A year later, Garfield and Guiteau will be dead. The same doctor will autopsy both men, remove several internal organs from each, seal them in jars of formalin, and place their “pickled” innards on public display at the Army Medical Museum.
One of the President’s organs, his lung to be specific, found its way to the online auction site, eBay. A nineteenth-century collection of sixty microscope slides found in the attic of a Maryland home was up for bidding. Among the the slides were two by W. B. Rezner, a surgeon in the American Civil War, and later, President of the Cleveland Microscopy Society. Both of Rezner’s slides bore handwritten labels identifying the specimens they held as “Lung of President James Garfield.”
The President’s lungs had been removed during an autopsy conducted by several physicians, including J. J. Woodward, an American Civil War surgeon, microscopy enthusiast, collector of body parts, and curator for the United States Army Medical Museum. The details of how a piece of President Garfield’s lung most likely wound up on a microscope slide in a contemporary collection follows and J. J. Woodward is the central figure. But first question to answer is how did a dead President of the United States lose a piece of his lung.
The Assassination of President Garfield By Charles Guiteau
Charles Guiteau (1831 – 1882) was a somewhat down-on-his-heels attorney. He supported Garfield during the presidential campaign and volunteered to work with the presidential candidate’s election team. Garfield won the election and Guiteau believing he helped push him over the top, was entitled to be given a Presidential appointment to a position, such as, an ambassadorship. He wrote increasingly demanding letters to Garfield requesting a post. The President’s staff handling the correspondence dismissed him as a crackpot an placed his name on the White House “no entry” list. Deeply embittered, Guiteau bought a gun and began stalking Garfield whenever he left the Whitehouse.
Guiteau found an opportunity to take a shot at Garfield on July 2, 1881, at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Depot in Washington, D.C. The President had been in office for only a few months and was leaving for a political tour of New England. Garfield entered the train station through the ladies’ entrance walking with Secretary of State, James Blaine. Two shots rang out as soon as the two walked into the central plenum of the terminal. Guiteau anticipated the President’s route and was lying in wait, firing two shots at Garfield from behind. The first grazed Garfield’s hand. The second hit his back dead center blasting a hole through the uppermost lumbar vertebra. Reportedly, he yelled, “What happened!” while falling to the ground.
Secretary Blaine watched the police restraining Guiteau. The first doctor on the scene was Dr. Smith Townsend. He immediately administered brandy to the President to keep him from going into shock, and was the first physician to stick his finger into the bullet hole in Garfield’s back. Several others followed in palpating the open wound and in doing so, initiating an infection that ravaged the president’s body.
The bleeding couldn’t be stopped, so Townsend, placed Garfield onto a straw and horsehair mattress found by a worker at the railroad station and carried him to a small office. Here they waited for an hour for a horse-drawn ambulance to to arrive to bring the President back to the White House.
Garfield’s Secretary of War, Robert Todd Lincoln, was also quick to the scene and sent his private carriage to find Dr. D. Willard Bliss. Bliss was well known to the District of Columbia’s elite as one of the best doctors available. Garfield was still awaiting the ambulance when Bliss arrived. He was a childhood friend of Garfield and became the lead physician for the team to treat the President until he died. Notably, he was the second surgeon to probe Garfield’s bullet wound with unwashed fingers.
It has since been argued but never settled that Garfield might have been able to recover from being shot had the bullet’s entry wound been cleaned and allowed to heal while leaving the projectile to become naturally encapsulated by scar tissue (as the autopsy indicated was occurring). But the doctors were obsessed with searching for the hidden bullet, which at the time was proper medical protocol. In 1881, hand cleaning and antiseptic methodologies were still contentious issues, particularly among surgeons tenured in the blood and guts hellscape found in civil war hospital tents.
Dr. Bliss, rather controversially, appointed himself as the head of the efforts to save James Garfield’s life. At the time, the President’s wife, Lucretia Garfield, was recovering from a bad case of malaria, and the doctor treating her, Susan Ann Edson M. D., was with her in the White House. Dr. Edson was among the first women to graduate from a college with a doctorate in medicine in the United States. Mrs. Garfield insisted that Dr. Edson be included as a member physician in the medical team caring for her husband, but Dr. Bliss strongly objected. Nonetheless, he yielded to the weight of Mrs. Garfield’s persistence. However, Bliss refused to honor Edson’s medical credentials and limited her involvement to nursing duties – insulting her medical degree, professional competency because of her sex.
