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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

 

Friends to the End

In his forty-nine years, James A. Garfield had a remarkable number of friends. They came from a wide variety of backgrounds including politicians, businessmen, college classmates and soldiers. Of all the colleagues he accumulated, it appears the ones he valued most were those he met as a young man.

Garfield’s diary reveals acquaintences dating back to his early years at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute. He never lost sight of his friends, often writing letters and visiting whenever possible. It was a rare occasion when Garfield quarreled with a pal and put an end to the relationship. During the summer of 1880 he was inundated with trainloads of visitors at his family farm. His nomination for President prompted his legion of friends to travel to Mentor, leaving the candidate little time for the business at hand.

In examining all of Garfield’s friendships, one of the men closest to him was a Williams College grad and an old army buddy. When the day was finished and all political obligations complete, Garfield looked to Colonel Almon Rockwell to help him relax. It might be a spirited card game or several rounds of billiards or just some friendly talk. When there was a springtime lull at the Capitol Building, Congressman Garfield would duck out of his office to meet Rockwell and catch a Washington Nationals baseball game. The club was mediocre at best, but the two friends had a grand time watching the ball games.

Almon Ferdinand Rockwell was born October 17, 1835 in Gilbertsville, New York. The village is located in the lower part of the state, southwest of Cooperstown.  His American ancestors traced back to 1641 when John Rockwell arrived in Stamford, Connecticut. In later years several family members would serve under General George Washington and the Continental Army.

Almon F. Rockwell was one of James A. Garfield's oldest and closest friends.

Almon F. Rockwell was one of James A. Garfield’s oldest and closest friends.

Rockwell went to the area public schools then enrolled in the Gilbertsville Academy and Collegiate Institute. He met his requirements which allowed him to enter Williams College in September of 1852. In his junior year he made a new friend, an older boy from the Midwest. Rockwell and Garfield began a warm friendship that would last until the President’s death in 1881.

After graduation, Rockwell studied medicine in Philadelphia. In 1858 he received a license to practice. While reviewing source material on Rockwell’s life it is difficult to determine if he actually practiced medicine at any time. Even if he did not, he still had a valuable skill that would be used at various periods during his lifetime.

All of this became a moot point when the Civil War began in April of 1861. In the fall of that same year Rockwell received a commission in the Army of the Ohio. Serving as a first lieutenant, he was assigned to the staff of General Don Carlos Buell. After a brief stay in Louisville, Kentucky, Rockwell saw action at Fort Donelson. He moved on to the Battle of Shiloh where he ran into his old classmate, James Garfield. The two pals reminisced after the fight, then later on the march to Corinth.

James A. Garfield entered the Union army as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1861.  By the time he ran into his old friend Rockwell at Shiloh, Garfield was a Brigadier General.  (Dickinson College)

James A. Garfield entered the Union army as a Lieutenant Colonel in 1861. By the time he ran into his old friend Rockwell at the April 1862 battle of Shiloh, Garfield was a Brigadier General. (Dickinson College)

The reunion did not last long as Rockwell came down with malaria and Garfield took sick leave with a severe case of dysentery. Rockwell was the first to recover, being transferred to the provost marshal’s department then reassigned as an assistant adjutant general. His new responsibility was to help organize and outfit the new regiments of African-American soldiers. That responsibility lasted until the end of the war.

Rockwell was in Washington D.C. on April 14, 1865. He received a frantic message that President Lincoln was shot and he was needed immediately at the Petersen house. Lincoln had been carried from Ford’s Theatre to the home across the street. Rockwell raced to the President’s bedside and remained through the night and early morning hours. He witnessed Abraham Lincoln slip away, one of the most dreadful events in our American history.

Almon Rockwell witnessed the death of President Abraham Lincoln on the morning of April 15, 1865, about nine hours after John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln at Ford's Theater.  (Wikipedia)

Almon Rockwell witnessed the death of President Abraham Lincoln on the morning of April 15, 1865, about nine hours after John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. (Wikipedia)

Though his army commission had expired, Rockwell did not stay unemployed for long. He was offered a position in the Quartermaster Corps of the regular army. The job took him out west where assisted in the construction of several forts including Fort Larned, Fort Gibson, and Fort Sill. He served several years at Fort Yuma, Arizona before being summoned back to Washington D.C. His new detail gave him responsibility for the nation’s national cemeteries.

