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JUNE 2006

THE ASSASSINATION OF
PRESIDENT JAMES A. GARFIELD AND THE REPORT OF DR. JOHN B. RICE

President James A. Garfield

Dr. John B. Rice Re: the assassination of President James A. Garfield

Dr. John B. Rice Re: the Assassination of President James A. Garfield

On July 2nd, 1881, President James A. Garfield was shot twice with a .44-caliber revolver by a mentally deranged Charles Guiteau. He was treated by former Civil War surgeon Dr. Willard Bliss. Lacking antibiotics and the knowledge and tools of modern medicine, Dr. Bliss poked and prodded the wound with unwashed hands and filthy instruments. After lingering for more than two months, the 20th president of the United States died on September 19, 1881, of infection that had spread throughout his system.

The above letter was written by U. S. Congressman and highly-respected former Civil War surgeon Dr. John B. Rice who was just returning to Washington, D.C.from Fremont, Ohio.It was then that Rice learned President James A. Garfield had been shot at the Baltimore & Potomac train station and was about to be transported to the White House. Rice recounts the events of that day in a letter to his wife written on the Fourth of July 1881. The letter is part of the Dr. John B. Rice Local History Collection.

Washington, July 4th 81

My Dear Wife,

I arrived in this city at 1/2 past 9 o'clock P.M., the day after leaving home. I was much fatigued by the rough journey & did not go down to breakfast Saturday morning until half past 8 o'clock, and about nine I walked over to the Riggs house. Almost the first thing I heard after reaching the hotel, was a description of the shooting of the president, which a man was in the act of giving to two or three gentlemen standing at the entrace of the hotel. I was attracted by the manner, and soon asked who it was that had been shot, and was told that it was the president. Like almost everyone else, I could not at first believe the report. I soon afterward learned that the president was alive and & would soon be conveyed to the White House, I accordingly soon afterward went there. I met persons with whom I had some acquaintance, was introduced to Secy Lincoln & by him was introduced to Dr. Bliss who had charge of the President. He invited me to go into the room where he was lying. I remained there a little while, and ocasionally returned to see him until midnight. The President had the appearance of a badly wounded man. He was pale, depressed but his mind was clear and composed. The surgeons had doubts about the course of the ball, and are still in the dark on that point. Saturday evening it appeared to them certain that it had passed through the liver, & as his general symptoms were bad about 8 P.M. it was thought that he could not survive longer than a few hours. He however rallied and has been progressing in such a manner until now, that it is thought quite probably that internal organs have escaped injury and that he might recover.

The excitement here has been intense, and the walks outside the White House grounds have been thronged by thousands of people anxious to hear the reports.

I went over to the mansion three or four times yesterday but have been there but once today - I shall however go again this evening.

I went out and called upon Mr. Belding's folks yesterday evening. I shall, I now think, go to New York tomorrow, and remain a few days. I shall then come back to Washington and stay a few days, or go straight home, according to circumstances, while I cannot now determine.

I presume I am as much shocked by this dastardly crime as anybody, but I do not feel like writing my reflections. I sincerely hope for his recovery for the president is a good and kind hearted man: and this shooting of rulers in this country I hope will not take root. My love to the children. Your affectionate husband

J
ohn B. Rice