The death of a president – it happened this week in history, 1881. James A. Garfield died of wounds suffered in a shooting two and a half months earlier. Much has been made of the assassinations of presidents Lincoln and Kennedy. But the death of Garfield was interesting in many ways. For example, Lincoln’s son was an eye witness. And despite the shooting, President Garfield didn’t have to die. This is his story.
Garfield was scheduled to leave Washington on July 2, 1881, for his summer vacation. On that day, Charles J. 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 in 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. He was accompanied by two of his sons, James and Harry, and Secretary of State James Blaine. Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln (Abe Lincoln’s son) 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 wounds 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 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.
We have had four presidential assassinations in American history. But only this one was the result, in part, of poor medical care. The death of a president – it happened 136 years ago this week.