Dr. Willard Bliss: A Man of His Time?

“If I can’t save him, no one can,” stated the overconfident Dr. Willard Bliss after the July 2, 1881 shooting of President James A. Garfield.  What drove Dr. Bliss to decide that he was the only one who could save the president?  What drives anyone to believe they stand above everyone else?  Why didn’t he consult with the leading surgeons of the time?  How did he manage to position himself above other doctors who had more knowledge and connections with the Garfield family? It is not my purpose to determine if Dr. Bliss was negligent in his service to President Garfield; history has already determined that.  He believed in his abilities above all else, and positioned himself within the situation to be in control.


Dr. D. Willard Bliss (U.S. National Library of Medicine).

Doctor (his actual first name!) Willard Bliss grew up not far from James Garfield , and the two appear to have known one another as youngsters.  Bliss graduated from the Cleveland Medical College in 1849 or 1850, then married and moved to the Grand Rapids, Michigan area where he joined the local medical community.

At the start of the Civil War in April 1861, Dr. Bliss offered his services to the Union cause.  He was assigned as regimental surgeon of the Third Michigan Volunteer Infantry. After the first battle of Bull Run (July 21, 1861), Bliss and his brother Dr. Z.E. Bliss received a letter of praise from the staff of the 3rd Michigan for their actions during the battle.  In May 1862, Willard Bliss was placed in charge of the Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C., a large facility with over 1,000 beds. Armory Square Hospital received some of the most severely injured soldiers from the many bloody battles in Virginia.  Bliss served the rest of the war in this position.

There is no clear record of Bliss having treated President Abraham Lincoln after he was shot by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865. It appears that Bliss’s presence at the Petersen House (across the street from Ford’s Theater and where Lincoln was carried after he was shot) was requested by Dr. Charles Leale, one of the first doctors on the scene after the shooting.  In his post-assassination reports, Dr. Leale wrote that he “sent for the Surgeon General, J.K. Barnes, the family physician Robert K. Stone and the Commander of the Armory Square Hospital, D.W. Bliss.”  Robert Todd Lincoln, Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s eldest son, may have actually met Dr. Bliss at his father’s deathbed.


Patients in Ward K of the Armory Square Hospital in Washington, D.C. in 1865.  Dr. Willard Bliss was in charge of the Hospital for much of the Civil War.  (ghostsofdc.org)

How did Bliss position himself above everyone else after President Garfield’s shooting sixteen years later, in July 1881?  Dr. Smith Townsend was the first doctor to arrive on the scene after the shooting, followed by Dr. Charles Purvis.  While these doctors were treating the President, Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, just forty or so feet away from Garfield when assassin Charles Guiteau attacked, called for Dr. Bliss.  Historical evidence suggests Robert Todd Lincoln also knew of the childhood connection between Garfield and Bliss.  Whether it was that connection or his service at the Armory and at Lincoln’s deathbed that led him to call for Bliss, Robert Lincoln’s decision would have lasting effects on history.

Was Bliss the best doctor for the job?  The end result suggests not, but judging the outcome based on twenty-first century medical standards is hardly fair.

As soon as Dr. Bliss arrived on the scene at the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad station just minutes after the shooting, he took charge-not a surprise based on his position and prior military experience.  He continued to insist on his own medical preeminence after the President was moved to the White House.


Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881.  The President endured extremely poor medical care–even by 1881 standards–at Dr. Bliss’s hands for the next 80 days.  (Wikipedia)

There were many factors involved in him becoming the President’s primary physician.  First, he was called to the scene by Lincoln.  Robert Todd Lincoln made this decision because he knew Dr. Bliss.  Once at the White House, Dr. Bliss refused to allow anyone to see the President without his approval–including the Garfield family physician.  He carefully chose with whom he would consult, mostly doctors who agreed with him about the case.  He “fired” all the other doctors who had been assisting, telling them that their services were no longer needed or relegating them to nursing duties.  He did this in the name of the President.  In fact,  neither James Garfield nor any member of his family ever requested that Bliss be the primary physician.

Dr. Bliss’s excising of the other physicians from the case carefully removed anyone questioning his authority.  Despite Bliss’s objection, First Lady Lucretia Garfield did manage to bring in two doctors she trusted to try to aid in the President’s care.  These were Dr. Susan Edson and Dr. Silas Boynton (the President’s own cousin), both of whom stayed at the President’s side even as Dr. Bliss ignored them and refused to listen to their medical opinions about President Garfield’s condition and care.

