President Garfield’s Doctors: A Keystone Tragi-Comedy, Part 2

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President Garfield After the Shooting

Garfield would survive his assassination attempt for ten of the hottest weeks in memory.

Poor President James Garfield had made it through the night after being shot by an assassin on July 2, 1881. Garfield was suffering not only from the pain of the bullet in his side, but from the poking and the prodding by literally dozens of medical men – all with unwashed hands and unsterile instruments. The recent discoveries of Pasteur’s microbes and Lister’s antisepsis techniques were still in the bah-humbug stage.

President Garfield Receives Medical Advice

Partly due to James Garfield’s otherwise good health and physical fitness, the forty-nine year old president appeared to rally from this ordeal, and indeed for a few weeks, there was some hope for his recovery. The bullet in his side, however, remained elusive and a concern to Dr. Willard Bliss and his medical team. Letters poured in almost immediately from all over the country with prayers, good wishes, and suggestions for the President’s treatment.

The suggestion of an apparatus to cool the sickroom (which hovered around 90-degrees) had merit and was relatively simple to rig. It was also successful, and kept the room more comfortable at 75-degrees.

The letter from Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, offering to test his metal detecting device was enthusiastically received, including strong support from the President himself, who was interested in the experiment. The test did not work, largely due to the metal bedsprings – but the concept would prove valid at a later date.

Then there was a suggestion that two strong men hold the President upside-down and shake him hard so the bullet would fall out of his mouth. That piece of advice was filed away for posterity’s amusement.

Garfield’s Doctors Practice Medicine

Dr. Bliss was an egocentric man, a mediocre doctor at best, and difficult to work with. The medical team argued continually and vociferously, and often within the President’s hearing. Not only did the doctors debate medical practice and treatment, but they feuded constantly over precedence and authority. As word leaked out about the quarrelsome physicians, they became a laughing stock.

It was customary in Victorian times, to keep the patient and the patient’s family completely in the dark about his condition, most likely because the doctors did not have any answers. They would “tsk” and “tut” and talk about things being in God’s hands, but they never discussed their findings or treatments with either President or Mrs. Garfield. The only way the President found out “how he was”, was by having his wife read the newspapers to him. The papers ran daily bulletins on his temperature, pulse and respiration rates.

The doctors were also starving the poor man – literally. He was given nothing to eat but oatmeal, which he loathed. He was losing a huge amount of weight, weakening him even more. To try to provide some nourishment, Dr. Bliss began administering enemas of beef bouillon. (As strange as it seems, the concept has some validity, given the modern usage of skin patches and nasal sprays to absorb medicines. In Garfield’s case, it didn’t work.)

Every two hour, six burly men would come and lift President James Garfield by the bedsheets to turn him, thus preventing bedsores. Through it all, the Garfield maintained his dignity and good humor.

Garfield’s Health Declines Rapidly

By late July, ominous signs appeared. Pus-pockets were developing, adding to the President’s pain and discomfort. Infection had set. The doctors were still debating and arguing, although they knew infection when they saw it. They just didn’t know how to treat it – at least not effectively. Garfield’s temperature rose. He developed abscesses, which would be lanced and drained, and which would form again somewhere else a few days later.

By mid-August, things were declining to a point that James Garfield’s innate good humor began to suffer, and he became understandably irritable. He realized that he was not recovering, and that his first thoughts about the assassination (“I am a dead man”), were probably prophetic. He wanted to go home to Ohio and die in his own bed. He wanted to see “the old folks” again. Dr. Bliss and his team did not argue on this point. They categorically refused. It was 500 miles away, across the Appalachian Mountains. It would be brutally painful, and they did not believe the President could survive the trip.

It would be Lucretia Garfield, the President’s wife, who proposed taking the dying man to Long Branch, New Jersey. The ocean breezes had helped her to recover from a recent and serious case of malaria. It was only half the distance. There were no mountains to cross.

Knowing the cool air would provide more comfort for the dying man, the doctors made plans in early September to move the President to a borrowed cottage, where good cross-ventilation and sea breezes would indeed provide some relief. The Pennsylvania Railroad put all its resources to work to move Garfield the two-hundred-plus miles as comfortably as possible. They even built a spur track right up to Charles Francklyn’s cottage. A team of railroad workers, supported by the entire town, laid the extra track overnight.

For the next two weeks, President Garfield lingered. Then he finally expired.

James Garfield’s Autopsy Report

Naturally an autopsy was performed. The doctors had debated the position of the elusive bullet for ten weeks. Now they would find it – to the surprise of everyone.

They quickly realized their gross error: all their probing and poking had done, was to create a false channel more than twenty inches deep. The bullet itself was lodged only an inch from where it had entered.

They also learned that the bullet had encapsulated itself, rendering it essentially harmless. If they had done nothing, Garfield likely would have survived. Thousands of Civil War veterans lived for decades with bullets lodged somewhere in their bodies. The crazy assassin Charles Guiteau was right when he said at his trial, “I only shot at the President. The doctors killed him.”

Sources:

  1. Kenneth D. Ackerman. The Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003
  2. Brown, E.E. The Life and Public Services of James A. Garfield, D. Lothrop & Company , 1881
  3. Peskin, Allan. Garfield, The Kent State University Press, 1978