How doctors killed President Garfield

(CBS News) President James A. Garfield is remembered for a series of bizarre and ultimately deadly events that began 131 years ago tomorrow. Here's Mo Rocca to tell the story.

Of the four U.S. Presidents who have been assassinated, two - Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy - are engraved in our collective memory.

William McKinley had already been president a full term when he was murdered at the turn of the 20th century.

But James A. Garfield - president for less than four months before he was shot is 1881 - is for most Americans an historical footnote.

And that, says author Candice Millard, is a great shame.

"He was without question one of the most extraordinary men ever elected president," she told Rocca. "He was absolutely brilliant. He was born into incredible poverty - the last of the 'log cabin presidents.' His father died before he was two years old, so to put himself through college his first year, he was a janitor and a carpenter. By his second year they made him assistant professor of literature and ancient languages.

"By the time he was 26 he was his college's president. He had just an off-the-charts mind."

His loss is all the more heartbreaking because Garfield (Millard writes in a new book) didn't need to die - even after he was shot.

A Civil War hero and nine-term Congressman, Garfield was drafted by fellow Republicans to run for president, an office he'd never sought. Millard said he called the presidency "a bleak mountain."

"He knew that it was going to be a very difficult and lonely position to be in," she said. "And, you know, this is the height of the spoils system" - under which anyone could petition the president in person for a government job, regardless of experience or ability.

"So could anyone just show up at the White House?" Rocca asked.

"Anyone could come and talk to the president," Millard said. "He would have, like, 100 office seekers every day."

Charles Guiteau was one of those office seekers. Delusional and grandiose, he drifted through life. "A man who had failed at everything he had tried, and he had tried everything," Millard said. "He had tried law. He had tried evangelism. He'd even tried a free love commune in the 1800s, and he had failed there, too. You know, the women there had nicknamed him 'Charles Get Out.'"

Guiteau expected to be named minister to France. Day after day he visited the White House, even meeting Garfield once. But when his demand wasn't met . . . .

"So he had what he believed was a divine inspiration, a message from God that he needed to kill the president," Millard said. "This is 16 years after Lincoln's assassination, but there's still no Secret Service protection."

On July 2, 1881, the president was scheduled to travel by train from D.C. to Massachusetts.

"So Guiteau woke up early that morning and he went to the train station and he had his shoes shined and he was ready with his gun - "

"He had his shoes shined?" Rocca asked.

"Yeah, because he was very aware of the attention he would be receiving."

The president, along two of his sons, arrived at the station.

"So they walk in. Garfield takes just a few steps. Guiteau steps out of the shadows and shoots him twice - once in the arm and once in the back," Millard said.

Doctors attend to President James Garfield. Library of Congress

The shot in the back was not fatal, not hitting any vital organs. The bullet lodged behind the pancreas.

"If they had just left him alone he almost certainly would have survived," Millard said.

Within minutes, doctors converged on the fallen president, using their fingers to poke and prod his open wounds.

"Twelve different doctors inserted unsterilized fingers and instruments in Garfield's back probing for this bullet," Millard recounted, "and the first examination took place on the train station floor. I mean, you can't imagine a more germ-infested environment."

American doctors at the time didn't believe germs existed at all. And according to Dr. Jeffrey Reznick of the National Library of Medicine, they rejected the use of antiseptics pioneered by British surgeon Joseph Lister, for whom Listerine would later be named