Of the four U.S. Presidents who have been assassinated, only two, Abraham Lincoln and John Fitzgerald Kennedy, have left an indelible mark upon the psyche of the American people.

William McKinley had already been president a full term when he was murdered at the turn of the 20th century.

James A. Garfield however, President for less than four months before he was shot in 1881, hardly merits more than a historical footnote.

Which makes me wonder, why one of the most brilliant and extraordinary men ever elected to the Presidency, would have been overlooked in this way.

He was the last of the ‘Log Cabin Presidents.’ Born into grinding poverty and losing his father before he was two years old, he somehow managed to put himself through school and college by working as a janitor and a carpenter.

His analytical and brilliant mind had been noticed early on, as by his second year they had made him Assistant Professor of Literature and ancient languages.

By the time he was 26, he was the College President.

Following College, Garfield had fought with distinction during the Civil War and served nine terms as a Congressman. He was selected by his fellow Republicans to run for President, an office he had never actively sought.

It is said he even referred to the presidency as “A Bleak Mountain.”

American government then, operated under a system where anyone could personally petition the President for a government job, regardless of their experience or ability.

Sometimes more than a hundred people a day would just turn up at the White House seeking a position with the Government.

Charles Guiteau was one among many of those ‘Seekers’.

A Delusional drifter and a man who had failed at everything he had tried.

He had dabbled with the Law, Evangelism and even joined a ‘Free Love Commune,’ where he proved so unpopular he earned himself the nickname ‘Charles Get Out.’

But now, Charles Guiteau fully expected to be named as Minister to France, under the Garfield administration.

He visited the White House daily, even securing a meeting with Garfield on one occasion. But when his demand wasn’t met, he came up with an altogether different plan.

He claimed he had undergone, what he believed to be a divine inspiration, “A message from God that he had to kill the President”.

This was only 16 years after Lincoln’s assassination, but there was still still no Secret Service to speak of to protect the sitting President.

On July 2nd 1881, Garfield was scheduled to travel by train from Washington D.C. to Massachusetts.

Charles Guiteau also woke up early that morning, travelling to the train station, even stopping to have his shoes shined. He must have perhaps thought about the attention he was about to recieve and wanted to look his best.

President Garfield, along with two of his sons, arrived at the station a short time later. Almost as soon as Garfield stepped onto the platform, Guiteau stepped out of the shadows and shot him twice.

One bullet in the arm and one in the back.

The shot in the Presidents back was not immediately fatal however, as it had not struck any vital organs. The bullet had somehow stopped short and became lodged behind his pancreas.

This is where the story takes a macabre twist.

President James A Garfield should not have died, even after being shot twice at close range.

Within minutes, doctors surrounded the fallen president, using their fingers to poke and prod his open wounds. A dozen or more Physicians inserted their unsterilised fingers and various instruments in Garfield’s back probing for the bullet.

And this took place on the railway station floor.

It is difficult to imagine, a more germ-infested environment than a railway station floor.

If they had just left him alone he almost certainly would have survived.

At that time, American doctors simply did not accept the existence of germs. As a body, they had earlier rejected the use of antiseptics which was pioneered by British surgeon Joseph Lister.

Lister, an Englishman, had fully embraced this theory by the early 1860’s. American doctors however, were more than reluctant to hold faith with the Listerian Theory because they subscribed to the Miasma Theory, which believed that ‘Bad Air’ caused disease and illness, not germs. They simply didn’t believe in germs, because after all, you could not ‘see’ germs.

Note: Cabinet member Robert Todd Lincoln was a witness to the shooting. He was present at his father’s death 16 years previously, he would also witness the murder of President William McKinley 20 years later.

It was actually Lincoln who summoned Dr. D. Willard Bliss (the ‘D’ stood for Doctor, incidentally).

Dr. Bliss was a uniquely arrogant and ambitious man, he simply assumed control over everything, ensuring that not even a second opinion would be allowed.

For an excruciating 80 more days, made even worse by an oppressively hot Washington summer that year, Garfield suffered as his condition worsened. His body was riddled with infection and racked with fever at this point, developing abscesses all over his body.

And he was also starving to death.

Obviously unable to keep down the rich meals he was being fed in his condition, the President’s weight plunged from 210 pounds to nearer 130.

Dr. Bliss then oddly summoned Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone.

He instructed Bell to use his ‘induction balance,’ a kind of metal detector, to find the bullet so it could be extracted once and for all. Garfield was lying on a bed made of metal springs, which were rare at the time and would obviously have a detrimental effect in any search for a bullet using a metal detector.

If that was not odd enough, Bliss had believed, and had publicly stated, that the bullet was on the right side of the President’s body.

He also made sure that Bell would only examine that part of the President’s body. Even though the bullet had clearly gone to the left.

Was it wilful neglect, or supreme arrogance that steered the actions of Dr. Bliss?

Was he simply a ruthlessly ambitious man who did not want to be proven wrong?

I guess we will never really know the answer to that.

President James A Garfield finally died on September 19th 1881.

The subsequent autopsy confirmed Bliss’ ‘mistakes’..

President Garfield only died because of what his doctors did to him, and also what his doctors didn’t do for him.

