Paging Dr. Bell to the President’s deathbed

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President Garfield is shot by Charles Guiteau (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

Today in 1881, President Garfield died as the result of being shot at close range by an assassin. It took him nearly three months to die.

On July 2, after months of increasing agitation and several aborted attempts to shoot the President with a pearl-handled pistol, Charles Guiteau finally mortally wounded the President as he waited for a train in a mostly deserted waiting room. Guiteau was taken into custody as he left the station.

The bullet hit Garfield in his right side just above his waist, four inches from his spine. Although he could still move, he complained of pain in his legs and feet. After having his wound prodded by three doctors in less than an hour, Garfield was taken back to the White House in an ambulance. A group of policeman accompanied the carriage and lifted the wheels when they came to potholes in the room.

But Garfield’s ordeal was only just beginning. He was seen by Dr. D. W. Bliss, who also retained two surgeons who had been at Lincoln’s death, Surgeon General J. K. Barnes and Dr. Woodward, neither of whom had spent any recent time as physicians. Woodward even admitted at an early meeting that he knew nothing about gunshot wounds.

The most pressing problem was the location of the bullet, which the doctors believed had struck the liver and was now located about five inches above the President’s navel on his right side.

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Alexander Graham Bell attempts to find the bullet lodged in President Garfield. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

To help locate the missing bullet, they brought in Alexander Graham Bell. The inventor came to the White House and used two magnets, one on either side of the President’s body, to try to locate the bullet by listening for a click as the magnets passed over the missing bullet. But both Bell’s efforts were unsuccessful. The first time the machine was incorrectly connected, and on the second time, he was looking for the bullet in the wrong place.


The bullet remained in the patient, having cracked the eleventh and twelfth ribs and lodging itself below the pancreas.

But Garfield’s complaints focused on the oppressive summer heat, which was making his sickroom unbearable. Various efforts were made to cool his room, from watering the White House lawn to installing an air compressor, but they were of little help. Eventually, infection set in and by mid-August , Garfield’s face was swollen and painful.

Despite the encouraging statements that his doctors continued to release to the public, Garfield was in the last stages of his illness. Finally, on September 19 at 10:35 p.m., he died with his wife and daughter by his side in a room filled with people.

Garfield’s tragic end may be what most people remember of his short Presidency, but his demise had a long-reaching effect. His successor, President Chester A. Arthur, pushed through the Pendleton Act, legislation that that established the Civil Service Commission.

It came too late to avert the actions of Guiteau, who had come to Washington and become fixated on the idea that Garfield would appoint him to a consulship for supporting him during the election. Guiteau, though clearly suffering from mental illness, was later executed.

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