14. President James Garfield might have survived the assassin’s bullets had his physician washed his hands before treating him
Four Presidents of the United States have been assassinated while in office. But, while most people have a good knowledge of the deaths of JFK and Abraham Lincoln, the violent end of James A. Garfield’s presidency remains largely overlooked. This is despite the fact that, in many ways, Garfield epitomized the American Dream. He rose from humble beginnings to get involved in first local and then national politics, ultimately making it all the way to the top. However, he’s often missed out on the regular lists ranking U.S. Presidents – quite simply, the assassin’s bullet meant that he spent more time fighting for life in a hospital bed than he did actually running the country.
Garfield was born in Ohio in 1831. Despite being raised by his widowed mother in poverty, he supported himself through school then college and, upon graduation, entered politics as a Republican. He served with distinction as an officer in the Union Army during the Civil War and, when peace returned, was elected to Congress. Then, in 1880, when the Republican Party couldn’t choose between Ulysses S. Grant or James G. Blaine for their presidential candidate, Garfield was selected as a compromise candidate. He won the election and assumed office in March 1881.
Just four months later, tragedy struck. Garfield was shot while waiting at a railway station in Washington DC. The assailant, Charles J. Guiteau, was a struggling lawyer with a grudge against the government. Famously, the bullet didn’t kill the President. Instead, it’s believed that his doctor killed Garfield. By not washing his hands before treating his patient, Garfield’s wound became infected. Garfield struggled with ill health for almost two more months, and even managed to do some work. However, on the evening of September 18, 1831, he passed away.
Even though it was medical malpractice and then infection which ultimately killed the President, Guiteau was still charged with Garfield’s murder. The following summer, he was executed by hanging. Garfield was succeeded by Chester A. Arthur and remains better-known for his death than his accomplishments in life.