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The Agonizing Death of James Garfield

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James Garfield was the second president assassinated in American history, shot by a deranged man in a Washington, D.C. railroad station on July 2, 1881. The president did not die straight away, however, hanging on for two-and-a-half months as doctors tried to keep him alive. It could be said that Garfield passed away despite the best efforts of his attending physicians, but history reveals that he may have actually died because of them.

Garfield entered office in 1881 amid a long string of mostly unremarkable post-Civil War presidents. America was rapidly growing in size, stature, and wealth, and the general feeling of the time was that the best way to preserve that growth was for the country’s chief executive to stay out of the way.

Garfield served with distinction in the Union Army during the early years of the Civil War, but new assignments took him further from the battlefield, which was where he wanted to be. Rather than push paper for the Army, Garfield ran for Congress from his home state of Ohio, winning office in 1862. He served continuously until 1880, when he was drawn into the Republican contest for President.

Garfield is the last U.S. president to date who rose to the White House directly from the House of Representatives. He began his term on March 4, 1881, and he had few opportunities to distinguish himself before the Fourth of July holiday, when he decided to leave the stuffy, sweltering capital to join his family on the Jersey Shore.

Even after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln in 1865, presidential security was not taken nearly as seriously as it is today. It was not uncommon for the president’s movements to be published in newspapers in advance, and he was easily accessible in public. This was why it was so simple for assassin Charles Guiteau to know that Garfield would be leaving Washington from the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station on July 2, 1881, and how he was able to get close enough to shoot Garfield in the back at close range.

Guiteau was a completely unhinged man who suffered delusions of grandeur. His fits of violence and strange behavior were such that his wife and family feared for their lives. When he was passed over for a position in Garfield’s administration – even though there was no clear reason on Earth why he would have been considered for any – Guiteau decided to take revenge.

Garfield was initially lucky. Guiteau was not a good shot, and the two bullets he squeezed off missed the president’s spine and vital organs. The president was taken to an upstairs office in the train station where doctors examined him. They probed the wound with unwashed hands, trying to determine by touch the extent of the damage and find the bullet.

Members of the medical community were aware of the debates over sterility, germs, and antiseptic treatments, and pioneers like Dr. Joseph Lister had a growing number of supporters in the field. Unfortunately, none of them were on Garfield’s medical team.

The man who was in charge of seeing the president through what at this point was just an assassination attempt, was Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss. No, that's not a typo. His first name was actually Doctor. A longtime friend of Garfield, Bliss was reportedly summoned to the White House by Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, who was present at the shooting. Lincoln had met Bliss at the deathbed of his father, Abraham Lincoln, in 1865.

Bliss had no time for the witchcraft of handwashing and heating towels and surgical instruments. He frequently probed Garfield’s wound with unsterilized hands in a vain attempt to find the bullet. His dirty hands caused a terrible infection, which he thought was brought on by the undiscovered bullet. So, Bliss kept probing, and the infection got worse.

Garfield was in good spirits and able to sit up in bed and write correspondence in the early days after his shooting. The nation rallied around their president while he appeared to be on the mend. As the dog days of summer set in, though, his condition worsened.

Washington, D.C. was not a city built for convalescence. It was exceptionally hot and humid during the summer months, and being built on a swamp, it was prone to pestilential outbreaks. In fact, Garfield’s wife was already in New Jersey recovering from a bout of malaria she caught in Washington. Bliss hoped to prevent Garfield from contracting it by giving him large doses of quinine, which brought on intestinal cramping.

The president was also given continuous doses of morphine to help ease the pain, which grew worse as his body succumbed to infection. He suffered severe vomiting and his body swelled with pus even while he drastically lost weight thanks to Bliss’s starvation diet. Tubes were inserted into Garfield’s body to drain the infection, which may have subsided had Bliss not continued his reckless search for the bullet.

Alexander Graham Bell came by the White House to aid the president’s recovery effort. The man credited with inventing the telephone had invented a metal detecting device that he believed might help locate the bullet. Bliss insisted that Bell only use the device on one side of Garfield’s body. It turned out to be the wrong side, and Bell’s device failed to be of any use.

Garfield began suffering from hallucinations due to his ill health and the oppressive heat. He was finally taken out of the city on Sept. 6 and transported to the Jersey Shore. The fresh air and ocean breeze came too late to be of any help. His infection worsened, and angina set in. On Sept. 19, 1881, Garfield died. The official cause was listed as pneumonia.

At Guiteau’s trial, the accused said in his own defense that he only shot the president, it was his doctors that killed him. There is some truth to this statement, although Guiteau’s criminal actions were the reason Garfield found himself in the hands of scandalously bad medical professionals. Guiteau was hanged for his crime the following summer. Bliss died of heart failure in 1889.


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