Early Friday afternoon, November 22, 1963, I was sitting at my desk in Mrs. Wonderlich’s classroom. One of the boys brought a message from our elementary school’s office. The news was on the radio, he said. President Kennedy has been shot.
The world was transfixed by the events of the weekend––first the death of the president and, two days later, the Sunday live-television killing of his suspected assassin. The adults in my life didn’t hide their shock.
My friends and I were old enough to pay attention. On the playground, we talked about what had happened. I remember the photographs and bold headlines in the newspaper tossed onto our porch each morning. The coverage continued long after that weekend. The assassination stayed in the spotlight during years of investigations, commission reports, conspiracy theory books, documentaries, and movies. My memories from November 1963 never had a chance to fade.
Several years ago, I inherited old bound copies of American Heritage magazine from my mother. As I paged through them, an article about another assassination caught my eye. Published a few months after John Kennedy’s death, the piece described the July 1881 shooting of President James Garfield in a Washington railroad station. Maybe the personal impact of the Kennedy assassination explains why I was intrigued and later decided to write Ambushed!: The Assassination Plot Against President Garfield.
Elected in 1880, James Garfield is probably one of our least known presidents. That’s not surprising since he only served 200 days. For 80 of those, he was lying in bed with a bullet in his body.
Like Kennedy, Garfield was in his forties and had a young family when he was struck down. The last president to be born in a log cabin, he rose from poverty to the highest political office by working hard and using his considerable intellect. Though many have forgotten Garfield, his presidency and assassination changed the course of medical and political history.
As I explored primary sources, I learned much more than I’d read in the old American Heritage article. I realized that Garfield’s story was a perfect follow-up to Blood and Germs: The Civil War Battle Against Wounds and Disease (2020), the first book in my Medical Fiascoes series.
Garfield was shot sixteen years after the Civil War ended. His doctors, who had been army surgeons during the War, were brought in to treat him because they were gunshot experts. But they hadn’t kept up with changes in medical ideas.
Although germ theory was widely accepted in Europe, many American physicians still didn’t believe that microbes caused infection. Garfield’s doctors failed to use antiseptic practices. Their dirty hands turned out to be more of a threat than the bullet.
The drama that followed the shooting gripped the nation. Throughout the summer of 1881, newspapers printed the daily bulletins released by Garfield’s doctors. Readers learned how high the president’s temperature had climbed, how well he was sleeping, what he was eating and drinking, and how often he vomited.
“The whole country seemed to watch at his bedside,” said one weekly magazine at the time. “A nation awoke at morning with the fervent hope that the President still lived.”
Kids were caught up in the crisis, too, just as I had been when President Kennedy was assassinated. Garfield received letters from children wishing him a quick recovery. One eight-year-old from Alabama wrote, “I know if you have a little boy like me, he is sorry that you are hurt.” In fact, the president’s youngest son was the same age.
My book Ambushed! involves political intrigue, a determined killer, and medical mistakes. Because Garfield’s story isn’t well known, I was able to write it as a thriller. Who is the man shadowing the president, and why? When and where will the stalker attack? Will Garfield’s doctors save him?
Unlike the Kennedy case, the shooting of James Garfield didn’t lead to conspiracy theories or unsolved mysteries. His assassin confessed to acting alone, and several witnesses saw him pull the trigger. As the years passed, Garfield and his assassination became an overlooked episode in our history.
Yet his fate pushed American medicine from the Civil War era into the twentieth century. Garfield’s ordeal raised awareness about the importance of washing hands and disinfecting instruments. That knowledge saved countless lives during the next 140 years.
Even the most tragic medical fiascoes can bring progress. It’s happening now as we cope with a deadly pandemic. The technology used to develop the COVID-19 vaccines has the potential to revolutionize the battle against other diseases. Kids need hope that their future will be bright, and history provides it.
Gail Jarrow is the author of nonfiction books and novels for ages 8-18. Gail Jarrow’s books for young readers have earned the Robert F. Sibert Honor Book Award; YALSA Award Nomination for Excellence in Nonfiction; Orbis Pictus Honor; Children’s Book Guild Nonfiction Award; the Jefferson Cup; Golden Kite Honor for NF for Older Readers; Eureka! Gold Award; ALA Notable Book; Notable Social Studies Trade Book; Best Books awards from the National Science Teachers Association, Kirkus Reviews, School Library Journal, Booklist, Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, Bank Street College of Education, New York Public Library, and Chicago Public Library. She has received additional awards and recognition from the American Booksellers Association, American Library Association, Public Library Association, the Society of School Librarians International, and Junior Library Guild.