Garfield's Death

Just two hundred days into his presidency, James Garfield was shot by a lawyer named Charles Guiteau who believed that God had ordered him to kill the President (though his bid to become America's ambassador to France had also been denied).

Though one bullet merely grazed Garfield's arm, another lodged itself deep inside his body. Garfield was rushed to the White House, where, over the next eighty days, he was treated by more than a dozen doctors.

The first of these, Willard Bliss, stuck non-sterile instruments (including his finger) into the wound in search of the bullet (sterilization was in its infancy at the time). Bliss succeeded only in creating a larger cavity.

After the army surgeon general had had a turn, the navy surgeon general also stuck his unwashed finger into the wound, puncturing Garfield's liver before concluding that he would die within 24 hours.

Next, Alexander Graham Bell arrived toting a crude metal detector. After several passes, Bell announced that he had located the bullet, and that it was much deeper than originally thought. With Garfield's condition steadily worsening, doctors operated to remove the bullet -- and couldn't find it.

The problem? Bell had not located a bullet at all. He had located a metal bedspring under the mattress!

[The upshot? Garfield's doctors managed to turn a three-inch wound into an oozing, heavily infected twenty-inch canal. Moreover, the infection soon led to a massive heart attack (which Garfield's physicians also misdiagnosed, attributing it to a ruptured blood vessel in his stomach). On September 19th, 1881, Garfield finally died... At the autopsy, the bullet was finally found in a protective cyst, several inches from Garfield's spine. The coroner's conclusion? Garfield would have survived -- had his doctors simply left him alone!]

[Before shooting Garfield, Guiteau visited the Washington jail in which he expected to be incarcerated, to ensure that it met his standards. He then arranged to have a hansom cab wait for him outside the train station (where Garfield was shot) to take him to jail -- because he was afraid that an angry mob would form and lynch him. (The Washington police ended up doing the job.) Though he argued that Garfield's doctors deserved the blame for his death, Guiteau was hanged on June 30, 1882.]

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