'Murder of a President' on PBS' American Experience

Category: Television

James Garfield was only in office less than a year. The 20th President of the United States was a man with vision and a strong sense of justice. He gave the country hope. His life was cut short by an assassin’s bullet, as Abraham Lincoln’s life had been just 16 years earlier. As this documentary, Murder of a President, shows with reenactments and discussions with historians, Garfield’s wounds were not necessarily fatal. How they were treated was just as deadly as the actual bullet. Today Garfield’s wounds would be minimal with the modern medical practices, however in 1881 his doctor was not able to save him. As a matter of fact, as viewers will learn, his doctor probably inadvertently caused the death of the president.

The life and times of James Garfield are examined in this almost spellbinding account. Garfield was an extraordinary man. He grew up very poor. His mother only had enough money to send him for one term of college. After that money ran out, he worked hard to pay the rest of his tuition. And in his second year of college, this highly intelligent man was made a professor. It’s amazing to see how far he came and how intelligent as well as caring he was.

Garfield began “Front Porch Talks” where people would gather around to listen to him discuss liberty and his vision of the country. He was stunned when he first encountered slavery while serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. He made his life’s work about bringing liberty to all Americans.

So, why was this man of conscience assassinated? His enemies were the Stalwarts led by Senator Roscoe Conkling, or those who wanted to maintain the traditional politics and resisted reform. While back room politics went into his decision to make Chester Arthur his Vice President, that’s as far as Garfield would yield to the Stalwarts.

It was Charles Guiteau who pulled the trigger that fateful day. Guiteau had been a supporter of Garfield and expected a reward for his efforts. But Garfield didn’t appoint the man to any position. Guiteau was emotionally unstable. Today he would be called a paranoid schizophrenic. He was filled with delusions of grandeur and felt the country would honor him for killing the president.


James Garfield and Charles Guiteau’s stories are only two thirds of this amazing chapter in American history. The third is the medical treatment Garfield received. The doctor was a selfish man who would not entertain any ideas other than his own. Had he not been so stubborn, there could have been a chance of saving the president. Even Alexander Graham Bell created the first metal detector to locate the bullet in the president’s body, but the doctor would not allow him to search any place other than the location he felt was where the bullet had lodged. As a matter of fact, he was totally mistaken. The bullet had traveled to another part of the president’s body and had the doctor allowed Bell to scan the entire body, they would have found it.

So these three stories come together in an amazing look at this chapter of history. After he was shot, Garfield lasted 79 days. During that time he most likely could have been saved with the right treatment. This is the story of James Garfield, Charles Guiteau, and medical practice – or malpractice.

For those who are not aware of Garfield, this is definitely an interesting lesson. He was a man who gave the country hope, not unlike John Kennedy. Both men did not have the luxury of time to prove their capabilities. Garfield only had a mere 200 days.

American Experience: Murder of a President premiers Tuesday, February 2, 2016 on PBS.

About the Author

Francine Brokaw has been covering all aspects of the entertainment industry for 20 years. She also writes about products and travel. She has been published in national and international newspapers and magazines as well as Internet websites. She has written her own book, Beyond the Red Carpet The World of Entertainment Journalists, from Sourced Media Books.

Follow her on Twitter