Searching for James Garfield's Spoons

So, a few weeks ago, someone broke into President Garfield's tomb in Cleveland and stole a dozen commemorative spoons.

I'll just let that last sentence sink in.

One's mind fills with questions here. First of all, why were there spoons in the tomb? And why would anyone steal them? Were they valuable?

Presidents often have some memorabilia on display in their tombs; Lincoln's is pretty much barren of them now, but back in the old days it was practically a dime museum. But Garfield memorabilia is in fairly short supply - the guy was only president for 200 days. The whole set of spoons might bring fifty to a hundred bucks on ebay, but I was able to pick one up for a dollar.

As a grave robbing fan, I had to see this place for myself.

Earlier this week, I found myself in Cleveland, checking out Lake View Cemetery. I always liked President Garfield, after all. He was a neat guy - an intellectual professor whose students thought he was sort of a rock star, an abolitionist who was among those who signed up to fight for the Union because he knew full well it was a war about slavery from day one, he was nominated for president out of nowhere as a complete surprise to everyone (himself included), and had some ideas and plans that might have made him the lone particularly great president among the forgettable and sometimes regrettable bunch who came between Lincoln and Roosevelt.  But after four months in office, he was shot by Charles Guiteau, a maniac who had failed his way through life and eventually used his own hanging to launch his singing career.

Ever since the theft of the spoons, it's been about all I've talked about. When I meet with kids, I ask right away if they know who James Garfield was; they usually don't, but when I mention he was a president who was shot, that usually rings a bell, and there's usually a kid in the group who's heard that if the doctors had left him alone after he was shot, he probably would have survived (on this point, historians generally agree - Guiteau shot the president, but the doctors killed him).

For a little known President, the guy has a heck of a tomb. It towers 200 feet above the leafy Lake View Cemetery, and is covered in bas relief sculptures with scenes from his life (including a death bed scene). Step inside and you find yourself in a magnificent dias filled with stained glass windows and mosaics surrounding a terrific statue of the president, looking commanding and full of life. A narrow, twisting staircase takes you up to a viewing deck that gives magnificent views of all of Cleveland.

Down below is the crypt, where the president and his wife's coffins are set up on biers. Nearby is a little memorabilia case, which the thieves left alone - they didn't get the Garfield-brand laxative tea, which is worth slightly more than the spoons on ebay.

I spoke to Kevin, the docent, who chuckled when I referred to the "spoon heist" and showed me the point of entry (one of the smaller stained-glass windows had been broken), and the little TV stand beside the entrance where the spoons had been on display.

I told him the Guitea connection had occurred to me. Guiteau, as I mentioned, failed his way through life. One of his many failed ventures was joining The Oneida Colony, a free love sect. Their philosophy at the time was the anyone could be in love with anyone at any time, but they changed their minds a bit after meeting Charles Guiteau, who was eventually kicked out of the colony. He tried to sue them at one point. The colony still exists today, but the free love and religious aspects are long gone. These days, they just manufacture silverware. Like spoons.
Where the spoons used to be.

Kevin cracked up. "I hadn't thought of that!" he said. "It's Guiteau's revenge!"

Stealing random spoons from the tomb might indeed have seemed like revenge to Guiteau's ghost (it's not entirely logical, but logic wasn't his strong suit). By the time I left he was repeating the theory to everyone who came in. The people at the tomb had a great sense of humor, which I always appreciate in a cemetery (it's more common than you might think).

Kevin looked a bit like an older version of that one photo of Bill Waterson. Who lives nearby. So there's a whole 'nother conspiracy theory for you all....


Naomi Ruth Thompson said...

This post was amazing. Super interesting. I guess I never thought about graver being as still a thing happening in America.

Adam Selzer said...

Certainly not as common as it was back in the good old days but it still comes up now and then. The best guess here is that someone was on a dare/initiation/etc and had to prove they were really there. I would've gone for the diarrhea tea, personally.

Adam's New Book: Sept 2013