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My Friend Garfield

July 2024
15min read

One summer brought excitement and glory to the young secretary of a political leader. How could he know that the next one would brim with tragedy?

In 1880, Joseph Stanley Brown—there was no hyphen m the name then—just short of his twenty-second birthday, had a job that almost any young man might envy, as secretary to Ohio’s Congressman James A. Garfield. A product of Washington’s public schools, Brown was self-tutored in shorthand and typewriting, the latter a new and rare skill. His grandfather was an English fugitive from debtor’s prison named Nathaniel Stanley, who adopted the name of James Brown on arrival in Baltimore but whose male descendants kept Stanley as a middle name.

Young Joseph had found work with Major John Wesley Powell, the future director of the United States Geological Survey. One day Powell’s friend, Congressman Garfield, asked for a young man who could help him with his vast correspondence. The geologist sent Brown, who at once endeared himself when he appeared unidentified before Garfield and was asked: “Well, young man, what can I do for you?” “It’s not what you can do for me, ” answered Brown, “but what I can do for you, sir. ”

Soon thereafter, the political fates whirled Brown upward. Garfield was nominated for the Presidency by the Republicans and was elected. But only four months after the inauguration a frustrated, demented notoriety-seeker shot him. After a summer of lingering agony Garfield died. [See “Murder Most Foul,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE August, 1964]

After the tragedy Brown remained close to the Garfield family. The widow asked him to put her husband’s papers in order—a task that took him more than a year. She then helped him financially to attend Yale’s Sheffield Scientific School—and said: “Joseph, you ‘ll lose that Stanley from your name if you don’t annex it permanently.” Thereupon he had himself legally renamed Stanley-Brown. Meanwhile love had ripened between him and Garfield’s only daughter, Mary, known to her intimates as Mollie. They were married m 1888. Probably at some time m the ensuing ten years, while living in Washington, he composed an autobiographical memoir containing a poignant section that described his year with Garfield as candidate, President-elect, President, and dying man. Stanley-Brown from then on pursued a career that included service on the Bering Sea Arbitration Commission, assistance to two railroad leaders, Edward H. Harnman and William H. Baldwin, and investment banking. He died in 1941

His manuscript recollections then came into the hands of his daughter, Ruth, who was married to Herbert Feis, a well-known diplomatic historian and State Department official. Ruth Feu, herself a writer and editor, remembers childhood days spent in the Garfield home at Mentor, Ohio, poring over the black-bordered newspapers that told of her grandfather’s death. She has kindly provided A MERICAN H ERITAGE with this touching portion of the unpublished work.

Garfield’s nomination was a triumph achieved in a bruising mtraparty convention fight that left the Grand Old Party sadly weakened. The Republicans had split into factions. The issues dividing the two groups were never clear-cut, but the rivalry was bitter. One controversial question was whether to continue the vigorous espousal of Negro rights, a Republican trademark in Reconstruction, or to pursue a more cautious line, aimed at cooling sectional tensions and winning conservative northern votes from the Democrats.

In June, 1880, General Garfield received the nomination for President at the Chicago convention in a most dramatic and unexpected manner. Almost immediately after the convention closed he spent a few days in Washington to gather up the loose ends. On the fifteenth of June I was passing his old home at the noon hour when he stepped out of a carriage and I stopped to congratulate him—a thing I should have done at his hotel had not the foolish pride of youth held me back. His salutation was, “Where have you been; I need all my friends now. Please stand by, old man, and look after things as usual.” I could not refrain from asking if he had been lonesome, which brought his delightful laugh. I did as he requested for two or three days and then in a state of mind bordering on ecstasy started with him for Ohio. Without my knowledge the General had again arranged matters with the Major [Powell]. Events were certainly moving at an accelerating pace for me, and every day held a new thrill.

