Who Killed President James Garfield? from “The Strange Fates of Robert Todd Lincoln

It was July 2, 1881 at the crowded Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. The new President, James A. Garfield was waiting in the lobby for the train to take him to New England. His Secretary of War, Robert Todd Lincoln arrived at the station to send him off when, just 40 feet away, Lincoln saw a man raise his arm and fire two bullets at the President. Garfield was mortally wounded. The shooter, Charles Guiteau, was a mentally imbalanced, disgruntled office seeker who believed he was acting as an “instrument of God.” 

    Robert, the only surviving son of the assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, sprang into action. He ordered soldiers to secure the area and asked for Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss (yes, first name Doctor), who he believed had attended his dying father. In fact, President Lincoln's lead physician knew Bliss was an arrogant quack and pushed him aside. This time, Bliss would stubbornly secure his place as Garfield's lead physician. Lincoln was said to reflect, “How many hours of sorrow I have passed in this town.” 

     Garfield suffered an agonizing 80 days while Bliss and his team prodded the wound with dirty fingers. Bliss also refused to correctly use Alexander Graham Bell’s newly invented metal detector, the Induction Balance, even after Bell reported that the metal bed upon which the patient lay was interfering with the device’s signals.

      The assassin, Guiteau, claimed in his defense that it was the doctors who killed Garfield. He was convicted and within weeks, hung. 

      James Garfield’s is the quintessential American rag-to-riches story. His superior intelligence and voracious appetite for learning propelled him out of the most impoverished childhood of all the presidents. (Poorer even then Abraham Lincoln.) He must have had his own life in mind when he said, “I never met a ragged boy in the street without feeling I may owe him a salute, for I know not what possibilities may be buttoned up underneath his coat.”

   When he was 16, his widowed mother, convinced he was destined for greatness, gave him her life’s savings of $17 so he could attend college. From there, Garfield was on a meteoric rise. Juggling odd jobs to pay for his studies, he became a professor at age 18. He was president of Hiram College in Ohio at age 26. Then, a successful lawyer. At age 30, while in the Civil War as a Union general, he was re-elected to the Ohio House of Representatives. Garfield was elected President, November 19, 1831.

    A radical thinker and resolute abolitionist, he championed public education for all, including African Americans. He appointed their leaders, including Frederick Douglass, to prominent positions. In his Inaugural Address, Garfield emphasized, “It is the high privilege and sacred duty of those now living to educate their successors, and fit them, by intelligence and virtue for the inheritance which awaits them.”

    The 49-year-old Garfield barely had time to digest that he was president before his life was brutally snatched away. He hadn’t even sought the office but his nominating speech for the slated candidate at the Republican convention was so powerful that the votes unexpectedly switched to him.

    It is tragic that this message went unheeded, “Nobody but radicals have ever accomplished anything in a great crisis.” The radicals Alexander Graham Bell and Dr. Joseph Lister were ignored by the doctors caring for the president. Their blind ignorance contributed to his death. 

 “Who Killed President James Garfield?” is my monument to the extraordinary man who would be celebrated as one of our greatest presidents if his life had not been cut short at age 49 on September 19, 1881.

Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss

Susan Bercu, pencil

diorama detail

Alexander Graham Bell Sketch

Induction Balance

Alexander Graham Bell, sketch

Susan Bercu, Ink copy

This museum exhibit was largely informed by the book, “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President” by Candice Millard.

“Who Killed President James Garfield? ”

from “The Strange Fates of Robert Todd Lincoln”

Diorama 21 in. wide x 17 in. high x 11.5 in. deep

Guiteau's iIstol

Charles Guiteau's English Bulldog Pistol used to shoot President James Garfield

Susan Bercu, acrylic painting

Charles Guiteau, the Assassin

Charles Guiteau did not receive the adulation he expected. The ivory-handled pistol that he bought because "it would look good in a museum", was lost by the Smithsonian. He even had his shoes shined so he would shine when everyone lauded him as a hero. (They didn’t.)

    Copies of a poster of the “Phrenological Delineation of the Character of Charles Guiteau”, were distributed after the assassination at 10 cents each. Phrenology, a pseudo-science popularized in the mid-19th century, mapped human traits inferred from the shape of the skull. Guiteau’s chart included 40 traits, some with quaint names as, amativeness and approbativeness. However, Assassination, didn’t make the cut.

      He was thrown into prison where he reveled in the media sensation he caused. Although mentally deranged, Guiteau was lucid enough to represent himself at the trial and argue that he had only wounded the president... it was the doctors who killed him. The defense didn’t spare him. As he stood on the scaffolding, he recited his poem “I’m going to the Lordy.” (It would be set to music 110 years later in Stephen Sondheim’s “Assassins”.) Guiteau’s request for an orchestra was denied. (Tune was on his phrenology chart.)

Ignorance is Bliss

After an agonizing 80 days, President Garfield succumbed, leaving behind a doting wife and five children. If the bullet had been undisturbed, modern medical experts suggest that he might have lived.

     Since Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss and his fellow physicians were staunch deniers of the sterilization techniques advocated by Dr. Joseph Lister (for whom Listerine was named), they used their dirty fingers to repeatedly probe for the bullet in their patient. The result was a raging painful infection but no bullet. 

     Alexander Graham Bell submitted his newly invented metal detector, the Induction Balance, for the search. It worked flawlessly in tests but failed to locate the bullet. When Bell realized that the bed’s metal springs were interfering with the device, he informed the doctor. Bliss refused to move his patient even when Bell noted that only one side of Garfield’s body was being examined.

Bonus Strange Fact

Robert Lincoln, who was 40 feet from the shooting and saw it clearly, was not asked to testify at the trial of Charles Guiteau. It is thought that the prosecutor wanted to spare Robert because of his father’s assassination.

Robert Todd Lincoln

Susan Bercu, pencil

The Strange Fates of Robert Todd Lincoln

“Who Killed President James Garfield?” is one diorama in “The Strange Fates of Robert Todd Lincoln”. Robert was associated with the assassinations of three American presidents. In April 1865, he attended the death bed of his father, Abraham Lincoln. In 1881, he witnessed the shooting of James Garfield. In 1901, he arrived at the train station in Buffalo, NY, moments after President William McKinley was shot at the Pan-American Exposition.