- Historic Sites
My Friend Garfield
One summer brought excitement and glory to the young secretary of a political leader. How could he know that the next one would brim with tragedy?
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
Even if the bungling use of the [surgeon’s] probe [seeking for the bullet] had not provided a perfect highway of infection, the surgical technique of that day could not have saved him. At the present time [probably the 1890’s], given his splendid physique and great power of resistance, modern surgery and modern equipment would have pulled him through.
This is not the place to dwell on the details of the dreadful days of alternate hopes and fears which followed. Two episodes, however, occurred which seemed to strike even deeper than that first staggering blow. One night, Mrs. Garfield sent for me. Waiting a moment until control of her voice was assured, she said, “Will you tell me just what you think the chances are for the General’s recovery?” One look in the anguished face of that wonderful woman and I threw truthfulness to the winds, and lied and lied as convincingly and consolingly as I could. As soon as decency permitted I excused myself, but once beyond the door all restraint gave way and I was an utterly shattered and broken secretary. The whole period was one prolonged, hideous nightmare, but that experience left its mark like a brand on the naked flesh.
The final end came the last bitter night at Elberon by the ocean where the President had been taken in order to escape the intolerable heat of a Washington summer. I had gone to my room after leaving word with the faithful Daniel [a servant] to call me if necessary. Towards midnight there came the fateful tap on my door. I can still hear the long, solemn roll of the sea on the shore as I did on that night of inky darkness, when I walked from my cottage to his bedside. The family [Mrs. Garfield and Mollie; Garfield’s four sons were not there] and physicians were present, and the scene was tragic and harrowing beyond words to describe. Gradually the gasping breath came at longer and longer intervals, and in a few minutes the venerable Dr. Hamilton stepped to the bedside and gently and tenderly composed the features of the heroic soul he had learned to love.
The final agony was the autopsy. It was deemed desirable that some member of the official household should be present. Tediously, the ghoulish business went on without any very important results until Dr. Agnew, who had been an attentive observer, stepped forward and ran his little finger down the exposed and exceptionally large spinal column until it slipped entirely through the one vertebra pierced by the bullet. Turning to the group he said, “Gentlemen, this was the fatal wound. We made a mistake,” and slowly walked out of the room.