Caring for a Presidential nominee’s correspondence in those days was no joke. There were from one hundred to three hundred letters daily, endless details to be taken care of, and many interruptions to be endured. There was no organized staff as there would be now, with expert stenographers and typists, and no telephone—only one pair of hands to hold down the job. It was drudgery, but for an impressionable youth there was great exhilaration in this game of national politics, and besides, there were frequent games of croquet for recreation (?) in those “days of innocence.”

With the election assured, came a welcome lull, and there are delightful memories of family councils in the evenings before the winter fires, when every aspect of the future was discussed from White House decorations to Cabinets. The General’s habit of mind was to try things on the dog, and very often that position fell to me but always with the privilege of barking back. It was all vastly stimulating, and one matured with an age not measured by years.

The many serious, humorous, and even ridiculous episodes of that “campaign summer” would fill a volume. The following two stand out most sharply in my memory.

There had been a great Republican rally at the “Wigwam” [a political clubhouse] at Warren, Ohio. The prominent political leaders were there, and the question arose as to calling on the nominee. In view of the drubbing which the Conkling wing of the party had received at Chicago, largely through the generalship of Garfield, this plan did not awaken much enthusiasm; but the aged and astute Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania [once a member of Lincoln’s Cabinet] said it must be done, and his authoritative decision was accepted. His son, Senator Don Cameron, General U. S. Grant, Senator Conkling and General [John A.] Logan [one-time senator from Illinois] came by special train to Mentor. My duty was to see that the driver had the big two-horse carryall at the station on the dot and to escort the distinguished party to the house. … En route this incident occurred. General Grant said in reflective, quiet tones, in the midst of conversation among the “big four,” “Well, I never like to give a man the benefit of knowing what I think of him.” Senator Conkling broke in, loud and resonant, with, “Well, I do! I remember a reporter from a well-known New York newspaper calling on me for an interview. I received him and said, ‘Young man, what I shall say in no way reflects on you, for you are only doing your duty, but return to your chief and tell him that Senator Conkling will have nothing to do with a journal founded on corruption, fattened on bribery, and edited by a thief.’”…

In the closing days of the campaign, when the autumn chill was in the air and the days in northern Ohio were chiefly gray and depressing, the colored Jubilee Singers from [all-Negro] Fisk University [in Nashville, Tennessee], on tour and filling an engagement in Painesville nearby, asked to come and sing to the nominee. A few neighbors were invited, and the big living room was well filled. There was an unaccountable sense of hush and expectancy. As the General passed by me in the hall he said rather tensely, “My boy! I am going to say a word to them if it kills me.” I knew that something was coming, and as there were no reporters present—praises be—I grabbed a notebook and, holding it against the wall, made a verbatim report of the proceedings, which soon took on a decidedly dramatic aspect. There had been an affecting little speech by the leader of the quartet prior to beginning, and as the singers poured out their melodious and at the same time vibrant but mournful spirituals, the little audience became increasingly emotional. Tears were trickling down the cheeks of many of the women, and one staid old gentleman blubbered audibly behind a door. At the conclusion of the program the General arose and, standing at ease beside the fireplace with his hand resting lightly on the mantel, his address began in low conversational tones, using rhetorical periods which his audience from the South could quickly grasp. He made plain to them his understanding of the needs and aspirations of a race out of place, then suddenly straightening himself up, he closed his brief remarks with the following words delivered in clear, ringing tones, “And I tell you now, in the closing days of this campaign, that I would rather be with you and defeated than against you and victorious.” For a moment there was complete silence and then a sound as of human expirations in unison.


The “story” of the meeting and a copy of the speech appeared in the Cleveland papers, but the closing paragraph was temporarily omitted by the reporter of that interesting event.

