From the Desk of Fred Rosen: Murder by Malpractice?

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Today marks the 135th anniversary of the death of President James Garfield. The following is a post from Fred Rosen, a former columnist for the New York Times and author of Murdering the President: Alexander Graham Bell and the Race to Save James Garfield (Potomac Books, September 2016). 

9781612347684This story began at the William L. Clements Library of the Uni­versity of Michigan at Ann Arbor in 2002.

I was researching my book that became The Historical Atlas of American Crime. In the James Medler Crime Collection, I discovered an orig­inal copy of the 1883 American Journal of Science. It contained Alexander Graham Bell’s long-forgotten paper on the attempted assassination of President James Abram Garfield and the great Amer­ican inventor’s heroic efforts to create twentieth-century tech­nology in the nineteenth century to save the president’s life.

Attempted assassination? I had been taught in school that Charles Guiteau shot President Garfield; he lingered and died a few months later. Well, that’s not what happened. Turned out the real killer was his friend Dr. Willard Bliss, the doctor in charge of his care after he was shot.

Bell had created the world’s first metal detector to discover the bullet in the president’s body so the doctors could operate without exploring for it through healthy tissue. Bliss deliberately sabotage Bell’s efforts. The result? The history of the assassination foregoes what really happened. It was an assassination attempt.

While investigating, I discovered that Bliss had a long history as a criminal and con man.  During the Civil War, he ran the other way at the Battle of Bull Run. He accepted a bribe as the head of Armory Square Hospital, the veterans’ hospital on the Mall in Washington, DC. And that was just the beginning of his crimes.

Had Bliss let Bell use his invention correctly, not only would President Garfield have lived, so would President William McKinley, who was shot by Leon Czolgosz at the 1901 Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. Like President Garfield, President McKinley survived the assassin’s bullet.

In 1901, the X-ray machine had just been invented. While there was a working prototype at the Exposition, there was none nearby the residence where McKinley was taken for treatment. The doctors were afraid to move the president. The only portable machine on the planet that could have found the bullet in his body, so the doctors could operate safely, was Bell’s Induction Balance. But Bliss had discredited it after he murdered Garfield, and so it was just gathering dust on a shelf in Bell’s laboratory.

It took me fourteen years to finally unravel this murder case. I was lucky it took me that long. This book includes recently discovered medical reports in 2014 relating to new details of the care President Garfield actually received from Bliss. Supporting a forensic examination of the historical record, those reports help to build the case that in his care of President Garfield, Bliss committed depraved indifference to human life, the legal definition of second degree murder.

American history as it is taught in schools, should be changed accordingly to reflect this fact.