The longer version of the story is quite interesting in that it uses primary sources and some narrative to tell the tale. The newspaper writers often had different observations or emphases. The detail here is surprising!  Scan these materials. Consider how you might have students piece together the story by giving them just a file of papers.

 The Assassination of a President


Morning Oregonian

PORTLAND OREGON:  Monday, July 4, 1881 



President Garfield Shot and Dangerously Wounded By an Obscure Office Seeker.




The President for Several Hours Thought to be Dying.




How the News was Received Throughout the Country—The Feeling in Portland and Neighboring cities, etc.


New York, July 2.  President Garfield was shot twice at the Baltimore and Potomac railroad depot in the city of Washington this morning. Dr. Bliss says the president’s wound is not mortal.

Second Dispatch

 Washington, July 2, 10 AM. President Garfield is now lying in the private room in the officers’ quarters of the Baltimore and Potomac depot. Dr. C.W. Bliss, Surgeon General Barnes and Dr. Purvis (colored) are in attendance.  The shooting was done by a slender man five feet seven inches in height. He refuses to give his name.  The man was arrested immediately after the firing by officers in the depot. He was first taken to police headquarters but subsequently remanded to district jail. The shooting occurred in the ladies’ waiting room of the depot immediately after the president had entered, walking arm-in arm with Secretary Blaine. They were on the way to the limited express train, which was about ready to leave. Secretary Blaine, on hearing the pistol shots–two in number–rushed in the direction from which they came, with a view of arresting the assassin. Before reaching the man, however, the secretary returned to the president and found him prostrated.  Both shots took effect, one in the right arm and the second just above the right hip near the kidney. The physicians have probed for the ball unsuccessfully.


A Woman’s Statement

Mrs. Sarah V. E. White, the lady in charge of the waiting room at the Baltimore depot, was the person who first reached the president after he was shot. She said that she saw the whole thing. The man came in from the east door entering the ladies’ room from the main waiting room just as the president entered the middle door from B street.  When he approached within five feet of the president he fired, aiming, as she thought at the president’s heart, and missed him. The president did not seem to notice him, but walked right on past the man.  He fired again and the president fell.  He fell right at the turn of the second row of seats.  I was first to reach him, and lifted his head.  The janitor rushed in and called the police. I held him until some men came and lifted him up. He did not speak to me or any one until a young man, who I think was his son, came after he had vomited.  I think he said something to him when he was lifted to the mattress.

 The man (Charles Guiteau) walked deliberately out at the center door, where somebody headed him off. He turned and started back the way he came and was seized at the door by a policeman. 

Everywhere in Boston people met in the streets to trade the newest tales of the tragedy.   Many different and conflicting stories of the horror spread like wild fire.  Alexander Graham Bell was in Boston at the time of the shooting. He grabbed a paper from the newsboy and read the headlines in the Boston Herald. 


Boston Herald

July 3, 1881

Washington, July 3.–Examination discloses the fact that the ball entered between the president’s ninth and tenth ribs and lodged in the right lobe or in the interior walls of the abdomen, and in the opinion of the attending physicians was not necessarily fatal. At this hour the physicians say there is improvement, he slept quietly. The advisability of probing the president’s wound for the bullet was carefully considered at a consultation of his attending physicians at 3 o’clock. It was determined not to make an attempt to extract the ball. Careful and delicate examinations made later in the evening revealed that the location of the ball as determined was such as to make any effort last night for its removal unwarranted. This morning physicians decided that no effort will be made at present to extract the ball.  

It had been fifteen years since the assassination of Lincoln.  Most had accounted that tragedy as a casualty of war–somehow a more logical event than this.  Why would anyone want to kill the president?  Surely the man who shot him must be crazy.

Later at home, as Bell sat as his desk, he read the news aloud to his personal secretary William Johnson.  Bell inferred from the account that the doctors could not find the bullet. 

 William nodded in a half smile.  It was a knowing agreement, one that transmitted more than just hearing. 

“It is unfortunate that the ball was not in his cheek!” Will chided.  William had patiently stood as the subject of Bell’s experiments some months before. Bell had required him to hold a tiny lantern and lead ball inside his mouth to see if one could see a shadow from outside the mouth.  He had read about the idea from a doctor in Paris and wanted to see the effects first hand. 

“This is no trifling matter, Will.  The president could just as easily die from doctors probing about looking for the ball. One slip and they could easily sever a major artery.  Something should be done.”

As Bell thought about the  problem that evening, he reached up and rummaged through the multiple volumes of notebooks on the shelf.  He found one, dusted the cover off and immediately pored over the scribbling and diagrams on each page.

