Three vertebrae, removed from the body of President James A. Garfield, sit on a stretch of blue satin. A red plastic probe running through them marks the path of his assassins bullet, fired on July 2, 1881.
The vertebrae form the centerpiece of a new exhibit, commemorating the 125th anniversary of Garfields assassination. The exhibit also features photographs and other images that tell the story of the shooting and its aftermath, in which Garfield lingered on his deathbed for 80 days. Located at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, on the campus of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the exhibit opened on July 2 and will close, 80 days later, on Sept. 19.
Garfield was waiting at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, about to leave for New England, when he was shot twice by the assassin, Charles J. Guiteau.
As all good Ephs know, Garfield was on the way to his 25th Williams Reunion. But it wasn’t the bullet that killed him.
At the autopsy, it became evident that the bullet had pierced Garfields vertebra but missed his spinal cord. The bullet had not struck any major organs, arteries or veins, and had come to rest in adipose tissue on the left side of the presidents back, just below the pancreas.
Dr. Ira Rutkow, a professor of surgery at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and a medical historian, said: Garfield had such a nonlethal wound. In todays world, he would have gone home in a matter or two or three days.
In addition to causing sepsis by probing the wound with unsterile hands and instruments, Garfields doctors did him a disservice by strictly limiting his solid food intake, believing that the bullet might have pierced his intestines, said Dr. Rutkow, the author of James A. Garfield, a book in the American Presidents Series.
In mid-August, the doctors insisted that Garfield be fed rectally, and he received beef bouillon, egg yolks, milk, whiskey and drops of opium in this manner.
They basically starved him to death, said Dr. Rutkow, noting that the president lost over 100 pounds from July to September.
Rough. The poorest person in America today receives free medical care which is orders of magnitude better than Garfield’s was. If that isn’t progress than the term has no meaning.
The assassins lawyers tried to argue that their client was not guilty by reason of insanity. The defense was unsuccessful, and he was hanged on June 30, 1882.
Guiteau himself repeatedly criticized Garfields doctors, suggesting that they were the ones who had killed the president.
I just shot him, Guiteau said.
A clever defense.