Lucretia “Crete” Rudolph Garfield (1832-1918) was a well educated young woman. She was sent first to the Geauga Eclectic (similar to a prep school), followed by attending Hiram College, today part of Case-Western Reserve in Ohio.
She had known James Abram Garfield since they were classmates in their early teens. They became engaged when they graduated Hiram. While he later attended Williams College in Massachusetts, she taught school. In other words, she was a “modern” woman of the mid-nineteenth century.
Engagement aside, the differences in personalities between young Mr. and Mrs. Garfield were apparent from the start. He was big, strapping, outgoing, handsome, with piercing blue eyes, athletic and smart as a whip. She was petite, shy, somewhat withdrawn, bookish, and reluctant to share her feelings. Some would call her introverted.
Bad Years and Better Years
They married and began a family at the outset of the Civil War, which affected them as much as it affected nearly everyone in the country. Despite the fact that JAG had become the President of Hiram College, he opted to study law as a better preparation for academic leadership. Politics, particularly his strong anti-slavery sentiments, led elsewhere, and he won a seat in the Ohio legislature, where he continued to read law. Then, after Fort Sumter, he believed it his duty to enlist in the Union Army.
As might be expected, between the War, the disparity in personal dynamics and long and frequent separations, the marriage was rocky for several years. Crete once wrote that in 5 years of marriage, they had spent only 5 months living as man and wife. When Garfield won a Republican seat in Congress and went to Washington, his attitude toward his wife began to change, partly due to their shared grief at the death of their two-year-old baby.
When Garfield brought Crete to Washington the marriage began to thrive. Six more children would be born to them. They enjoyed an active social set, exchanged dinners and outings with select friends, participated in book clubs and conversation groups, and always found time to spend with their children.
After nearly two decades in Washington, James A. Garfield was named as the Republican candidate for President in 1880, surprising just about everybody.
It was also an incredibly tight election. Less than 10,000 votes separated Garfield-the-winner from Winfield Scott Hancock-the-loser.
The FLOTUS and Dr. Susan
Six weeks after the 1881 inauguration, Crete became seriously ill with malaria. Then and now, it was a dreaded disease, and a recurrent one. Survivors could expect another bout sooner or later. Always petite, Crete became frail, and for a time, was in grave danger.
Dr. Susan Edson (1823-97), a “female” doctor was called in. She was one of the first women in the country to attend a medical school (Cleveland Homeopathic College). By 1880, women doctors specializing in treatment of females and/or children, were becoming popular, particularly with better educated women. Dr. Edson had treated the last Garfield child (baby Edward), who died before his second birthday. The family had grown close to “Dr. Susan”.
There was no doubt that the ailing FLOTUS had full confidence in her woman-doctor. And, when he wasn’t working, the President seldom left his wife’s bedside.
By late-May, she began showing signs of recovery. But there was concern that the hot summer weather in still-boggy Washington might cause a relapse. By the end of the month, it was agreed that Mrs. G. spend a month or so in Long Branch, NJ, a seaside town, where the ocean breezes and salty air might speed her recovery.
President Garfield was seen escorting his frail wife to the train station. He was already being stalked by a strange fellow intent on assassination.
Two weeks later, the POTUS went to visit his wife at the shore, where, happily, she was recovering. He also shared his plans for a badly needed vacation in New England a couple of weeks later.
Assassination, Derailment and More…
The plan was that the President and several of his cabinet members-cum-spouses would meet Mrs. Garfield in Long Branch en route to Massachusetts.
The President had barely arrived at the train station on July 2, than that strange fellow intent on assassination pumped two bullets into his body. Charles Julius Guiteau was immediately apprehended; and the wounded Garfield slumped to the ground, shaken, in pain, but conscious and coherent.
One of the first things he did was dictate a telegram to his wife, advising her of the situation, assured her that he was “himself,” and directed her to return to the White House at once. As telegraph messages about the “incident” were flooding the entire country, the Long Branch community descended upon Mrs. Garfield with offers of assistance. The Pennsylvania Railroad immediately sent a private train to bring her and her small party back to Washington. Meanwhile, after nearly two hours of well-meaning but inept medical attention, it was Garfield himself who instructed that he be brought back to the White House. In shock and in pain, he restlessly awaited his wife’s arrival.
It should have been a four hour trip, but en route, her train derailed. While there was no injury, another train had to be sent to rescue the First Lady and her escorts, sweltering in the July sun. They did not arrive at the White House for more than seven hours. It was said that once he heard her footsteps on the stairs, the fitful Garfield could finally rest.
Still frail from her illness, Crete Garfield promised her husband that “she would nurse him back to health just as he had nursed her.”
He lasted ten weeks before he expired.
Other than a few dinners and bi-weekly receptions that first month, she never hosted a White House gala, or any major event.
She outlived him by more than 30 years.
Ackerman, Kenneth D. – The Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003
Balch, William Ralston – Life of President Garfield – Hubbard Brothers, 1881
Brown, E.E. The Life and Public Services of James A. Garfield, D. Lothrop & Company , 1881