Throughout this period, the painful probing of Garfield’s wound with unwashed fingers and instruments continued, even as the President became noticeable weaker on many days.  Despite his patient’s failing health, Dr. Bliss’s arrogance continued to grow.  The procedures that Dr. Townsend—the first doctor on the scene–had used (unsterilized equipment and dirty hands) were common in the United States during this period.  Many American doctors of the day failed to believe in the unseen germs that Joseph Lister had proven were present.  The fact that “80% of operations (were) plagued by hospital gangrene and a nearly 50% mortality rate” had little effect on Bliss’s thinking or treatment.  Doctors continued to unnecessarily probe the wound until “his initial wound, a 3 inch deep harmless wound, was turned into a 20 inch long contaminated wound oozing more pus each day.”  It was infection introduced by Bliss and other doctors that killed the President on September 19, 1881, 80 days after the shooting.


Imagined view of President Garfield’s death on September 19, 1881.  This view shows him surrounded by his cabinet and his wife and daughter crying at his side.  Dr. Bliss is to the President’s right with his hand on Garfield.  Behind and to Bliss’s right is Dr. Susan Edson, whom Mrs. Garfield hoped could help Bliss save her husband’s life.  (Wikipedia)

Did other doctors think Bliss was the best surgeon for the job of treating President Garfield?  Certainly Edson and Boynton did not, and there were others that tried to speak up but to no avail.  What is clear is that Bliss’s arrogance played a significant role–and was perhaps the deciding factor– in the President’s demise.

Even Garfield’s autopsy was viewed by some as a cover up, with medical statements about his death that were not true. The original cause of death was listed as rupturing of a blood vessel injured by the gunshot.   In fact, his death was caused by a heart attack resulting from the infection introduced by his doctors. This autopsy should have been an independent investigation into the cause of death, but many of the doctors present had attended to the wounded president–including Bliss, which surely skewed the outcome.  This would hide the poor treatment Garfield received from his doctors.

Charles J. Guiteau

Charles Guiteau, the President’s assassin, argued that while he had shot Garfield, the doctors-not he-had killed the President.  (Wikipedia)

Charles Guiteau, the president’s mentally disturbed assassin, stated on the opening day of his murder trial “General Garfield died from malpractice, according to his own physician, he was not fatally shot.  The doctors who mistreated him ought to bear the odium of his death, and not his assailant.”  Though the jury didn’t buy it and eventually convicted Guiteau and sentenced him to death, his statement that “I did not kill the president; the doctors did that.  I merely shot at him,” was one of the few lucid things he said during his two-month trial.  Today, most historians and doctors agree with Guiteau’s assessment that botched medical treatment led by Dr. Willard Bliss killed President James A. Garfield.


-Mark A. Lombardi, Volunteer


James A. Garfield and a Black Washingtonian, Part II

After the war, Wormley had become so successful that, in 1869, he purchased the initial portion of the previously mentioned Wormley Hotel main building, located at the SW corner of 15th and H Streets to add to his business locations. He then alternately referred to the original collection of five boarding houses and a restaurant on I Street as the “Annex” and the “Branch Hotel”. While Garfield was spreading his national image and building his house in the city, Wormley’s newest structure had become the privately owned, yet public, seat of political maneuvering, high society and statesmanship in the District.

James Wormley as he appeared around 1869.  (Historical Society of Washington, D.C.)

James Wormley as he appeared around 1869. (Historical Society of Washington, D.C.)

As a military and political leader in support of the rights of Blacks, Garfield had to be in touch with Wormley fairly frequently. Unfortunately, since this research regarding Garfield has just begun we have not, as yet, uncovered expansive direct information about their personal relationship. We do know that as Mr. Garfield entered upon his life in the White House the existence of the relationship became more widely known.

In the fall of 1879 John Hay and his wife had taken up a two month residence at Wormley’s Hotel while they waited for their new home a block away on H Street to be finished. Just a few years previously in this same building it was reported that the Presidential election of Rutherford B. Hayes had been negotiated. During the period 1880 to 1881 the patrons of the hotel included famous and wealthy aristocrats like the Astors, Henry Adams, the Alexander Graham Bell family, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Garfield’s presidential election Democratic opponent General Winfield Scott Hancock, Robert Lincoln and family and the Hawaiian Annexation Commission.

