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Only four months into his administration, President James A. Garfield is shot as he walks through a railroad waiting room in Washington, D.C. His assailant, Charles J. Guiteau, was a disgruntled and perhaps insane office seeker who had unsuccessfully sought an appointment to the U.S. consul in Paris. The president was shot in the back and the arm, and Guiteau was arrested.
Garfield, mortally ill, was treated in Washington and then taken to the seashore at Elberon, New Jersey, where he attempted to recuperate with his family. During this time, Vice President Chester A. Arthur served as acting president. On September 19, 1881, after 80 days, President Garfield died of blood poisoning. The following day, Arthur was inaugurated as the 21st president of the United States.
Garfield had three funerals: one in Elberon; another in Washington, where his body rested in state in the Capitol for three days; and a third in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was buried. Charles Guiteau’s murder trial began in November, and in January 1882 he was found guilty and sentenced to death. In June 1882, he was hanged at his jail in Washington.
READ MORE: How McKinley’s Assassination Spurred Secret Service Presidential Protection
Charles J. Guiteau
Charles Julius Guiteau ( / ɡ ɪ ˈ t oʊ / ghih- TOH September 8, 1841 – June 30, 1882) was an American writer and lawyer who assassinated United States President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881. Guiteau falsely believed he had played a major role in Garfield's victory, for which he should be rewarded with a consulship. He was so offended by the Garfield administration's rejections of his applications to serve in Vienna or Paris that he decided to kill Garfield, and shot him at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. Garfield died two months later from infections related to the wounds. In January 1882, Guiteau was sentenced to death for the crime, and was hanged five months later.
The inept doctor who killed President Garfield
In 1881, after being shot by a would-be assassin, President James Garfield languished in the care of Dr. D.W. Bliss, a man with whom he had a long and friendly history.
No device existed that could locate a bullet within a human body, and doctors couldn’t remove a bullet without knowing where it was. So Alexander Graham Bell, the recent inventor of the telephone, created a device to do just that.
An engraving of James A. Garfield’s assassination, published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper.
Working urgently, he came up with the induction balance, a coiled device that could detect metal in the human body. Testing it on Civil War soldiers with bullet fragments inside them, he verified the device worked as intended.
For all its successful tests, it only failed twice — the two times Bell tried to find the bullet inside the president.
He was baffled about why it failed until he learned that Bliss hadn’t followed his instructions to remove the box spring to the president’s bed, which contained metal coils that would interfere with the detector.
Bell sought a third attempt with the box spring removed, but Bliss made a public announcement about Bell’s failure, and declared the device ineffective.
Charles Guiteau, the man who shot Garfield on July 2, 1881, has gone down in history as Garfield’s assassin. But given that Garfield survived for months before succumbing to his injuries, inadequate medical care was the more direct cause of the president’s death.
In his new book, “Murdering The President: Alexander Graham Bell and The Race To Save James Garfield” (Potomac Books), journalist Fred Rosen makes the case that it was neither the bullet nor primitive medical practices of the time that killed Garfield, but the conscious, intentional negligence of one man — Dr. Bliss — who valued his own reputation and status over human life.
D.W. Bliss was a Union surgeon in the Civil War. After the Battle of Bull Run saw 2,000 Union soldiers, including his infantry, killed or wounded, it was alleged that he turned coward and ran, leaving wounded soldiers to die. After, rather than feeling guilt, he wrote to a relative, “A great battle fought. I am safe.”
When President Lincoln needed someone to help set up veterans’ hospitals, Bliss was recommended for the job. Lincoln, unaware of the Bull Run controversy, hired him. The president personally oversaw the building of a “jerry-rigged” local hospital called Armory Square, and appointed Bliss superintendent.
In April 1863, Bliss was arrested for taking a $500 bribe to use a certain inventor’s stove in the hospital. He was thrown in prison, but he had friends in high places. Sen. John Hale — whose daughter, Lucy, was engaged to actor John Wilkes Booth — agreed to represent him, and got the charges dropped.
When Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in April 1865, an Armory surgeon named Charles Leale took charge, attempting to save the president. Recognizing his wounds as lethal, Leale summoned the president’s family and cabinet, as well as his personal doctor, Robert Stone, the surgeon general, Joseph Barnes, and Bliss.
“Leale assigned Barnes and Stone tasks to assist him in treating the president,” Rosen writes. “Despite the fact that Bliss was his boss, Leale gave him nothing to do. Bliss was forced to watch as history unfolded without him.”
But Bliss took credit as part of the team that tended to the president after the shooting, and his practice grew along with his unearned prestige.