There in his journals, in the hand-written records, were years of research on telegraphy, telephones, and phonographs. He scanned the pages and periodically stopped to glance at a word or diagram. He passed the pages that described a device that transmitted tones over the telegraph wire. He sped past the notes on the first experiments with Watson that led to the discovery of the microphone and, ultimately the telephone. 

Watson made a box with a diaphragm that we inserted a needle.  The pan below was filled with water and a small…

I then shouted into the mouthpiece the following sentence: “Mr. Watson–Come here–I want to see you.”  To my delight he came and declared that he…  A.G. Bell

As he approached the later experiments, he slowed the pace and carefully examined each day of the laboratory record. He found what he was looking for.  Reading the notes he scribbled some new ones in the pages of his current notebook.

The harmonic telegraph, is a way to transmit sound through telegraphic wires simultaneously by taking the undulation of the pole of an electromagnet and by simultaneous excitement of several other electromagnets.

The effects as noted by Reis and others with a reed sensing device and a washbasin receiver is noted well.

 June 27, 1876   Difficulty with the interference of certain audible whistles within the telephonic circuit.  When connection wires are twisted, metallics seem to exacerbate problem. Perhaps experimentation with the current balance described by… . A.G. Bell 

A flurry of telegraphs passed that next few days between Bell in Boston and others interested in electricity:  John Trowbridge at MIT, Henry Rowland at Johns Hopkins, an electrical shop in Baltimore, Hughes and Newcomb in London and Tainter at the Volta Labs in Washington. Each knew something about the problem and all began to work at a solution simultaneously. After days of initial communications and further thinking and writing, Bell told his wife he had to leave for Washington because he needed the lab there. His wife Mabel was worried about her pregnancy and disliked for him to be away. He tried to reassure her but felt a great need to be of service to the president.


It was late when Bell finally arrived at the Connecticut Street lab.  His colleagues had been working on improvements to the Edison’s phonograph when the call came to shift to new quarry.  They had quickly set aside the wax discs and cylinders and the various sorts of styli and mechanical apparatus for recording sound to make room for the new project.

Without greeting, Tainter met Bell at the door and excitedly relayed news from Hughes and Newcomb. They suggested adding a capacitor to the input circuit of the current balance.  Tainter took Bell into a large area where their experiment was arranged.  There on the table was a series of wires, coils, batteries and telephone receivers set up to test the proximity of metals.

At work immediately, Bell studied Tainter’s notes and looked over the apparatus.  For hours late into the night they tinkered with connections, attached cells, and moved a coil near a lead ball.  With each new modification Bell made notes. At first a tone was detected at 2 inches, then 2 1/2, then 3.  When they attached a capacitor as suggested by Hughes, they reached 3 1/2 inches.  They thought 3 1/2 inches might be enough and decided to contact the doctors.         

Morning Oregonian

PORTLAND OREGON:  Monday, July 25, 1881

New York, July 24. Talk about the necessity of finding the bullet has taken a fresh start. Prof. Bell, who has been conducting experiments with a view of ascertaining the location of the bullet by electricity, said last evening that his apparatus was nearly completed, and that they had been able to detect the presence of lead as to the depth of three inches. He thinks that this distance can be increased.


Washington, July 24.  Bob Ingersoll said of Guiteau whom he knows:  I think Guiteau wanted office and was refused. He became importunate, he was substantially put out of the White House he became malicious he made up his mind to be revenged. He is a miserable, malicious and worthless wretch indefinitely egotistical. He imagines that he did a great deal toward the election of Garfield and upon being refused office, the house serpent of malice coiled in his heart and he determined to be revenged.”


There is considerable anxiety at the White House today relative to the effects on which may be produced on the president by the Potomac flats directly south of the grounds of the mansion.  Miasma, which arises from the vegetation, has begun making itself felt on attachment of the executive office. Three cases of malarial fever were reported today sufficiently severe to unfit the gentlemen afflicted for further duty, and they were compelled to leave their decks and go home.

On the evening of the 26th Bell and Tainter packed up their apparatus into a carriage and rode the half-mile to the executive mansion.  They sneaked carefully into the rear entrance of the mansion to avoid the gaggle of reporters that had gotten wind of the experiment and were lurking about waiting to grab a story.

Brought to Garfield’s quarters, Aleck looked at the sleeping president and surveyed the room.  They had to figure out where to run the wires. By the time the two men had moved the apparatus from place to place, the president had awoken.  The doctors dressed his wound and awaited the the last adjustments of the machine.  Bell and Tainter adjusted the wires but could not seem to keep it from making a sputtering sound.  The device had made a clear tone in the lab when they brought it near a metal object. The doctor insisted they hurry as he did not them to tire the president.

He moved it over Garfield’s back around and around in hopes to find the spot.  The receiver sputtered and the tone was erratic.  Again and again he tried but the device was not working.

