President James A. Garfield

President James A. Garfield

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 Lake View Cemetery

Cleveland, Ohio

James A. Garfield 1831-1882, descended from our same Warren ancestors, served as the twentieth U.S. president in 1881. He died in September from infection and internal hemorrhage after being shot in a Washington, D.C. train station in July, just four months into his presidency. He was the last of the "log cabin presidents", a founder of the Republican party, and the second president to be assassinated. Though he was the first left-handed president, he could actually simultaneously write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other.

One of the bullets had lodged in the president's body. Dr. Willard Bliss inserted a finger and then a non-sterile probe into the wound, sterilization not yet being a common practice. He didn't find the bullet, but the damage he caused would lead others to believe that the bullet took a different path. The Army Surgeon General then inserted his unwashed finger and poked as deeply as he could. Then the Navy Surgeon General stuck his finger in so far that the liver was punctured. It was determined wrongly that the bullet had penetrated the liver and was inoperable, with imminent death certain. Garfield didn't die, however, and other unwashed digits continued to probe his wound. As if this wasn't bad enough, he was actually fed rectally for a time. Hey, I don't make this stuff up.

The famed Alexander Graham Bell devised a metal detector, which he determined had located the bullet much deeper than they thought. Surgery produced no results, as the instrument had actually detected the metal bedspring. All of this quackery had turned a three-inch wound into a heavily infected twenty-inch oozing mess. Garfield suffered a massive heart attack some days later, which the doctors claimed was a ruptured blood vessel in his stomach. The president finally died a short time later, after weeks of sheer torture. Autopsy revealed that the bullet was lodged four inches from the spine in a protective cyst, proving that he would have survived if he wasn't treated.

The doctors submitted a bill for $85,000. The government paid only $10,000 and forced Dr. Bliss to render a public apology. The assassin claimed at his trial that it was the doctors who had killed the president, and he was actually right, but he was convicted and hung less than a year after the fatal shots were fired.

photos by Loren and Patrick Dahling

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