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Alexander Graham Bell and the Garfield Assassination

By R. J. Brown
Editor-in-Chief

Some people ask me "Why bother to collect old newspapers? If I want to read dry, boring history, I can just get a history book." My answer to this is that even the best of history books leave out some mighty interesting aspects of historical events. The only way they can be re-discovered, is through reading original newspapers published during the time of the event. The assassination of president James Garfield in 1881 is a prime example of this.

James Garfield was assassinated on July 2, 1881 and lingered until September 19, 1881 when he died. The problem was that a bullet was lodged inside his chest. The two methods of treatment at the time were: (1) If the bullet had penetrated the liver (or other organs) it would mean certain death without surgery to remove it. (2) If the bullet hadn't penetrated an organ was wasn't lodged tightly against an organ at the present time, the chances of recovery were much better if they delayed the surgery until the president's condition stabilized. Therefore, finding the exact location of the bullet was very critical in the president's recovery. X-rays had not been invented yet so the only way to determine the exact location of the bullet was to do a manual probe with instruments. If they were to make continued probes to locate the bullet, it increased the risk of infection.

As a result of this indecision, a most unique journalistic style arose. Newspapers across the United States printed editorial after editorial making big light of this indecision by the White House doctors. Soon, lay people, as well as qualified medical personnel, jumped in with their opinions. The White House doctors were deluged with package after package containing such items as special herbs, teas, home remedies, poultices, as well as patent medicines. A special area was set up in the White House basement to store all the items.

In addition, people with medical degrees sent lengthy letters giving their opinions on what should be done. Many of these letters were also published in newspapers. Coverage of the debate received so much attention that discussions from this angle over shadowed the current medical condition of the president.

One such example of the press taking over the job of finding the answer as to finding the exact location of the bullet took place one week after the shooting. Simon Newcomb of Baltimore was interviewed by a reporter for the Washington National Intelligencer. Newcomb had been experimenting with running electricity through wire coils and the effect metal had when placed near the coils. He had found that when metal was placed near the coils filled with electricity that a faint hum could be heard at that point in the coil. The problem was that the hum was so faint that is was very difficult to hear. He suggested that he might be able to perfect his invention so that it could be used on the President but, unfortunately, he though that the perfection of the apparatus would take too long.

While in Boston, Alexander Graham Bell (father modern day telecommunications applications like cell phones and answering services) read the newspaper account mentioned in the above paragraph of this article. Upon reading this account, Bell telegraphed Newcomb in Baltimore and offered to assist him. Further, he suggested that perhaps his own invention of the telephone was the answer he had been seeking. His telephone amplified sound made through wire!

Newcomb accepted Bell's offer. Bell immediately went to Baltimore to work with Newcomb. White House surgeons spent a lot of time at the Baltimore lab witnessing the experiments. The invention consisted of two coils of insulated wire, a battery, a circuit breaker, and Bells' telephone. The ends of the primary coil were connected to a battery and those of the secondary coil were fastened to posts of the telephone. When a piece of metal was placed in the spot where the circuit breaker was, a hum could be heard in the telephone receiver. As the metal was moved further away, the hum became more faint. Five inches away was the maximum distance that a hum could still be heard.

Various methods of testing the apparatus were tried. At first a game of hide and seek was played. Either Bell or Newcomb would hide an unspent bullet in their mouth, arm pit, or elsewhere on their body. The other would pass the wand over the others' body. Meanwhile an assistant would be listening on the telephone to announce (based on the hum) where the bullet was and how far away from the tip of the wand it was.

Next, the experiments included spent bullets and hiding them in bags of grain, inside sides of beef and so forth. Various adjustments were made with each test.

As a final test, before using it on the president, they went to the Old Soldiers Home in Washington, D.C. where they solicited Civil War veterans and lined them up in open fields. They passed the wand over each volunteer's body. As some still had bullets in their body from doing battle in the war, this provided a very close approximation of what they hoped their invention would accomplish -- locate a bullet inside a human body. In each case, the soldiers with bullets still in them, and where the bullets were, were identified. Now was the appropriate time to try the invention on the president. On July 26, Bell, his assistant Tainter, and Newcomb had an appointment at the White House. In the early evening they made their first attempt to locate the bullet using their apparatus. There were also five White House doctors and several aides present for this experiment. The president looked apprehensive as the wand was passed over his body. He expressed a fear of being electrocuted. Bell offered reassurance and tried to explain how the apparatus worked. None-the-less, Garfield's eyes never left the wand through out the experiment.

The results of the experiment were inconclusive as there was a faint hum no matter where the wand was placed on the president's body. After many attempts, Bell, Newcomb and Tainter left the White House wonder just where they went wrong.

Meanwhile, the press used this failure as a personal attack on Bell. The hostility of the rivalry among claimants that they (and not Bell) were the first ones to invent the telephone was at its peak at this time. Many lawsuits were already pending in the courts over this issue. The publicity over Bell using his invention to attempt to find the bullet in the president's body didn't help matters. Editorials in newspapers called Bell a "publicity seeker."






Undaunted, Bell returned to the lab with Newcomb and Tainter. They ran more experiments. It still worked just fine in the lab and at the Old Soldier's Home. Bell managed to talk White House doctors into letting them come back and try again. The last day of July they went back to the White House to try again. It was the same thing again -- no matter where they placed the wand on the president's body, a faint hum could be heard. When they moved the wand away from the president's body the hum could no longer be heard. All were stumped. It worked fine on everyone else but the president. Feeling dejected, they again left the White House. Bell continued back to Boston and gave up trying to perfect the invention.

A few weeks after their last attempt, President Garfield was moved to his home in New Jersey and died on September 19, 1881.

So what is the answer to why Bell's and Newcomb's invention worked on everyone except the president? It wasn't the president that was the problem. The problem was the bed he was in. Coil spring mattresses had just been invented. In fact, a national campaign hadn't even been started yet at the time of the assassination. The White House was one of the few that had the coil spring mattresses at the time. Very few people had even heard of them. Thus, Bell's and Newcomb's invention was detecting metal -- unfortunately they didn't realize that it was the coil springs. If they had moved him off the bed to the floor or table, their apparatus would have detected where the bullet was and likely, knowing this, the White House surgeons could have saved James Garfield's life!

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