The President Killed by His Own Doctors

July 11, 2017

“If wrinkles must be written upon our brows, let them not be written upon the heart. The spirit should not grow old.” James Garfield

James Garfield marks our 20th president of the week. You’d think writing these presidential recaps would get easier. However, this week’s was rough. All I really want to do is tell you to go read THIS book! Right this second! Goodness, it’s amazing. It’s the most captivating book I’ve read all year. And I don’t know a better way to capture the character of President Garfield.

Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic is the most fascinating sketch on a president I’ve ever read. It makes me want to go tell the entire world about President James Garfield! That most Americans have hardly heard of him is a crime. Though he had the second shortest tenure in presidential history (William Harrison, at 31 days, was the first), his story should be mentioned in every history book from sea to shining sea.

Of course, all our presidents are fascinating in their own way. But James Garfield is extra intriguing to me for several reasons. The life he lived alone is worth learning about. Add in the extra dimension of how he even became president in the first place and you’ve got a page turner right there. But it doesn’t stop there.

His assassination was tragic, yes, but the real tragedy came after the assassin’s bullet struck him. Had he been an average soldier wounded in battle, many historians believe he would have lived. Unfortunately, James Garfield was no ordinary man. As the most powerful man in the country, his story took a different and tragic turn.

Background of James Garfield

teenage James Garfield

James Garfield at 16-years-old.

“I never meet a ragged boy in the street without feeling that I may owe him a salute, for I know not what possibilities may be buttoned up under his coat.”


James Garfield was born on November 19, 1831 in Orange, Ohio. His father died when he was only two-years-old. As the youngest, his mother and siblings were super protective of him and had huge ambitions for him. They knew that whatever happened, James had to have an education. They did whatever they could to make it happen, saving every penny to send him to school. His mom even convinced local authorities to build a school house on her property, knowing it was the only way her children would ever receive an education.

Their hearts were broken when James quit school and went to work for a canal company. Although he had never seen the ocean, he had a fascination with it. Apparently working on a boat was the closest thing to his dream. While there, he had a near death experience that changed his mind.

Although he worked on the water, he had never learned how to swim. One night, while working the night shift, he fell in the canal and almost drowned. Miraculously, he grabbed a hold of a rope and pulled himself in. The rope never should have been there and Garfield took it as a sign that God had bigger plans for him.

Boy was he right.


He returned home, much to the relief of his mom and brother, and re-enrolled in his church’s school. To pay for tuition, he became the school’s janitor. He soon rose to the top of his class impressing the school’s administration who made him a professor the next year. Not long after graduating from William’s College, he returned home and became his former school’s new president. He eventually went to law school and became involved in the Republican Party.

Civil War James Garfield

James Garfield during the Civil War

Entering Politics and the Civil War

After making a series of speeches for the Republicans (he was really good at it), James Garfield was elected to the Ohio Senate. Knowing his former students would enlist under him, Ohio’s governor made Garfield a lieutenant colonel after the Civil War broke out. He was a super successful leader in the army and was promoted several times. He was a huge supporter of ending slavery and blacks in the South thought he was a hero.

In 1862, he was elected to the House of Representatives and then elected to the Senate in 1880. He would never make it to the Senate, though. His party had other plans for him.

James Garfield Republican Convention

The 1880 Republican Convention. James Garfield is on the podium (center right)

The Nomination for President

Unlike many politicians at the time, James Garfield never had presidential ambitions. He knew what the job entailed and didn’t want it. In fact, at the Republican Convention of 1880, Senator-elect Garfield was actually there to give the nominating speech for General Sherman. In the middle of the speech–that was so good it left the rowdy crowd speechless–someone shouted out “We want Garfield!” It stuck.

When ballot after ballot failed to give the other candidates the majority, James Garfield’s name was entered. Just once. But then it caught on and pretty soon more and more states were voting for James Garfield instead of Sherman and Ulysses S. Grant (after all his scandals, the former president wanted to give the presidency another go). It was the longest Republican Convention in history.

