Destiny of the Republic



Crossing the Long Island Sound in dense fog just before midnight on the night of June 11, 1880, the passengers and crew of the steamship Stonington found themselves wrapped in impenetrable blackness. They could feel the swell of the sea below them, and they could hear the low-slung ship plowing through the water, its enormous wooden paddle wheels churning, its engine drumming. At steady intervals, the blast of the foghorn reverberated through the darkness, but no ship returned its call. They seemed to be utterly alone.

Although most of the passengers had long since retired to private cabins or the bright warmth of the saloon, one man stood quietly on the deck, peering into the fog that obscured everything beyond his own pale hands. At five feet seven inches tall, with narrow shoulders, a small, sharp face, and a threadbare jacket, Charles Guiteau was an unremarkable figure. He had failed at everything he had tried, and he had tried nearly everything, from law to ministry to even a free-love commune. He had been thrown in jail. His wife had left him. His father believed him insane, and his family had tried to have him institutionalized. In his own mind, however, Guiteau was a man of great distinction and promise, and he predicted a glorious future for himself.

Just three days earlier, immediately following the Republican Party’s tumultuous presidential convention in faraway Chicago, Guiteau had decided to pack his few belongings and leave Boston, his sights set on the party’s campaign headquarters in New York. In a surprise nomination, James Garfield, an eloquent congressman from Ohio, had been chosen over a field of powerful contenders, including even former president Ulysses S. Grant. Like Guiteau, Garfield had started out with very little in life, but where Guiteau had found failure and frustration, Garfield had found unparalleled success. The excitement surrounding the unexpected, charismatic candidate was palpable, and Guiteau was determined to be a part of it.

Absorbed in his own thoughts, and blinded by the thick fog that blanketed the sound, Guiteau did not even see the other ship until it was too late. One moment there was the soft, rhythmic splashing of the paddle wheels. In the next instant, before Guiteau’s eyes, a 253-foot steamship abruptly materialized from the darkness and collided with Guiteau’s ship head-on in a tremendous, soul-wrenching crash of iron and steel. As the Stonington recoiled from the blow and tried to pull astern, it compounded the disaster by tearing away the starboard wheelhouse and wheel of the oncoming ship—its sister steamer, the Narragansett, which had been headed at full speed in the opposite direction.

On board the Narragansett, passengers were suddenly plunged into darkness, confusion, and terror. As the ship listed steeply, the lights went out and rushing water and scalding steam poured over the decks. Several staterooms were swept away entirely, and one man, who had been asleep in an upper bunk, was thrown out of a gaping hole and into the sound. Just as the shocked passengers, who had rushed from their rooms in nightgowns and bare feet, began to comprehend what had happened, another thunderous blast shook the Narragansett as its boiler, which had been struck by the Stonington, exploded. Flames licked the well-oiled decks, sending a deadly firestorm billowing through the ship.

As the passengers of the Stonington watched in horror, the men and women of the Narragansett, frantic to escape the fire, began to throw themselves and their children over the sides of the blazing ship into the depths of the sound. One terrified young man raised his gun and shot himself as the boat began