The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The president had been shot. Then the White House lied about his condition as he slowly died.

James Garfield’s doctors fed the public ‘fraudulently optimistic’ reports about his recovery for weeks.

A drawing portrays the assassination of President James A. Garfield in Washington on July 2, 1881. (Library of Congress)

More than a month after an attempted assassination left President James A. Garfield seriously wounded, the news from the White House was very encouraging.

“The president has passed an excellent night, sleeping sweetly the greater part of the time without the aid of morphia” or other painkillers, according to the official morning bulletin from White House physicians published in the New York Tribune on Aug. 7, 1881. Garfield’s improvement over the last three days was notable, according to the Tribune. “His eyes have regained their old-time sparkle; his voice and complexion are more nearly what they were in health, and he is stronger.” Recovery seemed likely — and the worried public could relax, the newspaper assured readers.

Six weeks later, Garfield was dead. He was 49.

During the summer of 1881, almost 140 years before President Trump acknowledged misleading Americans about the threat posed by the novel coronavirus, the White House fed anxious Americans a daily diet of misleading medical bulletins about Garfield’s condition. The stream of unduly sunny reports came from doctors whose failure to understand basic principles of treating infected wounds would have tragic consequences. With some exceptions, their rose-colored pronouncements were credulously accepted by the press.

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The multiple daily reports on Garfield’s condition “became part of everyday life,” even if much of the information was unreliable, according to Richard Menke, a professor at the University of Georgia who has written in the journal Critical Inquiry about the press coverage of Garfield’s struggle to survive. “In fact,” he wrote, “the bulletins were fraudulently optimistic, intended perhaps to reassure Garfield, who often had the newspapers read to him and thus joined the mass audience for his own story.”

With the bulletins distributed nationwide by telegraph, published in the nation’s newspapers and followed closely by the public, the story of Garfield’s fight to survive could be considered “America’s first live media event,” Menke wrote.

Garfield’s ordeal began July 2. Accompanied by Secretary of State James G. Blaine, Garfield departed the Executive Mansion that morning for the Baltimore and Potomac train station (located where the National Gallery of Art now stands) to embark on a summer sojourn to his alma mater, Williams College in Massachusetts, and his home in Mentor, Ohio. Several Cabinet secretaries, including Robert Todd Lincoln, the secretary of war and son of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, planned to travel with Garfield as far as New York and were already at the station, according to the New York Times.

President Garfield never boarded the train.

Charles Guiteau, a delusional gunman who fancied himself an orator and Republican insider, waited for Garfield at the train station. Guiteau fired twice at the president with a .44 caliber pistol, grazing Garfield’s right arm and hitting him on the right side near the 11th rib, according to an account of the shooting and Garfield’s medical treatment by Stewart A. Fish in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine.

At the train station, D.W. Bliss, Garfield’s personal physician, searched for the bullet lodged in Garfield, first with an unsterilized probe and then by sticking his finger deep into the wound, historian Candice Millard has written in her book about the assassination, “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President.” Conscious but vomiting, Garfield was taken back to the White House.

The earliest reports on Garfield’s condition varied dramatically. On July 3, under the headline “THE PRESIDENT ALIVE AND BETTER,” the Washington Evening Star published a White House bulletin reporting that Garfield “rested quietly and awakened refreshed” and that the president’s “improved condition gives additional hope of his gradual recovery.”

Only hours later the prognosis turned grim. A bulletin issued at 10:30 p.m. characterizing Garfield’s condition as “less favorable” led the Tribune to report the following day that “the gravest apprehensions were excited.” Guiteau, the newspaper reported, was told falsely that Garfield had died.

The frequent updates soon became more positive. On July 6, bulletins on the president’s condition began at 8:30 a.m. and concluded 12 hours later. Their hopeful tone moved The Washington Post to conclude that “the president must and will recover.” The Times was similarly upbeat, reporting that “those engaged in watching the brave patient were inspired by hope.”

