TELECOM Digest OnLine - Sorted: Alex Bell and President Garfield's Assassination

Alex Bell and President Garfield's Assassination

TELECOM Digest Editor (
Sat, 28 Apr 2007 15:52:53 EDT

Alexander Graham Bell and the Garfield Assassination

My thanks to and for this
interesting report.

By R. J. Brown

Some people ask me "Why bother to collect old newspapers? If I want to
read dry, boring history, I can just get a history book." My answer to
this is that even the best of history books leave out some mighty
interesting aspects of historical events. The only way they can be
re-discovered, is through reading original newspapers published during
the time of the event. The assassination of president James Garfield
in 1881 is a prime example of this.

James Garfield was assassinated on July 2, 1881 and lingered until
September 19, 1881 when he died. The problem was that a bullet was
lodged inside his chest. The two methods of treatment at the time
were: (1) If the bullet had penetrated the liver (or other organs) it
would mean certain death without surgery to remove it. (2) If the
bullet hadn't penetrated an organ but was lodged tightly against an
organ at the present time, the chances of recovery were much better if
they delayed the surgery until the president's condition
stabilized. Therefore, finding the exact location of the bullet was
very critical in the president's recovery. X-rays had not been
invented yet so the only way to determine the exact location of the
bullet was to do a manual probe with instruments. If they were to make
continued probes to locate the bullet, it increased the risk of

As a result of this indecision, a most unique
journalistic style arose. Newspapers across the United States printed
editorial after editorial making big light of this indecision by the
White House doctors. Soon, lay-people, as well as qualified medical
personnel, jumped in with their opinions. The White House doctors were
deluged with package after package containing such items as special
herbs, teas, home remedies, poultices, as well as patent medicines. A
special area was set up in the White House basement to store all the

In addition, people with medical degrees sent lengthy letters giving
their opinions on what should be done. Many of these letters were also
published in newspapers. Coverage of the debate received so much
attention that discussions from this angle over shadowed the current
medical condition of the president.

One such example of the press taking over the job of finding the
answer as to finding the exact location of the bullet took place one
week after the shooting. Simon Newcomb of Baltimore was interviewed
by a reporter for the Washington National Intelligencer. Newcomb had
been experimenting with running electricity through wire coils and the
effect metal had when placed near the coils. He had found that when
metal was placed near the coils filled with electricity that a faint
hum could be heard at that point in the coil. The problem was that the
hum was so faint that is was very difficult to hear. He suggested that
he might be able to perfect his invention so that it could be used on
the President but, unfortunately, he though that the perfection of the
apparatus would take too long.

While in Boston, Alexander Graham Bell read the newspaper account
mentioned in the above paragraph of this article. Upon reading this
account, Bell telegraphed Newcomb in Baltimore and offered to assist
him. Further, he suggested that perhaps his own invention of the
telephone was the answer he had been seeking. His telephone amplified
sound made through wire!

Newcomb accepted Bell's offer. Bell immediately went to Baltimore to
work with Newcomb. White House surgeons spent a lot of time at the
Baltimore lab witnessing the experiments. The invention consisted of
two coils of insulated wire, a battery, a circuit breaker, and
Bell's telephone. The ends of the primary coil were connected to a
battery and those of the secondary coil were fastened to posts of the
telephone. When a piece of metal was placed in the spot where the
circuit breaker was, a hum could be heard in the telephone receiver.
As the metal was moved further away, the hum became more faint. Five
inches away was the maximum distance that a hum could still be heard.

Various methods of testing the apparatus were tried. At first a
game of hide and seek was played. Either Bell or Newcomb would hide an
unspent bullet in their mouth, arm pit, or elsewhere on their
body. The other would pass the wand over the others' body. Meanwhile
an assistant would be listening on the telephone to announce (based on
the hum) where the bullet was and how far away from the tip of
the instrument the bullet was.

Next, the experiments included spent bullets and hiding them in bags
of grain, inside sides of beef and so forth. Various adjustments were
made with each test.

As a final test, before using it on the president, they went to the
Old Soldiers Home in Washington, D.C. where they solicited Civil War
veterans and lined them up in open fields. They passed the wand over
each volunteer's body. As some still had bullets in their body from
doing battle in the war, this provided a very close approximation of
what they hoped their invention would accomplish -- locate a bullet
inside a human body. In each case, the soldiers with bullets still in
them, and where the bullets were, were identified. Now was the
appropriate time to try the invention on the president. On July 26,
Bell, his assistant Tainter, and Newcomb had an appointment at the
White House. In the early evening they made their first attempt to
locate the bullet using their apparatus. There were also five White
House doctors and several aides present for this experiment. The
president looked apprehensive as the wand was passed over his body. He
expressed a fear of being electrocuted by the strange machine. Bell
offered reassurance and tried to explain how the apparatus
worked. None-the-less, Garfield's eyes never left the wand through out
the experiment.

The results of the experiment were inconclusive as
there was a faint hum no matter where the wand was placed on the
president's body. After many attempts, Bell, Newcomb and Tainter left
the White House wonder just where they went wrong.

Meanwhile, the press used this failure as a personal attack on
Bell. The hostility of the rivalry among claimants that they (and not
Bell) were the first ones to invent the telephone was at its peak at
this time. Many lawsuits were already pending in the courts over this
issue. The publicity over Bell using his invention to attempt to find
the bullet in the president's body didn't help matters. Editorials in
newspapers called Bell a "publicity seeker."

Undaunted, Bell returned to the lab with Newcomb and Tainter. They ran
more experiments. It still worked just fine in the lab and at the Old
Soldier's Home. Bell managed to talk White House doctors into letting
them come back and try again. The last day of July they went back to
the White House to try again. It was the same thing again -- no matter
where they placed the wand on the president's body, a faint hum could
be heard. When they moved the wand away from the president's body the
hum could no longer be heard. All were stumped. It worked fine on
everyone else but the president. Feeling dejected, they again left the
White House. Bell continued back to Boston and gave up trying to
perfect the invention.

A few weeks after their last attempt, President Garfield was moved
to his home in New Jersey and died on September 19, 1881.

So what is the answer to why Bell's and Newcomb's invention worked on
everyone except the president? It wasn't the president that was the
problem. The problem was the bed he was in. Coil spring mattresses had
just been invented. In fact, a national campaign hadn't even been
started yet at the time of the assassination. The White House was one
of the few that had the coil spring mattresses at the time. Very few
people had even heard of them. Thus, Bell's and Newcomb's invention
was detecting metal -- unfortunately they didn't realize that it was
the coil springs. If they had moved him off the bed to the floor or
table, their apparatus would have detected where the bullet was and
likely, knowing this, the White House surgeons could have saved James
Garfield's life!

Send mail to the author of this article.

[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: This was first printed in TELECOM
Digest in June, 1999. PAT]

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