John Hay was one of President Abraham Lincoln's private secretaries during the Civil War.  President-elect James A. Garfield asked Hay to take the same job in early 1881 while Hay was staying at Wormley's Hotel, but Hay declined.  John Hay was later Secretary of State under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.  (Library of Congress)

John Hay was one of President Abraham Lincoln’s private secretaries during the Civil War. President-elect James A. Garfield asked Hay to take the same job in early 1881, but Hay declined. John Hay was later Secretary of State under Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt. (Library of Congress)

During his Presidency Garfield appointed several close black friends of Wormley to prominent federal appointments including Frederick Douglass, John M. Langston, and Blanche K. Bruce. The well known Post Office “Star Route Scandal” investigations originating under Garfield’s administration included an allegation that Henry Bowen attempted a $25,000 bribe while at the hotel. Garfield’s Postmaster Thomas L. James, charged by Garfield to clean out the corruption, was a Wormley’s patron and was honored at a banquet at the hotel on March 16, 1881 which was attended by members of the Cabinet and Supreme Court.

Garfield, as part of his pre-inauguration activities on the evening of March 3, 1881, spoke at the hotel to his fellow Williams College alumni and is quoted as saying, “…Tonight I am a private citizen. Tomorrow I shall be called to assume new responsibilities and, on the day after, the broadside of the world’s wrath will strike.”

For the next few months the new President would settle into his duties at the White House, which brings us to Saturday, July 2, 1881, the day of his shooting. After the attack by Charles J. Guiteau, the President was brought to the White House to minister to his wounds. Among the early attendees to the needs of the President was James Wormley. James had been known to be called to attend to the care of many prominent men of the 19th century including President Lincoln after his shooting and also to attend to his son Willie who had lain dying in the White House nearly 20 years earlier. According to many accounts Wormley also had been a “nurse” to political luminaries the likes of Clay, Calhoun, Webster, Sumner and many others. As likely the most famous caterer and nurse of his time, James was asked to care for the needs of Garfield as he lay attempting to recuperate from his wounds and the ministrations of his physicians in the White House.

A look at James A. Garfield's March 3, 1881 diary entry, in which he mentions Wormley's Hotel.  Garfield was inaugurated as President of the United States the next day.  (Library of Congress)

A look at James A. Garfield’s March 3, 1881 diary entry, in which he mentions Wormley’s Hotel. Garfield was inaugurated as President of the United States the next day. (Library of Congress)

According to an article in the New York Herald dated July 26, 1881, Wormley was immediately sought out to prepare the meals of the President by the attending physician, Dr. Willard Bliss. One of the foods most requested by the President was something called “beef tea.” This concoction was prepared from the finest tenderloin available. The meat was placed upon a broiling iron, not to cook but to sear the surface. It was then placed into a mechanical press provided from Wormley’s which compressed the meat with a pressure of 300-400 pounds until all the juices had been squeezed out of the steak. The juice or “tea” according to contemporary sources was one of the most nutritious foods provided to the President as he attempted to recuperate. Multiple news accounts, such as that in the Times Picayune on August 9, 1881, report that most of the foods provided for the suffering President came from Wormley’s farm and country homes on Pierce Mill Road on the outskirts of the city.

Despite the best care available and the aid of mechanical appliances devised by inventors like Alexander Graham Bell, the President died on September 19, 1881. Wormley, as an expression of his sorrow, commissioned a large white funerary bouquet in the shape of an angel holding a silver trumpet and about the size of a five year old child which was suspended above the coffin as the President lay in state.

The body was transported to Cleveland in a train from Washington with members of the family. It was followed approximately 20 minutes later by a train for dignitaries. This train was catered by James Wormley and his staff as it made its way to Cleveland. This catering for the train resulted in a bill for liquors, wines and lunches in an amount exceeding $1,700.00 and was the source of some consternation as reported in the Daily Globe on March 29, 1882.

Garfield’s Vice President and successor, Chester A. Arthur, had already been a patron of Wormley’s and that continued throughout his administration. One of the most important accomplishments of Garfield and, ultimately, Arthur was the viable creation of the Civil Service Commission. The first meetings of the Commission were held in the rooms of Chairman Dorman B. Eaton at Wormley’s.

Chester A. Arthur, a regular patron of Wormley's became president when James A. Garfield died on September 19, 1881.  (Library of Congress)

Chester A. Arthur, a regular patron of Wormley’s became president when James A. Garfield died on September 19, 1881. (Library of Congress)

James Wormley survived Garfield for only a few short years, dying from complications from surgery in Boston in 1884. It seems that both of these significant men would have survived but for the relatively primitive medical procedures undertaken on their behalf. Perhaps the scholarship around these two men will bring greater illumination to how the leader of the nation would have engaged in regular intercourse with a Black man in our nation’s capital over their twenty years of daily prominent existence within a few blocks of each other.

