President Garfield’s Doctors: A Keystone Tragic-Comedy Part II

 President Garfield spent two months after his assassination attempt, lying in bed at the White House during the hottest weeks in memory.


No photography was permitted in Garfield’s White House sickroom, but the newspaper artists all rendered their impressions of how it might look.

James Garfield, President for barely four months, had survived the night following an assassination attempt on July 2, 1881.  His wound from of the bullet in his side was exacerbated by the poking and the prodding by literally dozens of medical men – all with unwashed hands and unsterile instruments.  The decade-old recent discoveries of Pasteur’s microbes and Lister’s antisepsis techniques were still in the bah-humbug stage – at least in the USA.

President Garfield Receives Medical Advice

Despite the medical ineptness, James Garfield’s otherwise good health and physical fitness seemed to help the forty-nine year old president rally from his ordeal, and indeed for a few weeks, there was some hope for his recovery.

The bullet in his side, however, remained elusive and a concern to Dr. Willard Bliss and his medical team.  A nationwide avalanche of letters poured in almost immediately with prayers, good wishes, and suggestions for the President’s treatment.

The suggestion for an apparatus to cool the sickroom (which hovered around 90-degrees) had merit.  It was relatively simple and inexpensive to rig.  It was also successful;  the room temperature was lowered by fifteen degrees.

The letter from Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, offering to test his newly invented metal detecting device was enthusiastically received.  The President himself was interested in the experiment.  The test did not work, largely due to the metal bedsprings – but the concept would prove valid at a later date.

Then there was a letter suggesting that two strong men hold the President upside-down and shake him hard so the bullet would fall from his mouth.  That letter was filed away for the amusement of posterity.

Garfield’s Doctors Mis-Practice Medicine

garfield's doctors

Garfield’s doctors, led by the domineering and egotistical Willard Bliss, were daily visitors to the White House sickroom, frequently arguing at the President’s bedside.

Dr. Bliss was an egocentric martinet of a man, difficult to work with.  The medical team argued continually and vociferously, and often at the President’s bedside.  Not only did the doctors debate medical treatment, but they feuded constantly over precedence and authority, each zealously guarding his purview and opinion, most of which were wrong.  As word leaked out about the quarrelsome physicians, they became a laughing stock.

The doctors were also literally starving the poor man.   President Garfield was given nothing to eat but oatmeal, which he loathed.  He was losing a huge amount of weight, weakening him even more.  Trying to provide some nourishment, Dr. Bliss administered enemas of beef bouillon.  (This strange concept has some validity, given the modern usage of skin patches and nasal sprays to absorb medicines.   In Garfield’s case, it didn’t work.)

Every two hour, six burly men would come and lift the President by the bedsheets to turn him, thus preventing bedsores.  Through it all, the Garfield maintained his dignity and good humor.

Victorian bedside manners however, were designed to keep the patient and the patient’s family completely in the dark, most likely because the doctors had no answers.  They would “tsk” and “tut” and talk about things being in God’s hands, but they never discussed anything of consequence with either President or Mrs. Garfield.  The only way the President found out “how he was”, was when his wife read the newspapers to him.  They ran daily bulletins on his temperature, pulse and respiration rates.

Garfield’s Health Declines Rapidly

By late July, ominous signs appeared.  Pus-pockets were developing.  Infection had set in.  The doctors were still debating and arguing, although they knew infection when they saw it.  They just didn’t know how to treat it.  Garfield’s temperature rose.  He developed abscesses, which would be lanced and drained, and which would form again somewhere else, adding to the President’s pain.

By mid-August, things had declined to a point that Garfield’s innate good humor began to suffer, and he became understandably irritable.  He began to realize that he would not recover, and that his first thoughts about the assassination (“I am a dead man”), were probably prophetic.  He wanted to go home to Ohio and die in his own bed.  He wanted to see “the old folks” again.

This time, Dr. Bliss and his team did not argue.  They categorically refused.  It was 500 miles away, across the Appalachian Mountains.  It would be brutally painful, and they believed the President could not survive the trip.

Lucretia Rudolph Garfield

First Lady Lucretia Garfield tended to her husband as much as the doctors would permit. She read the newspapers to him – so they could find out his progress, or lack thereof.

It was Lucretia Garfield, the President’s wife, who suggested they take the dying man to Long Branch, New Jersey.  The ocean breezes had helped her to recover from a serious case of malaria.  It was only half the distance.  There were no mountains to cross.

The doctors finally agreed, and made plans in early September to move him to a borrowed cottage, where the sea breezes would provide some relief.  The Pennsylvania Railroad consolidated all its resources to take Garfield two-hundred-plus miles as comfortably as possible.  They even built a spur track right up to the borrowed cottage.

For the next two weeks, President Garfield lingered.  Then he expired.

James Garfield’s Autopsy Report


President Garfield died in a borrowed cottage in Elberon, New Jersey, only ten days after he had been brought there for the cool ocean breezes.

The doctors had debated the position of the elusive bullet for ten weeks.  An autopsy was performed, and they would finally find it.

To everyone’s amazement, they had all been grossly incorrect.  All their probing and poking had done was to create a false channel several inches long.  The bullet itself was lodged only an inch from where it had entered.

The bullet had also encapsulated itself, rendering it essentially harmless.   If they had done nothing, Garfield likely would have survived.  Thousands of Civil War veterans had lived for decades with bullets lodged somewhere in their bodies.  The insane assassin Charles Guiteau was right when he said at his trial, “I only shot at the President.  The doctors killed him.”


  • Kenneth D. Ackerman. The Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2003
  • Brown, E.E. The Life and Public Services of James A. Garfield, D. Lothrop & Company , 1881
  • Millard, Candice – Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, Doubleday, 2012
  • Peskin, Allan. Garfield, The Kent State University Press, 1978

About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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2 Responses to President Garfield’s Doctors: A Keystone Tragic-Comedy Part II

  1. awax1217 says:

    Beware the savers for they maybe wrong. They bury the dead and their mistakes at the same time.

  2. energywriter says:

    Sometimes it’s best to avoid the doctor, even now. sd

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