One day after the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in 1963, I got to thinking about just how many assassination attempts had been undertaken against U.S. presidents—the vast majority of them, thankfully, having failed (or been thwarted). I thought I would use the occasion of this sorrowful anniversary to reflect on the way in which the press and the public reacted to and commemorated the deaths of the four presidents (Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and JFK) who were slain.

Perhaps the most famous and well-known president whose life was cut short by assassination was Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865), our sixteenth chief executive and commander-in-chief during the troubled times of the American Civil War. Lincoln’s murder by the actor John Wilkes Booth in Ford’s Theater is probably so well-known to most Americans that there is no need to go into the details of the conspiracy by Southern sympathizers embittered by military defeat in the failed bid for Southern secession. Instead I have included two woodcuts depicting the doleful event originally designed and carved from blocks by the artist Charles Turzak (1899-1986) at the Lincoln Village at the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago, 1933.



Thirty-six of these woodcuts were completed and were used by printer George C. Domke to create a limited edition wordless book about the life of the president. The book tells the story of Lincoln’s rise from humble “log cabin” origins to the highest office in the land, all the while wrestling with the issue of slavery threatening to forever divide the nation.




The Lincoln Village where Turzak carved these blocks was itself designed to commemorate the fallen president. The display included replicas of the log cabin in which he was born, as well as one modeled on his humble home in Indiana.


Souvenir view books and publications from the fair show that the Lincoln Village site also included replicas of the store in which he clerked as a young man, and the “Wigwam” convention center and meeting hall where he was nominated for president.

XC2009.12.5.3_005-Marshall, Charles L.


An earlier international exhibition also held in Chicago, the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, had also memorialized the dead president. The entrance ticket to the fair printed by the American Bank Note Company of New York included a portrait of the president.


The number and location of Lincoln statues and memorials are too numerous to catalog here, so I will only provide an illustration of the “great emancipator” made by the sculptor, Lee Lawrie (1877-1963) and published in an artist’s monograph in the Wolfsonian library collection.


In the wake of presidential assassination, the press and public have often seemed transfixed by a morbid fascination with the scene of the crime. Ford’s Theater, for example, remains today a historical site visited by tourists and schoolchildren, and over the years its façade was reproduced in souvenir postcards.



Our twentieth President, James Garfield (1831-1881) was also killed by an assassin: Charles Guiteau. Guiteau was a mentally unbalanced individual who felt betrayed at not having been awarded a federal appointment as a consul in Paris despite having no qualifications for that position. Ironically, President Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln was among the group escorting Garfield to his alma mater, Williams College, where the president was scheduled to deliver a speech. Guiteau had been stalking the president for some weeks, and when the party entered the Sixth Street Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station in Washington, D.C., the deranged assassin shot President Garfield in the back with a .44 caliber revolver. President Garfield did not immediately die from his wounds. Inventor Alexander Graham Bell even rigged together a metal detector in an attempt to locate the bullet lodged behind his pancreas, but the surgeon failed to find and remove the bullet. After suffering with infection and fever for more than two and one half months, the bedridden president finally succumbed. Guiteau, in spite of his counsel’s insanity plea, was convicted of Garfield’s murder and executed in 1882.

Although a number of monuments were created to memorialize President Garfield in the years immediately following his assassination, it was not until May 19, 1890 that Garfield’s body was permanently interred in a mausoleum designed by architect George Keller (1842-1935) and located in the Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio. The monument includes exterior bas-relief panels by sculptor Caspar Buberl (1834-1899) while the interior features a marble statue of Garfield executed by Alexander Doyle (1857-1922) as well as some impressive stained glass windows. The dedication ceremonies were attended by former, present, and future presidents: Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison, and William McKinley.


Just as Lincoln’s humble “log cabin” origins had been celebrated at the 1933-34 world’s fair at Chicago, so too was a memorial cabin erected for President Garfield at the Great Lakes Exposition in Cleveland, Ohio in 1936.


President William McKinley (1843-1901) was killed only seven months after his inauguration into his second term as president.



On September 5, 1901, McKinley arrived at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York where he delivered a speech before a crowd of 50,000 spectators. Afterwards, the president entered the ornate Temple of Music pavilion to receive the public.


Armed with a revolver and influenced by the radical Socialist and anarchist doctrines of Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, Leon Czolgosz got in the reception line and instead of shaking the President’s hand, fired two shots into his stomach at close range. An electric ambulance conveyed the wounded president to the exhibition’s operating theatre, but while the exteriors of many of the exhibition buildings were adorned with decorative electrical lights, the interior of the “hospital” was dimly lit with windows and was really only equipped to deal with minor injuries.



The surgeon called to the scene had little experience in abdominal surgery and no one thought to use a primitive X-ray machine that was on display elsewhere on the exposition grounds to help find the bullet. Although McKinley’s condition appeared to improve in the days following the shooting, the president sickened and died of an infection eight days later. An elaborate funeral parade was organized in the nation’s capital and McKinley’s flag-draped coffin was carried into the Court House in Canton, Ohio by an honor guard of soldiers and sailors.




McKinley’s assassin was tried and convicted and sentenced to death in the electric chair.

Although I was not old enough to remember President John F. Kennedy’s assassination—having been born the month before—I do remember my mother telling me how she had heard the news with me lying on her lap. While the Kennedy assassination lies outside the 1851-1945 scope of the Wolfsonian collection, we do have a number of study collection materials relating to the tragic event of November 22, 1963. As in the case of some of the other murdered presidents, the public has been obsessed with the scene of the crime. Retired MIT professor and former Wolfsonian fellow Eric Dluhosch gifted an oversized postcard to the library some years back that shows the path of the motorcade and the sniper’s perch.



Other collectors have donated copies of the newspapers announcing Kennedy’s assassination, and then the killing of his presumed assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald.

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It is my hope that we can use the occasion of this sad anniversary not to focus on the violent death of the president, but to celebrate his deeds and accomplishments.

~ by "The Chief" on November 23, 2013.


  1. Thanks. Great Blog Chief!

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