-Donet D. Graves, Esq., Volunteer Contributor

“The Most Impressive Funeral Ever Witnessed”: The Funeral of President Garfield

James Abram Garfield died at about 10:45 on the evening of September 19, 1881, 200 days after he had been inaugurated the 20th President of the United States. At his bedside at a seaside resort in Elberon, New Jersey, were his wife, Lucretia, and his daughter, Mollie. A few close friends and a number of doctors were also in the room. Garfield’s older sons, Hal and Jim, were at Williams College in Massachusetts, and the younger boys, Irvin and Abram, were at home in Mentor, Ohio with an aunt and uncle. His 80-year-old mother, Eliza, had been in northeast Ohio for the past three months staying with family members.

The White House was draped in black mourning adornments after President Garfield’s death. (White House Historical Association)

The President had lingered eighty days since the shooting, and newspapers across the country carried reports of his condition day by day. The whole nation had watched, waited, and prayed with the family. When it was over, they knew how to behave. Twenty years earlier the nation had been torn by civil war, and more than 700,000 Americans had died. And sixteen years before Garfield’s death the nation honored and buried its first assassinated president, Abraham Lincoln. America had learned a lot about mourning.

On September 20, 1881, the 20th President’s body returned to Washington, D.C. on the same train that had transported him to Elberon fourteen days before. Garfield’s oldest son, Harry, had joined his mother and sister in New Jersey and accompanied them on the journey to the capital. All along the route mourners stood at trackside, heads bowed as the train went by and church bells tolled. Bridges and buildings were draped in black. At Princeton, New Jersey, students scattered flowers on the track and then retrieved the crushed petals after the train had passed to keep for souvenirs. The train was met in Washington by the Chief Justice, Garfield’s entire cabinet, and Presidents Grant and Arthur. The President’s coffin was borne to the Capitol to the beat of muffled drums. The Rotunda was draped in black and piled high with flowers. Over 70,000 people waited in line for up to three-and-a-half hours to walk past the open coffin.

This full page from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Magazine (Oct. 1881) shows images of Garfield’s body being embalmed, the casket being carried to the train, and the train traveling from Elberon, New Jersey to Washington, D.C.

At eleven o’clock in the morning on September 23, the rotunda was emptied and Lucretia Garfield spent a lonely hour with the body of her husband of almost 25 years. When her vigil ended, the coffin was closed and would not be opened again.

At three o’clock, the memorial service began. Seventy members of the House of Representatives formed a double line around the rotunda. They were followed into the hall by members of the Senate, cabinet members, and diplomats from around the world. Bible verses were read, prayers were offered, a choir sang. The main address was given by Reverend F. D. Power of the Vermont Avenue Christian Church—the church President Garfield and his family attended in Washington, DC. Mrs. Garfield and her children did not stay for the ceremony at the Capitol.

“Immediately after the close of the services, the floral decorations were all removed, except the beautiful wreath, the gift of Queen Victoria, which had been placed upon the head of the coffin when the lid was closed, and which remained there when the coffin was borne to the hearse, and will be upon it until the remains are buried. This touching tribute of Queen Victoria greatly moved Mrs. Garfield.” [Cleveland Leader]

Queen Victoria sent this floral wreath and a handwritten letter of sympathy to Lucretia Garfield after the president’s death. The wreath was on Garfield’s casket throughout the lying in state and funeral. Today, visitors to James A. Garfield National Historic Site see it in the Memorial Library vault. (NPS photo)

Then the remains of the president were carried from the Capitol where he had served for almost 18 years, to the depot where he had been shot. The funeral train consisted of 7 cars. The engine and cars were festooned with flowers and palm fronds. All the brightwork was draped in black. Most of the trip home to Ohio was accomplished during the night, but every depot at every small town was appropriately draped with mourning and illuminated flags, and the townspeople stood at trackside to watch the train roll by. At one, a long line of Civil War veterans fell to their knees as the train passed. Pennsylvania coal miners came up from the pits to bear witness. Bonfires, cannon, and tolling bells marked the train’s passage.

A respectful twenty minutes behind the funeral train was a special train for legislators and other dignitaries who were accompanying the funeral party from Washington. A third train was crammed with reporters for the newspapers and magazines whose coverage had brought Garfield’s assassination and suffering to all those who now watched the funeral trains go by.

