During Charles Guiteau’s trial for the murder of President James A. Garfield he said “I admit to shooting the president. It was the doctors who murdered him.” Though he was convicted, he may have had a bit of a point, given the surgeries rectal feeding that he was forced to endure.
At 9:30 am on July 2, 1881, President James A. Garfield was shot as he waited for a train to take him for his summer vacation, less than four months into his presidency. His assassin grazed the President on the shoulder with one bullet, but the second went through his first lumbar vertebra and lodged firmly in his abdomen.
A number of doctors rushed to attend to the President, one of whom named Dr Doctor Willard Bliss – not a typo, his first name was actually Doctor – would go on to be Garfield’s chief doctor over the next few months until his death, after he declared quite dramatically “If I can’t save him, no one can.” It turns out that the best system for getting a doctor might not be to see who shows up and see who calls dibs, however, as many questions arose about his medical care, with quite a few of them being “what the hell?”.
The doctors on the scene attempted to remove the bullet through the time-honored method of jamming their (unwashed) fingers in there and seeing if they could wiggle it out, but with no luck. Moving him back to the White House, they tried again to help the president by digging around with unwashed medical equipment inside his body without washing their hands first, a technique now known as “finishing the assassin’s job”.
His death was not necessarily assured when he went in for these surgeries. It’s possible that he could have survived these injuries, had the medicine around at the time been adhered to. Though the team did not sterilize their equipment, that wasn’t because the technique wasn’t around yet. Joseph Lister – pioneer of antiseptics – had been demonstrating the medical benefits (in short, far fewer people die horribly) for around 20 years. Though European doctors were quicker to adopt proper hygiene, the methods were known about in America following Lister’s tour of the United States in 1876, and were beginning to be accepted by doctors and surgeons there too.
Bliss was not among them, and in his determination to get the bullet out he and his team repeatedly introduced germs into the President’s wounds over the next nine weeks. To cap it all off, Garfield was given large doses of morphine for his pain, and also quinine for what they (wrongly) believed to be malaria. The combined treatments left the President unable to keep much liquid and food down, which is when the good doctor began looking around for other access points for sustenance. He was about to start shoving food into a sitting President’s anus.
Before he did die, he had to endure nearly three months at the hands of a doctor who had an astonishing determination to feed him through his rectum. First, Bliss tried feeding yolks of eggs up there (mixed with beef extract and whiskey) but decided to cease with this due to “annoying and offensive flatus“. This symptom was promptly relieved by discontinuing the egg. The egg was switched for cow’s blood, but this didn’t work out either as “the character of the ejecta” demonstrated (likely it rotted inside the President’s rectum).
The team eventually settled on a mix that didn’t cause odd smells, though that seems quite the low bar for successful medicine. The recipe was as follows:
“A third of a pound of fresh beef, finely minced, in 14 ounces of cold soft water, to which a few drops (4 or 5) of muriatic acid and a little salt (from 10 to 18 grains) have been added. After digesting for an hour to an hour and a quarter, strain it through a sieve and wash the residue with 5 ounces of cold water, pressing it to remove all soluble matter. The mixed liquid will contain the whole of the soluble constituents of the meat (albumen, creatine, etc), and it may be drank cold or slightly warmed.”
The idea of feeding through the rectum was popular at the time, though it has now been demonstrated to be an incredibly ineffective way of giving a patient calories or rehydrating them. In fact, it was condemned as a medical procedure by many doctors after it was used by the CIA as a method of torture, under this excuse. It can lead to damage to the rectum, as well as problems such as the food rotting in their tract and prolapses.
The resulting infections from the surgeries ordered by Dr Bliss, combined with malnutrition caused by malaria treatment and rectal feeding ordered by Dr Bliss, are in the end what killed the President. Following the President’s death, the doctor’s treatment was looked at extensively by the country, and the doctor’s reputation – which had already taken a beating years earlier due to consulting with homeopaths – lay in tatters.