Incredibly, a President of the United States was probably killed by his doctors. Some observers believe President James A. Garfield (R-Ohio) could have lived to serve a full term if doctors had not tried to “save” him.
A divided Republican Party nominated Garfield, then a US Representative, as a compromise candidate in 1880. Although his candidacy was unexpected, Garfield was popular with voters. Garfield easily defeated Civil War hero General Winfield S. Hancock (D-Pennsylvania by a margin of 214 to 155 Electoral College Votes.
Strangely, many Americans viewed Garfield as a symbol of hope because he was a clean and honest politician in a corrupt age. In particular, voters saw Garfield as a counterweight to corrupt party bosses such as US Senator Roscoe Conkling (R-New York). Conkling made money by selling offices and government contracts to big business.
As president, Garfield won acclaim by refusing to nominate Conkling’s associates to federal offices. Garfield won a nasty war with Conkling by refusing to back down.
Shot in the Back
Garfield’s major project as president was to dismantle the spoils system. The spoils system was the practice of awarding or selling government offices to political supporters. In particular, high-paying government jobs such as collectors of customs taxes.
It was the spoils system that led to Garfield’s death. One person Garfield refused to give a government office was Charles J. Guiteau, an unemployed and possibly mentally ill drifter and failed lawyer. On 2 July 1881, Guiteau shot Garfield in the back with a British Bulldog revolver at a train station in Washington, DC.
The deranged Guiteau thought Garfield’s successor Vice President Chester Arthur (R-New York) would appoint him ambassador to Austria or France for shooting the president. Instead, Guiteau went to jail and eventually the gallows.
The Bullet didn’t kill the President
Guiteau’s bullet did not kill Garfield. The bullet lodged in the president’s chest, but his body began healing.
Circumstantial evidence shows the president could have survived and lived a normal life. In 1880, thousands of veterans were walking around with bullets in their bodies. Many of them lived normal lives.
To explain, if a bullet is clean, the body can naturally surround it with muscle that traps infection and lead. In some cases, if the bullet is in the right place, it can do minor damage.
An autopsy found that the bullet in Garfield’s body was in such a pocket of muscle. The bullet posed a minor threat to Garfield’s health.
How Doctors Killed the President
The greatest threat to Garfield was not Guiteau’s bullet, but the doctors who came to save the president.
In particular, Dr. D. Willard Bliss who took charge of the wounded president at the train station. Bliss and other doctors took two fatal actions that could have caused Garfield’s death.
First, the doctors made several attempts to remove the bullet by cutting Garfield open. The surgery weakened the president and possibly did more damage. An autopsy showed the bullet did not damage Garfield’s vital organs. Instead, it passed through flesh that healed.
Ironically, the surgeons could not find the bullet because there were no X-rays in 1881. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen did not invent x-rays until 1895.
Without x-rays, the surgeons were operating blind. The autopsy revealed the surgeons were cutting in the wrong place. They never got close to the bullet.
Second and worse, Bliss did not believe in sanitation or germ theory. Like many American doctors, Bliss dismissed Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur’s new-fangled germ theories as nonsense. Consequently, Bliss refused to disinfect his instruments, wear a surgical mask, or wear a clean surgical gown.
The President Rotted to Death
Predictably, Garfield developed a horrific infection that literally rotted his body away. To make matters worse, they kept Garfield in the White House, which was hot, damp, and dirty.
Telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell made the situation worse by prodding at the president with a crude metal detector he called an induction balance. Bell thought his device could detect the bullet it didn’t, but gave Bliss and his colleagues another excuse to cut up the president.
Garfield survived until 19 September 1881, when he died in Elberon or Long Branch, New Jersey. They took the president to the Jersey Shore, hoping a change of scenery could help him recover. Garfield, who had survived Civil War combat, died in bed after three months of “treatment.”
Did Doctors Kill the President?
After Garfield’s death, critics speculated the president could have lived if he had received the standard 19th century treatment for gunshot. That treatment was a period of bed rest and surgery only if the patient was dying.
Cynics mused that Garfield could have lived if he was a working-class man. They could have taken a working man to a hospital or his home, placed him in bed and allowed the victim to recover naturally. Others speculated Garfield could have lived if Bliss had practiced sanitation.
Garfield, a strong man, could have recovered and returned to work. A few decades later, simple surgery and treatment in a sanitary hospital would have allowed Garfield to return home in a few weeks. In today’s world, Garfield could have recovered after a short surgery and a few days in the hospital.
The Strange Legacy of James A. Garfield
Although he was a popular president, James A. Garfield has been forgotten. Unlike Abraham Lincoln (R-Illinois) another assassination victim, Garfield did not become as a martyr to freedom. Nor was Garfield the focus of elaborate conspiracy theories. As John F. Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) would be.
Authorities quickly caught Charles J. Guiteau. Guiteau was tried and hanged for the assassination. Kennedy’s assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was shot by small-time gangster Jack Ruby shortly after the president’s death for reasons that are still unclear.
James A. Garfield died but his name lives on in Garfield County, Colorado, the stage name of 1940s tough guy actor John Garfield, and ironically a cartoon cat.
John Garfield, born Jacob Julius Garfinkle, took the president’s name as an FU to studio boss Jack Warner who ordered the actor. a proud Jew, to change his name because it did not sound “American.” Garfinkle took a president’s name that resembled his own to annoy the Warner Brothers boss.
The adventures of Garfield, the fat, lasagna, eating cat have graced newspaper comic strips, cartoons, and live action movies since 1976. Cartoonist Jim Davis claims he named the cat after his grandfather, James Garfield Davis, whom they presumably named for the president.
Yet the story of the president killed by his doctors is not well known.
For the full story of James A. Garfield’s strange death, see Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard.