The Death of James A. Garfield, 1881


Garfield was another of those Dark Horse Presidents of the nineteenth century, barely known outside his immediate circle of Congressional peers. Having the almost-imperative post-Civil War distinction of being an Ohioan (neither North nor South, and heavily industrial), he came out of nowhere in 1880 to capture the Republican nomination against Ulysses S. Grant, the old Hero of Appomattox, who had reluctantly agreed to try for a third term. Suffice it to say, it created political enemies.

Garfield the man, was somewhat of a wunderkind, poor, log-cabin born and raised by a single mother (his father died when Garfield was a baby), and some good-citizens who saw in him a promising lad in need of guidance. They sent him to Hiram College, and then on to Williams College in Massachusetts. He was an excellent student, but still directionless. He would be a preacher, a teacher and a lawyer, and never earn a living from any of it.

Prelude to Garfield’s Election

Shortly after college, Garfield was elected to the Ohio State Legislature where he “read law” in his free time. Before he could actually practice, the Civil War began, and the thirty-year-old man enlisted at once, rising quickly through genuine ability, genuine affability and seriously genuine good luck. He became the youngest Major General in the Union Army.

Elected to Congress in absentia, Garfield declined, believing it his duty to stay with his troops. Lincoln thought otherwise, writing him personally that he could make a Major General any time he wanted, but what he really wanted was a good Republican congressman from Ohio.

Garfield duly went to Washington where he found his calling. He served in Congress for eighteen years, making a name for himself on the appropriations committee. He was an affable sort, keeping a middle-of-the-road position at a time when the Republican factions were giving themselves more agita than the Democrats. Garfield was more at home with the “reform” faction (the Half-Breeds), rather than the side that favored the usually corrupt party bosses and patronage seekers (the Stalwarts), but he straddled the line most of the time.

James Garfields Assassination

The first three months of Garfield’s presidency was a giant headache for the man, who battled a divided party, a fractious congress, a Vice President (Chester Alan Arthur) who he detested, and a parcel of Democrats who sat back laughing at it all. He could barely get his Cabinet formed, let alone anything significant accomplished. Finally, after weeks of stress, and hard calls which have led some historians to sense his real potential, summer had come and Garfield was taking a much needed vacation, beginning on July 2.

At the train station, only minutes before he was to embark, he was shot by Charles Julius Guiteau, a thirty-eight-year-old “disgruntled office seeker” (according to the history books), who in modern truth, was insane and likely schizophrenic. Guiteau, a loner and a loser in life, was no better as an assassin. He shot twice, wounding the President – one minor, one major – and was immediately accosted and marched off to jail.

The next ten weeks were a near farce of medical practice (or probably malpractice). In 1881, doctors were still debating Lister’s call for cleanliness and antisepsis. In the train station, the poor president, lying on the station floor, was subject to three different doctors poking his wound with unwashed fingers, trying to find a bullet that refused to be found. It would be Garfield himself who consistently would show more common sense and clear thinking than all the doctors combined. It was he who decided to be taken back to the White House, where he remained until two weeks before his death.

Doctors Came in Droves

Dozens of doctors paraded in and out of the White House, each with his own aura of superiority. Newspapers were given thrice-daily reports of the patient’s temperature, pulse and respiration, plus a couched summary of his bodily functions. The suffering man was subjected to virtual starvation, given only oatmeal (which he loathed) and lime water, which made him gag. He went from a robust 210 pounds to less than 140 pounds.

According to modern medical experts, Garfield’s wounds would be easily treated today, and he would have been back at his desk within a month. But in pre-X-ray days, the doctors, with all their poking, only managed to forge a false channel. The bullet remained stubbornly elusive. But the prodding and poking, along with the egotism of the medical practitioners, only produced infection throughout that false channel, to a point where it could not be stemmed. No antisepsis. No X-Rays. No antibiotics. The brutally hot summer was no help, particularly in Washington, the city built on a swamp.

The End is Near

Garfield wanted to go back to Ohio. He knew he was dying and wanted to see “the old folks” again. The five hundred mile trip would be too arduous, the doctors claimed, but in order to make the President more comfortable, they decided to send him to Long Branch, NJ, a seaside resort half the distance away. The Pennsylvania Railroad refitted a special train for their illustrious patient, and even laid an extra mile of track right up to the cottage where Garfield would spend his last days.

After the poor man finally died, an autopsy was performed, and the bullet finally popped out on the table. It had encapsulated itself, lodged only an inch from where it had entered. If they had just left it alone, Garfield would have survived very nicely.


Ackerman, Kenneth D. Dark Horse, Carroll & Graf,2003
Brown, E.E. The Life and Public Services of James A. Garfield, D. Lothrop & Company , 1881
Leech, Margaret and Brown, Harry J. The Garfield Orbit, Harper & Row, 1978
Peskin, Allan. Garfield, The Kent State University Press, 1978