Unlike the image portrayed by Ohio’s first president — William Harrison — James Garfield actually was poor in his youth. He was the youngest of five children and his parents were devout followers of the then relatively new denomination — the Disciples of Christ.
During college he supported himself as a part-time teacher, a carpenter and even as a janitor. After earning a reputation during the Civil War as a war hero, Garfield became a member of Congress. As a member of Congress he supported the Compromise of 1877, which ended the military occupation of the South.
Garfield was born in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, in 1831 and fatherless by the age of two. Garfield would later drive canal boat teams to earn enough money for an education. He graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1856, and returned to Ohio to teach, employed as a classics professor at the Western Reserve Electric Institute (later Hiram College).
Within a year he would be the Institute’s president.
When he ran for president — after 17 years in Congress — Garfield was not the Republican Party’s first — or even its second choice for president so just like Rutherford B. Hayes before him his election was a tight race. But, Garfield did win both the electoral and the popular vote — Garfield received 10,000 more votes than his opponent.
His presidency only lasted 200 days.
On July 2, 1881 Garfield was shot by a man who was angry that Garfield had not appointed him to a diplomatic post. Garfield died 11 weeks later on September 19.
Victim of the Curse?
Is Garfield a victim of Tecumseh’s Curse? According to legend after questionable tactics were used by U.S. President William Harrison in the defeat and surrender of the Shawnee Indian tribe, a curse was placed upon the White House so that every 20 years, the president would die in office. The theory became more popular in the 1930s after a Ripley’s Believe It or Not book promoted the idea of Tecumseh’s Curse which stated that death would prevent any president elected in an year ending in zero — to fulfill his term in office.
Beginning with Harrison, a U.S. president died in office every 20 years until Ronald Reagan survived an assassination attempt. Four of the presidents on the list are from Ohio.
- 1840: William Harrison
- 1860: Abraham Lincoln
- 1880: James Garfield
- 1900: William McKinley
- 1920: Warren Harding
- 1940: Franklin D. Roosevelt
- 1960: John F. Kennedy
Ohio’s Presidential Legacy
Read more from the series:
- William Harrison — America’s One-Month President
- Ulysses S. Grant — Good Guy — Bad Crowd
- Rutherford B. Hayes: Election Gone Bad