“Murder Most Foul”


But this was not the worst of the grievance, for the power of the political bosses and the spoils system always went hand in hand. Among the Democrats, Boss Tweed of Tammany Hall had but lately died in prison after looting New York City of uncounted millions. Among the Republicans the leading bosses were Senators Roscoe Conkling and Thomas C. Platt of New York, who during the two weak administrations of President Grant had virtually run the party and with it much of the country, exercising a veto power over all important federal appointments in New York. They had been temporarily set back by the one-term, reform administration of Rutherford B. Hayes, which had split the party. In 1880, Garfield had been chosen as a compromise candidate who could patch things up between the Stalwarts and the other Republican factions, and win—which he had just barely done.


After his inauguration the country watched to see if he would knuckle under to the bosses. At first he seemed to, filling major appointments from a list approved by Senators Conkling and Platt. But when he came to the Collector of Customs, a choice plum in New York State, he decided to draw the line. Without consulting the two senators, he switched the incumbent Collector to a diplomatic post and sent his own nomination to the Senate.

“This,” he said, “brings on the contest at once and will settle whether the President is registering clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the United States.” If Conkling should attack, the President promised, “he will find it no rose-water war.” The public was delighted to see its big, good-natured schoolmaster President stand up to a bully, as the canal boy long ago had done. Messages poured into Washington. (“My Dear Sir, Stick. The Constitution, the Lord God and the People are with you.”) It was soon clear that the Senate would confirm the President’s nominee, and the disgruntled Senators Conkling and Platt resigned.

It was thus a popular President who lay wounded in the White House in 1881, and a most unpopular assailant, the unsuccessful job seeker Guiteau, who settled comfortably in the District jail. The press was already raving, on this sad Fourth of July. “ MURDERED BY THE SPOILS SYSTEM !” exclaimed the angry New York Tribune .

But the President, as a matter of fact, seemed to be improving. He received visitors daily, giving each a smile and a firm handshake. After July 9, when the doctors reported him actually on the road to recovery, even the job seekers returned. How many were admitted to the sickroom is not known. But nothing could keep the job seekers away, not even a grave series of crises which developed as summer advanced.

The doctors soon reported discharges of pus, which they called “of healthy nature,” but the wound was not draining well. A channel descending toward the groin, which the doctors mistook for the track of the bullet, was really formed by pus that had not been able to drain out. On July 23 the patient had a “severe rigor,” his temperature rising to 104 degrees. To improve drainage, the doctors removed a small piece of bone from a rib the bullet had fractured. It was apparently not thought safe to place the President under ether, but during this painful operation he did not murmur or complain. “Never had physician such a patient before,” remarked Dr. Bliss. A small platoon of distinguished doctors was usually in attendance, but Dr. Bliss, whom Garfield had personally asked to take charge of his case, stayed close by the President night and day.

It was very hot in Washington in the summer of 1881; the public, reading the weather bulletins, suffered for their suffering President. They subscribed more than a quarter of a million dollars to a benefit fund for his family. They sent hundreds of letters and telegrams daily, with much medical advice. There was great fear lest the Potomac flats, traditionally called Foggy Bottom, should cause malaria, and Garfield was given quinine daily. The state of the White House itself caused anxiety. Rotten timbers in its basement and green, slimy brickwork were vividly described in Congress. A distinguished engineer came to look at the venerable plumbing.


Everyone tried to help. Alexander Graham Bell produced an electrical device, with primary and secondary coils, an interrupter, and a telephone hearing-piece, to locate the bullet in the President’s body. The results were inconclusive, perhaps because of the metal bedsprings. It was not thought advisable to probe and remove the bullet. “We suspected and dreaded some internal injury which no mortal could have dared to explore,” said Dr. Bliss. An air-conditioning unit put together by a specialist in ventilating mine shafts was more successful. Lengths of drenched cotton sheeting drawn tight on frames, an iron chest with 500 pounds of salted ice, and a fan turning at 1,400 revolutions per minute were the essentials of a system that forced cool air, purified by charcoal, into the upstairs bedroom. Its temperature was kept at 81 degrees or lower, a remarkable achievement.