The bulletins mirrored Bliss’s supreme confidence in his abilities — he told one reporter “if I can’t save him no one can,” according to Millard — and his belief that Garfield would probably survive. “His chances of recovery are more than even, and they are improving with every hour,” Bliss told the Times on July 7.

The optimistic spin remained constant. “The favorable condition of the president continues,” according to an 8 p.m. bulletin published in The Chicago Tribune on July 8. In Maine, the Portland Press reported July 14 that Garfield’s pulse, temperature and breathing were stable and that “he continues slowly to improve.”

The Sacramento Union gave another encouraging update on July 22: “The president rested well during the night and is quite easy this morning.” But Garfield’s temperature spiked the next day — hitting 104 degrees and signaling the severity of his infection, according to Garfield biographer Allan Peskin. Doctors operated the next day without anesthetic to remove a pus sac that had formed around the wound, Fish wrote.

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The development cast a temporary pall over the White House, but soon the encouraging reports resumed. “The president has done well during the day,” according to a July 26 White House bulletin published by the Chicago Tribune.

Nevertheless, the relentlessly optimistic spin was beginning to wear thin. The Chicago newspaper accused Garfield’s doctors of lying when they reported the president had spent a comfortable night “when the contrary was the fact.”

There were other reasons for distrust. Repeated attempts to locate the bullet proved unsuccessful. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, assembled a device — likened by Peskin to a modern mine detector — to locate the projectile but failed to find it. Bliss, Garfield’s lead physician, had a checkered résumé that included championing a quack cure for cancer and a brief time in jail after he was accused of accepting a $500 bribe, according to Millard.

More significantly, Millard writes, Bliss shared the contempt of many American doctors for the importance of preventing infections — a theory promulgated by British doctor Joseph Lister that was widely accepted in Britain and Europe and among younger physicians in the United States. The president would have likely survived the wound “if the attending surgeons adhered to Lister’s principles from the moment of injury,” Fish wrote.

Garfield’s decline accelerated in August. His bouts with fever — which doctors wrongly believed could have been the result of malaria — persisted, according to Fish, and he vomited after being fed, forcing doctors to find other ways to nourish their patient. Infection had spread so thoroughly through Garfield’s body that the president “was literally rotting to death,” but Bliss did nothing about it, Millard writes.

Nevertheless, a bulletin quoted by The Post on Aug. 18 described Garfield’s condition as “more hopeful” than the previous day. Another Washington newspaper — the Evening Critic — gently challenged the optimistic White House spin when it noted that the president had suffered several setbacks since the shooting, “each severer than the last,” but couldn’t bring itself to be more skeptical. “[There] is nothing to indicate,” the paper asserted, that Garfield’s “improvement will not continue.”

But Garfield’s deteriorating condition eventually moved members of the Cabinet to say what the medical bulletins and pliant newspapers would not. “The end looks near,” Secretary of War Lincoln told The Post on Aug. 25. In the hope that a change of scene might work a miracle, Garfield was taken by train to the coastal resort community of Elberon, N.J. on Sept. 6. He died Sept. 19.

Americans mourned Garfield as a hero as the train carrying his body made its way back to Ohio via Washington. The body lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda for two days as 70,000 mourners lined up to view the open casket, while 150,000 paid their respects in Cleveland, Peskin has written.

Bliss was not remembered as fondly. His treatment of Garfield was widely condemned, especially by younger American doctors who had embraced Lister’s theories about infection, according to Millard. As for Guiteau, Millard writes that he was barred by the judge in his murder trial from making an opening statement — so he provided it to reporters. In it, the gunman took responsibility for shooting Garfield but claimed the doctors killed him.

“The doctors who mistreated him ought to bear the odium of his death, and not his assailant,” Guiteau declared, according to the National Republican newspaper of Washington. “They ought to be indicted for murdering James A. Garfield, not me.”

The jury would not likely have been swayed. After deliberating less than an hour, according to Millard, jurors returned a guilty verdict on Jan. 26, 1882. He was hanged on June 30, 1882.

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