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Murder of a President | Article

The Little-Known President

The Last of the "Log Cabin Presidents"
James Garfield was the last president to be born in a log cabin. When James was born in 1831, Ohio was on the edge of the American frontier and had been a state for fewer than 30 years. Less than two years after James's birth, his father, Abram, died of fever and exhaustion in the family's cabin after battling to save the farm from a wildfire. The cabin, two miles through thick woods to the nearest road, was far from medical care.

Near Death Experience
James Garfield almost died of malaria he contracted while working on the Erie and Ohio canal in 1848. In 1881, his wife Lucretia Randolph Garfield almost died from malaria while living in the White House. Italian for "bad air", malaria's method of transmission was still a mystery in 1880, though the disease was known to proliferate in swampy areas, like the White House's surroundings at the time. That malaria was spread by mosquitoes was not discovered until 1898.

Malaria in "Puck" Magazine. Public Domain.

Charles Dickens Fan
James and Lucretia Garfield's first child, named Eliza Arabella Garfield, was called "Trot," a reference to Charles Dickens' character Elizabeth Trotwood, from David Copperfield, one of Garfield's favorite books.

A Left-Handed Leader
James Garfield was the first left-handed president.

Mother of the President
After taking the oath of office, the first thing James Garfield did was bend down to kiss his mother Eliza on the cheek. She was the first mother of a president to attend her son's inauguration.

The First Presidential Library
After Garfield's death, Lucretia gathered and organized Garfield's papers and correspondence in an effort to ensure that her husband's legacy would not be tarnished or forgotten. She thus created the first presidential library, setting the precedent for the collection of papers of the President for posterity. Garfield's successor, Chester Arthur, however, burned most of his papers the day before he died in 1886. For many years, the Library of Congress' Manuscript Division had only one document to represent President Arthur.

Garfield the Clergyman
Garfield was the first and is still the only president to be a member of the clergy. After joining the Disciples of Christ, the Christian denomination his parents had belonged to, Garfield became a lay minister before turning to politics. In Washington, Garfield attended the Vermont Avenue Christian Church so regularly that Charles Guiteau originally planned to shoot the president in church since he knew he would find Garfield there on Sundays.

A Doctor Since Birth
The doctor in charge of Garfield's medical care after the shooting was named Dr. D. Willard Bliss. The D. stands for Doctor, the first name his parents gave him at birth, apparently anticipating their infant son's profession.

The First Black Doctor
Dr. Charles Purvis, the 39-year-old surgeon in chief of the Freedmen's Hospital, became the first black doctor to treat a U.S. president when he arrived at the Baltimore and Potomac train station to attend to President Garfield on July 2, 1881.

A Time of Tragedy…and Innovation
Two new inventions: the induction balance, an Alexander Graham Bell invention later known as the metal detector, and the air conditioner, were tested and put to work in Garfield's sick room in the White House.

A Double Oath
Chester Arthur took the oath of office twice: first in his New York townhouse hours after Garfield's death and then again on September 22nd in the Vice President's room in the Capitol. President Arthur added the phrase "So help me, God" to the end of the oath, and other presidents have done the same.

Chester Arthur Takes the Oath of Office. Credit: Library of Congress

Chester Arthur's First Lady
When Chester Arthur became president he did not move in to the White House immediately, instead commissioning much-needed updates to the presidential home. Widowed in 1880, Arthur asked his younger sister, Mary Arthur McElroy, to oversee the customary social duties of the First Lady, and the social engagements of the Arthur presidency were limited in deference to the late President Garfield.

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