Lucretia Rudolph Garfield
Five-Month First Lady
By Anne Adams
When an American president is assassinated, historians often speculate on “what might have been” if the man had survived. Would American history have been different if Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy had not been murdered? Sometimes this speculation can even extend to the wives of these presidents and what influence they might have had on their husband’s administration. In the case of Mrs. James A Garfield, if her husband had not been gunned down within months of his inauguration, historians most likely would have become aware of how an important an influence on the assassinated president was a proper Victorian wife named Lucretia.
Lucretia Rudolph first met her future husband when they were both students in a Chester, Ohio academy but it was a casual friendship at that time. However, two years later, when James Abram Garfield enrolled in the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later Hiram College), in Hiram, Ohio, then he came to Lucretia’s hometown. In fact, her father Zebulon Rudolph was one of the Institute’s founders.
“Crete” (as Garfield called her) was born in the town of Hiram in April, 1832; her family was active in the Disciples of Christ Church, the denomination that sponsored Hiram College. Garfield, an active member of the same church, was a popular and magnetic young man who attracted numerous female admirers, except for “Crete” Rudolph who was more practical and reserved. However, when another young woman became too serious about him, Garfield left school, intent on being less of a flirt to prevent future entanglements. He enrolled at Williams College in western Massachusetts, but also began corresponding with Crete. Their friendship developed, and they became more serious. Then when he graduated two years later, they became engaged.
Still, when he returned to Hiram to teach he began to have second thoughts, doubting his feelings for Crete. Then when she offered to cancel their engagement, he refused, saying he didn’t want to lose her and asking her to allow him time to reconsider. As he became a successful teacher and then president of the Institute in 1857, for the next two years, he struggled with depression and doubts. Yet Crete seemed to understand his despondency, remained loyal and they were finally married in November, 1858.
Yet even after their marriage, Garfield and Crete were often separated as Garfield served in the state senate, then was off to service in the union army as the Civil War broke out. Crete waited at the family home and welcomed him back as he came home on sick leave in 1862 until he then returned to his unit to complete his service. The first Garfield child, Eliza, was born in July 1860, and the second, Harry, in October, 1863. Then when he was forced by illness to leave military service, Garfield returned home to stay.
Garfield was elected to Congress in 1862, but about this time their oldest daughter, three-year-old Eliza (called Trot by her family) died, a tragedy that seemed to bring them either closer as a family and a couple. Though that first winter Garfield went to Washington alone, in the future when he returned the entire family went with him and then returned to Ohio when Congress was not in session. There were six more children besides Harry: James (born in October, 1865), Mollie (January, 1867), Irvin (August, 1870), Abram (November, 1872) and Edward (December, 1874) who died quite young.
Garfield, a charming and obliging man, was serving in Congress during a period known for its political chicanery. In contrast to some of his associates, he was a devoted husband who avoided the attractions of society, preferring to join his wife in the care and education of their children. The Garfield children were home schooled, with their mother teaching Latin and their father English. Crete had also developed a shrewd sense of politics and those involved and when she had an opinion of someone, her husband followed her advice. In addition, while many political wives entertained grandly to enhance their husbands’ careers, Lucretia preferred her domestic life away from the Washington social whirl. Then in 1880, Garfield was nominated as a presidential campaign. To campaign he followed the custom of the time and remained at his home near Mentor, Ohio to welcome the crowds that came to visit. Trainloads of thousands political excursionists would arrive the family farm, trek up a country lane to the home and hear Garfield speak to them. When political advisors and campaign workers arrived that summer for frequent meetings, Crete rearranged family accommodations to house and feed them.
After Garfield was elected president, Crete traveled to New York to accumulate the wardrobe an incoming First Lady would need, and as she did so, she became aware of the political factions that would plague her husband when he assumed office. After he was inaugurated in March, 1881, and the family was installed in the Executive Mansion, Lucretia entertained elegantly. Though she had been shy as a child, she proved a poised and gracious hostess, though visitors found her solemn and reserved. When she became ill, there was speculation it was caused by the mental strain of the election and the resulting exhaustion from the entertaining. However, the official diagnosis was that Crete suffered from malaria.
As she recovered, Garfield was not far from her bedside and as summer arrived, to escape the Washington heat, the Garfield family rented a summer house on the New Jersey coast. Then in the summer of 1881, when Garfield completed his work in Washington and as he was about to take a train for the family retreat he was shot by a disappointed office-seeker named Charles Guiteau. It was July 2.
As the wounded President was brought back to White house, a witness was Harriett Blaine, wife of the Secretary of State, and a Garfield family friend. She later described the scene:
“I stood… in the hall when a dozen men bore him above their heads, stretched on a mattress, and as he saw us and held us with his eye, he kissed his hand to us – I thought I should die; and when they brought him into his chamber and had laid him on the bed, he turned his eyes to me, beckoned and when I went to him, pulled me down, kissed me again and again and said: ‘Whatever happens I want you to promise to look out for Crete’…I never left him a moment…At six or thereabouts, Mrs. Garfield came. Frail, fatigued, desperate but firm and quiet and full of promise to save.”
Crete had returned by special train from their New Jersey retreat and with her arrival, peace and order were restored. Physicians who attended the president were confident the bullet wound was not life threatening, yet as the weeks passed, he became weaker and not stronger. Then to make him more comfortable, they decided to move the president to the coastal cottage. However, on September 19 he died of blood poisoning.
As would future grieving First Ladies, Crete was composed and dignified during the funeral and subsequent return to Ohio. A wealthy financier promoted public donations and raised over $300,000 for the family, which added to the annual congressional pension of $5000, enabled Crete to live comfortably and to educate her children. For a while, she lived in Cleveland in a donated residence, but also remodeled their Mentor home. Rumors of her remarriage a year later horrified Crete as she described her “humiliation that anyone could believe me capable of ever forgetting that I am the wife of General Garfield.”
Crete retired into obscurity, and received the privacy she desired until her death of pneumonia in California in 1918.
As a side note to the entire tragedy of Garfield’s murder, the July 2 attack seemed to be actually a postponement of an earlier attempt by the same man. Some weeks before the actual assassination, Garfield and his wife had been waiting at the rail station for the train to their New Jersey home when Guiteau approached the couple. However, Crete had just recovered from the malaria and was haggard in appearance. “Mrs. Garfield looked so thin, and she clung so tenderly to the president’s arm, that I did not have the heart to fire on him.” Guiteau said later.
A native of Kansas City, Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College, Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968).