Road Blog: Finding President Garfield


I have a minor obsession with the assassinated President James A. Garfield. What drew my attention to him was one doleful fact about his passing: He lingered for 80 days after he was shot in July 1881. He succumbed to infections caused by the insistent and non-sterile probing of his most serious wound by a succession of doctors searching for a bullet. Alexander Graham Bell attempted to use a primitive medical detector to find the slug. He failed, perhaps because Garfield was lying on a newfangled metal-coil mattress. A medical historian summed up the case a few years ago: “Garfield had such a nonlethal wound. In today’s world, he would have gone home in a matter or two or three days.”

Instead, Garfield languished. Two months after he was shot, he was taken to Long Branch, New Jersey, a seaside resort filled with the rich and famous of the Gilded Age. Sort of a 19th century version of Malibu or the Hamptons. Those caring for the president are said to have thought maybe the sea air would help effect a cure. Or maybe they knew better and just wanted the guy to be comfortable before the inevitable occurred.

Garfield was taken on a special train to Long Branch. His condition was so fragile that there was widespread discussion of how fast the train ought to travel on the trip from Washington to protect him from unnecessary jolts (the decision: slow. The 238-mile trip took about seven hours). Doctors thought it best that Garfield not be transferred to a horse-drawn coach from the train, so teamsters and citizen volunteers built a 3,200-foot temporary rail line from a nearby station to the 20-room Francklyn Cottage in the hamlet of Elberon, where the president was to convalesce. The line, built in less than a day, was tested by running a locomotive over the fresh tracks. Twice, the engine derailed because a curve in the line was too short, and that section of the rails had to be relaid. The third time, the tracks stayed in place, and they held up for a final test before the president’s train arrived.

Garfield arrived on September 6, 1881, and he was duly installed in his seaside abode. He died on September 19.

We’ve been visiting Kate’s family, which lives in the general vicinity of Long Branch, for the last couple of days. Late this afternoon, we decided to drive over and see if we could find any trace of the Garfield story. One remnant you come across if you do some quick web research is a “tea house” that’s said to be built from some of the ties from the temporary railroad. It’s supposed to be the only building with any connection to the Garfield story that’s still standing. I saw online that the tea house resides outside the Long Branch History Museum, so we went looking for that. We more or less stumbled upon it around sunset and saw that the museum consists of the former St. James Chapel, a.k.a. Church of the Presidents, and several tiny frame structures (including the Garfield tea house) on a lot surrounded by a flimsy chain-link fence.

We also noticed that a little semi-private-looking lane nearby was named Garfield Road. We decided to take a walk up that street to see if there was anything related to the president there. What I was imagining was a plaque saying “this is the place where. …” Around a corner of the lane, we encountered something just a little grander, a granite marker (pictured above) on a little patch of lawn outside someone’s shore house. It’s a wonderful scene in a way: to one side, someone’s got the garbage out for pickup. On the other, there’s a “children playing” sign. And in the middle, the simplest acknowledgment that one noted life came to an end here:

Twentieth president of the United States
Born Nov. 19, 1831at Orange, Ohio
Died on this site, Sept. 19, 1881

Here’s a brief explanation for how the marker came to be, by way of a nice little 1981 historical essay in The New York Times:

“In 1961, as a result of a campaign begun in 1957 by 8-year-old Bruce Frankel of Asbury Park, a granite marker was erected on the site of the cottage. Mr. Frankel, a lawyer, now lives in Fort Myers, Fla. and is still an avid reader of Presidential history.”

Today’s Time Waster

[By way of Marie:]

Blufr: I can see this getting old very fast, but it’s a semi-addictive social trivia site. I say “social” because apparently visitors submit the true/false statements that you’re asked to vote “way” or “no way” on (some of the questions are pretty lame, I admit. Mine, of course, was brilliant: Of the four assassinated U.S. presidents, only Abraham Lincoln died in Washington, D.C.” Way? Or Now way? The answer at the “read more” link below).

I said I can see this getting old. But ‘m embarrassed to say how long I spent on this and how many questions I clicked on. Ridiculous.

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Random Reading

A product of random reading:

On September 4, 1886, the Chicago Tribune critiqued a pamphlet on a now-forgotten political scandal by a now-forgotten writer: ""The pamphlet on the Paine Bribery Case and the United States Senate, by Albert H. Walker, is plainly the effusion of a crank."

Mr. Walker was an attorney, author of a textbook on patents, who apparently took himself very seriously. The Tribune’s choice of words prompted him to sue for libel. Walker filed a declaration in federal court in Chicago that said the Tribune had published the remark "to cause it to be suspected and believed that plaintiff was a man of crude, ill digested, ill considered, and wild ideas and aims, and to be supposed to be without skill, tact, adequate information, or common sense." Furthermore:

"… to publicly characterize the plaintiff as a "crank," and thus to publicly impute to him sundry qualities, aims, and methods highly inconsistent with usefulness and success as a lawyer and author, … plaintiff has been greatly prejudiced in his credit and reputation, and caused to be considered an unreliable and injudicious person, and destitute of those qualities on which the earnings of a lawyer or a serious author depend; and has been greatly vexed and mortified, and has been deprived of divers great earnings which would otherwise have accrued to him in his professional duties, and divers great royalties which otherwise would have been paid to him on sales of his books."