“Everyone believed that Dr. D.W. Bliss had treated Abraham Lincoln,” writes Rosen. “For Bliss, it was a lesson well learned.”
Bliss used his newfound fame to promote and sell cundurango, a fake cancer cure, leading the Medical Association of the District of Columbia to charge him with “quackery.” But this, too, left the public memory in short order.
Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s eldest son, was President Garfield’s secretary of war. That is how, less than two decades after his father was the first president shot while in office, he became a witness for the second.
Just after Garfield was hit, someone yelled, “The president’s been shot!” Lincoln, with rare experience in such matters, took charge.
A wood engraving of President James A. Garfield on his deathbed with D.W. Bliss looking over him. The National Library of Medicine
First, he ordered the president moved to the White House. Then, remembering that his father had been attended to by a Dr. Bliss — and not knowing that Bliss had not been allowed to participate in his father’s care — he summoned the doctor to the White House.
As Bliss spoke to Lincoln, he mentioned his “friendship” with his father, and convinced the secretary to place him in charge.
“He had learned from Lincoln’s assassination,” writes Rosen. “No one was going to shut him out this time.”
When Garfield, who had met and befriended Bliss when both were in their 20s, was informed that Bliss would be in charge of his care, he was delighted, unaware of the doctor’s many transgressions.
In an era that had yet to embrace cleanliness as a weapon against disease, Bliss believed, “the dirtier, the better.”
When Garfield, who had met and befriended Bliss when both were in their 20s, was informed that Bliss would be in charge of his care, he was delighted, unaware of the doctor’s many transgressions.
“His dirty probe snaked its way through Garfield’s back, deep enough that it snagged on one of his ribs. Then he stuck his finger into the wound, pushing further and further. Bliss formed the opinion that the bullet was close to the president’s liver. No matter what, he would not deviate from that conclusion.”
The unsanitary conditions were standard for the time, as “sepsis prevention was not yet an accepted medical practice in the United States.” But “anesthesia administered while operating was,” yet Bliss subjected Garfield to his probing without giving him anything for pain.
In effect, he tortured the president for no reason, keeping him in “intense and unnecessary pain during the entire procedure.” Bliss then released a statement to the press stating the president “has returned to his normal condition,” which wasn’t true.
Garfield was deteriorating his vital signs were dropping, and he soon lost feeling in his feet.
Bliss was making his condition worse.
“Unknown to anyone else, except the doctors he kept by the wayside, Bliss kept exploring for the bullet, making the wound bigger and bigger as he did,” writes Rosen. “And always without anesthetic, keeping Garfield in pain.”
While Bliss “tried” to save the president, others took real measures. Given the oppressive July heat, the president’s secretary asked Simon Newcomb, a prominent scientist, if he could figure out a way to bring the president’s body temperature down.
“Newcomb and several naval engineers created a device that forced air over ice blocks, effectively lowering the room temperature by twenty degrees,” writes Rosen. “It was the world’s first air conditioner.”
While this lowered the president’s temperature, it did nothing to solve the problem of the bullet.
But Bell was following Garfield’s plight closely, and contemplating solutions.
Believing that “electricity and magnetism” might help, he invented the induction balance.
When he met with Bliss, their brief conversation left Bliss believing that “the person who wielded the invention was the one who would get credit for locating the bullet.” It also gave him the idea that if Bell could invent something, so could he.
“The president was having trouble eating,” writes Rosen. ”Bliss would invent another way of him taking food, besides through his mouth.”
Bell instructed Bliss in advance to “move the president to a bed without metal box springs,” so they could search for the bullet without other metal confusing the signals.
When Bell arrived, Bliss insisted he be the one to hold the coil. Bell was surprised, but relented. But as Bliss “moved the coil from the wound down the back, beside the spine, and near the liver,” they heard nothing.
Bell was perplexed. The coil had worked every single time in the tests, yet was now ineffective. Bliss proclaimed the experiment over, and Bell thought he had failed.
The inventor rechecked the device and made some tweaks. Testing it on soldiers again and finding it operable, he contacted Bliss for a second attempt. Not wanting blame for failing to do everything possible to save the president, Bliss agreed, but this effort failed as well.
Bell was beside himself, “certain it had to be some outside source at the White House that caused his experiment to go awry.” He returned to the Executive Mansion the next day, pressing the other doctors on whether some metal might have remained near the president, and only then learning that Bliss had ignored his instructions about removing the box spring.
But Bliss, having given Bell two attempts, saw no need to grant a third. He told the press of Bell’s failure, and newspapers “excoriated Bell as a charlatan. No one knew what Bliss had done to sabotage both of Bell’s attempts to use the induction balance on the president.” Bell’s life-saving induction balance was dead.