health steadily declined. He grew weaker and lost weight as bacterial infections spread throughout his body. He went from his normal weight of 210 pounds to 130. His doctors began experimenting with a novel feeding treatment. They gave the President beef soup enemas categorized as “rectal feeding”. (author’s note: It doesn’t work.) Even Alexander Graham Bell, a medical doctor and inventor of the telephone, had a go at Garfield with an experimental method of his own. Bell was developing a metal detector and brought a prototype of the instrument to the White House to search out the seemingly unfindable bullet. Unfortunately, Garfield’s was lying upon a mattress with steel springs. The metal continually set off Bell’s device, and the attending physicians refused to allow their patient to be moved. Nevertheless, Bell’s device was workable and became a valuable tool for pinpointing the location of bullets and shrapnel buried in wounded soldiers during the Spanish American War and WWI.
The Garfield Monument in Lake View Cemetery, Cleveland, Ohio The Detroit Photographic Company was established in 1898 but changed its name in 1903, becoming the Detroit Printing Company (DPC). The company’s mission was to introduce a novel color printing process developed in Switzerland known as Photochrom to the United States. DPC changed the name to Phostint and registered it, so the term was exclusive for the postcards they made. The Phostint process is an offset photo-mechanical printing method based on lithography. Creating DPC postcards requires each color to be separately printed onto the card using a distinct lithographic plate for each color. DPC utilized between eight to twenty colors for each postcard, resulting in a unique look carried by all the postcards in their line. Competition from cheaper printing methods pushed DPC into receivership in 1923.
President Garfield died on September 19, 1881. His passing allowed physicians free rein to find the errant bullet and survey what other morbidities had infiltrated Garfield’s insides. Rummaging about the President’s splayed abdomen, the physicians finally found the assassin’s bullet. The projectile was above Garfield’s pancreas, nestling against the pancreatic artery. It came to rest there because Garfield’s backbone deflected its trajectory to the left side of the body. The physicians had been acting on the assumption it continued in a straight line and focused their exploratory probing to the President’s right side. The autopsy also involved removing Garfield’s liver, stomach, heart, and lungs. The physicians, most likely Woodward as he had done the same with the vertebra of John Wilks Booth during his autopsy, dissected and removed a length of the President’s backbone where the bullet passed through and into his body.
The section of backbone was, defleshed, cleaned, and finally mounted onto a wooden board. What probably looked like a 9th grade science project, was sent to the Army Medical Museum for preservation and display. At the museum, a curator remounted the vertebra and inserted a rod through the bullet’s channel to make visible its trajectory. It was now mounted in the same was as the neck vertebra of John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s assassin, already hung on display. The museum put Garfield’s backbone in a glass case and installed it on the museum’s floor. It remained as a permanent exhibition until 2000, when, in response to a shift in public sensitivities, they moved it to the museum’s storage collection.
A President’s Purloined Lung?
On May 16, 1890, The Detroit Journal published an Associated Press Dispatch that: a portion of lung of President Garfield was taken at the time of the autopsy, cut up and distributed among microscopists. Upon being interviewed as to the foundation for the claim, the Journal states that it knows of persons in Detroit who have such portions in their possession. Reprinted in Microscopical Bulletin and Science News, Feb. 1890 Published James W. Queen 924 Chestnut St. Philadelphia
Creation of the Army Medical Museum: Send Me Your Arms!
During the American Civil War, the Army Medical Museum was established by the United States Surgeon General William Hammond. J. J. Woodward, who was serving as a surgeon in a Civil War field hospital, was reassigned to help supervise the fledging institution, in conjunction with Dr. John H. Brinton, of Philadelphia. One of the missions assigned to the new institution was to collect information about injuries, treatment, and outcomes for soldiers injured while serving in combat. An order was dispatched from the Surgeon General’s office to Army Field surgeons that they were not only to record descriptions of the injuries they treated but to send physical samples of the wounds back to the Army Museum in Washington. This included amputated body parts and other anatomical specimens removed from the wounded.
William B. Rezner (d. 1883), a Civil War Surgeon and microscopist, was one of many doctors who complied with the request by sending body parts removed from wounded soldiers to the Army Medical Museum. Rezner’s contributions, primarily shoulder injuries, are documented in a log book compiled by J. J. Woodward, a surgeon, and microscopist. This interchange may have laid the groundwork for later communications between Rezner and Woodward.
The Trial and Hanging of Charles Guiteau
It was the doctors who killed Garfield! I only shot him. -Guiteau’s testimony at his trial.
