Six weeks later, Garfield was dead. He was 49.
During the summer of 1881, almost 140 years before President Trump acknowledged misleading Americans about the threat posed by the novel coronavirus, the White House fed anxious Americans a daily diet of misleading medical bulletins about Garfield’s condition. The stream of unduly sunny reports came from doctors whose failure to understand basic principles of treating infected wounds would have tragic consequences. With some exceptions, their rose-colored pronouncements were credulously accepted by the press.
The multiple daily reports on Garfield’s condition “became part of everyday life,” even if much of the information was unreliable, according to Richard Menke, a professor at the University of Georgia who has written in the journal Critical Inquiry about the press coverage of Garfield’s struggle to survive. “In fact,” he wrote, “the bulletins were fraudulently optimistic, intended perhaps to reassure Garfield, who often had the newspapers read to him and thus joined the mass audience for his own story.”
With the bulletins distributed nationwide by telegraph, published in the nation’s newspapers and followed closely by the public, the story of Garfield’s fight to survive could be considered “America’s first live media event,” Menke wrote.
Garfield’s ordeal began July 2. Accompanied by Secretary of State James G. Blaine, Garfield departed the Executive Mansion that morning for the Baltimore and Potomac train station (located where the National Gallery of Art now stands) to embark on a summer sojourn to his alma mater, Williams College in Massachusetts, and his home in Mentor, Ohio. Several Cabinet secretaries, including Robert Todd Lincoln, the secretary of war and son of assassinated President Abraham Lincoln, planned to travel with Garfield as far as New York and were already at the station, according to the New York Times.
President Garfield never boarded the train.
Charles Guiteau, a delusional gunman who fancied himself an orator and Republican insider, waited for Garfield at the train station. Guiteau fired twice at the president with a .44 caliber pistol, grazing Garfield’s right arm and hitting him on the right side near the 11th rib, according to an account of the shooting and Garfield’s medical treatment by Stewart A. Fish in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine.
At the train station, D.W. Bliss, Garfield’s personal physician, searched for the bullet lodged in Garfield, first with an unsterilized probe and then by sticking his finger deep into the wound, historian Candice Millard has written. Conscious but vomiting, Garfield was taken back to the White House.
The earliest reports on Garfield’s condition varied dramatically. On July 3, under the headline “THE PRESIDENT ALIVE AND BETTER,” the Washington Evening Star published a White House bulletin reporting that Garfield “rested quietly and awakened refreshed” and that the president’s “improved condition gives additional hope of his gradual recovery.”
Only hours later the prognosis turned grim. A bulletin issued at 10:30 p.m. characterizing Garfield’s condition as “less favorable” led the Tribune to report the following day that “the gravest apprehensions were excited.” Guiteau, the newspaper