- Historic Sites
1881—President Garfield Shot
June/July 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 3
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125 years ago at nine-twenty on the morning of July 2, President James A. Garfield and Secretary of State James G. Blaine walked into the Baltimore & Potomac train station in Washington, D.C.
A few seconds after they entered the visiting room, a man rushed up behind them and shot Garfield twice with a .44-caliber revolver. The President, who was accompanied by no bodyguards or assistants, collapsed to the floor. As Blaine and others shouted for help and did their best to shield Garfield from gawkers, the assassin, rushing toward a waiting cab, was arrested.
His name was Charles Guiteau, and he had been mentally disturbed for most of his life. Since Garfield’s inauguration in March, Guiteau had made himself vaguely familiar to Washington’s politicians as an eccentric pest who kept asking for jobs and handing out copies of his writings. In his disordered mind, he saw himself as a key ally of New York’s powerful senator Roscoe Conkling (who, of course, had never heard of him). So when Garfield defied Conkling, a fellow Republican, on a question of political appointments, Guiteau decided that he had to kill the President to unite the party and save the country.
The stricken Garfield was taken to the White House, where, for the next two months, he was subjected to medical care inferior to what a homeless vagrant would receive today. Dr. Willard Bliss, a former Civil War surgeon and a childhood friend of Garfield, did what he could, but without antibiotics, chest surgery, or other lifesaving aspects of modern medicine, his options were few. The treatment Garfield was given did more harm than good, as Bliss and other doctors repeatedly poked unwashed fingers into his gunshot wound, causing fresh infections.
The shooting led to at least two major technological innovations. In an attempt to locate the bullet within Garfield’s body, Alexander Graham Bell designed and built the world’s first metal detector, which was thrown off by the steel springs in the President’s mattress. And to provide relief from Washington’s summer heat, a group of Navy scientists, led by the brilliant astronomer and mathematician Simon Newcomb, designed an air-conditioning system in which air was blown over ice to cool it and then through cotton to decrease its humidity.
In early September the presidential sickroom shifted to the New Jersey shore in hopes that sea air would help Garfield recover. It didn’t, and on September 19 he finally died. Even after his death, Garfield’s case led to medical innovations, as it made American doctors realize the importance of keeping their hands and instruments scrupulously clean. Guiteau, meanwhile, was convicted of Garfield’s murder after a jury rejected his insanity defense. He was executed on June 30, 1882.