By Patty Booth O’Neill
Long Branch — On September 19, the bells tolled at the Church of the Presidents on Ocean Ave. But if you were not at the small ceremony being held around the corner on Garfield Court, you would have had no idea why they tolled in the middle of the afternoon. The pealing bells were noting the death of President James A. Garfield, who had been shot in Washington, DC on July 2, 1881, and brought to Long Branch to recover.
The bells commemorated Garfield’s death 130 years ago that day.
Mayor Adam Schneider gave a brief history of how Garfield came from Washington to Long Branch to recover at Francklyn Cottage, overlooking the scenic Atlantic ocean.
“Garfield never wanted to be President,” Schneider told the group assembled around the Garfield plaque, erected by the side of the street on the property where the Francklyn Cottage once stood. Garfield agreed to run after giving a speech, when those who heard it urged him to run for President.
“Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, an aspiring politician who felt Garfield owed him some sort of political position,” Schneider said. He said Guiteau once stalked Garfield and trailed him to the railway station where the President was seeing his wife Lucretia off to Long Branch for a vacation. Guiteau decided he didn’t want to upset Garfield’s wife and put the assassination off until another day.
On July 2, Garfield was scheduled to leave for Long Branch for his summer vacation. Guiteau approached the President from behind, and shot him once in the shoulder and once in the spine.
Garfield was brought back to the White House with the bullet still lodged in his spine. Doctors probed his wound looking for the bullet, having no knowledge of sterile conditions and diseases caused by using dirty, unsterilized fingers and instruments.
Trying to keep Garfield cool, Navy engineers rigged up an early version of the modern air conditioner by positioning fans over a large box of ice to blow cool air over the president.
Alexander Graham Bell had devised a metal detector to find the bullet, but the metal bed frame the president was lying on caused it to malfunction. (Most beds were still made out of wood).
Blood poisoning and several infections set in from the unsterile conditions. Because Washington was so hot and humid, on September 6 Garfield was sent to Long Branch in hopes that fresh air and quiet would help him recover.
“Garfield finally died of a heart attack because of all the infections he suffered over the months,” Schneider said. “Many believe that if they knew about sterilization, Garfield would have survived.”
During the trial Guiteau, who loved the attention he was getting said, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”
At the remembrance ceremony, an item was placed next to the plaque marking where Garfield died. Jim Foley of the Long Branch Historical Museum Association revealed a framed flag that had been placed over Garfield’s casket during services conducted by the Long Branch Masonic Lodge. The flag now hangs on display in the Church of the Presidents.
“When Garfield heard the church bells ringing he asked what they were for,” Foley said. “They’re ringing the bells for you, (Mr. President.) That was 130 years ago today.”
Originally pubished Sept. 22, 2011