Now, Bliss would show the world that he, too, had an inventive mind.
The autopsy showed that Bell’s invention didn’t work because it had not been placed anywhere near the bullet.
“Since the president had a poor appetite and needed his nourishment, Bliss had an idea,” Rosen writes. “He would pump food up the president’s anus.”
It had been proven several decades earlier that “food was digested in the stomach and no other place in the human body.”
“So when D.W. Bliss proposed to feed the president through the rectum,” writes Rosen, “he had to know it wouldn’t work. What it was, was torture.”
Bliss pumped specially treated blood as well as beef extract into the president’s intestines through his rectum. Garfield winced through the pain. He neither complained nor improved.
The doctor also operated on Garfield again to hopefully remove the bullet, without knowledge of the bullet’s location. He found nothing. After this, Garfield began a rapid decline, as “blood poisoning ravaged his body.”
On Sept. 9, 1881, Bliss told Garfield that he was “getting out of the woods.” Garfield died 10 days later.
Bliss conducted the autopsy with two other doctors. They cited “blood poisoning from the bullet wound” as the cause of death, but, Rosen writes, “the details of the coroner’s autopsy report did not back up their conclusions.”
“The autopsy showed that Bliss had created a false wound track with his painful probing,” Rosen writes. “He had taken a three-inch entry wound and, in probing for the bullet, made a pus-infected wound track, twenty-one inches long. Worse, it was a false wound track, leading away from the bullet.” A modern analysis of the report proved, writes Rosen, that Bliss’ probing also “punctured Garfield’s bladder.”
The autopsy showed that Bell’s invention didn’t work because it had not been placed anywhere near the bullet. Bliss was so convinced that the bullet was near the liver, it’s the only place he put the coil. The bullet had been stuck on the other side of Garfield’s body.
After Garfield’s death, Bliss sent a bill for his services to Congress, and they agreed to pay just a fraction. The fight over payment was ugly and public, and Bliss lost. He continued practicing medicine until his death in 1889 at age 64.
On Sept. 6, 1901, President William McKinley was shot at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. (Amazingly, Robert Todd Lincoln was there, having accepted a presidential invitation to the event. After, he resolved to accept no more presidential invitations, and didn’t for over two decades.)
The X-ray machine had been invented five years earlier, but was still a scarce object. The nearest one was at the exposition, but the president’s doctors, caring for him at a nearby private home, considered it too risky to move him.
“The only portable machine on the planet capable of detecting the bullet,” writes Rosen, “was the induction balance.”
But Bliss had discredited the balance, which “would eventually be an exhibit in the Smithsonian Institute.” Therefore, doctors operated on the president with no idea where the bullet was.
“Eight days after he was shot, William McKinley died from gangrene,” Rosen writes. “He was buried with the death bullet still inside him his surgeons never located it.”
– “… Doctors were an essential part of the Illuminati plan to kill U.S. political leaders [who] hindered the take over of the U.S. Republic by the international banking elite,” Eustis writes. ” Illuminati doctors eventually did in both U.S. President William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor. They also played a death role in the shooting assassinations of U.S. Presidents Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865 (died April 15, 1865), James Garfield on July 2, 1881 (died September 19, 1881), and William McKinley Jr. on September 6, 1901 (died September 14, 1901).”
(The truth about President James A. Garfield’s Assassination – By Meredith Hindley)
In November 1881, Charles Guiteau, a charlatan suffering from mental illness, stood trial for the assassination of President James Garfield. As part of his erratic defense, Guiteau argued that he should not be charged with murder, because the bullets he fired from his ivory-handled revolver didn’t kill the president. Instead, Garfield died as a result of the care he received from his doctors. “I deny the killing, if your honor please,” he said. “We admit the shooting.”
Whether they were prompted by insanity or simple desperation in the face of his looming, almost inevitable execution, there was element of truth in Guiteau’s ravings. In “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President,” Candice Millard reconstructs the events leading up to and following Garfield’s assassination. The murder serves as a lens through which to examine Garfield’s life, Guiteau’s peripatetic existence, the fortunes of the Republican Party, the political spoils system, the role of scientific invention, and the state of the American medical profession. By keeping a tight hold on her narrative strands, Millard crafts a popular history rich with detail and emotion.
