Sunday, July 6, 2014

July 2, 1881 – President James A. Garfield is shot at the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad station in Washington, D.C., by Charles Guiteau (a disgruntled and insane office-seeker).

Garfield was shot from behind, twice. The first bullet grazed his arm, and did little damage. The second entered his back just to the right of the spine. It passed through his cervical vertebrae, but amazingly did not touch the spinal cord. Now moving slowly, the bullet passed through Garfield's body and came to rest in a fatty mass at the back of his pancreas. Again, amazingly, the bullet hit no organs, veins, or arteries.

If this had happened today, surgeons would have removed the bullet, cleaned the wound, and set him hom in 72 hours.

But this was 1881. Doctors believed the bullet had entered Garfield's intestine. They needed to determine the path of the bullet, so they probed the path of the bullet with their fingers and metal rods. Since American physicians had yet to adopt sterilization practices, the wound quickly became infected. Without knowing where the bullet was, they did not want to operate.

Because Garfield's intestines were compromised, his doctors decided to feed him rectally rather than allow him to eat. They limited him to a diet of egg yolks, beef boullion, and whiskey. Garfield lost more than 100 pounds. His doctors were starving him to death.

Garfield was in severe pain. Although initially he was ambulatory, his pain, weight loss, and infections left him bedridden in the White House. There was no air conditioning, and the intense heat and humidity took their toll on his health. Aides developed a primitive form of AC in which air was forced over massive blocks of ice, dehumidified, and then pumped over him. But it did not help.

Desperate to save his life, Garfield's family moved him to Long Branch, New Jersey, where the sea air and cooler temperatures (they hoped) would save him. Local residents in New Jersey built a railroad spur in just days to get Garfield's train to the shore.

Garfield arrived in Long Branch on September 6. But his condition worsened swiftly, and he came down with pneumonia. On September 19 at 10:20 PM, James Garfield suffered a massive heart attack and a rupture in the artery providing blood to the spleen. He had massive blood poisoning, which caused both traumas. His final words were, "My work is done." He died 15 minutes later.

Garfield's presidency lasted just 200 days.

In December 1881, the Pennsylvania Railroad Company placed a marble tablet on a wall of the B&O Depot in honor of Garfield. A bronze or brass star was installed in the floor to mark the spot where Garfield fell after being shot. Passengers complained that the plaque and star were morbid, however, and in March or April 1897 they were removed. They disappeared, and are considered lost today.

On May 18, 1887, the James A. Garfield Monument was dedicated in Washington. The monument is a 9-foot bronze statue of Garfield mounted on a 16-foot Baroque style base. Three male figures, each five feet in height, are on the base, representing Garfield's life stages as a scholar, soldier, and statesman. Oddly, instead of being placed at 1st Street NW and Pennsylvania Avenue, near where Garfield was shot, it was erected at 1st Street SW and Maryland Avenue.

The B&O station was a long train depot that ran north-and-south along 4th Street NW between Constitution Avenue NW (then called B Street) and Madison Drive. The train shed extended across the Mall down to Jefferson Drive. Considered an eyesore, Congress voted to build Union Station as a replacement. Union Station opened in October 1907, and the B&O terminal was torn down in 1908.

Here is a fairly accurate engracing of the shooting, a photo of the B&O Station, and a photo of the plaque and star inside the station.

FYI: Guiteau pled not-guilty by reason of insanity. Although insane, his defense was rejected by the jury. He was hanged on June 30, 1882.

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