Please Note: This page is no longer being updated.
Click here to go to the current Useless Information site.
For further information on the death of President Garfield, check out: Panati's Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody by Charles Panati (1989, Harper and Row, Publishers).

Oops! by Paul Kirchner (1996, Rhino Records).

If you have   some spare time, go to your local library and read the newspaper articles related to this subject starting on July 3, 1881. They are quite fascinating, although typically found on microfilm.

How Alexander Graham Bell helped kill the President.

James A. Garfield, the 20th President of the United States may have been shot by a would-be assassin, but he was actually killed by his great team of doctors. 

Don't try to figure out what Garfield did as President that was so memorable - there was very little. In fact, most Americans barely recognize his name. 

After all, he was not Washington, Lincoln, or Kennedy. 

But then, he never had a chance to prove himself. 

Garfield was only in office for two-hundred days when he fell into the hands of his killers - the medical profession. 

Oh, I forgot to mention - he was shot prior to this - but this had little to do with his death. 


Let me explain: 

The whole thing started when a lawyer named Charles Guiteau became incensed when his application to be the U. S. ambassador to France was denied. 

It is commonly believed that Guiteau's outrage was responsible for the Garfield's assassination.  In actuality, it only played a small role.  Guiteau was a deeply religious man and believed that God had ordered him to kill the President. 

The first thing Guiteau did was visit the Washington jail that he would be incarcerated in. Like any would-be assassin, he had to make sure that it would be a nice place to live. One can only assume that if the jail didn't meet his standards, the shooting would never have occurred. 

Obviously, he liked what he saw. 

He then proceeded to the next step. 

Guiteau stalked the President for several days (some claim weeks). He passed up one opportunity to shoot Garfield because his wife was present. 

Then, on July 2, 1881, Garfield arrived at the Washington railroad depot to depart for New Jersey. He was on his way to visit his wife who was ill and staying in the town of Elberon. 

He never got there. 

Guiteau was hiding in the station and fired two shots at President Garfield. 

Believe it or not, Guiteau actually had arranged to have a hansom cab wait for him outside to take him to jail - he was afraid that an angry mob would form and lynch him. Instead the Washington police dragged him off to prison. 

One bullet grazed his arm but the other one had lodged itself somewhere inside the President's body. 

Garfield was rushed to the White House, having never lost consciousness. 

For the next eighty days, sixteen doctors were consulted regarding the President's condition. 

The first doctor, Willard Bliss, stuck a non-sterile finger into the wound (sterilization had been preached, but not widely practiced at the time). He followed this by inserting a non sterile probing instrument to find the bullet. 

Bliss never found the bullet, but the false passage that he dug out confused later physicians as to the bullet's actual path. As a result, they concluded that the bullet had penetrated the liver and therefore surgery would be of no help. The President would surely die quickly as a result. 

Of course, they were wrong. 

Then the army surgeon general stuck his unwashed finger into the wound and dug as deep as he could. 

This was followed by the navy surgeon general who searched with his finger so deeply that this time he really did puncture the liver (damage the bullet never did). His conclusion: the President would die within twenty-four hours. 

But, Garfield didn't die the next day. 

His fever rose and he was put on a diet of milk spiked with brandy. 

To nobody's surprise they continued to probe for the bullet with their unwashed fingers. 

In an effort to find the bullet, that phone guy Alexander Graham Bell rigged up a crude metal detector to help find the bullet. After several passes, Bell said he had located the bullet. It was much deeper than was originally thought. 

With Garfield's condition growing steadily worse, doctors decided to cut him open to remove the slug. It was not found. 

What Bell had actually located so deep in the body was the metal spring under the mattress! No wonder they couldn't find the bullet. 

In the end, they managed to take a 3 inch wound and turn it into a twenty inch canal that was heavily infected and oozed more and more pus with each passing day. 

The deep wound with its massive infection, coupled with possible blood poisoning from the bullet, caused the President's heart to weaken. 

Garfield had a massive heart attack several days later, but these well trained physicians botched this diagnosis also. 

They attributed it to the rupturing of a blood vessel in his stomach! 

Minutes later, on September 19th, 1881, Garfield finally passed away. 

At the autopsy, examiners determined that the bullet had lodged itself some four inches from the spine in a protective cyst. 

Their conclusion? 

Garfield would have survived if the doctors had left him alone. 

At his trial, Charles Guiteau argued that he did not kill the President and that the doctors deserved all the blame for the President's death. 

That kind of argument would probably get you off today, but it didn't work in the 1880's. 

Guiteau was sentenced to death and was hanged on June 30, 1882. 

The federal government refused to return Guiteau's body to his family. 

They had much bigger plans. 

They stripped his corpse down to the bones and intended to display his skeleton publicly.  Admission was to be free, but in the end his skeleton was never shown. 

Historians believe that the bones can be found today in several trays in the storage vaults of the Army Medical Museum. 

The saddened public may have been denied the right to view the skeleton, but they did one better.  They bought souvenirs - pictures of the hanging, replicas of the bullet, snippets of the hanging rope, and so on...! 

As a side note: 

The physicians had the nerve to submit a bill for their services of $85,000 to the Senate. The federal government paid $10,000 (a ripoff) and good old Doctor Bliss was forced to make a public apology. 

We can only imagine what they would have done to President Garfield if he had managed to live even longer... 

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

If you liked this story, please check out our 
Site Index for more exciting stories!