One of the pleasures of the book is the chance to learn more about Garfield, who appears as a fully realized historical figure instead of a trivia answer. A child of a poor family, he worked as a canal driver before attending college at Ohio’s Western Reserve Eclectic Institute. During the Civil War, Garfield’s leadership of Ohio’s 42nd Regiment yielded a bloody victory over Confederate forces at the Battle of Middle Creek, securing Kentucky’s allegiance to the Union. Elected to Congress as a Republican, Garfield served nine terms in the House, developing a reputation for oratory and a willingness to dig into financial issues. Drafted to stand for president against his wishes, Garfield entered the White House in 1881 with more than a bit of reluctance.
Unlike Garfield, Guiteau never found his calling. An odd little man, he was by turns a lawyer, a swindler, and a traveling evangelist whose constant movement from city to city made it possible for him to escape the consequences of unpaid bills and delusional behavior. As his fortunes declined, so did his mental state. Having delivered a short speech at a “small gathering” in New York endorsing Garfield’s candidacy, Guiteau came to believe that he had orchestrated Garfield’s victory. Guiteau spent weeks loitering in the waiting rooms of the White House and State Department, intent on securing an ambassadorship to Vienna or Paris. When the appointment didn’t materialize, Guiteau was subject to a divine revelation that came “like a flash” while he lay in bed: God commanded him to kill the ungrateful president.
Illuminati Murdered At Least Two Other Presidents – By Henry Makow, PhD
The Shooting of James Garfield in 1881 and the Medical Disaster That Ensued
This story is adapted from an upcoming story in the Library of Congress Magazine. It recounts the day of July 2, 1881–138 years ago — when President James A. Garfield was shot at a train station in Washington and the national drama that ensued.
Something about Charles Guiteau wasn’t right — anyone could see that. He so creeped out the women of his religious community that they nicknamed him “Charles Git-out.” His wife — he later managed to find one — divorced him, convinced he was possessed by an evil spirit.
Guitea u ’s own family thought him insane. I’d have Charles committed, his father once wrote, if only I could afford it. His sister, long a defender, finally admitted the problem after Charles threatened her with an ax.
“It was the look of his face that frightened me,” she would recall. “He looked to me like a wild animal.”
One man’s madness ordinarily isn’t the stuff of history. Guiteau’s story is anything but ordinary.
In 1881, he stalked and shot down the president of the United States — a tale of murder, insanity, invention, arrogance and incompetence preserved at the Library in the papers of President James A. Garfield, Alexander Graham Bell and others.
Though no one in the Washington establishment really knew him, Guiteau believed himself a kind of political hero — the man who got Garfield elected president. During the 1880 campaign, Guiteau had delivered a speech supporting Garfield at a small gathering. Even before Garfield won, Guiteau was convinced his speech — heard by few, noted by none — would make a crucial contribution to victory. The new president, he felt, owed him a plum diplomatic post as a reward.
“I would like the Austrian mission and call your attention to it, as ‘first come, first-served,’ ” he wrote Garfield, weeks before the election. (Guiteau later changed his mind: He preferred Paris.)
In his characteristic unsettling way, Guiteau sought support from prominent Republicans. Sen. John Logan once awoke to find him sitting in his parlor. After Garfield took office in 1881, he began showing up at the White House. Finally, Secretary of State James G. Blaine, tired of the badgering, told him to drop the matter — a rejection that persuaded Guiteau he must “remove” the president. Chester Arthur, a friend of the spoils system, then would become president, Guiteau figured, and he would have his post in Paris.
Guiteau bought a .44 pistol and began stalking Garfield.
The night of July 1, Garfield wrote in his diary about the day’s events and a trip to New England scheduled for the morning. “Retired at 12,” he concluded — the last entry he would write. The next day, Guiteau ambushed Garfield in the train station waiting room, shooting him in the arm and the back.
Physician Doctor Willard Bliss — “Doctor” was both his first name and his profession — examined Garfield at the station and, back at the White House, declared himself head of Garfield’s medical team. “If I can’t save him,” Bliss said, “no one can.” That decision would have the gravest consequences: Bliss couldn’t locate the bullet lodged in Garfield’s body, and weeks of probing the wound with unsterilized fingers and instruments produced infections that ultimately killed the president.
Over the next 2.5 months, Bliss issued regular bulletins — posted at telegraph and newspaper offices — to a nation anxiously awaiting news of Garfield’s condition. Eager to help, everyday Americans offered advice — preserved on scraps of paper — about the president’s diet, spiritual well-being and medical care (“pass a double catheter into the presupice,” one advised). Navy engineers, trying to ease Garfield’s suffering in the suffocating summer heat, rigged up what would be America’s first air conditioner in the president’s room.