Garfield, being the type of guy he was, openly resisted his name being thrown in the ring. He kept saying no, that he didn’t accept! But, the more he resisted, the more people liked him. And on the 36th ballot, James Garfield was officially the Republican Party’s “dark horse” nominee for president. Whether he liked it or not.

On election day, Garfield defeated the Democratic nominee, General Winfield Scott Hancock, by less than 10,000 votes.

President James Garfield

President Garfield

“The chief duty of government is to keep the peace and stand out of the sunshine of the people.”

The Brief Presidency of James Garfield

One of the first things Garfield tried to do during his presidency was civil service reform to get rid of the “spoils system.” In other words, he wanted to do away with giving political appointments based on favors owed, etc. He wanted appointments to be made on merit only.

Reform didn’t sit well with a few of the higher ups in Congress who basically ran the place. One of them in particular was New York Senator Roscoe Conkling (a fascinating character in his own right). He pushed back but Garfield pushed back even harder. He was determined to get it done.

His first act in doing so was naming one of Conkling’s enemies to a super powerful position. Normally Conkling himself had filled the post so he retaliated by resigning from the Senate. This didn’t end the “spoils system” entirely, but it was the start of it. Unfortunately, Garfield didn’t live long enough to see the passage of the Civil Service Act (but his predecessor made sure it passed).

James Garfield’s Assassination

Even after the death of President Lincoln, presidents still didn’t have a security detail during Garfield’s presidency. He often went walking alone at night and the White House was wide open to visitors during the day.

One of these visitors was Charles Guiteau. He even stalked the president on his nightly walks. Guiteau was an odd man, to say the least. He was a lawyer by pure luck, but a poor one who moved around constantly so he wouldn’t have to pay his bills.

Guiteau had spent some time on the campaign trail earlier that year and felt the president owed him a political appointment. Specifically, he was hoping for an ambassadorship to Vienna or Paris. He wrote letters and visited the White House every chance he got. He was obsessed.

Guiteau was basically ignored and dismissed as the deranged man that he was. This only enraged him.

The odd thing was, he didn’t hate President Garfield (though he didn’t like his Secretary of State). He thought he was a good guy. But after he was continually overlooked for an appointment for an ambassadorship, he was convinced that God told him to kill Garfield. He was sure that fame would follow and that his long awaited political appointment would finally happen if Garfield was out of the way. He bought a gun, learned the president’s schedule, and waited for his chance.

On July 2, 1881, when a coach dropped the president off at the train station, Garfield walked in and Guiteau was waiting. He shot him twice. Once in the arm and once in the torso. Garfield dropped and vomited. Guiteau ran screaming that he had done it and now Arthur would be president!

James Garfield had been president for less than four months.

“If there be one thing upon this earth that mankind love and admire better than another, it is a brave man – it is a man who dares to look the Devil in the face and tell him he is a Devil.”

Garfield’s Death

This is the part that’s hard to write. Because although the wounds from Guiteau’s bullets were no picnic, they aren’t what ultimately killed Garfield. His doctors are. How is that possible? Let’s just say, if you think health care today stinks, just be glad you weren’t being treated by doctors in the 19th century.

In the 1880s, at least in the U.S., doctors still didn’t fully understand where germs came from. In Europe, doctors and scientists had already theorized that “invisible germs” were responsible for infections. Although those doctors tried to convince Americans that many lives would be saved through sterilization, American doctors dismissed the practice as ridiculous. In fact, many of them never washed their operating clothing. They let crusty blood and guts from former patients fall into their current ones. Their dirty uniforms were often a sign of pride.

American doctors didn’t sterilize their instruments, let alone their own hands, or use other precautions like they do today. So after James Garfield was shot, what was the first thing doctors did? They stuck their dirty, grimy hands and their unclean tools into his wound. Over and over again. This meant repeated infections.

