On this day in history, President James A. Garfield died – over two months after he was shot. It happened on July 2, 1881. Garfield became the second U.S. President to die by assassination, just 17 years after Abraham Lincoln. This is what happened.
Garfield was scheduled to leave Washington on July 2, 1881, for his summer vacation. On that day, Guiteau lay in wait for the President at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station, on the southwest corner of present-day Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, Washington, D.C.
President Garfield came to the Sixth Street Station on his way to his alma mater, Williams College, where he was scheduled to deliver a speech. Garfield was accompanied by two of his sons, James and Harry, and Secretary of State Blaine. Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln waited at the station to see the President off. Garfield had no bodyguard or security detail; with the exception of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, early U.S. presidents did not employ guards.
As President Garfield entered the waiting room of the station Guiteau stepped forward and pulled the trigger from behind at point-blank range. “My God, what is that?” Garfield cried out, flinging up his arms. Guiteau fired again and Garfield collapsed. One bullet grazed Garfield’s shoulder; the other hit him in the back, passing the first lumbar vertebra but missing the spinal cord before coming to rest behind his pancreas.
Most historians and medical experts now believe that Garfield probably would have survived his wound had the doctors attending him been more capable. Unfortunately for Garfield, most American doctors of the day did not believe in anti-sepsis measures or the need for cleanliness to prevent infection. Several inserted their unsterilized fingers into the wound to probe for the bullet, and one doctor punctured Garfield’s liver in doing so.
Also, self-appointed chief physician D. Willard Bliss had supplanted Garfield’s usual physician, Jedediah Hyde Baxter. Bliss and the other doctors who attended Garfield had guessed wrong about the path of the bullet in Garfield’s body. They had erroneously probed rightward into Garfield’s back instead of leftward, missing the location of the bullet but creating a new channel which filled with pus.
The autopsy not only discovered this error, but revealed pneumonia in both lungs and a body that was filled with pus due to uncontrolled septicemia.
Garfield’s body was taken to Washington, where it lay in state for two days in the Capitol Rotunda before being taken to Cleveland, Ohio, where the funeral was held on September 26.