A Dozen Facts about the 20th President


President James A. Garfield (1831-1881)
President James A. Garfield (1831-1881)

While President James Garfield tends to be little more than a footnote in the history of the US presidency because of the short time that he served, he was a truly remarkable man and deserves to be better remembered. Following are a few facts about the 20th President of the United States:

  • Garfield’s administration was the second shortest in history — only the 31-day term of President William Henry Harrison was shorter. Just 121 days into his presidency, Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau. He lingered until September 1, 1881, having been President for only 200 days.
  • Garfield was the first left-handed President. He was also the first to be ambidextrous. If asked a question in English, he could simultaneously write the answer in Greek with one hand and Latin with the other.
  • He was the last President to be born in a log cabin.
  • Garfield’s mother, Eliza Ballou Garfield, was the first mother of a President to attend her son’s inauguration.
  • Twice in US history have there been three presidents in one year. The first time was 1841, with Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, and John Tyler. The second time was 1881, with Rutherford B. Hayes, James Garfield, and Chester Arthur.
  • Garfield was an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
  • He was the first presidential candidate to use German during the campaign.
  • While Garfield was serving in the US House of Representatives, he came up with an original proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, which was published in a scholarly journal in 1876.
  • When Garfield was 18 months old, his father died, leaving Eliza Garfield to raise her four children by herself. He is probably the poorest man to ever become President. Commenting on his poverty, Garfield said, “To some men the fact they came up from poverty is a matter of pride I lament it sorely. Cold-hearted men frowned upon me and I was made the ridicule and sport of boys that had fathers, and enjoyed the luxuries of life.”
  • The wounds Garfield sustained when he was shot by Guiteau were not fatal. The bullet, lodged in his back, did not hit any major organs, and his body developed a protective cyst around it. What killed Garfield was infection caused by his physicians who probed for the bullet with unsanitized instruments and unwashed fingers.
  • Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone, invented a metal detector for the purpose of locating the bullet that remained in the President’s body. The instrument was unable to locate the bullet. Later it was determined the device was working perfectly, but no one remembered that the President’s mattress contained metal springs (this was a fairly-recent innovation). The metal detector’s accuracy was thrown off by the presence of the metal springs.
  • Garfield’s assassin, Charles Guiteau, was an attorney, who argued only one case in court. He did such a horrible job of defending his client that the jury reached a verdict of guilty without ever leaving the jury box.
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