Thursday, October 27, 2016

Dead Presidents

by Rachel Dworkin, Archivist

Over the course of United States history, four presidents have been assassinated in office: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy.  In each instance, their deaths rocked the nation. Here at the Chemung County Historical Society we have a surprisingly large collection of material associated with each presidential assassination.
Abraham Lincoln (April 14, 1865)

Thanks to the telegraph, news of President Lincoln’s death spread like wildfire. The assassination shocked and enraged a nation still reeling from the aftermath of the recently-ended Civil War.  His assassination was part of a larger plot to re-start the war. At the time of Lincoln’s death, one of the conspirators, John Surrat, was in Elmira scouting out the Confederate prisoner of war camp in the hopes of opening up a second front behind enemy lines.  He fled to Canada when he heard of Lincoln’s death and was never convicted for his involvement in the conspiracy. 
After lying in state for two days in Washington, D.C., Lincoln’s body was placed on a funeral train which went on to visit 12 cities in 13 days. A public funeral service was held for the president in each city before he was finally laid to rest in Springfield, Illinois, on May 3, 1865. Although the funeral train never visited Elmira, the city did hold a massive public funeral service for him in Wisner Park.
Mourning ribbon worn at the funeral service for Abraham Lincoln in Wisner Park, 1865

James Garfield (July 2, 1881)
President Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau shortly after taking office and died of his wounds eleven weeks later.  During his trial it became clear that Guiteau was mentally unstable.  He claimed that he killed Garfield out of revenge for not being appointed as the ambassador to France.  

Invitation to the hanging of Charles Guiteau, 1882
Local reporter J.H. Post was invited to attend the hanging of Charles Guiteau on June 30, 1882 in Washington, D.C.  Afterwards, he received a piece of the rope used to hang the assassin.  CCHS has the letter from the hangman authenticating it, but the actual rope fragment has been lost to time.

William McKinley (September 6, 1901)
President McKinley was shot by anarchist Leon Czolgosz while attending the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, on September 6, 1901.  Over the next few days, the nation watched anxiously as he seemed to recover.  On September 13th, he took a turn for the worse when his wounds became infected and died the next morning. 

Pan-American Exposition at night taken by Robert Turner, local amateur photographer

John F. Kennedy (November 22, 1963)
President Kennedy was shot by while riding in a motorcade in Dallas, Texas, by assassin Lee Harvey Oswald. His assassination was captured on film by several people in the audience, including Dallas resident Abraham Zapruder.  The Zapruder film was purchased by Life magazine and key frames from it appeared in November and December issues. On the TV, the nation watched live coverage of Kennedy’s funeral and witnessed his family’s grief firsthand.

Thank-you letter from Jackie Kennedy in response to a letter of condolence sent by Mr. & Mrs. Bernard Webb

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