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

 

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“A Certain Fatality”: Robert Todd Lincoln and Presidential Assassinations

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Robert Todd Lincoln, eldest son of President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln, felt cursed. One of his brothers, Edward, died as a boy in Springfield, Illinois long before their father became president. A second brother, William, died in the White House on February 20, 1862. The death of “Willie” made the Civil War’s dark days that much darker for the Lincoln family. Robert Lincoln’s last brother, Thomas, whom their father had called “Tad,” died at age 18 in 1871. In the years after his father’s death, Robert Lincoln also watched his mother, Mary, descend into financial hardship and manic depression. At one point, he committed her to an asylum. His mother died at age 63 in 1882.

Sadly, Robert Lincoln was very familiar with death. However, it was not the deaths of his brothers or his mother for which he is most famous or for which he believed himself to be cursed. Rather, it was his close connection to three presidential assassinations in just 36 years.

A young Robert Todd Lincoln in 1865, the year his father was assassinated.  Robert was not present when President Lincoln was shot, but was by his father's sided when he died.  (Library of Congress)

A young Robert Todd Lincoln in 1865, the year his father was assassinated. Robert was not present when President Lincoln was shot, but was by his father’s side when he died. (Library of Congress)

President and Mrs. Lincoln invited their son, then Capt. Robert T. Lincoln of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant’s staff, to Ford’s Theater to see a performance of Our American Cousin on the night of April 14, 1865. The younger Lincoln declined, telling his father that he planned to retire early that night. Several different people claimed to have been the one to inform him of John Wilkes Booth’s attack on his father at the theater, and Lincoln himself remembered only that numerous people came to him that night with the awful news. He immediately left for the Petersen house, where his father, unconscious but alive, had been taken after Booth shot him. Future Secretary of State John Hay, one of Abraham Lincoln’s private secretaries and a lifelong friend of Robert’s, wrote that, “After a natural outburst of grief, young Lincoln devoted himself the rest of the night to soothing and comforting his mother.” Robert was there at 7:22 a.m. on April 15 when President Lincoln died.

Over the next decade-and-a-half, many Republicans tried to talk Robert Lincoln into running for political office. Lincoln always declined, partially due to lack of interest but also because he knew his greatest appeal to the Republican Party was not his ability but his surname. In early 1881, however, he relented and agreed to serve as Secretary of War under President James A. Garfield.

Robert T. Lincoln as U.S. Secretary of War.  He was about 40 feet away when President James A. Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881.  (Library of Congress)

Robert T. Lincoln as U.S. Secretary of War. He was about 40 feet away when President James A. Garfield was shot on July 2, 1881. (Library of Congress)

On July 2, 1881, President Garfield was scheduled to leave for a trip to New England. While some cabinet members and their wives were scheduled to go on the trip, Lincoln was unable to depart until the following day. He went to Washington, D.C.’s Baltimore and Potomac train station that morning to meet the President and let him know that the Lincolns would be along on July 3. He was about forty feet away and walking toward President Garfield and Secretary of State James G. Blaine when Charles Guiteau approached from behind and shot Garfield twice. By Lincoln’s own recollection, “I think I reached him in fifteen seconds.” Secretary Lincoln immediately sent for Dr. D.W. Bliss, then ordered four companies of soldiers to immediately come to the train depot for security. When Garfield was moved back to the White House, Lincoln made sure that “all intruders were out of the grounds and a strong military guard on duty there and another at the jail to prevent lynching and a reserve between.” As historian Jason Emerson notes, Lincoln’s decisive actions after the attack on Garfield were reminiscent of Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s on the night Booth shot Abraham Lincoln. However, the memory of his father’s murder sixteen years before haunted him. “My god,” he said to a New York Times reporter the day after the shooting. “How many hours of sorrow I have passed in this town.”

President James A. Garfield died on September 19, 1881, eighty days after being shot. Vice President Chester A. Arthur was sworn in as the 21st President of the United States and traveled to Elberon, New Jersey, where Garfield died, to escort his predecessor’s body back to the capital. After Garfield’s late September funeral and once Congress convened in December 1881, Arthur kept only one cabinet officer appointed by Garfield: Robert Todd Lincoln, who served as Secretary of War until the end of the Arthur presidency.

Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881.  Secretary of State James G. Blaine was standing next to the President when Guiteau attacked.  Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln was about 40 feet away and walking toward Blaine and Garfield.  (

Charles Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881. Secretary of State James G. Blaine was standing next to the President when Guiteau attacked. Secretary of War Robert T. Lincoln was about 40 feet away and walking toward Blaine and Garfield. (Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper)

After finishing his time as Secretary of War, Lincoln returned to private legal practice, then served as U.S. Minister to the Court of Saint James (the United Kingdom) under President Benjamin Harrison from 1889-1893. While living in England, Lincoln’s son, Abraham Lincoln II, called “Jack,” died of a post-surgery infection at just 16 years old.

