The lives of our forefathers send ripples through the generations, shaping who we are today. If one of those forefathers happened to be a U.S. President, he shaped both national and familial history. And if that forefather was assassinated in office, his surviving family carried an extra burden of grief and shock.
Four U.S. Presidents were assassinated: Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy. Of those, only two – James Garfield and John F. Kennedy – have living descendants today. Hank Garfield, a descendant of President Garfield, joins us today to talk about his forefather, family legacy, and life today.
Charles Guiteau, a disappointed office-seeker, shot and injured President Garfield at a Washington, D.C. train station on July 2, 1881. He died several weeks later, on September 19, as a result of his injuries. In a previous blog post, I interviewed author Fred Rosen, an author of a new book about the Garfield assassination. Rosen claims Garfield’s physician, Dr. Bliss, deliberately killed Garfield, committing second-degree murder, and that Alexander Graham Bell preserved the clues. Hank Garfield wrote the foreword to Rosen’s book.
Hank, you are a descendant of President Garfield. Just how are you related to him?
I’m the great-great-grandson of the president. He had four sons, and they all had sons, and so forth, so there are a lot of Garfields running loose in the USA.
Did the assassination still affect your family several generations later? If so, how?
I don’t know that the assassination affected my family at all within my lifetime. It’s an interesting conversation starter, but it also leaves people with the misguided impression that we have Kennedy-esque connections and wealth, which we don’t.
You actually got to meet one of the Kennedys at school. What was that like? Did you ever talk about either family’s history?
That would be Michael Kennedy, RFK’s son. We were in the same class at St. Paul’s in Concord, New Hampshire. He was small, athletic, charming, and much more worldly than I was. Our circles of friends overlapped a little. We played backgammon and had a conversation that went along the lines of “You’ve got the Garfield chin, and I’ve got the Kennedy nose.” We both liked the TV show Kolchak: The Night Stalker. Some Secret Service agents came to school and followed him around for a couple of weeks when there was a threat against the family. He was killed in a skiing accident when he was about forty. I remember seeing it on the news in California.
Note: The Kennedy Hank Garfield means was Michael LeMoyne Kennedy (1958-1997). He died went he hit a tree while playing football on skis on December 31, 1997 in Aspen, Colorado.
Did your family have any stories or memorabilia about President Garfield?
I honestly can’t remember any. I have a silver cup that Lucretia Garfield (the President’s widow) gave to my grandfather in 1903, when he was a boy. Their names are inscribed on it. I’m not sure how it came to be in my possession.
You are an author. What kind of books do you write?
I’ve published five novels under the name Henry Garfield but am now writing as Hank Garfield. I’m shopping a long novel called A Sprauling Family Saga, which is what it is, and I also write baseball science fiction.
Does your family history have an influence on your writing?
I guess I like to write with large ensemble casts; perhaps growing up with a large extended family had something to do with that.
In your foreword for Fred Rosen’s book, you state that President Garfield was one of the few scholars to occupy the White House. On what do you base that?
There’s a persistent legend that he could write Greek with one hand and Latin with the other. I’m not sure I believe this. But his mother put great stock in education, believing it was the way for him to escape the poverty of living in a fatherless household on the Ohio frontier (His father died when he was very young). He is also credited with an original proof of the Pythagorean theorem. He seems to have had a curious mind that moved in many directions. Most true scholars exhibit this kind of interest in a broad range of subjects. They used to be called Renaissance men, an allusion to Da Vinci, I guess.
Might the Garfield legacy have inspired you to write?
I grew up in a household full of books. A couple of them were about my great-great grandfather. His son Harry (my great-grandfather) became president of Williams College, the President’s alma mater. My parents were teachers and readers. In the summer we lived without TV. I was always encouraged to read. That, above everything else, inspired me to write.
What do you do now?
I write novels and teach creative writing at the University of Maine. Lately I’ve been working in the genre of baseball science fiction. I also write a weekly blog called Slower Traffic (slowertraffic.net) about living without a car in a rural state. I haven’t owned a car in ten years. It’s the only New Year’s resolution I’ve ever kept.
One of your books, The Lost Voyage of John Cabot, is a historical novel. What inspired you to write about the Age of Exploration?
Well, I love books, and I love boats. My father had a small schooner. I don’t remember not knowing my way around a small sailboat. Today I own a 25-foot sloop and a couple of dinghies. I’m fascinated by the lasting legacy of that time: why the Brazilians speak Portuguese and the Quebeckers speak French, but some Portuguese words creep into Canadian French because of the interactions between New World explorers. In 1983 I was working for a game company in California, and we were looking for mysteries in different genres that we could make into game scripts. John Cabot disappeared on his second voyage to America. I wrote a script in which the player sets out to search for him. The company went under before it could be produced, but it was a great starting point for a book.
Note: John Cabot (c. 1450-1500) was a Venetian explorer who sailed to mainland North American in 1497. Historians consider him to be the first European to visit the North American mainland since the Norse settlement of Vinland.
Do any of your other books touch on crime?
My first novel, Moondog, is a classic whodunit, in which a Holmes and Watson team lead the reader on a search for a murderer. Only the murderer is a werewolf. But the structure is basic: a series of murders that the reader is invited to solve along with the protagonist. From a review by Gahan Wilson, the New Yorker cartoonist: “[Moondog] moves along in the classic pattern and follows the rules; the twist Garfield’s given to it is to have the action take place in convincing Steinbeck country amidst Steinbeckian folk, all of whom are quite well-realized and true to the master’s leanings.” Obviously I was flattered by the comparison, as I was by the mention of Carl Hiaasen in a review of the sequel, Room 13. They are two of my favorite writers.
Thanks, Hank Garfield, for joining us!Read More
What would you do if you had clues to a murder no one else knew about?
