10/26/2012 05:34 pm ET

President's Korner: The Sad Story Of James Garfield


The presidential election is happening soon, which means it's time for HuffPost College's original series "President's Korner." In this edition, a sad tale of medical malfeasance, insanity and postal reform.

When James Garfield was born, in 1831, his mother observed that he was a "large babe" and "looked like a red Irishman." Little did she realize that her son was destined for both greatness and disaster.

Elected in 1880, Garfield had only been president for 200 days, and had just started reforming post office routes, when an assassin struck.

On the way to give a speech at his alma mater, Williams College, Garfield was shot in a train station by Charles Guiteau, a man who apparently believed that Garfield had personally denied him the ambassadorship to Vienna. As Guiteau was lead away from the crime scene by the authorities, he yelled the immortal line: "I am the Stalwart of Stalwarts ... Arthur is President now," referencing the fact that Vice President Chester A. Arthur (future victim of a birther scandal) would assume the presidency.

But Garfield's suffering was only just beginning. He lived for 80 days with Guiteau's bullet inside him, as doctors were unable to locate it. In fact, noted inventor Alexander Graham Bell personally designed a metal detector to find the bullet, but it didn't work because Bell hadn't accounted for interference from metal bed springs. Garfield's condition grew progressively worse, and because no one sterilized their hands or surgical instruments the wound became more and more infected.

Garfield eventually died, in September 1881, two months shy of his 50th birthday.

As for Guiteau, he dictated his memoirs to the New York Herald before being executed by the government in 1882. On the way to his execution, he sang an original poem entitled "I'm Going To The Lordy."