Garfield’s body was strong enough to fight off the first round of infections and he likely would have survived. However, as his body grew weaker, the infections kept being reintroduced to him and took over his entire body. Over and over again those doctors, determined on finding that darn bullet, stuck their dirty tools and hands in his weakened body.

His body became a breeding ground for infection and pits of pus formed everywhere. It was a sad, sorry sight and the pain President Garfield must have been in makes me cringe.

Garfield’s Doctors

Some historians say that had he been a soldier wounded in battle, he would have lived. Doctors would have looked for the bullet once and moved on. Because Garfield was president, those doctors were determined to help him and thought finding the bullet was key. One doctor in particular, probably provided the worst care. His name was Doctor (yep, his first name) Bliss and ironically, he was also one of the many doctors who worked on Lincoln after he was shot.

President Lincoln’s son Robert was Garfield’s Secretary of War and therefore happened to be present after the shooting. He took charge and had Dr. Bliss called in.

Dr. Bliss basically bullied all the other doctors into thinking he was in charge. He had Garfield moved to the White House instead of a hospital. July in Washington=humid, hot and miserable. If you’ve ever been back East in the summer, you know how unbearable it gets. The conditions were torturous for Garfield.

But Bliss, who valued his reputation over anything else, insisted Garfield not be moved, that he have very few visitors, and that other doctors be demoted to simply nurses under his watch. He made all the calls, including feeding him a diet that made things worse, and continually probing the wound and reintroducing infection. Under Bliss’s care, President Garfield’s wound, now a huge incision over 20 inches long, quickly became very, very infected. It slowly and miserably spread to his entire body.

Garfield’s Final Days

What set in is what’s referred to as sepsis, or blood infection. Garfield went from 210 pounds to 130 over the two and a half months since he’d been shot. A couple weeks prior to his death, he was taken by train to a home in New Jersey. Apparently they thought being by the cool ocean air would be better for him than the hot, humid stench of Washington.

James Garfield finally died on September 19th. His final words were, as he clutched his chest in agony, “This pain, this pain!” His autopsy revealed a heart attack and a ruptured artery which had produced a massive hemorrhage (likely the cause of the terrible pain).

In the daily briefings to the public, Bliss often lied and told them repeatedly that all was well. He even once stated that the president had “returned to his normal condition.” The public really thought Garfield might pull through, so it was an even bigger shock when he finally died.

He had only been president for 200 days and was only a couple months away from his 50th birthday.

“The lesson of History is rarely learned by the actors themselves.”

How Garfield’s Death Brought the Nation Together

Even Lincoln’s death hadn’t brought the country together. With the Civil War barely ending, the North was still pitted against the South and Southerners never really saw Lincoln as their president. When Garfield died, however, the country finally started to heal. Here was a man loved by the North, but also by the South. For the first time since the Civil War, Americans became Americans again, instead of Northern and Southerners. James Garfield was everyone’s president. The entire country mourned his death.

In addition, Garfield’s brutal death at the hand of his doctors sent a wave of strides to finally be made in the medical field. American doctors finally started accepting the theories of “invisible germs” and using more sterile practices. So, Garfield’s death wasn’t in vain. This change in medical practice probably saved thousands, if not millions, of lives.

President James and First Lady Lucretia Garfield

James and Lucretia Garfield

First Lady: Lucretia Garfield

James Garfield nicknamed her Crete. The two had seven children. Two of those children died as toddlers and their deaths affected them the rest of their lives. James and Lucretia had an interesting start to their marriage but a strong one overall.

I haven’t been able to find any good resource for why the two ever got married in the first place. But from what I’ve read, the first few years of their marriage was rough and the two didn’t even fall in love until years later. The reasoning, historians say, had to do with his upbringing. As the youngest, James Garfield was raised to be an extremely affectionate and outgoing person. Lucretia was the opposite, quiet and calm, and apparently that created a bit of a rift in their relationship.