Bell wrote in his journal:

July 26  He looked so calm and grand he reminded me of a Greek hero chiseled in marble.  He had a magnificent intellectual-looking head, with massive forehead.  As I remember him of old, his florid complexion rather detracted from his appearance, giving him the look of a man who indulged in good living and who was accustomed to work in very pale–or rather it is of an ashen gray color which makes one feel for a moment that you are not looking upon a living man. It made my heart bleed to look at him and think of all he must have suffered to bring him to this.

I feel woefully disappointed and disheartened–However, we go right at the problem again tomorrow. A.G. Bell


Bell took ill that next day.  Washington’s heat and humidity had gotten the better of him and he lay in bed recuperating.  He yearned for the cool foggy breezes of New England.           

By the 29th they were back at it–he and Tainter repairing the apparatus and looking to the reasons it had failed in its first test. They determined that the wires were loose and needed to be attached more securely.  They also determined they should change the shape of the coil. That afternoon and next day the men worked frantically to rearrange the apparatus.  This time they created solid connections and mounted all of the parts into a sturdy wooden box.  They would not be foiled the second time with  loose connections. They managed to get a good signal at 5 inches.

Boston Herald

July 31, 1881

Special Report

Boston, 9 PM.  One half mile from the president’s mansion lies a two story brick building on Connecticut Avenue.  It is here that was witnessed the work of Prof. Bell and his colleagues as they worked on the electric balance. The little mansion was brilliantly lighted.  Every room was in use and all the windows were opened so that the light streamed out as the air streamed in. A courteous colored serving man bowed his master’s guest into the shadowed hall.

In cabinets, on tables, chairs and floors were coils of wire, batteries, instruments and electrical apparatus of every sort.  The light from the jets, burning brilliantly in the centre of the room, was reflected from a hundred metallic forms.  It was reflected, too, from the smiling faces of the great electrician and his assistant, who saw success almost within their grasp.   The room was full of metals, which disturbed the tone of the balance, and outside and inside, attracted the light, “annoying insects” as Prof. Bell called them, kept up a monotonous monotone.

Presents for the President 

Two things arrived at the white house today by express worthy of note.  One is a stuffed hummingbird perched on an impossible little tree, affected by taxidermists.  It came from Rhode Island and was destined by the sender to relieve the monotony of the sick room. Another arrival was a small box of alleged crackers. They were to satisfy the appetite and at the same time impart strength. They looked and tasted like half-cooked biscuits which had been allowed to harden.

The second try was a disappointment as well.  Instead of sharp clear sounds they only could detect weak tones over a large area.  The information from the induction balance was of little use.  At first Bell suspected that the steel springs on the mattress of his bed could have interfered with the test, but with additional trials at the Volta Lab with a similar mattress, little effect was found from their presence.  They were stumped. The doctors, however, released a different version of the event to the press.

Morning Oregonian

PORTLAND OREGON:  August 1, 1881

The Ball Located

Washington, August 1.  Under the supervision of attending surgeons, Professors Bell and Tainter this morning made another application to the patient’s body of the electrical apparatus known as the induction balance, with a view of completing the tests Saturday, which were not entirely conclusive, and ascertaining definitely and certainly if possible the location of the ball. Professors Bell and Tainter have almost been constantly engaged for a week in experiments with the induction balance, also have made several improvements which greatly add to its efficiency. They tried this improved apparatus upon the president’s body for the first time last Saturday and although it indicated fairly the location of the ball was afterwards found to be slightly out of adjustment and the experiment was not regarded as conclusive. The results of this morning’s test however are entirely satisfactory to both Prof. Bell and Tainter and the attending surgeons and it is now unanimously agreed that the location of the ball has been ascertained with reasonable exactness and certainty, and that in the front wall of the abdomen, immediately over the groin, about 5 inches below and to the right of the navel. Experiments this morning were repeated several times, and were made by professor Bell and Tainter independently so as to guard as far as possible against errors arising from faulty perceptions of a single individual or from one person’s mistakes.

         The ball must be within two and a half inches of the surface.  The surgeons don’t intend to remove the ball at present.

 Back in Boston, Bell worked daily on solving the problem.  While he made suggestions to Williams about continuing the experiments on the induction balance, he devised a separate plan for locating the bullet. He wired the doctors at the White House to see if they wanted to try the new invention.  “No,” they said.  “The president is too weak.  He has dropped from 210 pounds to 120.  We must help him regain his strength before we try anything new.”

Unable to help the president further, Aleck turned his attention to a project that had been on the shelf, photophone–a way of transmitting speech with light beams.  Until the 15th, this new curiosity helped keep his interest.

