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Arts & Culture

AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Murder Of A President

President Garfield (Shuler Hensley) lies in bed surrounded by (left to right, standing): Dr. Bliss (James Eckhouse), Dr. Silas Boynton (Daniel Pearce), Lucretia Garfield (Kathryn Erbe), and Alexander Graham Bell (Jay Deyonker).
Courtesy of WGBH Educational Foundation
President Garfield (Shuler Hensley) lies in bed surrounded by (left to right, standing): Dr. Bliss (James Eckhouse), Dr. Silas Boynton (Daniel Pearce), Lucretia Garfield (Kathryn Erbe), and Alexander Graham Bell (Jay Deyonker).

Airs Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016 at 9 p.m. on KPBS TV

Based on Candice Millard’s best-seller "Destiny of the Republic," "Murder Of A President" is the story of James A. Garfield, one of the most extraordinary men ever elected president, his shooting by a deluded madman named Charles Guiteau, and its bizarre and tragic aftermath. Just four months after Garfield took office, Guiteau fired two bullets at the president in a Washington, D.C. train station. Amazingly, Garfield survived, and for the next 79 days, the nation held its breath while his medical team and others—including inventor Alexander Graham Bell—struggled in vain to keep him alive.

James Garfield
Courtesy of National Archives
James Garfield
Lucretia Rudolph Garfield, circa 1870-1878.
Courtesy of Hiram College Archives
Lucretia Rudolph Garfield, circa 1870-1878.
Illustration from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Sept. 3, 1881. Dr. Bliss regularly issued medical bulletins about the president’s condition, which were posted at telegraph offices and on wooden billboards outside newspaper buildings.
Courtesy of WGBH (Public Domain)
Illustration from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, Sept. 3, 1881. Dr. Bliss regularly issued medical bulletins about the president’s condition, which were posted at telegraph offices and on wooden billboards outside newspaper buildings.

Garfield's America 1860-1880

In the last half of the 19th century, America underwent a series of changes. Amidst all of them, James Garfield was elected president, bringing hope to Americans of all backgrounds across the nation. View a photo gallery

Featuring Tony Award-winner Shuler Hensley as Garfield, Kathryn Erbe (LAW & ORDER: CRIMINAL INTENT) as his beloved wife Lucretia, and Will Janowitz (THE SOPRANOS, BOARDWALK EMPIRE) as the assassin, the sweeping and dramatic story of Garfield’s life combines science and medicine, party politics and love. Executive produced by Mark Samels, directed by Rob Rapley, and part of the Peabody Award-winning AMERICAN EXPERIENCE series, THE PRESIDENTS, "Murder Of A President" premieres on Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016 on PBS.

On the morning of July 2, 1881, as Garfield entered the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station, Charles Guiteau shot him twice. The first bullet sliced through the president’s right arm; the second ripped into his back. Guiteau was immediately arrested.

Just five minutes after the shooting, the first doctor reached the station, and within the hour, he would be joined by nine more physicians. As Garfield fought for his life, his medical team—led by the questionable Dr. Doctor Bliss—administered archaic and unsanitary measures, rejecting the method of antisepsis that had been recently discovered by the British surgeon Joseph Lister. Garfield was transported back to the White House and Bliss assumed control, refusing assistance or opinions from other doctors.

As Garfield’s life hung in the balance, the nation remained riveted to news reports, and thousands of letters of support poured in for the ailing president. Even Alexander Graham Bell, the recent inventor of the telephone, worked around the clock to invent the first metal detector, a device capable of finding the bullet.

But Bliss interfered with the metal detector tests, fearing they would reveal that the bullet was lodged in a place other than where he had indicated. Throughout, Lucretia remained at her husband’s side, advocating on his behalf. She brought in another doctor, Garfield’s cousin, but he too was unable to convince Bliss to change course.

Weakened by pain and riddled with infection, Garfield remained stoic and conscious until the end. On Sept. 5, he asked to be moved to the seashore in Elberon, New Jersey, where train track was laid directly to the door of his borrowed summer home. With Lucretia and his family by his side, Garfield died on Sept. 19, 1881.

“The 1880s represent a crucial moment in American history. Garfield’s presidency promised to lead the nation into a new and brighter direction. He grew up in terrible poverty and rose to the Presidency on the sheer force of his personality and intellect and truly believed all Americans should have the same opportunity to succeed,” says AMERICAN EXPERIENCE Executive Producer Mark Samels.

“Garfield had come to represent that vision for which the Union had fought,” says historian Heather Cox Richardson. “Garfield believed that everybody should have equality of opportunity and that the government should help them get that. With the assassination of Garfield, that dream, the dream for which the Union had fought, that vision died.”

An Apograph Productions Inc. film for AMERICAN EXPERIENCE

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AMERICAN EXPERIENCE: Murder Of A President: Trailer

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