ONE HUNDRED THIRTY SEVEN YEARS AGO ON JULY 2, 1881, PRESIDENT JAMES GARFIELD WAS SHOT. HE DIED THREE MONTHS LATER. THE ASSASSIN SHOT HIM, THE DOCTORS KILLED HIM. I WROTE THIS COLUMN SOME TIME AGO. I REPEAT IT TODAY TO REMIND US OF PERTINENT FACTS LONG FORGOTTEN.
It was July 2, 1881. James Garfield had been President of the United States less than four months. In the early morning, the President arrived at the Washington, D.C. railroad terminal with his two sons. They were going to Massachusetts.
There was no Secret Service yet for Presidential protection. Although Lincoln had been assassinated sixteen years earlier.
Charles Guiteau was waiting in the shadows for the President. He had a gun. He had purchased it with $15 borrowed money. His intention to kill the President. He shot the President two times. The first bullet creased his arm. The second bullet entered his back where it became lodged behind his pancreas. No vital organs were hit.
Within minutes, twelve doctors appeared at the scene. The President was lying on the floor of the railroad station. The doctors with dirty hands and instruments were probing for the bullet. The floor of the railroad station filthy.
American doctors at the time did not believe germs existed. Dirty hands, instruments and places were of no concern.
The President was taken to the White House and placed in his bed. A Dr. D. Willard Bliss assumed authority for the President’s care. He was not the President’s physician formally or otherwise.
Bliss dominated the President’s medical attention till his death. Other doctors were called in by Bliss for assistance.
Bliss was arrogant and ambitious. He enjoyed being referred to as the President’s doctor during the time of the tragedy.
The President died September 19, 1881. Seventy nine days elapsed from being wounded to dying.
Alexander Graham Bell was famous at the time. He was not a physician. Bell was famous for having invented the telephone five years earlier. Bliss counseled with Bell. Could Bell help in locating the bullet? The bullet could not be found. In fact, it was never found till after the President’s death.
Bell worked hastily. There was no x-ray at the time. He developed a metal detector. Also referred to as an induction balance. Its purpose to identify the area of the bullet in the President’s back.
Bell first tested the metal detector on veterans. Civil War veterans who were walking around some twenty odd years after the war with bullets still lodged in their bodies. The metal detector was successful in every instance.
It did not work on the President, however. To the dismay of Bell. The reasons two fold.
The President’s bed had a metal spring mattress. One which set beneath the regular mattress. Also known as bed springs. Metal spring mattresses were relatively new. I am assuming the metal spring mattress was a gift to the President. There were no sales per se of them till two years later.
The reason Bell’s metal detector did not work was because of the metal spring mattress. The metal spring mattress diverted the charge resulting in static. It identified nothing.
Bell and Bliss were not aware that the metal spring mattress was the cause.
A second reason was that Bliss was convinced the bullet was on the President’s right side where it had entered. He limited Bell’s use of the metal detector to the right side. Bell wanted to use it across the President’s back. Bliss said no.
An autopsy following the President’s death revealed the bullet was on the left side. It is assumed it was moved there by the fingers of doctors at some time during one of the probing finger examinations…
The President lay in bed in bed three months. His condition deteriorated rapidly.
Washington was typically hot during this time. Air conditioning not yet invented. A Simon Newcomb designed a system to hopefully cool the President’s bedroom. Tons of ice in the cellar. Replenished daily. Tubes from the cellar to the President’s bedroom. Fans blowing air over the ice which carried cool air to the President’s bedroom. It helped, but not much.
The summer heat was so intense that the President was removed to the Jersey shore in early September. He died there September 19, 1881.
Doctors with dirty hands and instruments constantly probing contributed greatly to the President’s death. The dirty floor at the railroad station, also. Bliss’ arrogance in preventing Bell from using the detector on the President’s left side another factor.
Doctors in subsequent years have been of the opinion the President would have survived if the bullet had just been left alone.
The President suffered greatly. He developed blood poisoning and infection. His body was full of infection. Body pus. Described also as abscesses. The technical term uncontrolled septicemia. The President also starved to death. He could not keep food down. His weight dropped from 210 to 130 pounds. On top of which during one of the probing, a doctor punctured the President’s liver.
Guiteau was tried for murdering the President. He was convicted and hanged. His defense…..I did not kill the President, the doctors did. Though there was truth to his statement, Guiteau was legally guilty because he had initiated the situation by shooting the President.
Guiteau’s background and reason for killing the President play into the scenario.
The United States was still into the spoils system. There was no civil service system. Upon election, a President was bombarded with persons coming to Washington seeking a job. The President would see most. Reportedly, one hundred a day. Guiteau was one of them.
Guiteau met the President once. In the President’s office. He did not campaign for him. However, he did write a piece which he had printed and distributed. About two hundred copies. Guiteau believed this entitled him to an ambassadorship to either Austria or France.
He continued to visit the President’s outer offices and those of influential people in Washington. He was not held in esteem. Considered a nut. He was without money. He stopped shaving. His clothes became tattered. He looked dirty. Finally, he was barred from the White House and other government offices.
It was at this time Guiteau claimed God had spoken to him. He claimed divine inspiration. God wanted him to kill the President.
He took certain steps prior to the shooting. He wrote to General of the U.S. Army
William Tecumseh Sheraton asking for protection from the mob which would be upon him after he killed the President. No one paid any attention to the letter. He wrote the Warden of the District of Columbia jail asking permission to view the cell where he would be incarcerated. No attention paid to this letter, either.
Guiteau’s trial was a joke. Caused by Guiteau alone. He repeatedly told the court he was merely God’s instrument. He sang John Brown’s Body. Dictated a lengthy letter to the New York Herald. His autobiography. At the end, he wrote a personal ad seeking a nice Christian lady under thirty.
He constantly insulted his defense team which was led by his brother in law. Much of his testimony was in poem format. He frequently would turn around and seek legal advice from spectators.
His execution a show in itself. Guiteau danced his way up the gallow steps, waved to the audience when on the scaffold, shook hands with the executioner, and recited a poem he had written for the occasion…..I Am Going to the Goody.
The President was 49 at the time of his death. He was a young man well thought of. The feeling was the country was going to do great things under his leadership. Much akin to President John Kennedy. Unfortunately, neither was given enough time.
Notice Guiteau’s actions as they relate to today’s shootings. A gun easy to acquire. The killer a mental case.
Nothing seems to have changed.