A US president died on the Jersey shore, but a small marker is all that’s left to remember

“James A. Garfield is dead,” reported the Red Bank Register on September 21, 1881, one of the many newspapers that carried the sad news from the Jersey Shore town of Long Branch that another US President had been killed by an assassin had been killed cartridge.

News that the 20th President of the United States had finally succumbed to the bullets of assassin Charles J. Guiteau at a Washington DC train station six months earlier from Garfield’s deathbed at Francklyn Cottage in Elberon, the ultra-rich, traveled the world section of Long Branch.

The cool salt air of the Jersey Shore offered the dying President an escape from muggy Washington, DC and a last chance for recovery. But all hope was lost on the night of September 19 when Garfield died of an abdominal hemorrhage.

“All that medical science could do has been done, complemented by the nation’s prayers to the All-Wise Being who governs the universe, that it be spared,” continued the story’s purple prose in the Red Bank Register. “But it shouldn’t be. Cowardly Guiteau’s bullet had done its job all too well.”

Within a day of Garfield’s death, thousands of people descended on Elberon and then, on the morning of September 21, lined up to pass the President in an open coffin on the ground floor of Francklyn Cottage. Later that day, crowds of mourners gathered on platforms from Long Branch to Princeton and on to Philadelphia to watch the train that took the President back to Washington.

Dubbed the “summer capital” by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, Long Branch hosted the rich and famous during the Golden Age of the late 19th century.

“It was the summer spot for presidents, for the rich, for industrialists, for actors and actresses,” said Richard Veit, associate dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at nearby Monmouth University. “It was the right place.”

Francklyn Cottage on the right hand side next to the Elberon Hotel in Long Branch.  President Garfield died at Francklyn Cottage on September 19, 1881.

Francklyn CottageCourtesy of the Long Branch Historical Museum Association

Today, the wealth remains, and Long Branch is still ‘the place to be’, although Francklyn’s ‘cottage’ – actually 20 sumptuously appointed sea-view rooms – is long gone, destroyed by fire in 1920 and quickly demolished. Also gone is the luxurious Elberon Hotel next door, where members of Garfield’s cabinet spent the last few days hoping for a miracle, which over the years has been replaced by houses by the sea.

Almost unnoticed amidst all this splendor is the spot where Garfield died. Behind the mansion wall, next to a garage at Garfield Place, is a small granite marker, no bigger than a tombstone. It can’t be seen from the main thoroughfare, Ocean Avenue, so not many people even know it’s there. To call the memorial an “understatement” would be, uh, an understatement.

Jim Foley, president of the Long Branch Historical Museum Association, said in a few years a small group will gather at the memorial on September 19 to commemorate President Garfield. And sometimes people come into town looking for it, he said.

“You’d be surprised. There are a lot of people who have heard about it or read about it and are actually looking for it,” he said.

The place where Garfield died has almost been an understatement ever since Francklyn Cottage burned down in 1920. For years there was only a bronze plaque marking the location. Things didn’t change until 1960, when a seventh-grade student from nearby Ocean Township, Bruce Frankel, began raising awareness that the site deserved a better marker than a small bronze plaque.

According to newspaper reports, Frankel managed to persuade a local memorial company to donate a stone, and the memorial was dedicated on September 19, 1961, the 80th anniversary of the President’s death. “He was just a kid who thought there should be something better,” Foley said.

A clearer marker is the gray, boarded up Church of the Presidents, located about a block away near the corner of Lincoln and Ocean Avenues. Built in 1879 with donations from wealthy Elberon residents, it was christened St. James Episcopal Chapel and hosted Sunday services for seven US Presidents who summered in Long Branch, from Ulysses S. Grant to Woodrow Wilson.

The chapel was deconsecrated in 1954 and is a national landmark. It remains boarded up while the Long Branch Historical Museum Association attempts to raise an estimated $4 million for the chapel’s restoration.

Church of Presidents

The interior of the Church of the Presidents in Long Branch.

Garfield, a native of Ohio, was a Union Army general who fought in the Battles of Shiloh and Chickamauga. Like Abraham Lincoln, Garfield was a Republican, and he was elected to Congress in 1862 and served nine terms before running for president in 1880.

Charles J. Guiteau was from Illinois, a deranged politician who wrote two speeches in support of Garfield’s election. Guiteau was furious that he had not rewarded Garfield with an appointment to the patronage of the American consulate in Paris after his election as president, a position for which historians say he was unsuited.

Back then, there was almost no security around the President when he traveled. When Garfield left the White House for the Baltimore and Potomac train station on July 2, 1881 to catch a train to New England, Guiteau was waiting for him, armed with a .44 British Bulldog revolver. Guiteau approached the President and fired two shots; One hit the President in the arm, the other in the back.

Garfield survived the shooting, but his medical team knew little about the use of antiseptics. They kept poking around the President with unclean hands, searching for the bullet and trying to treat the ever-spreading infection with a mixture of alcohol and morphine.

“The President was certainly a victim of Guiteau’s bullet,” Veit said. “But he was also a victim of a kind of committee death.”

Guiteau was arrested immediately after the shooting and never saw the outside of a prison cell. Guiteau, thinking the shooting would make him famous, pleaded insanity, but it took a jury less than an hour to convict him of murder. He was hanged on June 30, 1882.

This article is part of “Unknown New Jersey”, an ongoing series highlighting interesting and little-known stories about our past, present and future – all the unusual things that make our great state what it is. Do you have a story to tell? email to [email protected].

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