The President's Assassin: Motives and Outcomes

The President's Assassin: Motives and Outcomes
Lucretia Garfield: First Ladies' Lives

Skill: High School/College
Time Required: One week


On July 2, 1881, after only 4 months in office, President James A. Garfield was shot by Charles A. Guiteau.  The President lived until September 19, when he finally died of complications from his wounds.  President Garfield was not the only President who was assassinated: three others, Abraham Lincoln, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy, were also killed while in office, and six others—Andrew Jackson, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry S. Truman, Gerald Ford, and Ronald Reagan—had assassination attempts made on their lives.  Considering that nearly twenty percent of all of our Presidents have had their lives threatened, or lost them, it might be well to think about how this happens.  Who are the Presidents’ assassins?


Students who participate in this activity will compare and contrast the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy through a study of the lives and legacies of the four men who were the Presidents’ assassins, and the creation of dossiers on each one.  Students will look for commonalities and differences in the background and upbringing of these four men, and in the major issues of the time in which the assassinations occurred.  Students will be particularly interested in inquiring into whether these assassinations were just individual acts of violence, or whether there is a pattern to these events that might be instructive in the future.

Materials Required:

Access to the Internet; access to print materials; paper or notebooks for dossiers (or word processor(s) with print and graphics capacities.


Introduce this lesson with a discussion of the meaning of the term, assassination, and a discussion of students’ familiarity with the term.  Ask them if they have heard of contemporary assassinations or have played video games or seen movies that have had assassinations as part of the plot.  Have them compare notes on the subject. 
Then, divide the class into four groups, assign each group the task of compiling a dossier (make sure students know the meaning of this word: “a collection of papers containing detailed information on a person or subject”) on one of the following four Presidential assassins, using the websites listed below as a start: (there are many more sites on each person that can be explored, as well as a number of books and other printed materials—students should be encouraged to explore beyond the given resources). 
  • John Wilkes Booth (Lincoln)
  • Charles J. Guiteau (Garfield)
  • Leon F. Czolgosz (McKinley)
  • Lee Harvey Oswald (Kennedy)
Included in each dossier should be at least the following kinds of information: 
  • Picture of the person (or several pictures)
  • Short biography of the person, including birth and death dates, childhood, adult experiences up to the time of the assassination
  • Perceived (or actual) reason for  the assassination (including the assassin’s own words, if available)
  • Details of the assassination, itself
  • Aftermath of the assassination, including information on what happened to the assassin
When the dossiers are completed, time should be provided for each group to present its findings.  Engage the class in a discussion of the commonalities and differences of the lives and actions of the four assassins.  Conclude with the question: “What, if anything, can we learn from a study of these men?”

Extending the Lesson:

This lesson can be extended by enlarging the inquiry to include those people who attempted, but did not succeed, in assassinating a President.

Sources & Resources:

      General Web Resources on Presidential Assassinations
Abraham Lincoln - assassinated by John Wilkes Booth
            The Life and Plot of John Wilkes Booth 
            John Wilkes Booth 

James Garfield - assassinated by Charles J. Guiteau
            Charles J. Guiteau 
            The Charles Guiteau Collection 

William McKinley - assassinated by Leon F. Czolgosz
            Leon Frank Czolgosz 
            Photo Gallery of Leon F. Czolgosz 

John Kennedy - assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald
            Lee Harvey Oswald 
            Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald? 

This lesson was developed by Averil McClelland, Kent State University.