President Garfield’s home library

Listening to the audio book “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President” by Candice Millard as we drove north to see family, we knew we had to detour to Mentor, Ohio and visit the presidential library of James Garfield, our 20th president. Garfield served only six months because Charles Guiteau shot him 200 days into his presidency. 79 days later Garfield died from an infectionGarfield’s political career began when Ohio elected him to Congress. Although a successful general, President Abraham Lincoln persuaded him to leave the battlefield and come to Washington. Lincoln said “It is easier to find major generals than to obtain effective Republicans for Congress.” Through the next 18 years in the House, Garfield earned such a strong reputation that he unexpectedly left the tumultuous 1880 Republican Convention as the party’s presidential candidate.

At Garfield’s library we entered the building where he once awaited the election results. He did not campaign. That was considered beneath the office. Reporters interviewed him, visitors talked with him in the office building or on the porch. On election night, the men waited in the small building, waiting for the telegraphed election results. His sons walked a few steps to the house to report results to the ladies. Garfield won by 10,000 votes over Democrat General Winfield Hancock.

Our visit began in the old horse barn. It features animated displays from his life. From there a tour guide showed us the house and library.

Despite his truncated term, Garfield left his impact through his power struggle with NY Senator Roscoe Conkling. At the time, political favors determined selection to government posts. Conkling listed his appointees confident of Senate approval. Garfield insisted on choosing the man for the New York Custom House. Garfield took his stand saying, “This will settle whether the president is a registering clerk of the Senate or the Executive of the United States. … whether the principal port of entry … be under the control of the administration or under the local control of a factional senator.” Listening to the audio book, we were astonished and confused to learn that influential Senator Conkling resigned his position to prove his point. He expected the state legislature to re-elect him. They did not.

Garfield won the political battle. He wanted to implement a civil service program to replace the spoils system for political appointments. At the time hundreds’ seeking politcal appointments simply showed up at the White House, including Guiteau. Guiteau’s family had recently initiated proceedings to have him committed to a mental institution. He was not appointed and began delusional thinking.

Disappointed, Guiteau changed his loyalty to vice-president Chester Arthur and decided to remove Garfield so Arthur would be president. Guiteau stalked the president for weeks before shooting him inside the B&P train station.

The assassination attempt came at a time when doctors in the United States did not accept Dr. Joseph Lister’s recently developed antiseptic methods. Repeatedly, Garfield’s doctor unsuccessfully probed his wound to find the bullet. The X-ray machine did not yet exist. Alexander Graham Bell had developed the induction method for finding bullets in bodies and used it on Garfield. It failed to find the bullet.

In that era, doctors welcomed pus as a healthy sign of healing. It was not. Garfield died two months after the shooting. His autopsy revealed a body filled with infection and the bullet safely encapsulated near his pancreas. At his trial, Guiteau asserted that he had shot the president, but he did not kill him the doctors did that.

Garfield’s body resides in a cemetery about 20 miles away from his library. We left his library with a new understanding of Garfield and thankful for advancements in medicine.