Thanks to telegraphs, telephones and news wires, the nation followed along in what historian Richard Menke has called “America’s first live media event.”
Daily bulletins from Garfield’s attending physicians riveted the nation. Filled with details of the president’s condition, from accounts of how well he had tolerated that day’s “nutritive enemata” (made from beef bouillon, egg yolks, whiskey and opium and administered rectally) to his temperature, the reports bolstered the public’s hopes long after doctors had given up theirs.
“The president has passed a comfortable day and this evening appears better than for some days past,” his doctors wrote Sept. 2.
In reality, the president was in agony.
His physicians, led by the presciently named Doctor Willard Bliss, had delved into his wound again and again with unwashed, ungloved fingers in a misguided attempt to find and remove the bullet. Sepsis and malnutrition had set in, and he was dying a grisly, seemingly endless death.
But even as Garfield suffered, his physicians continued to issue optimistic bulletins. Worried an accurate account of his health would reach the president’s ears via newspapers, the doctors released reports that were upbeat until the very end.
Even the final bulletin, issued after Garfield’s death on Sept. 19, played down the president’s suffering. An autopsy revealed his physicians had probed in the wrong place and had contributed to his death from sepsis.
Want to read the bulletins that kept Americans up-to-date on their president’s painful ordeal? The handwritten documents were digitized by the National Library of Medicine. You can read them at bit.ly/GarfieldBulletins.
They’re part of a new release of more than 43,500 pages of historic manuscript collections, including records related to the National Commission on AIDS and the Civil War papers of Jonathan Letterman, a doctor who was known as the father of modern battlefield medicine.