Rockwell quickly found the occasion to call on his long-lost friend, Congressman Garfield. Living in the same city allowed the two buddies to catch up on old times. Garfield would write in his diary, “In the evening dined at Welcker’s with my old classmate Capt. Rockwell of the Army and had a delightful reunion after seven years of separation. The Captain presented me with a beautiful matchbox of gold with this inscription, “From an old fellow to another.”

Once they were up to date, the two found the nearest billiard parlor and shot pool for hours. One could see them with coats off, shirt sleeves rolled up and calling out their shots. They made a point to play billiards at least several times a week. It is not known how competitive they were, but based on their accomplishments one has to believe they played for keeps.

In addition to shooting pool or a game of casino, they studied the financial markets. After some consideration shares were purchased in the Silver King Mining Company located in Colorado. Shrewd investors were doing quite well with gold and silver mines. It is not clear if the two saw any sizable gains from the stock.

The Rockwell- Garfield friendship extended on several levels. The children of both families became close friends. Sons Hal and Jim Garfield and Don Rockwell roomed together at St Paul’s Prep School. In January 1881 the President-elect arranged for a tutor that gave instruction to the boys at the Rockwell’s Washington home. Later that year, all three began classes at Williams College. Daughter Mollie Garfield spent time with Lulu Rockwell, who was regarded as one of the great beauties. As an adult Lulu would marry a French count and live well for many years in Europe.

The Garfield family, seen here, was very close with the family of Almon Rockwell.  (Library of Congress)

The Garfield family, seen here, was very close with the family of Almon Rockwell. (Library of Congress)

Before President Garfield took office he arranged for Rockwell to be Superintendent of Public Buildings for Washington D. C. A President could always find a way to hire friends for government jobs. By all accounts, Rockwell took this job seriously, being retained by President Chester A. Arthur until his term expired in 1885.

At the time of Garfield’s assassination, Colonel Rockwell had gone ahead to the Washington train station. There he made plans for the President’s trip east to Williams College. The two loyal alumni were intending to visit the school for their latest reunion. Rockwell was startled to hear the sound of gunfire behind him. He turned around to see his best friend lying on the ground, blood pouring out of his side. Rockwell, a trained medical doctor, had to know the President was in a life-threatening state. He organized a party to carry Garfield to a makeshift ambulance and back to the White House.

Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881.   Almon Rockwell was in the building and rushed to his wounded friend's side.  (Harper's Weekly)

Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881. Almon Rockwell was in the building and rushed to his wounded friend’s side. (Harper’s Weekly)

For the next eighty days, Rockwell never strayed far from Garfield’s side. He visited every afternoon and evening. When the President asked to be moved from Washington to the seashore of Elberon, New Jersey, Rockwell made the trip with the family. Just hours before Garfield passed away on September 19, 1881, he had one final conversation with his old friend. The President had concerns that his legacy was incomplete and in time he might be forgotten. Rockwell assured him that was not the case. He told Garfield that the American people would always have a special place in their hearts for the twentieth President of the United States.

Scenes like this one were common in the White House after President Garfield was shot, as well as in the New Jersey cottage in which he died on September 19, 1881.  Almon Rockwell was with his old friend as much as possible between the shooting and the President's death.  (Wikipedia)

Scenes like this one were common in the White House after President Garfield was shot, as well as in the New Jersey cottage in which he died on September 19, 1881. Almon Rockwell was with his old friend as much as possible between the shooting and the President’s death. (Wikipedia)

Almon Rockwell completed his term as Superintendent of Public Buildings. He then returned to active duty with the Quartermaster Corps until his retirement in 1897. He died on July 31, 1903 in Paris, France. Rockwell had an extensive collection of papers which the family donated to the Library of Congress. The archivists had to be surprised when they discovered a bullet among the papers. After careful examination it proved to be the bullet removed from President Garfield’s body during the autopsy. Why Colonel Rockwell had possession of the bizarre artifact is uncertain. Perhaps it served as a grim reminder of the events of July 2, 1881. Though he lived to be sixty-seven years old, Rockwell never forgot his old college classmate and dearest friend. He remembered the good times and most certainly the bad.

-Scott Longert, Park Guide