As the train approached Cleveland the crowds along the tracks got bigger. If she had looked out the train window, Mrs. Garfield would have seen people standing shoulder to shoulder in a solid line along the last two miles of its journey into the city. The funeral train arrived in Cleveland at 1:21 on the afternoon of September 24. Lucretia Garfield was escorted from the train by her son Harry and Secretary of State James G. Blaine. The coffin was borne by an honor guard of eight sergeants from the 2nd U.S. Artillery Company to the waiting catafalque at the city’s Monumental Park, now usually called Public Square.

An elaborate pavilion had been built there, similar to the one that protected President Lincoln’s coffin when his funeral procession had paused in Cleveland on its way home to Springfield, Illinois. Described as “probably the finest temporary structure of the kind ever erected in America”, it was forty-five feet square, with a thirty foot archway on each side. From each of the pillars which supported the arches, a canopy stretched to a point seventy-two feet above the ground, where it was topped with a globe. A gilt angel stood upon the globe. Its wingtips hovered ninety-six feet above the square. The names of the states ran up the columns, and cannon, their muzzles draped in black, guarded each corner. The pavilion was filled with floral tributes, an estimated $3,000 worth—so many flowers that local supplies were exhausted, and boxcars of flowers were hastily delivered from Cincinnati and Chicago. None received more attention by the mourners or the press than the wreath sent by Queen Victoria, which rested on top of the coffin. A military honor guard stood at stiff attention around the casket.

From a supplement to The Illustrated Times of London, October 1881: “The funeral of President Garfield, Lying in State at Cleveland, with the Queen’s Mourning Wreath on the coffin.”

On Sunday the catafalque was opened to the public. The line of viewers sometimes stretched for more than a mile. While the Marine Corps band played the Garfield Funeral March, Safe in the Arms of Jesus, and Nearer My God to Thee, the procession filed through the pavilion six abreast—a brisk 140 people a minute. They came all day, through the night and into the morning of Monday, September 26.

An estimated 250,000 people came into Public Square to see the pavilion, and perhaps have a chance to walk past the coffin to pay their mournful respects. Cleveland’s population in 1881 was 150,000.

The procession through the pavilion was stopped at 9:00 a.m. and the funeral service began promptly at 10:00 a.m. It was hot and sultry. The mourners included 18 senators, 40 congressmen, former president Rutherford B. Hayes and future president Benjamin Harrison. There were also governors, mayors, generals and admirals, including General Winfield Scott Hancock, the man Garfield had defeated in the presidential election just 10 months before. When all the dignitaries were seated, the Garfield family took their places. The president’s mother knelt briefly beside the coffin before joining the others.

The services began with the Episcopal burial service, followed by hymns and prayers. The eulogy was delivered by Isaac Errett, a Disciples of Christ minister who had been Garfield’s friend for many years. He took as his text: “And the archers shot King Josiah, and the King said to the servants, have me away, for I am sore wounded.” As he finished his sermon, Errett wept openly; so did a number of the mourners. After one more hymn and a benediction, the coffin was carried by ten soldiers to a funeral car, and the mourners took their places in carriages for the procession to The Lake View Cemetery, five miles to the east.

Ribbon worn by members of an Akron Masonic lodge that formed part of the Honor Guard for President Garfield’s funeral. (NPS photo)

The funeral car was heavily draped in black, showing no touch of color except for the white-tipped plumes bobbing from the heads of the twelve black horses that drew the car up Euclid Avenue. All along the avenue, people stood at solemn attention, reportedly ten to twenty people deep. The porches and windows of the grand mansions were full as well.

The ceremony at the cemetery was brief. A short oration was delivered by J. H. Jones, chaplain of the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry, the unit Garfield had recruited for Civil War service and commanded for a time. The final benediction was offered by Burke Hinsdale, once Garfield’s student, and his life-long friend.

The coffin was placed in a flower-laden vault guarded by soldiers.* The Boston Globe called it “the most impressive funeral ever witnessed in America.” Newspaper accounts put its cost at $247,650. The verifiable expenses were about one-sixth of that.

*This was not the current Garfield Monument in The Lake View Cemetery that can be visited by the public. Garfield’s body was in a temporary crypt until being placed in the completed Garfield Monument, which was dedicated on Memorial Day 1890.

(Special thanks to Dr. Allan Peskin, whose article “The Funeral of the Century,” Lake County Historical Quarterly, September 1981 formed the basis for this post.)

