The Death of James A. Garfield

The exploding deer thing happened when I was in the seventh grade.

The death of Garfield

“Mr. Garfield, if you should die tonight, where will you spend eternity?”

Of what epiphany has the child partaken, a vision of the President’s soul winging heavenwards? Nope. At this time, Mr. Garfield was not yet dead. “On July 2, 1881, two shots were fired into the back of James Abram Garfield as he walked through the Baltimore and Potomac depot in Washington. The president lingered for seventy-nine days, * succumbing finally on September 29.

Consensus holds that his doctors killed him. “Garfield’s death,” states the 1987 book Medical Cover-Ups in the White House, “included all of the worst elements that could be found in a presidential medical crisis: faulty diagnosis, grossly improper treatment, prideful bickering among doctors and a massive cover-up of the truth before and after death.”

Garfield lingered between life and death for more than ten weeks. The first doctor to see the President, Dr. Willard Bliss, stuck his (unsterilized) finger into the wound trying to probe and find the bullet. He never found it but the passageway that he dug through the President later confused physicians as to the bullet’s path. They concluded that the bullet had penetrated the liver and surgery would be of no help. They were wrong. In an effort to find the bullet, Alexander Graham Bell devised a crude metal detector.

“...Then cheer for Garfield three times three, Hurrah, Hurrah
For Arthur and for victory, Hurrah, Hurrah
We’ll put them in there is no doubt
We’ll Kick the Greyback Johnnies Out
And there’ll be no day when the Johnnies get Into Power...”
— Garfield campaign song, 1880

The story The Death of James A. Garfield is the first of a triptych on the trials and triumphs of Ed Seitz and Harley Pigeon, a pair of traveling salesmen, as they seek out business on America’s back roads. “Garfield” is set in the 1950s. It does not deal with the assassination, but with the late president’s eternal spirit making smooth the path of young love from a presidential hereafter. And the 1948 All-Star Game, and the St. Stanislaus church picnic always held during the All-Star break. But here's Harley to tell the story.

Harley Pigeon and James A. Garfield

You probably picked up this tale expecting one of those conspiracy theory tell-alls. I mean from the title and all. Nope. In the middle of the Twentieth Century mysterious things were still reported in the Southern Highlands. However, in real life, hauntings, hexings and supernatural doings were as strange to the post-bellum South as pit barbecue, Winn-Dixie, Dr. Pepper and Royal Crown Cola were familiar. Well, there was this one item about an exploding deer that got buried in the back pages.

Did I tell you I went to James A. Garfield Elementary? Probably not. We had cheerleaders and a losing basketball team for them to cheer for — Bobo skewatten-daddle, get it right! James A. Garfield gonna win tonite!

I missed out on World War Two because I was pigeon-toed. The pigeon-toed thing never failed to get a chuckle. It’s my name — Pigeon, Harley Pigeon. School spirit saw to it that I was more or less informed about the late president.

The exploding deer thing happened when I was in the seventh grade. I was nowhere near the scene.

There is a song — appropriate for the death of a king

The Death of Garfield transcribed from the singing of Luke Faust

Well, I was walking down the street the other day when I heard the report of a pistol.  I said to my self “what could that mean?” A friend of mine run up to me, all excited, and give me something sort o’ like this:
Oh, Mr. Garfield’s
Been shot down might low, mighty low
Mr. Garfield’s been shot down mighty low.

“Well,” says I, “better go over to his house & see how he’s a-doing.”  I went in, he was laying up on the couch.  I said “Mr. Garfield, how ya doing?”  He looked up at me sorta sad like and gimme something sort o’ like this:
Oh, I’m feeling
mighty lowdown low
I been shot down mighty lowdown low.

“Well,” says I, “better send for the preacher.” The preacher came over, sat down by the bedside and said “Mr. Garfield, if you should die tonight, where will you spend eternity?” Mr. Garfield looked up at him, and gave him something sort o’ like this.
“Oh, I know I’ll make my home in heaven
Lord, lord, I know I’ll make my home in heaven.”

Well, a lot of people come around the house and they all stayed or supper.  When supper was over (and the dishes was all done up), Mrs. Garfield went in and sat down by the bedside.  She said, “James, if the worst should come to the worst and you don’t get well, do you wish for me to marry again?”  Mr. G looked up at her with a smile on his face and he give her something sort o’ like this:
“O’ don’t you never let a chance go by, Lord lord
don"t you never let a chance go by...”

(Spoken) Well, the next day I was walking down the street and I met Mrs. Garfield, carrying a bunch of beautiful roses.  I said “Mrs. Garfield, why are you carrying those beautiful flowers?”  She looked at me (friends & neighbors) with tears in her eyes, and gave me something sort o’ like this:
“Gonna lay ’em on
My husband’s grave, Lord lord
Gonna lay ’em on my husband’s grave

“Gonna lay ’em on
that long and flowery branch, Lord lord
Gonna lay ’em on
That long & flowery branch.”

“Mr. Garfield,” as performed by Bascom Lamar Lunsford, boomed out through the listening room headphones of the Milwaukee Public Library. I was thirteen years old, and as happens in puberty this was a spiritual experience. Not the first, but the one I remember. “The Death of Garfield” I next heard sung by Luke Faust. This was New York City fifty years ago when I was old enough to chain smoke and drink in bars.

there’s more...

backstories that never made it into the final cut
PLUS Alexander Graham Bell’s Marvelous Metal Detector,
and the Charles Guiteau song


The Luke Faust bio
The Garfield bio (the website)
* Friedman, Alfred B. The Penguin Book of Folk Ballads of the English-Speaking World, New York, NY, 1977, pp. 230-231.

copyright 2020 Rob Hunter

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