Guiteau’s only option to evade execution was a plea of insanity. His guilt was beyond doubt. Guiteau was arrested while standing behind the wounded President with a smoking revolver. Making his guilt even more certain, Guiteau acted before a crowd of travelers, including several newspaper reporters. Guiteau was a lawyer and demanded to serve in his own defense before the bar. Judge Cox allowed Guiteau’s request, which allowed him to sporadically leap to his feet and exhibit unhinged behavior, such as bursting into song or reading a manifesto to the court about the ills of government. His reasoning provided good reasons for many to consider him mentally ill. However, Guiteau clearly stated that he was perfectly sane and only was crazy while firing the gun at Garfield. Judge Cox also allowed Guiteau representation from another attorney, his sister’s husband, George Scoville (1824 – 1906). During the trial, Scofield held steady on the insanity defense. Alexander McClain Hamilton, the most prominent psychiatrist of the day and historically recognized as “The father of medical psychiatry,” testified as an expert witness on behalf of the prosecution. The opinion Hamilton offered the court was that although Guiteau appeared irrational, his mental functions were well within the range of those knowing the difference between right and wrong. Hamilton added that Guiteau’s bazaar courtroom antics were a ruse purposely employed to escape the noose—an opinion he reiterated thirty years later in his autobiography. The jury found Guiteau to be sane enough to be guilty of murder. He was hanged for the crime on June 30, 1882, in the Washington, D.C. prison jail yard, where he had been confined since his arrest. Following the execution, Guiteau was autopsied by J. J. Woodward and other physicians. His headless corpse was buried at the site of his execution.
The Unusual Fate Stalking Outstanding Brains
Guiteau’s autopsy was of great interest to physicians who were speculating a correlation between his murderous behavior and a brain abnormality could be found. For this reason, Woodward invited Dr. Edward Curtis Spitzka, a notable neurologist and psychiatrist from New York City, to join the autopsy team.
They found Guiteau’s brain was missing a significant convolution between the parietal and temporal lobes, termed the Sylvan Sulcus. Nevertheless, as the missing furrow was previously observed in the brains of individuals exhibiting normal behavior, – albeit uncommonly – they concluded that they found nothing structural to explain his deviants actions.
A brain’s topography is convoluted. The grooves between the convolutions are termed sulci. The Sylvan Sulci is a major one separating the lateral hemisphere of the frontal lobe from the rest of the lobe. Guiteau did not have one. Puzzling as that may seem, the physicians’ knowledge of brain function, primarily based on survivors of Civil War head injuries, felt that the furrow’s absence would have little effect on behavior.
Following the autopsy, Guiteau’s brain and his de-fleshed skull were sent to the Army Medical Museum for preservation and where they were placed on exhibition. The National Museum of Medical History still holds the items but due to changing attitudes towards the display of human remains, curators moved the brain and skull to the museum’s storage collection
Albert Einstein’s and Charles Guiteau’s Brains Have Something In Common
After Einstein’s death on April 18, 1955, Dr. Thomas Stoltz Harvey, a pathologist at Princeton Hospital who had performed Einstein’s autopsy, removed his brain without the permission of his family. Harvey claimed that Einstein had permitted this before his death, and family members did consent afterward.
Harvey dissected and photographed Einstein’s brain extensively. He made over 240 histological sections of the brain and mounted them on microscope slides, and distributed them to researchers around the world. Unfortunately, many of them were lost or damaged over time.
Harvey kept the rest of the brain in jars of formalin for further study but was never availed of the opportunity. He was fired from his job at Princeton Hospital for performing autopsies on corpses he was not authorized to cut up. Apparently, one of his recreational dissections was performed on the body of a close friend to the hospital’s Chief of Staff.
After Harvey died in 2007, Einstein’s remaining brain parts were sent from Princeton to the National Museum of Medicine in Maryland. A set of Harvey’s microscope slides made from the brain were given to the Historical Collections at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., and to the Mutter Medical Museum in Philadelphia, where they are still on display.
How Did William B. Rezner Get Slices of Garfield’s Lung?
William B. Rezner M.D. (d. 1883) was a physician, surgeon, and founding member of the Cleveland Microscopical Society and served the organization in various capacities, including as its President. He served as a board member for the American Society of Microscopists, a national organization, and demonstrated microscopical techniques at several of its meetings. As a microscopist, Rezner contributed much to the field. One of his main pursuits was measuring the resolution of microscope lenses using fine-lined microscope slides termed a micrometer. He developed a technique for depositing a thin coating of silver on a finely lined slide and viewing it with optically controlled illumination by modifying a Wenham reflex illuminator to make visible previously unseen separations. For this, he is credited with being the first to resolve 120,000 lines per inch, the smallest spacing ever seen with a light microscope. He demonstrated the methodology using his silver-plated micrometer at the annual 1880 meeting of the American Microscopical Society meeting in Buffalo, NY.
