James A. Garfield was absolutely brilliant. The last “Log Cabin President,” he worked his way through his first year at Hiram College as a janitor and a carpenter – by his second year he was supporting himself as assistant professor of literature and ancient languages. He then transferred to Williams College and graduated in 1856 as class salutatorian. At age 26 he was back at Hiram College in Ohio – as president.
A Civil War hero and nine-term Congressman, Garfield was reluctantly drafted by fellow Republicans to run for president of the United States. When he reached the White House he found himself under siege from the spoils system under which anyone could petition the president in person for a government job.
Charles Guiteau was one of the many office seekers who visited the White House every day. He was a man who had tried practicing law, he tried preaching evangelism, he had even tried free love – but the women in his free love commune nicknamed him “Charles Get Out.”
Now he was operating under the delusion that he would be named the next minister to France. Day after day Guiteau visited the White House, once even meeting face to face with Garfield, but his grand expectations again seemed to evaporate . . .
On the morning of July 2, 1881, President Garfield set out to travel by train from Washington to Massachusetts. When the president, accompanied by two of his sons, walked into the Sixth Street Station, Guiteau stepped out of the shadows and shot him twice at close range – once in the arm and once in the back.
“My God, what is this?” Garfield exclaimed.
The shot lodged behind the president’s pancreas but thankfully did not hit any vital organs. Within minutes, twelve doctors converged on the wounded president lying on the station floor, and poked and prodded the holes in his body with their unsterilized fingers probing for the bullet.
Robert Todd Lincoln, a cabinet member at the time and travelling with the president, summoned Dr. D. Willard Bliss who immediately took charge. For the ensuing 80 days, Garfield condition worsened as infection spread through his body. Unable to keep down food, the president’s weight plunged from 210 pounds to 130.
He was fed oatmeal (which he detested) and milk from a cow on the White House lawn. When told that Indian chief Sitting Bull, a prisoner of the army, was starving, the suffering Garfield said, “Let him starve”, then, “Oh no, send him my oatmeal!”
In a panic to find the bullet still lodged in the president, Bliss called on Alexander Graham Bell to use his “induction balance,” a kind of metal detector, to find the bullet. Bliss believed – and had publicly stated – the bullet was on the right side of the president’s body and would only let Bell examine that side of the president’s body.
Unfortunately the bullet had gone to the left, and as Garfield was lying on a bed made of metal springs, the metal detector wasn’t much help.
President Garfield finally died in great pain on September 19, 1881. Charles Guiteau would be hanged on June 30, 1882, but before he died he fully admitted his guilt:
“Yes, I shot him, but his doctors killed him.”