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.”