Among those keen to help was Bell, by then a renowned inventor who four years earlier had successfully introduced the telephone. He set to work on a device he believed could be used like a modern metal detector to locate the bullet in Garfield’s body.
In letters and laboratory notebooks, Bell chronicles his race to improve this “induction balance” machine quickly enough to save the president. He tinkered, tested, failed and, exhausted, tinkered more.
“I feel woefully disappointed and disheartened,” Bell wrote after the first examination of Garfield failed to locate the bullet. “However, we go right at the problem again tomorrow — trying to improve our apparatus.”
A second exam of Garfield failed, too, and likely couldn’t have worked: Attending staff failed to remove a mattress with metal springs, throwing off the device. And, fatefully, Bliss permitted Bell to search only the area of the wound, on the right side of Garfield’s body. The bullet, it turned out, was on the left.
Bliss, his reputation now bound to the outcome of Garfield’s case, continued issuing optimistic bulletins even as it became clear to Garfield and others around him that he was dying. Old friend Almon Rockwell, writing on the back of a railway pass, recorded scenes around Garfield’s bed just days before he died.
“Darling does it hurt?” Garfield’s wife, Lucretia, asked. “It hurts only to live,” he replied.
Garfield died Sept. 19, and Guiteau soon faced justice in a trial every bit as strange as his life had been. He objected to his own lawyer’s arguments and sang “John Brown’s Body.” He confessed to the shooting but not the murder — the doctors, he said, had killed the president. The jury quickly found Guiteau guilty, and he was hanged on June 30, 1882, at the D.C. Jail, then at 19th & C Streets SE. He mounted the gallows and recited a poem he wrote for the occasion. It went, in part:
“I saved my party and my land,
But they have murdered me for it.”
When he finished the poem, the trap dropped, and it was over.
Months earlier, Garfield, surrounded by family and friends, had pondered his passing life.
“Will my name,” he asked, “have any place in human history?”
“Yes, a grand one,” came the reply, Rockwell recorded. “But a grander place in human hearts.”
Mark Hartsell is the publications editor at the Library of Congress.
James A. Garfield
As the last of the log cabin presidents, James A. Garfield attacked political corruption and won back for the presidency a measure of prestige it had lost during the Reconstruction period.
He was born in Cuyahoga County, Ohio, on November 19, 1831. Fatherless at two, he later drove canal boat teams, somehow earning enough money for an education. He graduated from Williams College in Massachusetts in 1856, and he returned to the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (later Hiram College) in Ohio as a classics professor. Within a year he was made its president. Through his academic pursuits, he met fellow student Lucretia Rudolph, who would become his wife in 1858. The Garfields went on to have seven children together.
Garfield was elected to the Ohio Senate in 1859 as a Republican. During the secession crisis, he advocated coercing the seceding states back into the Union. In 1862, when Union military victories had been few, he successfully led a brigade at Middle Creek, Kentucky, against Confederate troops. At 31, Garfield became a brigadier general, two years later a major general of volunteers.
Meanwhile, in 1862, Ohioans elected him to Congress. President Lincoln persuaded him to resign his commission—it was easier to find major generals than to obtain effective Republicans for Congress. Garfield repeatedly won reelection for 18 years, and became the leading Republican in the House.
At the 1880 Republican convention, Garfield failed to win the presidential nomination for his friend John Sherman. Finally, on the 36th ballot, Garfield himself became the “dark horse” nominee. By a margin of less than 10,000 popular votes, Garfield defeated the Democratic nominee, General Winfield Scott Hancock.
As president, Garfield strengthened federal authority over the New York Customs House, stronghold of Senator Roscoe Conkling, who was leader of the Stalwart Republicans and dispenser of patronage in New York. When Garfield submitted to the Senate a list of appointments including many of Conkling’s friends, he named Conkling's arch-rival William H. Robertson to run the Customs House. Conkling contested the nomination, tried to persuade the Senate to block it, and appealed to the Republican caucus to compel its withdrawal.
But Garfield would not submit: “This . . . will settle the question whether the president is registering clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the United States . . . shall the principal port of entry . . . be under the control of the administration or under the local control of a factional senator.”
Conkling maneuvered to have the Senate confirm Garfield’s uncontested nominations and adjourn without acting on Robertson. Garfield countered by withdrawing all nominations except Robertson’s the senators would have to confirm him or sacrifice all the appointments of Conkling’s friends.
In a final desperate move, Conkling and his fellow-senator from New York resigned, confident that their legislature would vindicate their stand and re-elect them. Instead, the legislature elected two other men the Senate confirmed Robertson. Garfield’s victory was complete.
