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First Ladies: Lucretia Garfield had little time in the White House

By Betty Etchison West

Cana/Pino Correspondent

William Henry Harrison or one of his soldiers killed the Indian, Tecumseh. Tecumseh’s brother, The Prophet, declared he would get revenge by putting a curse on the United States presidency. He said that the President who was elected every 20 years would die in office beginning with William Henry Harrison.  Harrison died after he had served as President for only 31 days.

Twenty years later, Abraham Lincoln, who had just been re-elected, was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth.

Twenty years after Lincoln’s death, James A. Garfield, the 20th President, was shot by a disgruntled office seeker, and he died just over two months later.He had served as President of the United States for six months.

Was The Prophet really able to put a curse on the United States Presidency?

Lucretia Rudolph was born on April 19, 1832, to Arabella Mason Rudolph and Zebulon Rudolph. She was born in Hiram, Ohio.  Her father was a farmer, who was interested in education. He was one of the founders of the Disciples of Christ School, the Eclectic Institute.  Lucretia attended Geauga Seminary and then the Eclectic Institute. It was there that Lucretia met an out-going, affectionate man, James Garfield.  He was different from Lucretia, who was quiet and reserved.  They were interested in each other, but there seemed to be a question about whether they were suited for each other since their personalities were so different. They did have certain things in common.They were both were members of the Disciples of Christ Church—actually Garfield was an ordained preacher in that denomination. James and Lucretia were both interested in education and both enjoyed reading, lectures, and concerts. (James Garfield is the only ordained preacher who has served as President of the United States to date-2021.)

Garfield went away to Williams College in Massachusetts. Lucretia stayed in Ohio and became a teacher. James and Lucretia had long courtship which had many off and on periods. At times, James wasn’t sure that he really loved Lucretia, but, in the end, love won. They were married in 1858 when Lucretia, who was sometimes called “Crete,” was 26 and James was 27.

When the Civil War began, Garfield joined the Union Army.  While he was away, Lucretia was often miserable as she pondered whether her husband really did love her. James also wondered if the marriage was a mistake. Finally the war was over, and Garfield returned home.

He was elected to Congress, and the family moved to Washington—the family was a large one. The Garfields had eight children, but only five survived. Those Washington years turned out to be good ones for the Garfield family. James and Lucretia enjoyed each other’s company. They enjoyed traveling, attending cultural events, and reading. Those Washington years were happy ones for a couple who once had such misgivings about their marriage.

After serving in the House of Representatives, Mr. Garfield was elected as a Senator.  Before he took office, he was chosen as the Republican candidate for President of the United States. Mrs. Garfield seemed to have always believed that he should be President someday. The 1880 Republican Convention finally agreed, and he was nominated after 34 ballots. Mr. Garfield campaigned that summer from the front porch of his home in Mentor, Ohio. He was the first candidate to do so. People came from all over on horseback, in buggies, and even by train to hear the candidate speak. Garfield won the election by a narrow margin.

The Garfields moved to the White House where they enjoyed a pleasant family life. The following is description of Mrs. Garfield’s role as First Lady from the book, The First ladies, by Margaret Brown Klapthor describes Mrs. Garfield role as First Lady:  “Though Mrs. Garfield was not particularly interested in a First Lady’s social duties, she was deeply conscientious, and her genuine hospitality made her dinners and twice-weekly receptions enjoyable. At the age of 49, she was still a slender, graceful little woman with clear dark eyes, her brown hair beginning to show traces of silver.”

Mrs. Garfield got sick sometime after the inauguration and went to a resort to recover. While she was there, she received the message that her husband had been shot. The gravely wounded President was taken back to the White House. His distraught wife rushed to his side and remained there for the many weeks. The hot and humid weather in Washington was so miserable that it was decided that the President would be more likely to recover if he was moved to a house beside the ocean where he would be able to feel the ocean breeze. A short rail line was even laid so that the President could be moved. The move may have made him a bit more comfortable, but the President died from an infection a short time later. It is believed that the infection may have been caused by the doctors using their fingers to probe for the bullet.

President James A. Garfield had just been President for six months, and, for more than two of those months, he lay in his bed suffering from a bullet wound. President Garfield died on Sept. 19, 1881 at the age of 49. His body was laid to rest in a Memorial Tomb in Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland, Ohio. The Tomb is a domed building which has 13 plus one large windows on the upper level. The windows represent the 13 original colonies plus Ohio. Each of the states represented were asked to donate money to pay for their window. North Carolina only donated $19. The people in the Tar Heel state eventually did not like some of the President’s policies.

Grief stricken Lucretia Garfield went back to the family farm, Lawnfield, in Mentor, Ohio. The Lawnfield House was/is large with a big front porch from which Mr. Garfield had campaigned. Mrs. Garfield added a wing to the house that included a Memorial Library, which honored her husband and housed his papers, books, and artifacts.

Lucretia Randolph Garfield lived at Lawnfield for several years after the death of her husband. She finally went to live with her daughter in California and was there when she died.  She had lived 36 years after the death of her husband. Her body now lies in a casket on the lower level of the Garfield Memorial Tomb at Lake View Cemetery beside her husband, whose casket is covered with the flag of the United States of America.

The Lawnfield property is owed by The Western Reserve Historical Society and is administered by the National Park Service.  Both the house and tomb are open to the public.