-Joan Kapsch, Park Guide

Phrenology in Victorian America

Phrenology, the study of the contours of the skull and how they relate to personality traits, represented an early attempt at understanding human behavior. The “new science” was all the rage in mid-nineteenth century America. Phrenology attracted and inspired some of the greatest minds of the early Victorian age, including our twentieth president James A. Garfield. Once considered a medical discipline, phrenology is today regarded as a pseudo-science.

Phrenology busts were as common as world globes in 19th century libraries. (antiquescientifica.com)

Founding Principles

Phrenology was founded by German-born physician Franz Joseph Gall (1758-1828). In 1810 Gall published his principal work The Anatomy and Physiology of the Nervous System in General, and of the Brain in Particular in which he stated the following doctrinal thesis of phrenology:

• That moral and intellectual faculties are innate;

• That their exercise or manifestation depends on organization;

• That the brain is the organ of all the propensities, sentiments and faculties;

• That the brain is composed of as many particular organs as there are propensities, sentiments and faculties which differ essentially from each other;

• That the form of the head or cranium represents the form of the brain, and thus reflects the relative development of the brain organs.

Franz Joseph Gall, founder of phrenology.
(Sidney University, http://www.sidney.edu)

Gall ascribed personality traits such as “Reverence”, “Destructiveness”, “Firmness”, “Mirthfulness”, and “Caution” to specific areas of the brain. If a trait were especially well developed, that area of the brain would be larger, causing a bump in the skull. Likewise, if a trait were underdeveloped, that area of skull would be flat or possibly compressed. Phrenologists hypothesized that by palpating one’s head they could identify one’s parental aptitude, artistic talent, intelligence, propensity to crime, and other mental and moral faculties.

Acceptance in Victorian America

Phrenology asserted that the brain, a physical organ, and not the soul, was the center of moral reason and character development. Mainstream Victorian society was offended by and skeptical of any discipline that was not in harmony with religion. Phrenology could not have enjoyed such enormous popularity had it not made the effort to reconcile the dichotomy of God and science. The movement had to place less emphasis on scientific research, and its doctrines had to be in accordance with scripture and the laws of nature.

British phrenologist George Combe (1788-1858) is recognized for popularizing phrenology in America. His classical exposition, The Constitution of Man, served as a guide for conduct and was one of the bestselling books of the nineteenth century. Combe’s treatise promoted naturalism, a philosophy that “nature is all there is and all basic truths are truths of nature.”

Orson and Lorenzo Fowler’s “Phrenological Cabinet” in New York housed a huge collection of skulls and served as a publishing house and mail-order business. (wikipedia.com)

Orson Squire Fowler (1809-1887) and his brother Lorenzo Niles Fowler (1811-1896), two of phrenology’s pre-eminent promoters in the United States, are widely credited with cracking the “science vs. religion” paradigm. Both men studied for the ministry before becoming interested in the new science. Their books and lectures on the subject made many references to God and “the truth.” The brothers touted phrenology as a practical tool for self-improvement.

James A. Garfield and Phrenology

As a student of The Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College), James A. Garfield attended several lectures on phrenology and even debated on the resolution that phrenology was a science – Garfield in the affirmative. In July 1850, the future president attended a lecture on the subject in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. The speaker, Nelson Sizer, was a leading phrenologist in the “Phrenological Cabinet” founded by the Fowler brothers. Four years later, Garfield made a trip to the Fowlers’ establishment in New York. In his diary, dated July 10, 1854, he wrote about the experience:

(I) had my head examined by Mr. Lorenzo N. Fowler. In the main he agreed with others. He said I was inclined to be mentally lazy, and had never called out my powers of mind, that they were greater than I supposed. He told me to elevate my standard of aspiration and thought. I had better aim at the Judge’s Bench. Said I needed to be more spirited in resenting an insult.

As a young scholar seeking knowledge and direction in life, Garfield explored many ideas, including spiritualism, mesmerism, and phrenology. (Corbis-Bettman)

During another visit to New York in the summer of 1857, Garfield would again have his head examined by Lorenzo Fowler. In his diary, dated July 28, is a dictation of the diagnosis:

Brain very large – too large. Great amount of vitality. You cannot wear out if you have any regard to physical law. You will not reach your meridian of life and strength till you are 45 years old.

Your strength lies in your general power. The whole of your machinery comes to the help of any one part, thus giving great force. When your intellect is engaged your feelings are too, and when your feelings are engaged so is your intellect.

Remarkable power of accumulating knowledge. Bent of mind for Science but is getting more and more for Literature. In faith you are a Thomas Didymus. Wonderful memory. Ear for music good. Talent for it ordinary. Enjoy fun and make it. Your fun is the offspring of Wit and Fancy.

