James A. Garfield, President for barely six months, was dying from an assassin’s bullet.
Garfield: The Long Hot Summer
The summer of 1881 had been one of the hottest ever remembered by Washingtonians. The temperatures soared over 90 degrees practically every day. Charles Julius Guiteau, a “disgruntled office seeker,” better classified as a bona fide lunatic, had pumped two bullets into James Garfield (1831-1881) on July 2nd. He never rose from his bed again.
Despite a primitive air-conditioning system rigged by the Navy Corps of Engineers, lowering the White House sick-room to a more comfortable 75 degrees, the poor President was suffering and miserable.
His “team of doctors” must have been trained at the “Keystone Kops School of Medicine.” Blocked by their own medico-political infighting, plus a united distrust of any form of antisepsis (as had been practiced for several years in Europe), they ran in circles making things worse probing for a bullet they could not find. Modern historians and physicians believe that had they done nothing at all, Garfield would have survived.
As it was, infection set in. The doctors were “ept” enough to recognize infection when they saw it, but antibiotics were a half-century in the future. They could do nothing except drain the abscesses as they arose, and pompously keep the “bad news” from the President, his family, and the general public.
By late August, President Garfield, who had been conscious throughout, and who displayed remarkably good spirits and common sense, now knew he was dying. He wanted to go back home to Ohio and die in his own bed. He also wanted to “see the old folks again.”
The doctors were united on this point. It was a 500 mile journey over the Appalachian Mountains. It would be excruciating for the sick man, and they feared he would not survive the trip.
Mrs. Garfield’s Suggestion
Only a few weeks after Garfield’s inauguration on March 4, First Lady Lucretia Garfield (1832-1918) had fallen ill with a severe case of malaria. By early June, the frail woman had begun to recover. Faced with the likelihood that the summer climate would cause a relapse, she was taken to Long Branch, a seaside town in New Jersey, where they believed the “ocean breezes” would have therapeutic value.
It was beneficial. Mrs. Garfield gained strength during the month she spent at the shore. Convinced that her husband might still recover, it was she who suggested that Long Branch might be restorative. It was only 250 miles. It would take only a few hours on the train. There were no mountains to cross.
Garfield’s Journey Begins
The consensus was that the First Lady’s suggestion was a good one, and if nothing else, the poor man would be more comfortable in the cooler climate. Charles G. Francklyn, a wealthy industrialist with a luxurious “cottage” near the ocean, was happy to put the residence at the President’s disposal. The Pennsylvania Railroad was equally happy to provide the train, which included refitting the private car of the railroad’s president. Three cars were attached to the engine: the “president’s car,” a car for the Garfield family, the doctors, and key staff, and a car for baggage.
A special rubber mattress-bed was fashioned by the Navy Corps of Engineers, filled with water and suspended on long poles that could be supported by six burly men. This way, the patient could be carefully carried down the White House stairs and into a waiting wagon that would take him to the railroad station. The mattress-with-poles was suspended over a platform-like structure inside the train. Since it would not rest against a solid object, the jostling would be kept to a minimum, cushioning the suffering President from the jolting of the train.
Garfield’s Journey: The Last Mile
The one hitch in the plan was the fact that the train station nearest the Francklyn cottage was a sub-station in Elberon, a tiny borough of Long Branch. Nevertheless, it was still nearly a mile from the cottage. It would necessitate another lift from the train and onto a horse-wagon, a slow and painful walk down an unpaved stony road, and yet another lift from the wagon and into the house itself.
This time it was the railroad personnel who used ingenuity. The Pennsylvania Railroad brought in a unit of trackmen with all their tools to lay a spur track down Lincoln Avenue, right up to the cottage. And the entire town turned out to help.
Temporary right-of-way paperwork had to be completed, and signed. The road had to be leveled and graded, and carts of rubble had to be cleared away even before any track could be laid.
The workers were not ready to begin until very late in the afternoon, perhaps a good thing, since the temperature was still well into the nineties. They worked right through the night, with residents setting up refreshment tables, the Elberon Hotel sending in wagons of sandwiches, and volunteers pouring gallons of lemonade for the sweating workers. Residents with horses and wagons volunteered to cart away the rubble. Boys who were too young for hard labor but too big to remain idle were recruited as “torch boys,” working in fifteen or twenty minute shifts holding flaming torches in the still oppressive heat to provide light for the workers.
But the effort worked. Garfield’s “train” pulled up to the Francklyn cottage. But another hitch! There was a slight incline at the very end and the train couldn’t make it. A dozen or so of the biggest men available volunteered and physically pushed the train the last few yards to the door.
The President died two weeks later, his funeral train retracing that last mile. Then the spur track was torn up.
- 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
- Peskin, Allan. Garfield, The Kent State University Press, 1978