Mentor was abandoned on February 28 [1881], and the following morning saw us all domiciled at the Riggs House in Washington, opposite the Treasury Department. Then the turmoil began. The steady grind of work in Ohio which had somewhat dimmed the glamour surrounding the situation was nothing compared with the strain and fatigue which was to come in the next few months. The days of the first, second, and third of March were devoted to stemming the tide of callers and playing a game of hide-and-seek with competing aspirants for Cabinet honors who did not wish to be seen. Aided by my friend Hatch [LorenzoJ. Hatch, an artist], I devoted the night of the third to making a fair copy of the President’s message for delivery at the Capitol the following morning and two flimsies for the rival news bureaus. Very primitive indeed compared with modern methods. By eight o’clock in the morning my task was done, the flimsies delivered, and I fled utterly exhausted to the Massachusetts Avenue home for breakfast and badly needed sleep. I woke in the afternoon about four and went to the White House. As I entered the grounds … I speculated in whimsical fashion as to how I should effect an entrance into that imposing structure. Then the miraculous happened. Hardly was my foot on the last step when the door flew open and a Negro doorman’s voice said in the most ingratiating tones, “Dis way, Mr. Secretary, Colonel [William K.] Rogers (President Hayes’ Secretary) is waiting for you upstairs.” Perhaps the doorman had seen my picture in a paper and shrewdly applied his knowledge.


Next morning, the fifth, I breakfasted with the President again, but this time with almost a sad note he said, “Stand by my boy and look after things. I need all my friends now.”

I proceeded to my desk on the second floor, and at ten o’clock I was in a veritable maelstrom of office seekers. Each day saw the milling of a hungry mob of job hunters working overtime. I understood what it meant to be thrown into a den of wild beasts as were the ancient martyrs. The President very felicitously characterized the attitude of these office seekers when he said one day in utter desperation, “These people are merciless; they demand blood, flesh, and brains.”

Fortunately I knew Washington life, had no illusions, some courage, a fair sense of humor, and intense loyalty to my chief. In those primitive days of indifferent organization, when the private secretaryship was not political, the protection of the President from the public—and I might add his friends—was his secretary’s paramount duty. Later I was to read in the President’s diary his appreciation of my efforts in that direction.

It should be remembered that this was a period when the rule of “to the victor belong the spoils” was still in full force. My first step was to issue an order that no cards or persons could go to the President unless approved by his secretary. The net result was that from ten to four an ever-changing group of from twenty to forty men and women of all grades of intelligence were in and about the office of the private secretary, seeking personal favors from the President. This was a terrible tax on patience and ingenuity. Here are some illustrations of the types of incidents which occurred.

The term of the postmistress of Fort Worth, Texas, was about to expire. She had interviewed the Postmaster General and, finding her chances for reappointment were slim, broke through the rules of procedure and fled to the President as a last resort. As she told her story, she grew increasingly emotional and incoherent and finally burst into a flood of hysterical weeping, much to the interest of the many onlookers. The only thing to be done was to place her firmly but gently in an easy chair commanding a view of the beautiful grounds with its early spring flowers and whistling blackbirds, and admonish her to regain composure. The dear lady made other and less tearful calls and, if my memory is not at fault, the Postmaster General in the end proved to be kind.


The afternoon papers [one day] announced the sudden death of the Baltimore postmaster. When the President heard the sad news he exclaimed, “All Baltimore will be here before breakfast tomorrow.” I had hardly reached my office next morning when the delegations representing aspirants for official preferment began filing in. There were four of them, and I placed each group in a corner of the large room. When they had cooled their heels for about an hour I went to the library and said, “Well Mr. President, nearly all of Baltimore is here as you predicted.” His reply was, “What shall we do?” I suggested that in a few minutes he should step into the center of my room, call the delegations to him, and tell them to agree on a candidate at once. This was done. The surprise was complete, backbiting was impossible and, with a little tactful steering from the President, the plan worked. The delegates had hardly left the building before the name of the postmaster of Baltimore was on its way to the Senate for confirmation.

