Fate, steamboats and an assassin

W.S. Chappell's store on State Street in New London was draped in crepe. Instead of the usual display of groceries, Chappell had filled his shop window with crucifixes and photographs. On Sept. 19, 1881, after two months of suffering, President James Garfield had perished from an assassin's bullet.

The Day's stark headline screamed, "DEAD."

The whole country had been on an emotional rollercoaster ever since the July assault. A constant barrage of press releases were by turns alarming ("sinking fast") and cautiously optimistic ("some hope of recovery"). The country was deeply divided following the Civil War, government corruption was rampant, and Vice President Chester Arthur was despised as a spineless political hack. It was a terrible time to lose a trusted leader.

Garfield had grown up in a one-room shack. His father died when he was a toddler, and life had been a struggle for survival. As a teenager he worked on the Erie Canal and took menial jobs to pay for college. Possessing a warm personality, integrity and a brilliant mind, he became a professor, a prep school president and a state senator all before he was 30 years old. During the Civil War he led a battle that preserved the pivotal state of Kentucky for the Union.

At the 1880 GOP National Convention, Garfield became the party's surprise nominee for the presidency. He was the symbol of the American dream, the last log cabin president to work his way from poverty to power.

An accident occurred three days after the GOP convention when the SS Stonington and SS Narragansett collided crossing Long Island Sound on a foggy night. (They were sister ships belonging to the Providence & Stonington Steamship Company.) The Narragansett burned to the water line and many passengers were drowned or incinerated. Although the Stonington was damaged, too, no one was hurt, leading one of the survivors - Garfield's future assassin, Charles Guiteau - to believe that God had spared him for a purpose.

Guiteau had been searching for purpose his whole life. He'd looked unsuccessfully for love in a commune, become an evangelist, and published a book that he'd plagiarized. He was a self-taught lawyer, so inept that one jury decided against his client without even leaving the jury box. He was deeply delusional.

When the steamboats collided, Guiteau had been on his way to GOP headquarters in New York, carrying with him a speech he'd written for Garfield's campaign. He expected that because of his many talents he'd be offered a plum spot in the new administration. A consulship to Paris or Vienna would be nice.

After Garfield's inauguration, Guiteau joined the hordes of other office seekers who besieged the president daily, seeking a share of the spoils system. When months passed without a job offer, Guiteau became increasingly belligerent. Finally, believing that killing Garfield would fulfill God's plan, he followed Garfield into a D.C. railroad station and shot him twice, once in the back.

Garfield died two months later, a victim of bullets and unsanitary medical practices. Guiteau was hanged in 1882.

After the tragedy, Chester Arthur surprised everyone by dismissing his corrupt handlers and driving the civil service reforms that Garfield had begun. While these reforms reduced the risk of danger from disappointed office seekers, there have been two assassinations since Garfield's death and at least 12 failed attempts.

Public records don't document how Garfield Avenue in New London got its name. The property was deeded to the city in May 1881 and entered in the land records four days after Garfield was shot. Edward Prest and Robert Manwarring are mentioned in the records, but there's no reference to anyone named Garfield, and as far as I can tell there weren't any Garfields in New London at that time. It's another street name mystery, but I hope the avenue honors James.

Carol Sommer of Waterford is a self-proclaimed history nut. She writes a monthly history column inspired by local street signs.


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