After returning from England, Robert Lincoln became general counsel of the Pullman Palace Car Company. When founder George Pullman died in 1897, Lincoln was elevated to the company’s presidency. In 1901, the Lincolns vacationed all summer in New Jersey. As they traveled back to Chicago in early September, they decided to make a stop in Buffalo, New York to visit the Pan-American Exposition, a world’s fair intended to promote trade and friendship between the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The Lincolns’ train pulled into the Buffalo train station on the evening of Friday, September 6. A Pullman employee was waiting and immediately handed Lincoln a telegram that read: “President McKinley was shot down by an anarchist in Buffalo this afternoon. He was hit twice in the abdomen. Condition serious.”

Lincoln immediately went to the home of John G. Milburn, president of the Pan-American Exposition, where McKinley was resting after a seemingly successful surgery to repair internal damage caused by Leon Czolgosz’s bullets. Lincoln spent a few minutes with the President and was convinced that McKinley would be fine. Lincoln saw the President again two days later and still believed he was improving, saying, “My visit has given me great encouragement” for McKinley’s recovery. He and his family left Buffalo for Chicago having enjoyed a visit to the Exposition and glad that McKinley was on the mend.

A week later, McKinley was dead of infection. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt had visited the wounded president at the same time as Robert Lincoln the previous week and then departed for a trip to the Adirondacks. Roosevelt hurried back to Buffalo and was sworn in as the 26th President of the United States on September 14, 1901. Shortly afterwards, Lincoln sent President Roosevelt a letter that read in part, “I do not congratulate you, for I have seen too much of the seamy side of the Presidential Robe to think of it as an enviable garment.”

Leon Czolgosz shoots President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on September 6, 1901.  Robert Lincoln and his family were approaching Buffalo via train when the shooting occurred.  (

Leon Czolgosz shoots President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo on September 6, 1901. Robert Lincoln and his family were approaching Buffalo via train when the shooting occurred. (Library of Congress)

Amazingly, Robert Todd Lincoln had very close ties to three presidential assassinations. While the rational mind scoffs at the idea of any human as “cursed,” the emotions lead us to wonder if such a thing might actually be possible. However, the popular old stories about Robert Lincoln being “present” at the three murders are certainly untrue. He was not with his father when Booth attacked on April 14, 1865, though he was at the Petersen house when the elder Lincoln died the next morning. He was across the room but walking toward the President when Charles Guiteau felled Garfield on July 2, 1881. Lincoln personally attended and spoke with Garfield while the President lay on the train station floor. Finally, he was just entering the city of Buffalo when McKinley was shot on September 6, 1901.

While Robert Lincoln was certainly not cursed, it is understandable that many people-including Lincoln himself-feared he may be. More likely, however, is that Lincoln’s last name and his positions in life put him in close proximity to presidents far more often than most people. Also, Lincoln lived a very long life in times of great social and political upheaval that often resulted in violence. The cataclysmic Civil War, passionate debates over patronage and civil service reform, fears of government growing so powerful that anarchy seemed a plausible alternative—all of these issues came to the fore during Lincoln’s life and resulted in murders of American presidents. That his name was Lincoln and he attained high office and business success made Lincoln far more likely to be near presidents than most people, and the upheavals of the era made attacks on presidents far more likely. In other words, it was something of a macabre numbers game.

That certainly and understandably did not ease Robert Lincoln’s mind, though the idea that after McKinley’s death Lincoln refused to ever go around presidents again is a myth. Supposedly he once scoffed at an invitation to an event at the White House by saying, “If only they knew, they wouldn’t want me there. There is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.” While there is no direct evidence that Lincoln ever actually said this, it certainly seems like a thought that might have crossed his mind.

Robert Lincoln’s last public appearance was on May 30, 1922, when he attended the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. President Warren G. Harding presided over that dedication. Harding, of course, died in office just fourteen months later. Since he was not assassinated, however, it does not appear that anyone tried very hard to attribute his death to having shared a platform with Robert Lincoln just over a year earlier.

Robert Todd Lincoln (right) at the May 30, 1922 dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.  At left is William Howard Taft, former President of the United States and then Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.  At center is President Warren G. Harding.  (National Park Service)

Robert Todd Lincoln (right) at the May 30, 1922 dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington. At left is William Howard Taft, former President of the United States and then Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court. At center is President Warren G. Harding. (National Park Service)

Robert Todd Lincoln died on July 26, 1926, just six days before his 83rd birthday. He was seemingly surrounded by death his entire life, yet persevered to carve out his own successes and legacy while also honoring his famous name. His was a long, extraordinary, and accomplished life, and he certainly deserves to be remembered as more than just his father’s son or the subject of silly myths about curses.

-Todd Arrington, Chief of Interpretation & Education