On the morning of July 2, 1881, as President James Garfield, just four months after he took office, entered the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station, a deluded madman named Charles Guiteau followed him. Bang! Bang! He shot the president twice; the first bullet sliced through the president’s right arm; the second ripped into his back. Guiteau was immediately arrested.
Amazingly, Garfield survived, and for the next 79 days, the nation held its breath while his medical team and others—including Alexander Graham Bell—struggled in vain to keep him alive. The sweeping and dramatic story of Garfield’s life combines science and medicine, party politics and love, and is told in “American Experience: Murder of a President” (PBS Distribution) on DVD. Based on Candice Millard’s best-seller Destiny of the Republic, the film features Tony winner Shuler Hensley as Garfield, Kathryn Erbe as his beloved wife Lucretia and Will Janowitz as the assassin
Just five minutes after the shooting, the first doctor reached the station, and within the hour, he would be joined by nine more physicians. As Garfield fought for his life, his medical team—led by the questionable Dr. Doctor Bliss—administered archaic and unsanitary measures, rejecting the method of antisepsis that had been recently discovered by the British surgeon Joseph Lister. Garfield was transported back to the White House and Bliss assumed control, refusing assistance or opinions from other doctors.
As Garfield’s life hung in the balance, the nation remained riveted to news reports, and thousands of letters of support poured in for the ailing president. Even Alexander Graham Bell, the recent inventor of the telephone, worked around the clock to invent the first metal detector, a device capable of finding the bullet. But Bliss interfered with the metal detector tests, fearing they would reveal that the bullet was lodged in a place other than where he had indicated. Throughout, Lucretia remained at her husband’s side, advocating on his behalf. She brought in another doctor, Garfield’s cousin, but he too was unable to convince Bliss to change course.
Weakened by pain and riddled with infection, Garfield remained stoic and conscious until the end. On September 5, he asked to be moved to the seashore in Elberon, New Jersey, where train track was laid directly to the door of his borrowed summer home. With Lucretia and his family by his side, Garfield died on September 19, 1881.