Life: November 19, 1831 – September 19, 1881
Presidential Years: 1881
Vice President: Chester A. Arthur
The book: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard (339 pages)
Date finished: Feb. 7, 2017
In a train station in Washington, DC, just weeks into his presidency, James Garfield was shot by an insane man who believed he was doing God’s and Garfield’s enemies’ work. Ten doctors immediately rushed to his aide. And if they had done nothing, Garfield would have survived. Instead, they poked and prodded him with unsanitary fingers and probes, relentlessly for hours, days, weeks, months. Garfield’s body filled with pus and infection and in September 1881, he died from infection, not his assassin’s bullet, which his body had isolated on his left side. Doctors kept probing his right side, convinced that his bullet was underneath his liver. In fact, it was behind his pancreas and caused him no danger.
While sterilization was a source of discussion in the medical community– Joseph Lister had been “traveling the world, proving the source of infection and pleading with physicians to sterilize their hands and instruments,” most doctors in the US shunned his theories. The first doctor “inserted an unsterilized finger into the wound in his back, causing a small hemorrhage and almost certainly introducing an infection that was far more lethal than Guiteau’s bullet.”
Alexander Graham Bell was even brought in to test his new induction machine on the president in the hopes of finding the bullets. But Garfield’s controlling doctor, Bliss, would only allow him to examine the side he believed the bullet was in. In fact, Bliss made all of the doctors leave, downgraded Garfield’s family doctors essentially to nurses and controlled the information so strongly that it wasn’t until the very end that the nation knew just how bad it was.
Born into poverty in Ohio, James Garfield was destined for a life of education leadership. He graduated with honors from Williams College and came back to Ohio to teach at the Eclectic Institute, where he became school president at 26. But in 1859, a state senator died and Garfield was asked to stand for election. He won the election and then joined the Union Army, where he earned a promotion to colonel by 30. In his first major battle, his Ohio troops were outmanned by troops in Kentucky. But by studying the maps, he developed a strategy that made it seem that the army was bigger than it was and he scored a major victory.
While still in the army, he was elected to Congress, but stayed on the battlefield until Abraham Lincoln personally asked him to come to Washington in 1863. As a politician, he was known as a great speaker. He was also fully anti-slavery.
“Although Garfield had chosen a life of calm, rational thought, when it came to abolition he freely admitted that he had “never been anything else than radical.” He found it difficult to condemn even the most violent abolitionists, men like John Brown whose hatred of slavery allowed for any means of destroying it.”
In 1880, he was tasked with giving the nominating speech for John Sherman at the Republican Convention. But his speech was so great–and opposed Roscoe Conkling, leader of the Stalwarts, a segment of the party that favored the spoils system–that he was held up for nomination instead. The balloting lasted two days and after more than 60 ballots, “Garfield was left with 399 votes, 20 more than were needed to win. Having never agreed to become even a candidate— on the contrary, having vigorously resisted it— he was suddenly the nominee.”
Meanwhile, Charles Guiteau, a grifter, conman and sometime preacher was stalking Garfield, convinced first that he would give him an ambassadorship because he plagiarized a speech and gave it once, which convinced him he helped elected the president. When that failed, he became convinced that God told him to kill the president to help Arthur and the Stalwarts gain the office. As the two men’s lives ran in parallel, Garfield assumed the White House, complete with a view of the unfinished Washington Monument. The White House was also in disrepair and Lucretia Garfield convinced Congress to give her the $30,000 it would not give Lucy Hayes for needed repairs.
Because of his desire to improve education in the South and finish joining them back into the Union, he was seen as president by North and South. It was the first time in a long time that had happened, and made his assassination all the worse.
States Admitted to the Union: None