Did Alexander Graham Bell kill the 20th President of America?

On the morning of July 2, 1881, the 20th President of America, James Abram Garfield (1831-1881) was preparing for a trip to New England, where he was scheduled to deliver a speech. While waiting for his train at a Washington D.C Railroad station, the newly elected president was felled and gravely wounded by the shots of an assassin. He was shot twice at the back. Garfield was carried to the presidential mansion, the White House.

Image of Guiteau shoots Garfield
Charles Guiteau shoots President James Garfield, July 2, 1881.

For weeks, he was nursed there by his doctors led by Dr. Willard Bliss. Later he was moved to Elberon, New Jersey, to be with his family. Garfield never left his sickbed, and on September 19, 11 weeks after the shooting, he died.

But who actually killed President Garfield? Was it the assassin that shot him, his doctors led by Dr. Willard Bliss or Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone?

Guiteau

Garfield’s assassin was Charles J. Guiteau, a religious fanatic and a Stalwart, who was apparently angered because he had been refused a government job. He stated that he shot Garfield in order “to unite the Republican Party and save the Republic.” Guiteau readily gave himself up after the shooting, certain that the people would understand the high-mindedness of his purpose. He was found guilty of murder, however, and was executed in 1882.

Bell

Alexander Bell invented the telephone in 1876. He also made other notable inventions some of which are the photophone, which transmits speech by light rays; the audiometer, used to measure acuity in hearing; the induction balance, used to locate metal objects in human bodies and the first wax recording cylinder, introduced in 1886.

Bliss

Dr. Willard Bliss was an American physician and expert in ballistic trauma. He studied at Cleveland Medical College and during the American Civil War (1861-1865), was a surgeon with the Third Michigan Infantry.

Image of Alexander Graham Bell
Alexander Graham Bell (1847-1922), the inventor of the Telephone.

Garfield became increasingly ill over a period of several weeks due to infection, which caused his heart to weaken. He remained bedridden in the White House with fevers and extreme pains. His weight dropped drastically as he was unable to keep down and digest food. Blood poisoning and infection set in and for a brief period the President suffered from hallucinations. His body oozed pus as the infections raged.

After Garfield had been shot, Bliss was summoned by Garfield’s Secretary of War, Robert Lincoln (President Abraham Lincoln’s son) and he (Bliss) examined Garfield’s bullet wounds with his fingers and an unsterilized metal probe and concluded that the bullet was in the President’s liver. (Robert Lincoln was present at three of four America’s presidential assassinations).

Garfield was carried back to the White House. Though doctors told him that he would not survive the night, the President remained conscious and alert. Subsequently, his condition fluctuated. Fevers came and went and he spent most of that summer taking liquids and was unable to take solid food.

Doctors continued to probe Garfield’s wounds with dirty, unsterilized fingers and instruments, attempting to find the location of the bullet (Wilhelm Roentgen had not invented the X-ray machine until four years later in 1885).

In the years following the American Civil War, there was a theory in the medical community that germs could be spread by introducing unwashed hands to an open wound. It was common practice at the time for surgeons to use unsterilized instruments in multiple surgeries while wearing a bloody gown.

Joseph Lister, for whom Listerine was named, worked tirelessly to promote the theory of antiseptic surgery. He taught that infection could be lessened by sterilizing instruments and washed hands. But Bliss disregarded the theories of Dr. Lister.

In a desperate measure to find the elusive bullet, Bliss brought in Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone who attempted to locate the bullet with an electrical device he called the Induction Balance, a metal detector. Bell discovered what he thought was the bullet and had doctors cut the President to remove it. Alas, Bell was wrong. His metal detector had found a metal spring in the mattress under the President.

Garfield became increasingly ill over a period of several weeks due to infection, which caused his heart to weaken. He remained bedridden in the White House with fevers and extreme pains. His weight dropped drastically as he was unable to keep down and digest food. Blood poisoning and infection set in and for a brief period the President suffered from hallucinations. His body oozed pus as the infections raged.

Image of President James A. Garfield death
Death of General James A. Garfield, 1881/pbs.org

On September 6, 1881, Garfield was taken to Elberon, New Jersey to escape the Washington D.C heat and with the vain hope that he might recover. But the ailing president died exactly two months before his 50th birthday and remains one of the only two Presidents who died before their 50th birthday, the other being John F. Kennedy, who was also assassinated when he was just 46 years old in 1963.

So, who killed Garfield? Bell, Bliss or Guiteau?

Some historians argued that Garfield might have survived had the doctors simply left him alone and not treated him. It was their ignorance of antiseptics that ultimately resulted in the President’s death in so much pain.

At his trial, the shrewd Guiteau argued he did not kill the President. He only injured him. He protested that the doctors actually killed Garfield. It was a defense that would have worked in this modern age but not in 1881. He was sentenced to death in January 1882 and then hanged on June 30, 1882.

In a desperate measure to find the elusive bullet, Bliss brought in Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone who attempted to locate the bullet with an electrical device he called the Induction Balance, a metal detector. Bell discovered what he thought was the bullet and had doctors cut the President to remove it. Alas, Bell was wrong. His metal detector had found a metal spring in the mattress under the President.

As for Dr. Bliss’ ignorance of antiseptics that resulted in the death of President Garfield, a new phrase was given birth to in the English Language; “Ignorance is Bliss.”

As for Alexander Graham Bell not being able to painstakingly search for the bullet, posterity exonerates him for the invention of the telephone (my opinion anyway, but I think he was innocent as he was working under Bliss’ direction).

And as for President Garfield, he died with the “help” of his many doctors. Thus, his work was ended and Vice President Chester Alan Arthur was sworn in as the 21st President of the United States.

Further Reading

The dirty, painful death of President James A. Garfield 

President James Garfield dies 

Alexander Graham Bell Tries to Save James Garfield

Assassination of James A. Garfield

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