Rezner’s magic finger was an attachment for microscope objectives to enable the positioning of tiny diatoms on microscope slides. It was the only apparatus designed by Rezner that was commercially sold, although a record of him patenting the device is not findable.
In Rezner’s obituary, published in the Cleveland Journal of Microscopy and written by the society’s secretary, C.M. Vorce, he states that Rezner had been a practitioner of microscopy for more than twenty years. This implies he began working with microscopes while serving as a surgeon during the American Civil War. Being a medical doctor, most likely, his interest was wanting to explore the human body on a microscopic level.
J. J. Woodward Conducted Autopsies on President Abraham Lincoln, the Assassin Charles Wilkes Booth, President James Garfield, and the Assassin Charles Guiteau.
Dr. Joseph Janvier Woodward (1833-1884), a prominent Surgeon and Brevet Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army, was born in Philadelphia on October 30, 1833, and passed away near the city on August 17, 1884. After graduating as valedictorian from Philadelphia Central High School in 1855, he pursued his medical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, earning an M.D. degree in 1853. Dr. Woodward established his medical practice in Philadelphia, where he provided medical care, offered private instruction in microscopy, and actively participated in Philadelphia’s Pathological Society.
During the Civil War, he served as an assistant surgeon in the Second Artillery of the Army of the Potomac. On May 19, 1862, he was assigned to the Surgeon General’s Office in Washington, D.C., a position he held until his demise. Alongside Dr. John H. Brinton, he took charge of collecting materials and compiling the Medical and Surgical History of the War for the newly established Military Medical Museum. Following the war, Dr. Woodward assumed responsibility for the medical collection of the Army Medical Museum and the preparation of the medical portion of the Medical and Surgical History of the War.
While working at the museum, Dr. Woodward became interested in the field of photomicrography through the experiments of Dr. William Thomson from Philadelphia, who was then overseeing a hospital in Washington. Recognizing the importance of accurate representations of pathological histology, Dr. Woodward embarked on the task of obtaining improved microscope objectives suitable for photomicrography. His publications on the subject provided a significant impetus for advancements in microscopic construction within the United States. At the Army Medical Museum, he designed a dedicated darkroom specifically tailored for photomicrography, allowing operators to project magnified images directly onto the photochemical process. Dr. Woodward’s contributions in this field resulted in the production of high-quality photomicrographic prints.
In addition to his work on the Medical and Surgical History of the War, Dr. Woodward authored reports on cholera and yellow fever in the U.S. Army, published in 1867 and 1868, respectively. His series of reports, accompanied by photographs, explored the application of photomicrography in testing objects and conducting histological work.
Tragically, Dr. Woodward’s emotional well-being suffered due to the stress of writing autopsy reports for high-profile cases, including those of President Abraham Lincoln, the assassin Charles Wilkes Booth, President James Garfield, and the deranged murderer Charles Guiteau. The combined workload of writing numerous volumes on the medical history of the Civil War and these autopsies led to his emotional collapse, resulting in his institutionalization in 1883. He ultimately took his own life by jumping off the roof of the asylum in 1884. Dr. Woodward’s reputation as a skilled microscopist and pathologist remains significant, highlighted by his involvement in these noteworthy autopsy cases.
President Garfield’s Autopsy: The Section Pertaining to His Lungs (plain language version follows)
The following section is an excerpt from the official record of the post-mortem examination of the body of President James A. Garfield. The autopsy was conducted on September 20, 1881, at 4:30 P.M., eighteen hours after death, at Franklyn Cottage, Elberon, N. J.
