The Three Major Inventions of Garfield’s Assassination

The Industrial Age was at its height when Garfield was assassinated in 1881.  Inventive minds were at work!

The President Is Shot

The Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station in Washington, where Garfield was shot.

President James A. Garfield (1831-1881) was a robust, athletic man of forty-nine when an assassin pumped two bullets into him. One grazed his arm, doing minimal damage. The other went into his side. X-rays were still in the distant future, and the bullet could not be found. The doctors believed that removing the bullet was essential, and they probed and poked in complete disregard to the newfangled practices of antisepsis, which included hand-washing. This created the infection that would lead to his death ten weeks later.

The outpouring of sympathy was overwhelming – along with hundreds of letters recommending various medical strategies and techniques that might be useful. All letters were opened, read and acknowledged.  After all, good manners are essential in the White House.

Some recommendations, like the one suggesting that two strong men hold the President upside down and shake him hard, causing the bullet to pop out of his mouth, was filed away for the amusement of posterity. Others deserving more attention were forwarded accordingly.

Dr. Bell’s Metal Detector

One such letter came from Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, who had stunned the world at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition a few years earlier with his amazing telephone, which would make his reputation and fortune – and change the world. His letter was opened at once.

formal garfield

James Garfield took an active interest in Alexander Graham Bell’s metal detector, even though the president was under heavy sedation.

Bell had invented a metal detector that he claimed might help find the elusive bullet. He was immediately invited to the White House. Although Garfield was heavily sedated, he was lucid, and supported the suggestion with great interest. Bell came to Washington with his machine, but the testing failed. It was later determined that the metal bedsprings had skewed the experiment. But the machine itself was valid.

In fact, it was so valid, that modifications to Bell’s original patent were eventually successfully developed into a metal detector to uncover land mines during World War I, thirty-five years later.

The Air Conditioner

President Garfield was shot in early July, one of the hottest summers in memory. The temperature in Washington soared to nearly 100o every day; in the sick room, it hovered at 90o. The poor president was miserable.

One of the letters that came to the White House proposed an idea that found its way to the Navy Corps of Engineers. It proposed that strips of woolen fabric be soaked in ice water, and hung over huge blocks of ice. (Picture the strips of chamois in a carwash.) Then electric fans (yes, rudimentary ones were invented by that time) would blow over the cold wet material and the blocks of ice, cooling the air.


The summer of 1881 was one of hottest in memory. The temperature soared over 100 degrees.

The engineers thought the idea had merit, and could be rigged easily and inexpensively. They made a few drawings and produced a prototype that they tested in Garfield’s sickroom. Within a few hours, the temperature dropped to a more comfortable 75o.

The concept formed the basis for air conditioning units that are used even to this day. You wouldn’t recognize it – but the concept is there, and it is still valid.

Reinventing The Water Bed

Despite constant care, prayers and everyone’s best intentions, James Garfield declined. Infection set in throughout his body, causing the poor man to suffer painful abscesses. There were no antibiotics. As soon as one abscess was lanced or treated, another formed.

Lucretia Rudolph Garfield

It was First Lady Lucretia Garfield who suggested that the President be brought to Long Branch, NJ

About three weeks before Garfield finally expired, he began to talk about going back home to Ohio. He knew he was dying, and wanted to see old friends and family once more. The doctors insisted that the 500 mile trip over the Appalachian Mountains would be excruciating, if not fatal. But they approved a shorter move to Long Branch, New Jersey, only half the distance over flat land. Long Branch is a shore town, and the consensus was that the ocean breezes might afford the dying man a little more comfort. By this time, Garfield, a robust 200-pounder, weighed less than 150 pounds, and was in constant pain.

He needed to be lifted and carried from the sick room, down the stairs of the White House (no elevators), out the door, and placed in a wagon. Then he needed to be lifted again, carried into a specially refitted railroad car, jostled for 250-miles, then lifted once again into a cart, bouncing up and down at a slow pace for about a mile, lifted again and removed, and carried to his cottage bed. It would be agonizing.

Again the Corps of Engineers became inventive. They fashioned a large mattress made of thick rubber, and filled it with water. Then they suspended it on several long poles that could be supported by six burly men. This way, the patient could be carefully carried down the stairs. The water would cushion him against additional bumping.  The poles were also designed to be suspended over a bed-like structure on the train. Since it would not rest against a solid object, the jostling would be kept to a minimum.


No one but the family and the doctors were admitted to the sickroom, but the newspaper illustrators had a field day!

It worked. The President was able to be transported in relative comfort, and even commented that he enjoyed the ride.

The water bed was definitely an old design. Similar concepts had been around for thousands of years, but did not become commercially popular for another hundred years.   Don’tcha love low-tech?

PS – The Pennsylvania Railroad Company showed its own ingenuity.  Rather than remove the suffering President for another cart ride down an unpaved street, they built a mile-long spur track right up to the door of the cottage where the President would stay. And they did it overnight.

It was an incredibly active age of invention!


  • 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
  • Miller, Candice- Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President – Doubleday, 2011
  • 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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8 Responses to The Three Major Inventions of Garfield’s Assassination

  1. awax1217 says:

    I believe many women died in child birth for the midwife did not wash their hands>true or not?

    • I am not a doctor, so I always hesitate to comment where I don’t belong – however…. germs are germs, and the less of them the better. I imagine people far more knowledgeable than I would agree that a good many of the septicemia and staph infections etc. of ye olde times could have easily been prevented by soap and water. – FSF

  2. burgwriter says:

    One of your best of many wonderful blog posts Feather! Love these personal and little-known accounts of presidential history.



  3. Glad you enjoy my posts! I have such a good time writing them! -FSF

  4. Pingback: 8 weird things inspired by U.S. presidents | Give Me Liberty

  5. n robertson says:

    Check the historical scholarship on childbirth and I think you will find that it was often the mothers who got sick (e.g. puerperal fever). The cause, however, tended to be DOCTORS not midwives. I am sure some midwives caused problems/spread disease, but until the 20th century, a woman was better off with them than doctors except when forceps were needed.

  6. John Smith says:

    Such a luxury we have with central ACs these days, isn’t it?

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