With tomorrow being the 50th anniversary of President John. F. Kennedy's assassination, a virtual cottage industry has sprung up recently to commemorate the tragedy with a proliferation of books, movies, television specials, and articles.
It's almost as if JFK was the only president to be assassinated, but, in fact, three other presidents have also been shot and killed. Of those three, one (President Abraham Lincoln) is infamous, while others--like the murder of President William McKinley--are now largely forgotten in the sunken vaults of executive branch history, hidden from all but the most ardent archeologists.
We all know well the story of Lincoln's tragic demise, but did you know President James Garfield and President William McKinley were also both felled by assassins?
McKinley was shot twice by Leon Czolgosz, an anarchist, while the president was visiting the Pan-American Exhibit in Buffalo, N.Y., Sept. 6, 1901. He died Sept. 14, 1901, and Czolgosz was convicted of the murder and electrocuted Oct. 29, 1901.
One bullet merely grazed the president, but the other entered his abdomen and was never found. His assassination proved to be the impetus for Congress to pass legislation officially charging the Secret Service with protecting the president--and JFK remains the only president to be killed under the Secret Service's watch.
Garfield, by all accounts, shouldn't have died at all. Charles J. Guiteau shot Garfield July 2, 1881--and he was convicted of murder and hanged June 30, 1882--but the president did not die until September 19.
Simply put, physicians couldn't find the bullet lodged inside Garfield! They even used a crude early model of the metal detector invented by Alexander Graham Bell, but it failed because the president was on a mattress with metal coils, and/or because they searched only on the right side of Garfield's body-- where the lead physician, Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss (yes, his name was Doctor)--had come to believe the bullet was lodged.
Because the bullet had not struck any major organs, arteries or veins, and had come to rest in adipose tissue on the left side of the president's back, Dr. Ira Rutkow--a professor of surgery at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and a medical historian--told the New York Times in 2006 that, “Garfield had such a nonlethal wound. In today's world, he would have gone home in a matter or two or three days.”
The problems finding the bullet weren't the only mistake; according to historians, at least a dozen medical experts probed the president's wound, often with unsterilized metal instruments or bare hands. This was evidently common practice at the time, because the sterile technique--though accepted in France, Germany, and other parts of Europe--was not yet widely used in America.
Dr. Rutkow said that sterile practice was widely accepted in the United States by the early 1890s, and X-rays, which would also have been helpful to the president, were discovered in the 1890s as well.
Page 2 of 2 - Guiteau himself repeatedly criticized Garfield's doctors, suggesting that they were the ones who had killed the president. Considering the embarrassing care the president received, Guiteau--technically speaking--may not have been entirely wrong.