On the right side slight pleuritic adhesions existed between the convex surface of the lower lobe of the lung and the costal pleura, and firm adhesions between the anterior edge of the lower lobe, the pericardium and the diaphragm. The right lung weighed thirty-two ounces. The posterior part
of the fissure between its upper and lower lobes was congenitally incomplete. The lower lobe of the right lung was hypostatically congested, and considerable portions, especially toward its base, were the seat of broncho-pneumonia. The bronchial tubes contained a considerable quantity of stringy mucous pus. Their mucous surface was
reddened by catarrhal bronchitis. The lung tissue was oedematous. (A foot-note here says: A part at least of this condition was doubtless due to the extravasation of the injecting fluids by the embalmer.) But it contained no abscesses or infractions.] On the left side the lower lobe of the lung was bound behind to the costal pleura, above to the upper lobe, and below to the diaphragm by pretty firm pleuritic adhesions. The left lung weighed twenty-seven ounces. The condition of its bronchial tubes and of the lung tissues was very nearly the same as on the right side, the chief difference being that the area of broncho-pneumonia in
the lower lobe was much less extensive in the left lung than in the right. In the lateral part of the lower lobe of the left lung, and about an inch from its pleural surface, there was a group of four minute areas of gray hepatization, each about one-eighth of an inch in diameter. There were no infractions and no abscesses in any part of the lung tissue. The full transcript can be found reprinted here: Brown, Emma Elizabeth. (1881) The Life and Public Service of James A. Garfield, Twentieth President of the United States. D. Lothrop and Company, Boston. pp. 517 – 518 and at : https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/official-bulletin-the-autopsy-the-body-president-garfield
Plain Language Interpretation of the Autopsy Pertaining to Garfield’s Lungs
The medical report examined a patient’s lungs. On the right side, there were slight adhesions between the lower lobe of the lung and the surrounding tissues, like the chest wall, pericardium (heart covering), and diaphragm. The right lung was heavier than usual and had congestion, inflammation, and areas of broncho-pneumonia. The bronchial tubes contained thick mucus and inflammation (catarrhal bronchitis). The lung tissue was swollen (oedematous), partly due to embalming, but no abscesses or tissue death was found.
On the left side, similar adhesions were present, but the left lung was slightly lighter than the right lung. The bronchial tubes and lung tissue on the left side were similar to the right side, but the broncho-pneumonia was less extensive. In a specific area of the left lung’s lower lobe, there were small gray liver-like areas (gray hepatization). No tissue death or abscesses were found in the lung tissue.
The Brains of Three Other Assassinated American Presidents
- Abraham Lincoln: Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865. Lincoln’s autopsy was led by Dr. Charles Leale and assisted by army surgeon Dr. J. J. Woodward. The autopsy revealed that a projectile had shattered Lincoln’s skull and entered his brain without exiting. The physicians dissected Lincoln’s brain and found a bullet. It was found intact, along with broken pieces of skull bone from the entry wound. The bullet that killed Abraham Lincoln and fragments of his skull have been preserved and are currently part of the Army Medical Museum’s collection. An autopsy was also conducted on the body of Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth by the same physician, J. J. Woodward.
- William McKinley: William McKinley, the 25th President of the United States, was shot by Leon Czolgosz on September 6, 1901, and succumbed to his wounds on September 14, 1901. During McKinley’s autopsy, a team of six doctors, led by Dr. Herman Mynter, removed several organs for examination. The autopsy revealed that one of the bullets had perforated McKinley’s stomach, pancreas, and kidney before becoming lodged in his back muscles. The organs were removed for further study, a common practice during autopsies of that time. They were initially preserved in jars of formalin and later returned to McKinley’s family for a private burial ceremony in Canton, Ohio.
- John F. Kennedy: John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald on November 22, 1963. Following Kennedy’s death, an autopsy was conducted, during which his brain was removed from his skull. Tragically, the brain was lost, or purloined, and its whereabouts remain unknown. This revelation about the missing brain was made public ten years after the assassination when the House Select Committee on Assassinations unsealed related documents. However, other anatomical items removed during the autopsy, apart from the brain, were carefully recorded and transferred to the National Archives, where they are currently stored. (Sanner 2013)
Sanner, Ermind (2013) The President’s Brain Is Missing and Other Mislaid Body Parts, The Guardian, London. Oct 21. https://www.theguardian.com/world/shortcuts/2013/oct/21/presidents-brain-missing-mislaid-body-parts
No byline (December 8, 1881) “the trial of Charles Guiteau” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, p3
Online autopsy report accessed 2023: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/documents/official-bulletin-the-autopsy-the-body-president-garfield
C. M. Vorce, (1883) “The Life of W. B. Rezner,” The American Microscopical Journal (Boston), June, Vol. IV, No. 6.
Luehrs had filed patents for a screw swaging machine and a bolt cutter in the News-Herald Nov 23, 1893
“Notes,” (August 1882): American Monthly Microscopical Journal p. 159, W. B. Rezner, Elected President Cleveland Microscopical Society.
Cox, Jacob D. (1884) American Monthly Microscopical Journal Sept. p. 175 (Eulogy for Woodward)
Hamilton, Allan McLane (1916). Recollections of an Alienist, Personal and Professional. New York: George H. Doran Company. Frontispiece
Backmatter, The Microscope and Its Relationship To Medicine and Pharmacy, April, 1882 Ann Arbor VII. p140