Almost Saved By the Bell

On the morning of July 2, 1881, a man named Charles Julius Guiteau went to the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad’s Sixth Street Station in Washington, D.C., and got his shoes shined. He’d need to look his best, he figured, for he was about to assassinate James A. Garfield, the President of the United States.

Guiteau, delusional, believed that he had written a pivotal speech which secured Garfield’s victory over Winfield Scott Hancock — even though it is unlikely that more than a handful of people read the document or heard him deliver it one of the two times he did. Nevertheless, Guiteau believed that under the machine politics/patronage system common in the day (see more here) he was entitled to an ambassadorship — Vienna or Paris, he requested — but of course was rebuffed by the Garfield administration, which was looking at reforming civil service employment practices in any event.

At 9:30 on the 2nd of July, Garfield entered the train station and, Guiteau, laying in wait, shot him twice from behind. The first bullet hit the president in the arm but did not enter his body. The second one, however, lodged itself somewhere in Garfield’s midsection. Doctors worked hurriedly to find the bullet, but did so using unsterile practices common at the time. They never found the bullet and, in part due to the poking and prodding of his innards with unwashed hands and non-sterile equipment, Garfield contracted an infection which weakened him and, ultimately, led to his death. He died on September 19, 1881, more than two months after Guiteau assaulted him. Per the New York Times, Garfield would have most likely survived the attack had the procedures been done using the much more sterile manner implemented no more than a decade later.

He also would have survived, perhaps, if the operating bed did not have metal coils.

Garfield’s doctor, Dr. Doctor (yes, his first name was Doctor) Willard Bliss knew that finding the bullet would be difficult, so he turned to famed inventor Alexander Graham Bell. As recounted by the Times (in the same article as linked to above), Bell had devised a metal detector, and Dr. Bliss invited him to test it on Garfield, in hopes of finding the bullet. While the metal detector was crude — the predecessor to the ones we are familiar with did not start development for forty years after — it seemed to function properly. Unfortunately, the metal coils in the bed interfered with the detector’s attempts to find the bullet, and Garfield slowly cascaded toward death.


Bonus fact: Garfield’s rise to the Presidency was a historical curiosity in its own right. A long-time Representative from Ohio (1863-1881), he wanted to advance on to the Senate. At the time, Senators were selected by state legislatures (this would change in 1913, via the Seventeenth Amendment), and Garfield turned toward prominent Ohioan and statesman John Sherman for support. In exchange, Garfield promised to support Sherman’s bid for the Republican nomination for President of the United States over former President Ulysses S. Grant and Maine Senator James G. Blaine. But the Republican delegates could not reach a consensus when faced with these three choices, so they turned to an alternative, compromise candidate, who was not otherwise on the ballot — Garfield.

From the ArchivesSaving Lives, Many Bullets at a Time: The story of a gun designed to save lives.

Related: “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President” by Candice Millard. 4.5 stars on 209 reviews. The book is about Garfield’s assassination and, if you read the author’s letter on the linked-to Amazon page, you’ll see that her interest in the topic was spurred on by her discovery of Alexander Graham Bell’s role in almost saving the President.

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