On September 19, 1881, President James Garfield died, after surviving for nearly three months, from a close range gunshot wound inflicted by Charles Guiteau, a disgruntled job seeker.

This was the final success of several previous attempts to shoot the President and Guiteau finally managed mortally wound the President with a pearl-handled pistol as he waiting for a train in a nearly empty waiting room. The assassin was captured as he left the waiting room.

The bullet hit Garfield in his right side just above the waist and four inches from his spine. He was still able to move but complained of pain in his legs and feet. He had his wound prodded three times within an hour to locate the bullet without success and was then taken to the White House by ambulance. A group of policemen accompanied the carriage and lifted the wheels over potholes along the way.

The President’s ordeal was only just beginning. The problem was that they couldn’t find the bullet. Added to this, he was attended by three surgeons who hadn’t spent any recent time as physicians. One was Dr. D.W. Bliss who retained two surgeons, one was the Surgeon General J.K. Barnes and the other Dr. Woodward. Woodward admitted that he knew nothing about gunshot wounds. The main problem was the inability to locate the bullet,

Garfield’s ordeal was only just beginning. He was attended by Dr. D. W. Bliss, who also retained two surgeons who had been at Lincoln’s death, Surgeon General J. K. Barnes and Dr. Woodward, neither of whom had spent any recent time as physicians. Woodward even admitted at an early meeting that he knew nothing about gunshot wounds. The main problem was the inability to locate the bullet.

In the hopes of locating the bullet, they brought in the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, who arrived with two magnets which were placed on either side of the President’s body. The idea was to find the bullet by listening for the click as the magnets passed over it. Bell made two attempts without success. In the first, the machine was incorrectly connected and in the second attempt he was looking for the bullet in the wrong place.

Just as they probably would today (beware this is my personal opinion), the doctors continued to release encouraging statements when Garfield was actually in the final stage of a very painful illness caused by infection. This serves to remind us how far we have come in the field of medicine since 1881.

Although most people will remember the tragic end of a short Presidency, but there’s a far reaching effect and that was the establishment of the Civil Service Commission by Garfields successor, President Chester A. Arthur, when he signed the Pendleton Act.

It was determined that Guiteau, a disgruntled job seeker, was mentally ill and had become fixed on the idea that Garfield would appoint him to a consulship for supporting him during the election.

To read more click on National Archives Prologue: Pieces of History.

Click on Pendleton Act of 1883 to read it and see the image .

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1 Comment on The 1881 assassination of President Garfield

  1. Sean says:

    Very topical…disgruntled job seeker.

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