On the 15th of August, his third child, Edward, was born.  Weeks premature, the baby boy struggled to breathe, and ultimately, died from respiration failure. Mabel was heartbroken, “But for Guiteau our own lives might have been different.  You might not have gone to Washington, but stayed here with me and all might have been well.”

 Although as heartbroken, Bell transformed his sadness into invention. His young son Edward had died because he was too weak to move air into his lungs. Bell worked out details of a system that would assist the lungs in inhaling air.   Perhaps his “vacuum jacket” could save the lives of others with the same malady. 


Morning Oregonian

PORTLAND OREGON:  September 6, 1881



The Journey Accomplished without the Least Accident.



Portions of the Trip faster than a Mile a Minute—High Pulse and temperature last night–General Day of Prayer.

Etc. Etc. Etc.

Washington, Sept. 6.  The president was removed from the executive mansion at an early hour this morning to a special train at the depot, which was to convey him to Long Branch. The removal was successfully performed  without any mishap or noteworthy incident. The entire route was kept clear of vehicles by policemen stationed at every intersecting street. A number of people remained up all night at the outside of the gate of the mansion, and by the time the conveyance containing the president passed through the gates, another 150 persons had assembled to witness the departure and obtain a glimpse of the president.  When the president and party reached the depot, perhaps two thousand persons had gathered there.  The crowd was very quiet and orderly and the transfer of the president from the conveyance in which he rode to the car was watched in silence with apparent solitude lest some accident might occur.

That September the Bell family made plans to take an extended vacation in Europe to ease the loss of their son.   Perhaps a change in atmosphere would help them forget the past weeks of tragedy. Days before they were scheduled to leave, Aleck took the names and addresses of people who wanted to have bullets located.  “I would like to help them if possible before leaving, Mabel.  One letter especially, from the father of a little boy who was shot last year, I’d like to see if I could help.”

Morning Oregonian

PORTLAND OREGON:  Monday,  September 19, 1881



The Sad Close of a Noble Life





James A. Garfield Dies at 10:35 P.M. –Surrounded by Loved Ones he passes Peacefully over the Dark River amid the sorrow of the people he loved and served so well.


Elberon, Sept. 19. 10:45 P.M. The president died at 10:35 P.M. From what can be ascertained, his death was from sheer exhaustion.  Warren Young, assistant to private Secretary Brown, brought the news from the cottage at ten minutes before eleven. 

President Arthur Advised of his Death

Long Branch, Attorney General Mac-Veagh has just sent the following to Vice President Arthur:  “It becomes our painful duty to inform you of the death of  President Garfield, and to advise of taking the oath of office as president of the United States without delay.  If it concurs with your judgment, we will be very glad if you will come here on the earliest train tomorrow morning.

W.H. HUNT Sec’y of Navy

WM. WINDOM, Sec’y Treasury

THOS. L. JAMES Postmaster Gen’l

WAYNE MacVEAGH, Attn’y Gen’l

J.J. KIRKWOOD, Sec’y of Int’r


What the Great Journals think of the late President’s Life and Services.

New York.   The Tribune says: “The reaper death gathers the bravest and best. After a struggle which has kindled the administration of the world for his heroic manhood, president Garfield has gone.  From the still heights where prime and pain come not he looks down upon a mourning nation which he hoped to help by a wise discharge of his duty.  Worthier men than Abraham Lincoln and James A. Garfield this country has never seen in high station and each was taken early in his term of power and in the height of his manhood.

He Had Reached the Summit.

The Inter-Ocean says:  Hard as it is for one in the prime of manhood to die, the blow that has wrought this result was not so terrible to James A. Garfield as to the people who mourn the loss.  Death comes to all, and whether it be in a few hours, a few days or a few years, sooner or later it cannot matter much. In human life Gen. Garfield had reached the summit.  Sorrow cannot be too great at the loss of such a man.  His life, his services and his untimely and distressing death combine to make one of supreme and universal sorrow.  Let no unkind word come near it. Let no thoughtless expression jar upon the general sadness; but with tinkling bells and muffled drums let all that is mortal of James A. Garfield be borne to its last resting place amid the regrets, tears, and prayers of the millions who, shocked and suffering, gaze upon the pitying spectacle.

The news that day struck Bell hard.  He sat at his desk and read the accounts and eulogies of Garfield’s death and wrote in his journal. 

Sept. 20, 1881

Poor Garfield has gone I hope indeed that there may be an immortality for that brave spirit—If prayers could avail to save the sick, surely the earnest, heartfelt cry of a whole nation to God would have availed in this case. A.G.Bell

PLEASE RESPOND: How does this way of assembling the story a discovery?  If students had a raw file of this information that was not necessarily in order, what skills and work would they need to apply to make sense of it? Make a comment for this segment.

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