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Interpreting and Misinterpreting the Signs

June 10, 2014

James Garfield was a canal boy.  Although the dug part of the canal was only four or five feet deep, some connecting waterways were dangerously deeper.  Late one September night in 1848 Garfield fell into the deep water.  Years later he commented on this experience:

“I felt I was coming to drowning.  At length, however, it [the rope] held and I was able to draw myself up until I could get a breath of air above the stagnant, stifling water.  It was midnight.  My feeble calls for help elicited no response from the sleeping people upon the boat.  I at length made a great struggle and drew myself upon the boat.”

As young Garfield considered how close he had come to an early grave, he remembered his praying mother:

“I did not now believe that God had paid any particular attention to me on my own account but I thought He had saved me for my mother and for something greater and better than canaling.”

James Garfield became a college president, major general in the Union Army, U.S. Congressman, and in 1880 was elected President of the United States.

The Chicago convention that nominated Garfield concluded on Tuesday June 8, 1880.  The Boston newspapers ran Extras.  The headlines, the commotion at the telegraph offices, and the firing of guns near the Charles River alerted Charles Guiteau to an opportunity for self promotion.  He would go to New York and actively campaign for Garfield.  After the election he hoped Garfield would appoint him to an important office.

On Friday June 11 Guiteau boarded the overnight steamer Stonington, Around midnight the Stonington, misdirected by fog, hit the Narragansett which sank within minutes.  Scores died from the flames, from the exploding boilers, or from hypothermia.  Guiteau survived this disaster.  He too came to believe God had saved him for a greater purpose.  Although he didn’t realize it at the time, exactly one year and three weeks later Guiteau, misinterpreting the signs, would do something God never told him to do.  Guiteau would assassinate President James Garfield.

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