Some assassinations are burned into the American psyche from an early age, especially the slaying of President Lincoln and the 1960’s shootings of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Robert Kennedy. Harvey Milk and Huey Long had movies made about their stories. But there are many more tragic killings that basic history glosses over, even though they greatly affected its course. Here’s a list of five that you should learn more about.
President James Garfield. In 1880, just 90 days after becoming president, James Garfield was shot by a madman, John Guiteau. But the bullet alone didn’t kill Garfield; the out-of-date medical care he received from doctors unwilling to listen to Joseph Lister’s antiseptic ideas bear an equal responsibility. Even Alexander Graham Bell, with a rudimentary metal detector, was deeply involved in an attempt to save the President’s life. Read this epic story of the murder of one of America’s most modest and competent statesmen, and the impact his death had on postwar politics, in the forthcoming book, The Destiny of the Republic, by Candice Millard, author of the New York Times bestselling The River of Doubt. You can watch a short introductory video narrated by the author above.
President William McKinley. In a scenario remarkably similar to Garfield’s, President McKinley was killed as much by dubious medical procedures as he was by his assassins bullet. Even though he was shot at the Pan-American Exhibition, which featured an X-Ray machine on prominent display, his doctors refused to use it. Perhaps the two most important consequences of his assassination were the subsequent suppression of the once popular American anarchist movement, and the sudden presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, who would go on to be one of the nation’s greatest leaders. But M
William Goebel. The only U.S. governor ever assassinated while in office, Goebel was a fiery populist who did not shy away from violence: he fought a duel with ex-Confederate General John Lawrence Sanford after Goebel wrote an op-ed referring to Sanford as “Gonorrhea John.” His election to the governor’s office, decided during a recount by a board of election commissioners handpicked by Goebel, was so controversial that Kentucky was on the bring of a civil war in the days after the election. He was shot by an unidentified gunman the day before his inauguration, but he was still sworn in the next day. He did not carry out any official duties as governor before dying two days later. Despite sixteen people being indicted in the assassination, including Goebel’s defeated election opponent, the identity of his killer has never been determined.
Elijah P. Lovejoy. This abolitionist and publisher was killed by a mob of slave-catchers and pro-slavery reformers in the free state of Illinois while he was attempting to stop them from burning down his printing house. His legacy remains as one of the tragic examples of the necessary radicalism of the abolitionist cause; his views on slavery put him and his family in danger anywhere in the country.
John P. Slough. A former Union General made Chief Justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court. You probably don’t need to know about this one, but what’s remarkable is that after territorial legislator William Rynerson shot and killed Slough, he was never convicted, since most in the state agreed that Slough was so bad the killing was justified. At least he didn’t end up like New Mexico territorial governor Wililam Bent, who was scalped alive and shot with arrows during the Taos Revolt.