Walker also noted that since President James Garfield’s assassination in 1881 at the hands of Charles J. Guiteau — widely described as a crank — "the word … has obtained a definite meaning in this country, and is understood to mean a crack-brained and murderously inclined person, and is so used by the public press."

The court wasn’t moved by Walker’s entreaty to help him recover his reputation. It granted the Trib’s motion to dismiss Walker’s claims, resorting to Ogilvie’s Imperial Dictionary to support its finding that "the word would seem to have no necessarily defamatory sense." In fact, the court’s opinion (Walker v. Tribune, 1887) suggested Walker get a thicker skin: " It is no libel upon a man who has entered the field of authorship to underrate his talents."

Despite the trauma of being called a crank by no less an august organ than the Trib, Walker managed to make a living afterward. His patent textbook went through at least four editions. He lectured on patents at Cornell. And he wrote one of the first books on the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, still circulating today.

Infospigot: The Misinformation

Reading Minnesota Public Radio’s “Writer’s Almanac” today, I see a mention that today is the anniversary of the death, in 1881, of President James A. Garfield. Reading the item brings me face to face with the unpleasant truth that for years I’ve been spreading a spurious story about his death and in fact have confused certain details of Garfield’s assassination with the story of William McKinley‘s assassination 20 years later.

The story as I’ve told it: Garfield was visiting Buffalo. He was shot in the abomen by a “disappointed office-seeker” (the stock phrase) as he passed through a train station. Emergency surgery was performed by the only available doctor, who turned out to be a veterinarian. Garfield appeared to be recovering from his wounds, which included a damaged intestine; but the vet’s botched work led to infection, gangrene, and a horribly protracted death nearly three months after he was shot.

The “Writer’s Almanac” version of events was at odds with my tale, so I was compelled to check my “facts.” I discovered my story is an amalgam of the Garfield-McKinley events, with one wholesale fabrication thrown in. So from checking a couple of reliable-looking Web resources (here and here), here are the key points in the long and painful demises of the two presidents.

GarfieldFirst, Garfield:

–On July 2, 1881, Garfield was leaving Washington, D.C., on a trip. While preparing to board a train, the “disappointed office-seeker” — actually a nut job with a .44-caliber revolver, Charles Guiteau — shot him twice. One bullet grazed Garfield, the other struck him in the back.

–Garfield was taken back to the White House and doctors summoned. Not a veterinarian in the pack. The physicians believed it was crucial to determine where the bullet had lodged and whether it had struck any vital organs. To do this, and a veterianarian would have done just as well, they began sticking their unwashed fingers and other probes into Garfield’s deep back wound to see if they could feel the slug or damaged organs. They kept at that effort for days or weeks without finding the bullet. Their patient was conscious for most of the poking and gouging and subsequent pus-drainings.

–Despite initial optimism that Garfield would recover, the wound became infected, and the president died on Sept. 19, 1881, an astonishing and no doubt excruciating 80 days after he was shot.

–The most interesting detail of the efforts to treat Garfield is technological: At one point, Alexander Graham Bell was called in to use a metal detector he and aides had developed to try to find the bullet. The device was foiled, apparently, by an innovation in sleep technology: The test was conducted while Garfield was lying on a mattress equipped with newfangled metal springs.

MckinleyNow for McKinley:

–In September 1901, the president went to Buffalo to visit the city’s PanAmerican Exposition. After visiting Niagara Falls on the morning of Sept. 6, he returned to the fair to shake hands with the public.

–One of the people in the reception line was Leon Czolgosz. His abbreviated descriptor: anarchist. Call him a nut job with a .32-caliber pistol.

–Czolgosz, who would have changed his name to Lee Charles if he had had an agent, shot McKinley twice: one shot deflected off the president’s breast bone, the other struck him in the abdomen and tore through his stomach.

–McKinley was rushed to the rather poorly equipped hospital on the exposition grounds. Doctors were summoned, and they agreed immediate surgery was necessary to save McKinley’s life. Again, no veterinarians within scalpel’s reach of the presidential wounds. The doctor on the scene deemed most qualified to operate was a gynecologist, Dr. Matthew Mann. Contending with poor lighting in an improvised operating theater, he couldn’t find the bullet that had wounded McKinley, and settled for patching up the obvious damage and closing the president up again without draining the wounded area.

–Despite initial optimism that McKinley would recover, his wounds became infected, he developed gangrene, and died early on Sept. 14.

So it’s clear my Garfield story is mostly McKinley, with a dash of Garfield and a dollop of outrage — can you believe they let a veterinarian operate on the president?! One question I have for myself: Where did the fiction come from? I do make up stories occasionally — friends and coworkers will testify to that — but usually for the sophomoric pleasure of tricking someone or to make a point. I usually don’t knowingly pass off fanciful historical tales like this as truth; my guess is that, never really having read anything in detail about the Garfield and McKinley killings, I did something fairly common among us humans: jumble some vaguely remembered details together into a plausible narrative (and a narrative all the more entertaining for its key improbable element).

This all makes me wonder whether I’ve told my version of the Garfield story to someone who knew the actual details and thought, “What a load of crap!”