Stranger Than Fiction: Ignorance is Bliss

20th President of the United States James Garfield

20th President of the United States James Garfield

When the 20th President of the United States James Garfield was cut down by an assassin’s bullet in 1881, doctors immediately began treating the president. Little did they realize their antiquated medical practices would result in an agonizing premature death for the president as well as an unusual defense for his assailant. In fact, some historians contend 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. As an unusual side note, Garfield’s condition in his final days resulted in an invention that is now enjoyed in homes around the world.

On the morning of July 2, 1881, Garfield was on his way to his alma mater, Williams College, where he was scheduled to deliver a speech. Garfield was accompanied by James G. Blaine and Robert Todd Lincoln, son of President Abraham Lincoln. As Garfield was walking through the Sixth Street Station of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad in Washington at 9:30 am, he was shot twice from behind, one bullet grazed his arm and the other lodged in his back. The assassin was Charles J. Guiteau, an apparently delusional Federal office-seeker who had believed himself to be on close terms with Garfield even though he and Garfield had never spoken to each other. Guiteau wanted to be appointed ambassador and when the appointment did not materialize, Guiteau believed he, the Republican Party, and the country had been betrayed and he began stalking Garfield.

Guiteau was immediately pounced on by police and bystanders and subsequently arrested. Garfield lay on the floor in agonizing pain unaware of how serious his wounds were. The first doctor on the scene was Dr. Smith Townsend. The well-intentioned doctor inserted an unwashed and unsterilized finger into the wound in search of the bullet. He unwittingly introduced an infection that was more lethal than Guiteau’s bullet.

Lincoln, Garfield’s secretary of war, suggested that Dr. D. Willard Bliss, who had attended his father, be brought into the case. Lincoln, in addition to being present when his father died, was in the station that morning with Garfield and was also with President William McKinley when he was assassinated in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901.

In the years following the 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. One man who worked tirelessly to promote the theory of antiseptic surgery was Dr. Joseph Lister for whom Listerine was named. Lister taught that infection could be minimized by sterile instruments and washed hands. Bliss, who was considered something of a quack, had little regard for the theories of Dr. Lister.

Garfield was transported to the White House from the station. There for the next 80 days, Bliss and nine other doctors probed Garfield’s wound with dirty unsanitized hands and all were unsuccessful at locating the bullet.

In a desperate measure to find the elusive bullet, doctors brought in Alexander Graham Bell, 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 the doctors cut into the president to remove it. But, Bell was wrong. His metal detector had found a metal spring in the mattress under the president.

Infection soon spread throughout Garfield’s body. The wound, which started as a small hole the size of a nickel, eventually became a massive canal that was red and inflamed and oozed pus constantly.

The infection caused Garfield’s heart to weaken. He remained bedridden in the White House with fever and extreme pain. As the heat of summer became more oppressive for the stricken President, a Navy engineer, with the help of Simon Newcomb, installed in Garfield’s room an air blower over a chest containing 6 tons of ice, with the air then dried by conduction through a long iron box filled with cotton screens, and connected to the room’s heat vent. This device was capable of reducing the air temperature to 20°F below the outside temperature. This crude device was the first air conditioner.

Despite the best efforts to make the president comfortable, Garfield died on Sept. 19, 1881.He was 50 and had served a little over five months.

At his trial, the wily Guiteau argued he did not kill the president. He only wounded him. The doctors actually killed Garfield. It was a defense that would have worked in modern times but not in 1881. He was hanged June 30, 1882, in the yard of the District Jail.

Some historians agree that Garfield would have had a better chance of survival had the doctors simply left the bullet in his back. The ignorance of antiseptics on the part of Dr. Bliss, which resulted in the death of Garfield, led to a new phrase in the English language. Now you know the man who inspired the expression “Ignorance is Bliss.”

Michael Williams has written a book entitled “Stranger than Fiction: The Lincoln Curse.” The book is a collection of 50 strange and unusual but true stories. The stories will leave the reader convinced that perhaps Mark Twain was right when he said “truth is stranger than fiction.”

Williams has written for more than 30 newspapers and magazines including the Civil War Times Illustrated, The Civil War Courier, the Associated Press and the Knoxville Journal.

The book is 187 pages in a softbound edition with numerous photos. The book can be purchased from for $19.95 plus shipping and handling or you can save shipping cost and save $2 on the purchase price by ordering a signed copy directly from the author. Send $17.95 to P.O. Box 6421 Sevierville, TN. 37864.

The book is available in Kindle on for $3.99. For more information visit the website

Source: Michael Williams, Jefferson County Post Staff Writer