Have high ideas of worth in Character, a Disposition to do good.

You have a great a great deal of poetic talent. You have a good degree of self esteem. Are very warm hearted. Always had to love something. Should have a wife to keep you in the right place. You have the powers and qualities to be a good general. Your mental grasp equal to any task. Can accomplish whatever you undertake and determine to do. Set your mark as high as it can be placed and then work up to it. You want a wife – refined, genteel, graceful, of a philosophic mind, sharp, lively, sprightly, forehead high and broad.

In the department of Science you would become an Agassiz. The profession of the Law for you should only be a steppingstone to something else higher.

In speaking you need the stimulus of opposition.

There is no other mention of phrenology in the twenty-four years of journal writing that followed this entry. There is evidence, however, that Garfield had at least one more reading. A record of this event, a phrenological chart, is on exhibit at James A. Garfield National Historic Site. The book containing the chart is inscribed by Nelson Sizer and is dated May 14, 1864. Though no diaries exist for this year, Garfield’s letters to family, friends, and colleagues suggest that this was a particularly conflicting time professionally and personally for the young congressman, husband, and father. One can only speculate if Garfield’s phrenological readings had any influence on his future pursuits.

Garfield’s phrenology book on exhibit at James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio. (National Park Service)

Garfeild’s phrenology chart. He scored high marks for “size of brain,” “benevolence,” and “vitality.”  (National Park Service)

Charles Guiteau

Taken quite seriously by numerous Victorians, phrenology naturally extended to the diagnosis and treatment of criminals and the insane. One such example leads us back to the life, or more appropriately, the death of James A. Garfield.

By 1881, the year the president’s assassin Charles Guiteau was put on trial for murder, interest in phrenology was fading. Nonetheless, the correlation between the physicality of the head and the processes of the mind continued to consume neurologists and psychiatrists. Several physicians who examined the accused were called by the defense to give their expert testimony. Dr. Edward Spitzka gave a lengthy analysis based on what he considered correlative neuroanatomy. Spitzka commented on Guiteau’s cranial asymmetry, but conceded that the difference between the two sides of the brain did not “constitute a diseased difference”.

The “Truth”

Before advancements in the field of science and medicine discredited the claims of phrenology, its reputation was sullied by disreputable people who exploited the “science” for profit, or used its tenets to promote racism. The profound effect it had on Victorian culture cannot be denied. Phrenology played a huge role in motivating, shaping and coloring the minds of some of the era’s greatest thinkers and literary artists and it helped advance the study of human behavior. Perhaps most importantly, it brought to light the need for serious critical analysis in all we accept as “truth.”

-Mary Lintern, Park Ranger

The Tragedy…and Triumph of President James A. Garfield and Alexander Graham Bell

Scene at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station after President Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau. Printed in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 16, 1881. Library of Congress.

       “I am a dead man…” said President James A. Garfield as he lay in a pool of blood on the floor of the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station July 2, 1881. As onlookers stared in awe and wept, several men accompanying the President apprehended the shooter, Charles Guiteau, and the others quickly swept up the President and transported him to the White House.

       The question of the bullet was a curious one. Exploratory surgery was not done in the 19th century and X-rays were not yet invented, so the doctors attending James Garfield used the most primitive instruments – their fingers – to probe the entry wound in his back and try to manually locate the bullet. Bedridden, stoic, and even conversational, Garfield endured this crude method of examination for three weeks with no firm conclusion.   Then a glimmer of hope came from an unlikely source – the inventor of  the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell.

Alexander Graham Bell in 1876, photo courtesy of IEEE History Center.

By 1881, Mr. Bell was at the height of his career. The telephone, patented in 1876, earned the Bell Telephone Company its first million, the first corporation to achieve that benchmark inside of one year. Bell constantly invented and improved his creations, and a week after the shooting Bell felt he could help the President’s case by applying his telephone technology to a machine developed by Simon Newcomb, called the induction balance machine. The idea was that the machine could create an electric current and by passing coils over a mass, in this case a human body, any trace of metal would be detected and create a sound by interrupting the current. The amplification device which allowed telephone users to hear a voice from the other end of a phone line would be used to magnify the sound of the interruption on the induction balance machine, thus allowing Bell to pinpoint the location of the bullet.

Professor A. Graham Bell’s induction balance for ascertaining the location of a bullet in a human body, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 20, 1881. Library of Congress.

