The Death of James A. Garfield

by Rob Hunter
some thoughts and an afterthought

On July 2, 1881, two shots were fired into the back of James Abram Garfield as he walked through the Baltimore and Potomac depot in Washington. The president lingered for seventy-nine days, succumbing finally on September 29.

“Garfield’s death,” states the 1987 book Medical Cover-Ups in the White House, “included all of the worst elements that could be found in a presidential medical crisis: faulty diagnosis, grossly improper treatment, prideful bickering among doctors and a massive cover-up of the truth before and after death.”

“Your honor, I admit to the shooting of the president, but not the killing.”

—Charles Guiteau, Garfield assassin.

Garfield lingered between life and death for more than ten weeks. The first doctor to see the President, Dr. Willard Bliss, stuck his (unsterilized) finger into the wound trying to probe and find the bullet. He never found it but the passageway that he dug through the President later confused physicians as to the bullet’s path. They concluded that the bullet had penetrated the liver and surgery would be of no help. They were wrong. In an effort to find the bullet, Alexander Graham Bell devised a crude metal detector. It didn’t work.

The story “The Death of James A. Garfield” is the first of a triptych on the trials and triumphs of Ed Seitz and Harley Pigeon, a pair of traveling salesmen, as they seek out business on America’s back roads. “Garfield” is set in the 1950s. It does not deal with the assassination but with the late president’s eternal spirit, making smooth the path of young love from a Presidential Hereafter.

“...Then cheer for Garfield three times three, Hurrah, Hurrah
For Arthur and for victory, Hurrah, Hurrah
We’ll put them in there is no doubt
We’ll Kick the Greyback Johnnies Out
And there’ll be no day when the Johnnies Get Into Power...”

—Garfield campaign song, 1880

“Mr. Garfield,” as performed by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, boomed in the listening room headphones of the Milwaukee Public Library. I was thirteen years old, and as happens in puberty this was a spiritual experience. Not the first, but the one I remember. “The Death of Garfield” I next heard sung by Luke Faust. This was New York City forty years ago when I was old enough to smoke and drink in bars.

Thanks to Luke for searching the drawers of memory, and thanks to Barbara Beeman and Bill Bannon for converting Luke’s notes to an electronic format. Luke both plays the banjo and remembers equally well. Thank you, friends.

For the songs and further explorations of Mister Garfield, there are a pair of articles on A Rain of Frogs, my blog.

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