of women.  They had two daughters, and sadly both died.  Ida never recovered from the death of the children and was later diagnosed with epilepsy.  McKinley was said to be very attentive to his wife. 

Rutherford B. Hayes was an Army friend, and McKinley supported his bid for the Governorship.  That was McKinley’s first foray into politics.  Eventually, McKinley served as the prosecutor in Canton, was a five-term Congressman and two-term Governor.  He was an honest and well thought of politician.


Businessman Mark Hanna served as McKinley’s was campaign manager beginning in 1888, but it would not be until 1896, that McKinley would win the Republican nomination. As fellow Ohioan and President James Garfield had done in 1880, McKinley mounted a Front porch campaign for the presidency in 1896. Some seven hundred and fifty thousand people came to Ohio to see candidate McKinley.

Scholars have seen McKinley as a near-great president. As the last President who was a Civil War officer, he worked on healing the wounds of the Civil War between the North and South.   He encouraged the annexation of Hawaii and Alaska and laid the groundwork for the Panama Canal.

McKinley was a formal yet friendly man with a good memory, an important skill for a politician. His trademark was wearing a red carnation.  The flower would be made the Ohio state flower in 1904.


McKinley attended the 1901 Pan American exposition in Buffalo, New York, on September 6. McKinley shook hands with a young girl and gave her his carnation from his lapel.  Moments later, he was shot twice in the abdomen by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist who had been stalking the President. 

The President did not receive good medical treatment after being shot. While he did rally, McKinley died eight days later on Sept 14, 1901.  A two-hour autopsy was performed. The doctors were never able to find the bullet, so it remained in the President’s body.


The President’s funeral procession began in Buffalo, continued to Washington, DC, then to Canton, where McKinley was interred.  Nearly one million people attended the funeral.  In a show of respect, the electricity across the US was turned off for four minutes when his coffin was placed in the receiving vault.  The stock market shut down on the day of the funeral.

Ida would die in May 1907 just months before the completion of the large marble monument to her husband. Upon completion of the memorial, both the coffins of McKinley and Ida were placed inside.  Their two daughters were reinterred just behind their parents.

McKinley's Tomb at the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum
McKinley’s Tomb

The McKinley Tomb, built on Monument Hill, is a place that McKinley had selected for a monument to the Civil War soldiers.  The William McKinley National Memorial Association was formed by June of 1903. After a public appeal, school children contributed large sums of pennies to build the memorial. Once contributions reached half a million dollars, there was a call for design submittals. 

Harold Van Buren Mogonigle’s design was selected. The memorial is crafted from the granite of twelve states but mostly from Vermont and Tennessee. The one hundred eight steps to the top of the memorial are fifty feet wide and arranged in four flights of twenty-four with a final twelve to the top of the memorial.  Construction on the memorial began on June 6, 1905, and dedicated on September 30, 1907.  The dedication was a grand affair with the attendance of President Theodore Roosevelt, Supreme Court Justice William Day, and members of McKinley’s cabinet and close friends.  Today, the Memorial stands as a testament to the legacy of Canton’s favorite son. It is the largest of the Presidential Memorial in the U.S. and sits on twenty-six acres.

Brief video of the McKinley Gallery

U.S. Secret Service

There were three presidential assassinations in thirty-six year period. However, even after the assassinations of Lincoln and Garfield, Congress did not pass legislation for the Secret Service to be tasked with the protection of the President. President Grover Cleveland, McKinley’s predecessor, did have protection on a part-time basis. It was only after McKinley’s assassination that the protection of the President became the 24-7 responsibility of the U.S. Secret Service.

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