        From the time he arrived in Washington on July 26, 1881 Bell worked tirelessly with his assistant, William Taintor. The pair scrounged for parts to connect the amplifier to Newcomb’s apparatus, and experimented with lengths and locations of the coils which would be used to scan the President’s body.  When the machine was in working order, they conducted several trial runs to test the ability of the coils to pick up the presence of lead. Both men hid bullets in their cheeks, in sacks of cotton, in corpses the approximate size of the President, and finally inside of raw beef. Met with success every time, the professors brought the contraption to the Army War Hospital and used it on Civil War veterans with spent bullets in their bodies. All trials were successful, and with some minor tweaking an anxious Bell was ready to try it on his most famous patient: the President of the United States.

       A confident Bell and Taintor arrived at the White House with high hopes the morning of July 26. Those hopes were replaced by shock as Bell caught his first glimpse of the sleeping President.  “His face is very pale – or rather it is of an ashen grey colour which makes one feel for a moment that you are not looking upon a living man,” Bell observed. Feeling the sense of urgency, the anxious orchestrator immediately began setting up the equipment.

       When Garfield awoke, his attending physicians prepared him for the experiment. His dressing gown was pulled to one side, and with support from an attendant, Garfield slowly rotated his body to expose the wound and surrounding areas.  “A calm peaceful expression” came across Garfield’s face, and he closed his eyes as the testing began. Dr. Willard Bliss, the doctor in charge of Garfield’s case, took the coils from the induction balance machine and scanned the President’s body near the bullet hole in his back. This puzzled Bell, since Bliss predicted the bullet was near Garfield’s abdomen in the front of his body. Nonetheless, Bell took his place behind the President, listening in anticipation of that magic sound coming through the telephone earpiece. 

Two scenes of Bell’s attempt at using his induction balance to determine where the bullet was lodged. Left: “The Wounded President: Ascertaining the location of the bullet.” Harper’s Weekly, August 13, 1881. Right: “The attempted assassination of the President – The Discovery of the Location of the Bullet by Means of Professor Bell’s Induction Balance.” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, August 20, 1881. Library of Congress.

        “THE PATIENT STILL MAKING GOOD PROGRESS – SUCCESSFUL EXPERIMENTS WITH THE INDUCTION BALANCE—THE BULLET IN THE PLACE FIRST DECIDED UPON BY THE SURGEONS” was the morning headline on August 1, 1881. The New York Times printed a report given by Alexander Graham Bell on his attempt to locate the bullet: “…on July 26, a feeble tone was perceived…but too feeble to be entirely satisfactory.” Based on Bell’s earlier attempts at concealing bullets in meat, corpses, etc, he expected a louder sound when the coils were placed near the bullet in Garfield’s body. Bell took the machine back to his lab, made some further modifications, conducted some more bullet-in-flesh experiments, and returned confidently to the White House on August 1 for a second try.   The Times reported after this attempt that “it is now unanimously agreed that the location of the ball has been ascertained with reasonable certainty…” in Garfield’s abdominal wall toward the front of his body below and to the right of his belly button. 

       Bell was guardedly pleased at the positive response from the doctors, although he himself knew the truth. The induction balance machine did not record a significant difference in sound when waved over different parts of Garfield’s body on August 1. Bell was not satisfied, but the medical professionals had closure and the matter was laid to rest. 

Headline from The Chicago Daily Tribune, September 20, 1881

       On the morning of September 20, 1881 the newspapers, which for 80 days had religiously detailed the President’s medical condition, had a new headline: “He is Dead.”  Upon autopsy of the President’s  body, the bullet was found to the right of Garfield’s spinal cord, rendered harmless by a layer of scar tissue that formed around it. Bell was understandably upset by these results, which showed the bullet was nowhere near where the doctors thought it was. Had he been permitted to scan Garfield’s body thoroughly during his examination, Bell quite possibly could have located the bullet. Despite the successes of his earlier experiments, Bell returned home a defeated man, fearing his reputation was soiled and the lifesaving potential of his machine’s lost on this bad news.

       After mentally healing from the death of President Garfield, Alexander Graham Bell rose above tragedy to triumph.  He mended whatever reputation he believed damaged from his failure to save the President and went on to perfect the induction balance machine, known today simply as a metal detector. These machines are commonly available and affordable. People use them as a form of recreation to find coins, old nails, and perhaps treasure, but very few hobbyists realize the contraption they are holding was first conceived to save a wounded and dying President.

-Allison Powell, Park Ranger