On July 2, 1881, Garfield was shot by a man named Charles Guiteau at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. Guiteau, who believed he had helped Garfield win the presidency, was angry that the president did not give him a consulship abroad.
Mortally wounded, Garfield lay in the White House for weeks. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, tried unsuccessfully to find the bullet with an induction-balance electrical device that he had designed. On September 6, Garfield was taken to the New Jersey seaside. For a few days he seemed to be recuperating, but on September 19, 1881, he died from an infection and internal hemorrhage.
The president had been shot. Then the White House lied about his condition as he slowly died.
More than a month after an attempted assassination left President James A. Garfield seriously wounded, the news from the White House was very encouraging.
“The president has passed an excellent night, sleeping sweetly the greater part of the time without the aid of morphia” or other painkillers, according to the official morning bulletin from White House physicians published in the New York Tribune on Aug. 7, 1881. Garfield’s improvement over the last three days was notable, according to the Tribune. “His eyes have regained their old-time sparkle his voice and complexion are more nearly what they were in health, and he is stronger.” Recovery seemed likely — and the worried public could relax, the newspaper assured readers.
Six weeks later, Garfield was dead. He was 49.
During the summer of 1881, almost 140 years before President Trump acknowledged misleading Americans about the threat posed by the novel coronavirus, the White House fed anxious Americans a daily diet of misleading medical bulletins about Garfield’s condition. The stream of unduly sunny reports came from doctors whose failure to understand basic principles of treating infected wounds would have tragic consequences. With some exceptions, their rose-colored pronouncements were credulously accepted by the press.
The multiple daily reports on Garfield’s condition “became part of everyday life,” even if much of the information was unreliable, according to Richard Menke, a professor at the University of Georgia who has written in the journal Critical Inquiry about the press coverage of Garfield’s struggle to survive. “In fact,” he wrote, “the bulletins were fraudulently optimistic, intended perhaps to reassure Garfield, who often had the newspapers read to him and thus joined the mass audience for his own story.”
With the bulletins distributed nationwide by telegraph, published in the nation’s newspapers and followed closely by the public, the story of Garfield’s fight to survive could be considered “America’s first live media event,” Menke wrote.
Garfield’s ordeal began July 2. Accompanied by Secretary of State James G. Blaine, Garfield departed the Executive Mansion that morning for the Baltimore and Potomac train station (located where the National Gallery of Art now stands) to embark on a summer sojourn to his alma mater, Williams College in Massachusetts, and his home in Mentor, Ohio. Several Cabinet secretaries, including Robert Todd Lincoln, the secretary of war and son of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, planned to travel with Garfield as far as New York and were already at the station, according to the New York Times.
President Garfield never boarded the train.
Charles Guiteau, a delusional gunman who fancied himself an orator and Republican insider, waited for Garfield at the train station. Guiteau fired twice at the president with a .44 caliber pistol, grazing Garfield’s right arm and hitting him on the right side near the 11th rib, according to an account of the shooting and Garfield’s medical treatment by Stewart A. Fish in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine.
At the train station, D.W. Bliss, Garfield’s personal physician, searched for the bullet lodged in Garfield, first with an unsterilized probe and then by sticking his finger deep into the wound, historian Candice Millard has written in her book about the assassination, “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President.” Conscious but vomiting, Garfield was taken back to the White House.
The earliest reports on Garfield’s condition varied dramatically. On July 3, under the headline “THE PRESIDENT ALIVE AND BETTER,” the Washington Evening Star published a White House bulletin reporting that Garfield “rested quietly and awakened refreshed” and that the president’s “improved condition gives additional hope of his gradual recovery.”
Only hours later the prognosis turned grim. A bulletin issued at 10:30 p.m. characterizing Garfield’s condition as “less favorable” led the Tribune to report the following day that “the gravest apprehensions were excited.” Guiteau, the newspaper reported, was told falsely that Garfield had died.
The frequent updates soon became more positive. On July 6, bulletins on the president’s condition began at 8:30 a.m. and concluded 12 hours later. Their hopeful tone moved The Washington Post to conclude that “the president must and will recover.” The Times was similarly upbeat, reporting that “those engaged in watching the brave patient were inspired by hope.”
The bulletins mirrored Bliss’s supreme confidence in his abilities — he told one reporter “if I can’t save him no one can,” according to Millard — and his belief that Garfield would probably survive. “His chances of recovery are more than even, and they are improving with every hour,” Bliss told the Times on July 7.
The optimistic spin remained constant. “The favorable condition of the president continues,” according to an 8 p.m. bulletin published in The Chicago Tribune on July 8. In Maine, the Portland Press reported July 14 that Garfield’s pulse, temperature and breathing were stable and that “he continues slowly to improve.”