Some good did emerge from this episode however. The use of antiseptics was quickly accepted and adopted by American physicians. Civil service reform was re-started and perhaps, even more significantly, it brought the North and South together for the first time since the Civil War.

It healed a deep, deep wound due to the sorrow felt on both sides and the mutual understanding of the loss of a great man.

And the man who shot the President?

He was hanged, being made only too aware on the scaffold that he would not, after all, even be remembered for killing the President.

Guiteau was recorded as saying, “Yes, I shot him, but his doctors killed him.”




4 thoughts on “A BLEAK MOUNTAIN


    Doctors Are The Third Leading Cause of Death in the US, Killing 225,000 People Every Year

    This article in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) is the best article I have ever seen written in the published literature documenting the tragedy of the traditional medical paradigm.
    This information is a followup of the Institute of Medicine report which hit the papers in December of last year, but the data was hard to reference as it was not in peer-reviewed journal. Now it is published in JAMA which is the most widely circulated medical periodical in the world.
    The author is Dr. Barbara Starfield of the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health and she desribes how the US health care system may contribute to poor health.

    • 12,000 — unnecessary surgery
    • 7,000 — medication errors in hospitals
    • 20,000 — other errors in hospitals
    • 80,000 — infections in hospitals
    • 106,000 — non-error, negative effects of drugs
    These total to 225,000 deaths per year from iatrogenic causes!!

    What does the word iatrogenic mean? This term is defined as induced in a patient by a physician’s activity, manner, or therapy. Used especially of a complication of treatment.
    Dr. Starfield offers several warnings in interpreting these numbers:
    • First, most of the data are derived from studies in hospitalized patients.
    • Second, these estimates are for deaths only and do not include negative effects that are associated with disability or discomfort.
    • Third, the estimates of death due to error are lower than those in the IOM report.
    If the higher estimates are used, the deaths due to iatrogenic causes would range from 230,000 to 284,000. In any case, 225,000 deaths per year constitutes the third leading cause of death in the United States, after deaths from heart disease and cancer. Even if these figures are overestimated, there is a wide margin between these numbers of deaths and the next leading cause of death (cerebrovascular disease).
    Another analysis concluded that between 4% and 18% of consecutive patients experience negative effects in outpatient settings,with:
    • 116 million extra physician visits
    • 77 million extra prescriptions
    • 17 million emergency department visits
    • 8 million hospitalizations
    • 3 million long-term admissions
    • 199,000 additional deaths
    • $77 billion in extra costs
    The high cost of the health care system is considered to be a deficit, but seems to be tolerated under the assumption that better health results from more expensive care.
    However, evidence from a few studies indicates that as many as 20% to 30% of patients receive inappropriate care.
    An estimated 44,000 to 98,000 among them die each year as a result of medical errors.
    This might be tolerated if it resulted in better health, but does it? Of 13 countries in a recent comparison, the United States ranks an average of 12th (second from the bottom) for 16 available health indicators. More specifically, the ranking of the US on several indicators was:
    • 13th (last) for low-birth-weight percentages
    • 13th for neonatal mortality and infant mortality overall
    • 11th for postneonatal mortality
    • 13th for years of potential life lost (excluding external causes)
    • 11th for life expectancy at 1 year for females, 12th for males
    • 10th for life expectancy at 15 years for females, 12th for males
    • 10th for life expectancy at 40 years for females, 9th for males
    • 7th for life expectancy at 65 years for females, 7th for males
    • 3rd for life expectancy at 80 years for females, 3rd for males
    • 10th for age-adjusted mortality
    The poor performance of the US was recently confirmed by a World Health Organization study, which used different data and ranked the United States as 15th among 25 industrialized countries.
    There is a perception that the American public “behaves badly” by smoking, drinking, and perpetrating violence.” However the data does not support this assertion.
    • The proportion of females who smoke ranges from 14% in Japan to 41% in Denmark; in the United States, it is 24% (fifth best). For males, the range is from 26% in Sweden to 61% in Japan; it is 28% in the United States (third best).
    • The US ranks fifth best for alcoholic beverage consumption.
    • The US has relatively low consumption of animal fats (fifth lowest in men aged 55-64 years in 20 industrialized countries) and the third lowest mean cholesterol concentrations among men aged 50 to 70 years among 13 industrialized countries.
    These estimates of death due to error are lower than those in a recent Institutes of Medicine report, and if the higher estimates are used, the deaths due to iatrogenic causes would range from 230,000 to 284,000.
    Even at the lower estimate of 225,000 deaths per year, this constitutes the third leading cause of death in the US, following heart disease and cancer.
    Lack of technology is certainly not a contributing factor to the US’s low ranking.
    • Among 29 countries, the United States is second only to Japan in the availability of magnetic resonance imaging units and computed tomography scanners per million population. 17
    • Japan, however, ranks highest on health, whereas the US ranks among the lowest.
    • It is possible that the high use of technology in Japan is limited to diagnostic technology not matched by high rates of treatment, whereas in the US, high use of diagnostic technology may be linked to more treatment.
    • Supporting this possibility are data showing that the number of employees per bed (full-time equivalents) in the United States is highest among the countries ranked, whereas they are very low in Japan, far lower than can be accounted for by the common practice of having family members rather than hospital staff provide the amenities of hospital care.
    Journal American Medical Association July 26, 2000;284(4):483-5

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