Thursday, April 18, 2024

The Garfield Memorial Tablet

Garfield Memorial  Tablet in the Baltimore & Potomac R. R. Depot

James Abram Garfield
of the
United States 
July 2, 1881

July 2, 1881 was the day President Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau.

{There are two answers to the question “Where was Garfield shot?” “In the back” and “At the 6th Street Station in Washington, DC.” this blogpost will examine the latter.}

This picture of the plaque appeared in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly Newspaper, December 17, 1881, page 269. The addition of the word “shot” makes the meaning clear.

The text accompanying the image in Leslie's says:


A MARBLE tablet was placed in the  ladie's waiting-room of the Baltimore and Potomac depot at Washington, last week, to mark the spot where President Garfield was shot. The tablet is of American statuary marble, and consists of a sill resting upon two corbels, outside of which are two pilasters representing the ax and fasces. Two draped flags form a canopy over the the inscription in gold letters:
        James Abram Garfield,
President of the United States.
   Shot July 2, 1881.
And the whole is surmounted by an eagle, with outstretched wings, holding in his talons a bundle of arrows and laurel-leaves.
Washington's Baltimore and Potomac Rail Road Depot (aka The Pennsylvania Depot) was located at 6th and B streets, where John Russell Pope's National Gallery of Art Building stands today. B Street was renamed Constitution Avenue in 1931. 

The Baltimore an Potomac Railroad Depot.

Leslies, July 16, 1881, pictured the event this way:
Washington, D. C. — The Attack on the President's Life
— Scene in the Ladie's Room of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Station. 
    — The Arrest of the Assassin.
From Sketches by Our Special Artist's A. Berohaus and C. Upham.

The “Ladie's Room” here refers to the lady's waiting room just inside the B street entrance to the station. The diagram below shows where, in the station, Garfield was shot: (emphasis mine).

This popular print shows “The Scene of the Assassination”.

by W. T. Mathews

Leslie's “special artists” depicted Garfield fallen to the floor.

The Attack on the President's Life
Mrs. Smith supporting the President
While Awaiting the Arrival of the Ambulance.

On November 3, 1881, a metal star was placed on the floor of the Ladies' Waiting Room to mark the spot where “President Garfield's head rested when he fell, after being shot by the assassin Guiteau.” See The Evening  Star, November 4, 1881.  And, on November 30,   the marble plaque was placed on the wall, above the star. See The Evening Star, November 30, 1881

Benson Lossing illustrated the arrangement in his 1882 biography of Garfield.

Tablet Erected in the Baltimore & Potomac Depot; Where President Garfield was Shot.

The District of Columbia Public Library has this undated photo of the plaque and the star.

In 1895, Soldier of Fortune Henry MacIver suggested that the memorial space should be enclosed, as  a “mark of reverence and respect for the illustrious dead” and to defend the star from being “trampled upon every minute of the day by the ignorant and careless, and often befouled with tobacco juice.” (See The New York Times, July 20, 1895.)

The plaque and star were permanently removed after a fire on March 4, 1897. It was generally believed that the management of the railroad station did not replace the memorials because they had become the object of superstition. (See The Kansas City JournalThe San Francisco Call, or The New York Times.)

The star marking the spot where Garfield was shot was replaced with a red tile contrasting with the blue and white tile flooring but otherwise unmarked.  The tile was stolen in 1907 just before the station closed.

The railroad depots in Washington were consolidated into Union Station in 1907. According to the Washington Times, the last train, No. 80,  left the 6th street station at 12:30 am. on November 17th 1907. The last train to arrive at the station was the Baltimore newspaper train at 4 am.  The Maysville Ky., Public Ledger summed it up:
All the railroads entering Washington now use the new Union Station. The historic old depot of the Baltimore and Potomac (Pennsylvania) where President Garfield was shot in 1882, was abandoned Sunday as a station. The stone and star marking the spot where Garfield fell was stolen by a vandal several years ago. The old depot will be moved and the Mall Park enlarged.
President Roosevelt ordered the old B&P depot hastily torn down in 1908

The star may have resurfaced in 1937 when, in the  process of building the National Gallery of Art, the old cornerstone of the Washington Memorial was discovered. The Washington Memorial was a building intended to take the place of the train station. The memorial was never built, but its cornerstone was laid in 1921.  An article in the Washington Post, describes the unexpected artifact:
One ornament on the box [in the cornerstone] created much interest in the offices through which it passed on its way to Mr. Shipe. It is a large gold star and, supposedly, was taken from the floor of the old railway station that was on the gallery site long before the George Washington Memorial thought of being there. According to legend, it marked the spot where President Garfield was standing when assassinated. 

In 1936, Sylvester Breen told the Washington Post that the probable spot where Garfield fell was to be found “near the center of Constitution avenue, some 30 or 40 feet west of the west curb of Sixth street”, based on his consultation with District engineers.


The Post remarks that “Some day, Breen hopes, a permanent marker will be erected on this spot”. Sylvester A. Breen was not only the number-one fan of the Washington Nationals,  he had personally witnessed the shooting of Garfield in 1881, as a 14-year-old newsboy. In 1937, a Washington Star headline read: “Witness to Garfield's Slaying Seeks to Mark Historic Spot.”

Dian Olson Belanger in Washington History Spring 1990, writes that:
In 1952, a Committee on Plaques for the National Capital Sesquicentennial recommended placing a marker on the National Gallery grounds to note the depot as the site of the Garfield assassination, but this plaque was never placed.
The location of President Garfield's assassination remained unmarked until November 19, 2018 when the National Park Service unveiled two historical markers on the Mall at the south front of the National Gallery. See HMdb, here and here for more on these markers.

My God! What is this?

James Garfield's Legacy

The  latter marker points to Garfield's Statue which is treated in the Portrait Gallery blog.

John Quincy Adams Ward's 1887 Statue of Garfield in front of the Capitol. 
James A. Garfield



    As an aside: Goode, 1981,  explains the Wreck of the Old 97 and the role  of the B&P station in the events memorialized in that ballad.

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