'Not a step is heard ... The President sleeps'

AP News
Posted: Dec 05, 2009 1:51 PM

The residence floor of the White House was heavy with sleep and "quiet as death." Through open windows the listener could hear the splash of a fountain, a distant barking dog.

In an office on the second floor a restless pen noted the time, 3 a.m., and scratched out a letter: "Not a step is heard in the mansion. The president sleeps."

The date was Aug. 16, 1881. The sleeping president, James A. Garfield, wounded by an assassin as he walked through the capital's railroad station one morning in July, had little more than a month to live.

But on this warm August night hope remained.

The letter writer was Franklin Hathaway Trusdell, a reporter for the National Associated Press, one of a number of competing news agencies which then used the AP name. He told the story of his White House vigil to his wife, Genie.

Trusdell had just checked that Garfield still lived. He had walked, unquestioned and unchallenged, through the private quarters of the darkened mansion. At the president's open bedroom door he heard Garfield's heavy breathing.

He then quietly retraced his steps, roused the operator in the White House telegraph office and filed a bulletin informing the news agency's New York headquarters that the president's condition was unchanged.

In today's world of rigid security, a world haunted by the memories of the assassinations of four American presidents, Trusdell's solitary trek through the sleeping executive mansion would be unthinkable.

It was enough out of the ordinary, even for Trusdell, that he recorded the details on stationery engraved "Executive Mansion _ Washington."

The only people in the White House at that hour, Trusdell noted, were two watchmen at the main door, a sleeping government messenger, the president, his wife, two children, three doctors, a telegraph operator and himself. Most were asleep.

The mood at the White House, he wrote, had been one of "deep anxiety."

"All has been quiet, eager and anxious but still hopeful."

"At two o'clock I crept on tip toe through the door," he wrote. He silently passed through the room used by the president's secretary, and "all in the dark" walked down two steps into the Cabinet room, through the library behind the south portico, and into the room next to the president's chamber. It was occupied by two of his doctors. One, his coat and shoes off, lay asleep on a bed. The other dozed in a chair.

"The door of the sickroom was slightly open but not a sound but heavy breathing came out. ... It was evident, however, that no change had taken place and I sent a bulletin to that effect."

On Saturday morning, July 2, James A. Garfield, the 20th president of the United States, had driven to the railroad station, accompanied by members of his Cabinet and their wives. He planned to attend a college class reunion, then vacation in the mountains of Vermont.

As the president's party walked across the station they were approached by Charles Guiteau, a mentally disturbed applicant for a diplomatic post. From a distance of 5 feet Guiteau raised his arm and fired two shots from a .44 caliber revolver. One bullet grazed the president's right arm. The other struck him in the back.

"My God, what is this?" Garfield called out.

Among the witnesses was Robert Lincoln, Garfield's secretary of war. The younger Lincoln had been at the bedside of his father, President Abraham Lincoln, when he died of an assassin's bullet on April 15, 1865. And he was present at Buffalo, N.Y., on Sept. 6. 1901, when President William McKinley was fatally wounded. Nearly a century later, on Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas.

Modern medical hindsight places as much blame on bungling by the president's doctors as it does on Guiteau.

Garfield was returned to the White House where his doctors misjudged the course of the bullet and probed his wound with unwashed fingers and unsterilized probes.

Three weeks after Trusdell wrote his pre-dawn letter, the president's desperate doctors moved him to a seaside cottage at Elberon, N.J., in hopes that the ocean air would improve his condition. He died there on Sept. 19, 1881, of infection and internal bleeding.

Garfield, a major general of volunteers in the Civil War who became an influential House Republican leader, had been president for six months.

A jury rejected Guiteau's plea of insanity. He was hanged on June 30, 1882.

Garfield's death was not the outcome for which Franklin Trusdell had hoped.

"Will he better in the morning?" he wrote his wife. "Oh: I pray so much that he will."


Knutson reported on Congress, the White House and Washington's history for more than 30 years before his retirement in 2002. He is writing a book on the history of presidential vacations for the White House Historical Association.


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