The first few years in their marriage James was gone at war and then served in Congress and Lucretia mentioned it was nearly unbearable. After a test to their marriage, the two finally fell in love. When they understood each other better, it was smooth sailing.

They wrote beautiful love letters to each other with things like, “It is almost painful for me to feel that so much of my life and happiness have come to depend upon another than myself. I want to hear from you so often, and I shall wait and watch with a hungry heart until your dear words reach me.”

James and Mollie Garfield

James Garfield with his daughter Mollie.

“There are men and women who make the world better just by being the kind of people they are. They have the gift of kindness or courage or loyalty or integrity. It really matters very little whether they are behind the wheel of a truck or running a business or bringing up a family. They teach the truth by living it.”

Why James Garfield is Awesome

James Garfield is the last of America’s “log cabin presidents.” He truly lived the American dream by rising from nothing to becoming our president.

Historians describe James Garfield as what we now refer to as a total “policy wonk.” He was so well-read that he had notebooks filled with his thoughts on philosophies and equations. Also, he spoke multiple languages (Greek and Latin) and is said to have been able to write with both hands simultaneously. He’s said to have had such a sharp mind that he could recite works of poetry, in several languages, at the drop of a hat.

He enjoyed reading and thinking so much that when he became president, he hated that he had no free time to read and do the things he wanted. It ate at him.

James Garfield was the only former college professor and only preacher to become president. He was also the last person to move right from the House of Representatives to the White House.

You’ve often heard that the test of a man’s character comes when he’s suffering. How does he treat others? It is said that President Garfield never complained or spoke an unkind word to anyone during his whole ordeal. He was thoughtful, kind and gentle in unspeakable circumstances.

His legacy is incredible and his death is heart breaking. It leaves me wondering had he lived, what more could he have done? What kind of legacy would he have left?

For Kids

When I told my own kids about James Garfield’s death, they wondered why he didn’t have anyone protecting him like presidents do now. I wondered the same thing. Lincoln had been assassinated only 15 years earlier. Wasn’t the president’s safety a concern after that?

The Secret Service wasn’t started until four years after President Garfield’s death. But even then, they were formed under the Department of the Treasury. Their job was to investigate fraudulent activity toward the government, such as fake money and groups like the Ku Klux Klan. It wasn’t until 1901, after yet another president (President McKinley) was assassinated for Americans to take threats to the president’s safety seriously.

Up to this point, Americans couldn’t imagine who would want to take a president’s life even though assassinations of leaders in Europe happened frequently during this time. They saw Lincoln’s death as more of a casualty of the Civil War than anything else. They couldn’t imagine other reasons for taking the leader of their country’s life.

Discuss with your children ways the Secret Service keeps our president safe now. Each president, and First Lady, have permanent protection details assigned to protect them at all hours of the day and night.

In addition, after talking to your children about the type of man Garfield was, you could speculate ways they think President Garfield was a good president and what else he might have accomplished had he lived.

James Garfield is the first president to have had a presidential library set up for him. His library and home are located in Mentor, Ohio and are part of the National Park Service. As part of the NPS, 4th graders get in free and can participate in the junior ranger program.


The Washington Post has the BEST podcast titled Presidential. In Garfield’s episode, the host interviews author Candice Millard about her book, The Destiny of the Republic. It’s a book that I highly recommend. You won’t regret reading it. After I read it, I seriously was up in the middle of the night thinking about it.

Also, if you’re curious about his Inaugural Address, you can read it here.

And, as always, here’s my favorite documentary on all the presidents. The History Channel put together a mini-documentary on each president and they’re fascinating. Here’s the longer (more expensive version) and here’s the shorter version.



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Author: Brittany

Former White House and Capitol Hill staffer, wife, and mom.

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1 Comment

  • Reply Joy Candrian July 11, 2017 at 4:10 pm

    I agree, “Destiny of the Republic” is an amazing book.

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