The Sacramento Union gave another encouraging update on July 22: “The president rested well during the night and is quite easy this morning.” But Garfield’s temperature spiked the next day — hitting 104 degrees and signaling the severity of his infection, according to Garfield biographer Allan Peskin. Doctors operated the next day without anesthetic to remove a pus sac that had formed around the wound, Fish wrote.
The development cast a temporary pall over the White House, but soon the encouraging reports resumed. “The president has done well during the day,” according to a July 26 White House bulletin published by the Chicago Tribune.
Nevertheless, the relentlessly optimistic spin was beginning to wear thin. The Chicago newspaper accused Garfield’s doctors of lying when they reported the president had spent a comfortable night “when the contrary was the fact.”
There were other reasons for distrust. Repeated attempts to locate the bullet proved unsuccessful. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, assembled a device — likened by Peskin to a modern mine detector — to locate the projectile but failed to find it. Bliss, Garfield’s lead physician, had a checkered résumé that included championing a quack cure for cancer and a brief time in jail after he was accused of accepting a $500 bribe, according to Millard.
More significantly, Millard writes, Bliss shared the contempt of many American doctors for the importance of preventing infections — a theory promulgated by British doctor Joseph Lister that was widely accepted in Britain and Europe and among younger physicians in the United States. The president would have likely survived the wound “if the attending surgeons adhered to Lister’s principles from the moment of injury,” Fish wrote.
Garfield’s decline accelerated in August. His bouts with fever — which doctors wrongly believed could have been the result of malaria — persisted, according to Fish, and he vomited after being fed, forcing doctors to find other ways to nourish their patient. Infection had spread so thoroughly through Garfield’s body that the president “was literally rotting to death,” but Bliss did nothing about it, Millard writes.
Nevertheless, a bulletin quoted by The Post on Aug. 18 described Garfield’s condition as “more hopeful” than the previous day. Another Washington newspaper — the Evening Critic — gently challenged the optimistic White House spin when it noted that the president had suffered several setbacks since the shooting, “each severer than the last,” but couldn’t bring itself to be more skeptical. “[There] is nothing to indicate,” the paper asserted, that Garfield’s “improvement will not continue.”
But Garfield’s deteriorating condition eventually moved members of the Cabinet to say what the medical bulletins and pliant newspapers would not. “The end looks near,” Secretary of War Lincoln told The Post on Aug. 25. In the hope that a change of scene might work a miracle, Garfield was taken by train to the coastal resort community of Elberon, N.J. on Sept. 6. He died Sept. 19.
Americans mourned Garfield as a hero as the train carrying his body made its way back to Ohio via Washington. The body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda for two days as 70,000 mourners lined up to view the open casket, while 150,000 paid their respects in Cleveland, Peskin has written.
Introduction"The assassination. Bold and probably successful attempt upon the life of President Garfield." July 3, 1881 The Salt Lake Herald (Salt Lake City, UT), Image 1. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers.
President James A. Garfield (1831-1881) is shot by Charles Guiteau at the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C on July 2, 1881. Although he was severely wounded, President Garfield initially survived the shooting. He never fully recovered though, and passed away on September 19, a mere six months after his inauguration as President. Read more about it!
The information in this guide focuses on primary source materials found in the digitized historic newspapers from the digital collection Chronicling America.
The timeline below highlights important dates related to this topic and a section of this guide provides some suggested search strategies for further research in the collection.
Presidential Death on the Jersey Shore
Situated alongside a narrow seaside street in the tony Elberon section of Long Branch lies a curious footnote to United State history––a monument marking the death spot of the twentieth U.S. president, James A. Garfield. Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881 in the Baltimore and Potomac train station by a deranged gunman named Charles Guiteau. But how is it that a president who was shot in Washington D.C. came to breathe his last breath on the Jersey Shore?
In mid-May 1881, Garfield’s wife Lucretia suddenly contracted malaria and possibly spinal meningitis and was thought to be near death with a temperature of 104 degrees. At the end of the month, when her fever broke, her doctor recommended she recuperate in salty sea air of Long Branch, a popular vacation spot of not only the Garfields, but also six other presidential families (Grant, Hayes, Arthur, Harrison, McKinley and Wilson) at various times in the town’s history. The President decided to travel with his wife and stay at her bedside while she recovered. On June 18 the Garfields left Washington and journeyed by train to Elberon, New Jersey.