The President’s friends were sometimes very courteous and sometimes quite otherwise. The delightful Colonel [Robert G.] “Bob” Ingersoll strolled in one day and, walking to my desk, drawled out, “I see by the placard, Mr. Secretary, that the President sees members and senators on Tuesdays and Fridays. When does he see gentlemen ?” I replied, “Colonel, this is your lucky day,” and he secured an interview with the minimum of delay.

About four o’clock at the end of an especially devastating day, Associate Justice [Stephen J.) Field of the Supreme Court, unannounced, bustled in and informed me in brusque tones that he desired to see the President at once . Now of course an Associate Justice of the United States has the right of way if one is available, but the President was keeping a very important appointment and could not be disturbed. Unfortunately for me I knew that fact but the caller did not. There was an indignant demand to know why an Associate Justice could not see the President, but that was just what he was not to know. It was carefully explained to him that at the earliest possible moment an appointment would be made and he would be informed by note delivered by a special messenger. Even this conciliatory procedure could not entirely smooth the ruffled plumage of the Associate Justice. When arranging the interview I found the President a sympathetic and even joyous listener.

There was one event which gave me the keenest satisfaction. By agreement with Major Powell, the creator of the U.S. Geological Survey, Clarence King, a distinguished geologist, had been made its first director. In the course of a year he grew very weary of administrative work and resigned. It was my great pleasure to see to it that the Major’s nomination as director was promptly sent to the Senate for confirmation.

Even though all matters relating to appointments were remorselessly referred to the heads of departments and more callers “paying their respects” to the President were limited to a few minutes of grace just prior to the lunch hour, the days were abnormally burdensome, yet on the whole interesting.

Late in May there were six million dollars of United States registered bonds to be sent to London. It appeared that the custom had grown up of making such tasks a junket for worthy citizens selected by the Treasury or by the President. The latter asked Mrs. Garfield, who was recovering from a serious illness, if she cared to name a candidate. She replied, “Why do you not send your private secretary? From his looks I should say he needed a vacation badly,” and that is how I happened to make my first trip to Europe. Whatever success I have had in life is largely due to the constant kindness of that marvelous friend, Mrs. Garfield.

It is true that the old converted side-wheeler City of Berlin had to be utilized for my trip; that my room companion was an incessant and annoying drinker; that only seven days were available for seeing London, and that our kindly consul general insisted on taking me to see the musical comedy Jeanne, Jeannette and Jeanneton at the Alhambra, which I detested; nevertheless it was a delightful, educational experience and I returned greatly rested. I reported for duty on the last one of my thirty days’ leave of absence. In view of the tragic episode which was soon to occur it was fortunate that I had this bracer. On the evening of my return I saw the President and breakfasted with him the following morning when many things were gone over, as he was to start that day on his first holiday. It was to include a visit, with his entire family, to his Alma Mater at Williamstown, Massachusetts. He was looking forward to it with an almost pathetic longing. Leaving the breakfast table, I went to my office. The force had kept the decks clear of business during my absence and I quickly fell into the usual routine. It was near midsummer [Saturday, July 2, 1881]. Congress was not in session, and as practically all the loaves and fishes had been divided among the faithful by this time there were few visitors. About the middle of the morning my door opened, and the President, accompanied by Secretary of State Blaine, stepped into the room. The carriage was waiting, and my chief had graciously come to say good-bye. Never have I seen two finer looking specimens of men. Clad in attractive, well-valeted summer suits, they appeared, as they smilingly said their farewell, almost debonair or rather like two splendid college boys off for a joyous lark. The President’s last words, the last I ever heard him speak [before his injury], were, “Goodbye my boy. You have had your holiday, now I am going to have mine. Keep a watchful eye on things and use the telegraph freely if necessary.” With a friendly handclasp, he went to his ghastly fate.