And what if you knew the authorities wouldn’t believe you? Would you still try to preserve your information? Even worse, if the case involved the murder of a U.S. president, your dilemma would take on historical significance. According to Fred Rosen, who recently published a book about the assassination of President Garfield in 1881, that’s exactly what happened. Through newly accessed documents, Rosen found hints about the true assassin in Alexander Graham Bell’s correspondence. Those clues don’t point to Charles Guiteau, the disappointed office-seeker who shot and injured President Garfield at a train station.
Who murdered President Garfield, then? Dr. Bliss, Garfield’s treating physician who managed the president’s bullet wound, says Rosen. Bliss has long been suspected of committing malpractice by mismanaging the case and using unsanitary techniques. An ensuing infection killed the president. But Alexander Graham Bell’s correspondence tells a different story: Dr. Bliss purposely sabotaged Garfield’s treatment. And his actions crossed the line into criminal conduct.
Fred Rosen, a former New York Times columnist and author of twenty-four books on true crime and history, published his research results on September 1. The book’s called Murdering the President: Alexander Graham Bell and the Race to Save James Garfield (Lincoln, NE: Potomac Books, 2016). If the book interests you, Rosen has generously offered a 30% discount for my blog readers. You can download the coupon here.
Fred Rosen joins us for a discussion today on the question of who murdered President Garfield. Welcome, Mr. Rosen!
Interview with Fred Rosen on who murdered President Garfield
The most surprising claim in your book is that President Garfield’s treating physician, and not Guiteau, killed Garfield. Why is that?
Alec Bell left a trail behind him for someone to discover what he knew: that Bliss murdered Garfield and discredited the Induction Balance. I followed that trail because I am a homicide investigator and historian who followed the evidence. Plus, new 2014 medical findings helped. Finally, Bliss’s full, previous criminal history that has never before been published until now.
Dr. Bliss had a criminal history?
Dr. Bliss had a long traceable record as a criminal and con man, including being court-martialed for cowardice at the Battle of Bull Run. He also accepted a bribe when he was the head of Armory Square Hospital during the Civil War. That’s just the beginning.
What were the 2014 medical findings?
Bliss perforated the President’s gallbladder with his unnecessary exploration for the bullet. This has never before been revealed.
Who chose Dr. Bliss as Garfield’s treating physician?
Secretary of War Robert Lincoln.
That was Abraham Lincoln’s son! Why he choose Dr. Bliss?
Bob Lincoln called in Bliss because he knew he had treated his father after he was shot. On the basis of that publicity, Bliss built a prominent Washington practice, despite the fact that Lincoln’s attending physician, Charles Leale, wouldn’t let Bliss touch the president. Bob didn’t know that because he was out of the room during most of his dad’s treatment.
Wouldn’t have Guiteau’s bullet killed President Garfield anyway even if it weren’t for Dr. Bliss?
No. The autopsy showed that the bullet safely encysted inside the president’s body. If Bliss had left him alone, President Garfield survives. And even if he decided to operate using the Induction Balance to locate the bullet, he wouldn’t have had to explore for it, let alone DELIBERATELY explore for it on the wrong side of the president’s body. That is why it is second-degree murder.
When does medical malpractice cross the line into murder?
That is what second-degree murder is: depraved indifference to human life. Exactly what Bliss did.
Candice Millard wrote a bestselling book about Garfield’s death in 2012 — “Destiny of the Republic.” She also espouses the theory that Garfield’s physicians killed him. What does your book offer that hers doesn’t?
That is incorrect. I read it. She espouses the theory that his DOCTORS killed him by not practicing sepsis. That is not the case; the evidence does not back her conclusion. Only one doctor killed him. Bliss deliberately killed Pres. Garfield and discredited Alec Bell’s invention. That also eventually led to Pres. McKinley’s death. It’s all in the book.
The other surprising claim in your book is that Alexander Graham Bell invented the metal detector in an effort to save President Garfield’s life. Please explain.
Alec Bell figured there had to be a less barbarous way of finding the bullet than exploring for it with the Nelaton Probe and the scalpel through healthy tissue. He knew that magnetism was the answer and so he invented the world’s first metal detector to find the bullet in the president’s body. And this was 1881!
How did Dr. Bliss sabotage Alexander Graham Bell’s efforts? And why?
He wouldn’t let Bell use his invention; he wielded it, incorrectly, himself. Dr. Bliss wouldn’t look for the bullet on the side of the body the other MDs thought it was in because he staked his reputation on it being someplace else in the President’s body. He didn’t want to look bad in front of the public. And, he did a lot, lot more to deliberately sabotage Bell’s efforts It’s all in the book, revealed for the first time how Bliss murdered the president.
What kind of a background did Dr. Bliss have?
Trained as a surgeon, he served in the Union Army during the Civil War and ran the other way at the Battle of Bull Run. He was excellent at using newspapers to promote his practice and bad at treating his patients. He was a con man who took bribes and fooled his patients.
Did Alexander Graham Bell leave behind clues to Dr. Bliss’s maltreatment of the president?
Yes, in his correspondence with his wife Mabel and the scientific paper he wrote about his efforts that I got ahold of.
Why didn’t Bell take that information to the authorities himself?
Because no one would believe a doctor deliberately killed a patient in 1881. And perhaps more importantly, when James Garfield died, Bell was up in Boston consoling his wife and grieving himself: they had just had a son who died at birth.
Is the Hank Garfield who wrote the foreword to your book related to President James Garfield?
Hank is the great-great-grandson of President James Abram Garfield and First Lady Lucretia Garfield.
Thank you, Fred Rosen!
Who murdered President Garfield? Based on what you just read, whom do you blame more for Garfield’s death, Charles Guiteau or Dr. Bliss?