Who really killed the 20th President of the United States, James Abram Garfield? On July 21, 1881, 200 days after being elected president, Garfield was boarding a train in Washington DC when Charles Guiteau fired two bullets at him. One caused a superficial arm wound. The other entered in the right side of his chest and lodged 2.5 inches to the left of his spine, below his pancreas.
Garfield was rushed to the White House, having never lost consciousness. He constantly complained that he couldn’t walk and his legs felt paralyzed. For the next eighty days, sixteen doctors were consulted regarding the President’s condition. The first doctor, Willard Bliss, stuck an ungloved finger into the wound, and when he couldn’t feel the bullet, he inserted a long steel wire that he carried in his medical bag. This caused a wide channel that went in a different direction from the course of the bullet. The long channel created by the steel wire convinced other doctors that the bullet had gone too deep to be removed safely. Over the next few days, the Army Surgeon General stuck his finger into the wound, followed by the Navy Surgeon General who searched with his finger so vigorously that he punctured Garfield’s liver.
The gushing blood from the ruptured liver convinced the doctors that the President would die within twenty-four hours, but Garfield didn’t die the next day. His fever rose and he was put on a diet of milk spiked with brandy. Each day the doctors returned and probed his wound, and huge amounts of pus would drain. The doctors called in a consultant named Alexander Graham Bell, who set up a crude metal detector to find the bullet. After several passes, Bell said he had located the bullet deep in the president’s belly. As Garfield was getting sicker and sicker, the doctors decided to remove the bullet. The original three-inch wound was now a twenty inch channel into his belly that drained constant pus. At day eight, Garfield clutched his chest, complained of severe left-sided chest pain going down his left arm, and died. His doctors told the press that it was a blood vessel rupturing in the stomach.
Are you ready for the autopsy results? The bullet was lodged four inches from the spine, and Garfield would have survived if the doctors had left him alone. His paralysis should have told the doctors that the bullet hit the spinal cord, but that did not kill him.
At his trial, Charles Guiteau argued that he did not kill the President and that the doctors deserved all the blame for the President’s death. Guiteau was sentenced to death and was hanged on June 30, 1882. The federal government refused to return Guiteau’s body to his family. The Washington Post was the first of several papers to accuse the doctors of malpractice. When the treating physicians submitted their bill of eighty-five thousand dollars, the Senate authorized payment of only ten thousand dollars, privately denounced the doctors as quacks, and pointed to them as the real assassins. Bliss was forced to admit publicly that he had erred.
James A. Garfield
November 19, 1831 – September 19, 1881