In about half an hour one of the doormen came haltingly and timidly to my desk and said, “Mr. Secretary, there is a rumor that the President has been shot.” I seemed suddenly congealed but managed to say with only a fairly good imitation of nonchalance, “Nonsense! The President has no enemies and the story cannot possibly be true,” but even as I said the words there flashed through my mind the memory of the terrific clash between the President and the Conkling group over federal patronage and the possibility of sinister consequences. The thought was promptly dismissed as not only fantastic but unjust to the senator. Hardly had the doorman retired abashed by my rebuff when the mounted messenger, Sheridan, literally staggered to my desk, saying, “Oh, Mr. Secretary, it’s true, they are bringing the President to the White House now.” A disordered mind [Charles J. Guiteau], influenced perhaps by the recent acrimonious contest, did a deed in a second which plunged a nation into gloom, brought the deepest anguish to a loving and devoted family, and condemned a gallant gentleman to eighty days of suffering and ultimate death. No experience of mine in after life offered such a shock. The temple had fallen, and the idols lay shattered.

Even in moments of greatest misery, homely tasks have to be performed, and perhaps they tide us over the worst. The steward was told to prepare a room and bed with all speed. I ordered the gates of the grounds closed, telegraphed the chief of police for a temporary but adequate detail of officers, and requested the War Department to take charge of the proper protection of the situation especially as it affected the Commander in Chief of the Army. Instructions were issued that only officials and newspaper men were to be admitted, and they were given passes which ensured them access at all times to my office in order that full and accurate information could be given to the public. The President had been placed on a pile of mattresses commandeered from a Pullman car and arranged in an express wagon. From the windows, we watched the slowly moving improvised ambulance. Just before it reached the White House I went to the south portico to receive my wounded chief, and as they bore him carefully up the stairway his hand feebly moved in recognition and around his lips hovered a wan smile.

The Executive Mansion was quickly organized into a miniature hospital. All the pomp and circumstance of the previous days vanished. The affectionate interest of a great nation was centered around the sufferer’s bed.


Even if the bungling use of the [surgeon’s] probe [seeking for the bullet] had not provided a perfect highway of infection, the surgical technique of that day could not have saved him. At the present time [probably the 1890’s], given his splendid physique and great power of resistance, modern surgery and modern equipment would have pulled him through.

This is not the place to dwell on the details of the dreadful days of alternate hopes and fears which followed. Two episodes, however, occurred which seemed to strike even deeper than that first staggering blow. One night, Mrs. Garfield sent for me. Waiting a moment until control of her voice was assured, she said, “Will you tell me just what you think the chances are for the General’s recovery?” One look in the anguished face of that wonderful woman and I threw truthfulness to the winds, and lied and lied as convincingly and consolingly as I could. As soon as decency permitted I excused myself, but once beyond the door all restraint gave way and I was an utterly shattered and broken secretary. The whole period was one prolonged, hideous nightmare, but that experience left its mark like a brand on the naked flesh.

The final end came the last bitter night at Elberon by the ocean where the President had been taken in order to escape the intolerable heat of a Washington summer. I had gone to my room after leaving word with the faithful Daniel [a servant] to call me if necessary. Towards midnight there came the fateful tap on my door. I can still hear the long, solemn roll of the sea on the shore as I did on that night of inky darkness, when I walked from my cottage to his bedside. The family [Mrs. Garfield and Mollie; Garfield’s four sons were not there] and physicians were present, and the scene was tragic and harrowing beyond words to describe. Gradually the gasping breath came at longer and longer intervals, and in a few minutes the venerable Dr. Hamilton stepped to the bedside and gently and tenderly composed the features of the heroic soul he had learned to love.

The final agony was the autopsy. It was deemed desirable that some member of the official household should be present. Tediously, the ghoulish business went on without any very important results until Dr. Agnew, who had been an attentive observer, stepped forward and ran his little finger down the exposed and exceptionally large spinal column until it slipped entirely through the one vertebra pierced by the bullet. Turning to the group he said, “Gentlemen, this was the fatal wound. We made a mistake,” and slowly walked out of the room.

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