While his wife convalesced, President Garfield returned to Washington. On the morning of July 2, he was walking through the Sixth Street Station of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad on his way to deliver a speech at Williams College. Unknown to Garfield, Charles Guiteau, enraged because his application to be the U.S. Ambassador to France had been denied, had been plotted to murder the President and was obsessively stalked Garfield around Washington. He fired two shots from a .44 caliber revolver, one of which grazed the president’s arm, while the other bullet lodged between his abdomen and groin.
Garfield was taken to the White House, where doctors tried to heal his wounds by sticking their unsterilized fingers into the bullet’s entry hole. They probed so deeply that one actually punctured Garfield’s liver. Enter inventor Alexander Graham Bell. Bell had devised a crude metal detector and after several tries, claimed he had located the bullet, so doctors turned the three-inch wound into a larger divot but still could not find the slug. What Bell had actually located was the metal spring in the mattress underneath the prostrate president. As the days and weeks passed, Garfield’s condition worsened and he complained of constant pain.
Garfield’s chief doctor, Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss, (yes, his given name was actually “Doctor”! How weird is that?) believed that Garfield’s intestines had been punctured by the bullet, so he limited the President’s diet to just liquids, feeding him only broth, egg yolks, and whiskey. He even tried to feed him rectally, rather than orally. Not surprisingly, Garfield’s weight dropped from a robust 200 pounds to 130 pounds in just six weeks. It probably didn’t help that he had a constant fever and was being given opium enemas as treatment.
The doctors decided that the summer heat of Washington D.C. was not helping the president’s recovery, so they sent him and his family via train to the cooler climes of the Jersey Shore. An oceanfront cottage in Elberon was donated and a rail spur that led directly to the cottage was quickly assembled. It was here that President Garfield spent his final days, living with what we imagine was a horrible open wound in his belly.
He died 12 day’s later on September 19, 1881, at 10:35 PM, exactly two months before his 50th birthday. It was the second youngest age of death for a U.S. president after John F. Kennedy, who was also assassinated. His presidency lasted just 200 days—only William Henry Harrison’s presidency, of 31 days, was shorter. He was buried in and impressive tomb his home state of Ohio at the Lake View Cemetery in Cleveland.
After his death, Garfield’s doctors submitted an $85,000 bill to the U.S. Senate for services rendered. At his murder trial, Charles Guiteau claimed the doctors really killed Garfield and not his bullet, and he may have been right. Garfield’s autopsy revealed that the bullet did not strike any major organs or blood vessels. Some doctors have asserted that starvation may have played a role in his ultimate demise. But the courts did not buy Guiteau’s defense and a jury sentenced him to death. He was executed on June 30, 1882. Guiteau’s bones, which were supposed to be put on display, are somewhere in a storage vault in the Army Medical Museum.
Today the cottage in Elberon where Garfield breathed his last is long gone, replaced by a Mediterranean style beachfront mansion. The site was largely ignored until the 1950s, when a small granite memorial was placed at on the property. There, sandwiched between Garfield Road and the manse’s garage, rests the marble slab on a narrow island of sod, marking the spot where the house once stood.
Just a couple blocks to the south on Ocean Avenue is The Church of the Presidents, where seven U.S. Presidents attended services at one point or another. On the grounds of the church is located one more odd little reminder of Garfield’s final trip to the Jersey Shore––a small red and white wooden playhouse known as the “Garfield Tea House”. It was constructed from the railroad ties used to lay the emergency track that transported the dying president from the nearby Elberon train station to the oceanfront cottage where he died.
After Garfield’s death the tracks were torn up and the wooden ties were purchased by a man named Oliver Byron. Byron contracted a local carpenter named William Presley to build the Garfield Tea House with the ties. It originally stood in the yard of Byron’s summer cottage, but was moved several moves over the years before coming to rest on the grounds of the church. Though currently closed to the public, the church and the Garfield Tea House are both in the process of being restored by the Long Branch Historical Museum Association, who hope to reopen them as part of their museum.
Abram was born on November 21, 1872, and was named after his paternal grandfather and had a household nickname “Abe.” He was very close to Irvin and graduated from the same school. He studied architecture at Massachusetts Institute of Technology for three years and graduated in 1896.
He married Sarah Granger Williams, daughter of a co-owner of Sherwin-Williams Company, on October 14, 1897. They had two children named Edward Williams and Mary Louise.
As Abe earned a reputation as a premier architect and designer, he formed a partnership with Frank Meade. Eventually, he founded the Cleveland School of Architecture and became its first president from 1924 until 1929.
Two years after Sarah died, he married Helen Matthews at the age of 75. He died on October 16, 1958, at the age of 85.