Episodes 10: Guns, Germs, & Garfield

Jenn tells us about the terrible death of President Garfield, then Shea teaches the patrons how to kidnap perpetual energy!

Logo for Episode 10: Guns, Germs, & Garfield
Logo for Episode 10: Guns, Germs, & Garfield featuring Black Lives Matter.

Welcome to Interesting If True, the show where we celebrate our Independence with gross medical procedures and murder.

I’m your host this week, Jenn, and with me are (introduce each host and their blurb)

I’m Shea, and this week I learned that you pee on a jellyfish sting, not a jelly stain… Also, I learned I’m not allowed at Perkins anymore.

I’m Aaron, and this week I learned that boiling water is a great way to kill any bacteria in it… and make sure that the millions of tiny corpses you’re drinking are properly cooked.

I’m Steve, and today I saw something on Reddit that bears repeating by @francismmaxwell:

Let’s paint a picture. Say you’re Jewish, walking in Germany & see a statue of Hitler. You’re upset & want it torn down. Only for someone to say ‘how dare you? My ancestor was a nazi. This is my heritage’ Crazy right? Well, this is a reality for black people every day in America…

SCIENCE! in History-ree-ree-ree…

As I briefly mentioned earlier, I spent most of the weekend of the 4th camping with family on a lake. Now, camping with a bunch of dogs, children and no running water will definitely give a personal appreciation of the little things after a while. Little things like hand washing and antiseptics. (After watching my oldest nephew drag up a long-dead fish to camp and all the other kids played with it for a bit, never after appearing to wash their hands, I was ready for a bleach bath.)

So today I have decided on a tale that involves history, science, health, and (since it was just July 4th) the assassination of a US President.

To start off our story, let me introduce you to the Right Honourable Lord Joseph Lister, British surgeon, scientist, and lifelong fan of serious mutton-chops.

Born in Essex 1827, he was a brilliant and fastidious man. He was also drawn to medicine, surgery in particular, from an early age. Luckily for him, he had been born a white man, so that is what he did. In fact, he had quite an impressive career pretty much from the beginning. In 1846, he was present for the first surgery performed under anesthesia at 19. By the time he was 25, he had become a fellow at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

His bright career trajectory (and surely his magnificent chops) led him to be suggested for employment to James Syme, Professor of Clinical Surgery in Edinburgh. The men hit it off so well that Lister quickly moved up the ranks from assistant to house surgeon to marrying Syme’s eldest daughter, Agnes. (Not to disparage the marriage; apparently they were very close and loving. She was bright and learned in her own right and he was happy to have her join him in his work as a lifelong lab partner… since being a woman that was the best she could hope for.)

By 1860 Lister had moved to Glasgow and had begun reading about Pasteur’s work on microorganisms. Now the idea of bacteria or at least teeny-tiny things that affected things in the real world like fermenting beer or causing food to rot was pretty much established in the scientific community by this time. Lister, however, took this idea to a new level. (Apparently it was acceptable at the time for microbes to affect inanimate objects, but there was a lot of pushback to the idea that could affect people. I’m assuming it was partly the ‘we’re made in God’s image’ thing that has made evolution so hard to swallow.)

Anyway, working as a surgeon, Lister wondered if that was potentially what was causing wounds to become infected. At this point in time, no one knew exactly what caused infections and they were RAMPANT. (Literally, buckets were used to catch pus in hospital settings.) It was speculated the wounds themselves caused sepsis, gangrene, and the assorted other types of infections and not, say, the total lack of understanding of cleanliness. So doctors and surgeons never washed their hands or equipment or changed from their bloody clothes. In fact, being covered in gore was were considered a status symbol and the mark of a “true surgeon.”

Luckily for humanity, in addition to being a brilliant scientist doctor, Lister was also apparently at least a little squeamish. He said “thank you, no” to the idea of a career filled with pus buckets and bloody everything and set about trying to find a preventative cure.

Directly from britannica.com: “Upon learning that carbolic acid was used as a disinfectant in the sewers to kill parasites, Lister wondered if these compounds might be safe to disinfect the skin. He began to use carbolic acid to clean his hands, instruments, and bandages before, during, and after surgery. In 1869, Lister invented a new technique by filling a pump sprayer with carbolic acid to be used in the operating room.”

He basically carbolic acid-ed everything, all the time. And guess what? It WORKED. In the hospital he oversaw, deaths from surgical infections dropped from about half of all patients to around 15%. He soon began touring hospitals in Scotland and England demonstrating his techniques and published his findings in 1867. By the mid-1870s many countries in Europe had embraced the technique and surgery became something that was actually helpful and survivable.

A couple of quick fun side notes about Lister: this sterilization process also led to him proving sterilized equipment could be left in the body.“Using sterilized silver wire, he treated orthopedic injuries. Lister also adopted the usage of sterilized catgut for internal sutures.” Also, the “mouthwash that kills germs that cause bad breath”? Yep, Listerine was named after Sir Joseph.

Ok, moving away from Britain, Lister, and scientific progress, let’s travel across the sea and a bit of time to the United States. Most specifically, July 2, 1881, in a Baltimore train station. Nervously milling about in this station was a mentally ill unemployed lawyer who was on a mission of revenge. His name was Charles Guiteau and apparently the voices in his head (who were sometimes God) had convinced him that his destiny was to work for the US government and when he was denied, he took the next logical step: assassinate the president.

Since it was 1881, of course, this was the recently sworn-in James A. Garfield, a man who in no way resembled a lazy, fat orange cat or our current lazy, fat orange president. In fact, he sounded like a helluva guy. He had been a union general during the Civil War and was vehemently opposed to slavery. He was said to be charming, eloquent, and energetic and a devoted family man. Also, fun fact, the only US president to be the first person to solve a math theorem. Trump, he was not.

So Garfield was in the train station on his way to a beach vacation on the Atlantic seaboard with his family. It should also be noted there was no Secret Service. In fact, he was traveling with no security at all and was basically just strolling the platform with his family.

Well, of course, as he was preparing to board, crazy lawyer Guiteau breaks through the crowd, firing at Garfield. The first bullet harmlessly grazed his arm, but unfortunately, the second passed the first lumbar vertebra of his spine and lodged in his abdomen. He hit the ground, mostly paralyzed but fully conscious and in great pain.

I want to interject that the following information was mainly taken from the book James A. Garfield: The American Presidents Series: The 20th President by Ira Rutkow.

Back to the situation at hand: Guiteau was apprehended at the scene and that’s enough about him for now, back to Garfield. Now of course the shooting of the president brings all the doctors to the yard, but these docs were definitely NOT better than yours.

The head of Garfield’s medical team was quickly determined to be a former military surgeon, Doctor Willard Bliss. Now in a hilariously unique example of a self-fulfilling prophecy, the name I just rattled off did NOT include his title. What now? Yes, his actual name is Doctor Willard Bliss, so he is technically Dr. Doctor.

Anyway, for a man with such a serendipitous name and occupation, he apparently had absolutely no sense of humor and was a rigid, narrow-minded old man.

And so begins a really, REALLY shitty few months for poor President Garfield. Focused on finding and removing the bullet, Bliss and the other doctors stuck their unwashed fingers in the wound (which, as we have discussed, is a terrible idea) and literally dug around over the course of a few weeks, all for naught and without applying the numbing power of ether anesthetic. The main reason behind the probing was to remove the bullet, as it was thought that leaving buckshot in a person’s body led to problems ranging from “morbid poisoning” to nerve and organ damage.

Turns out the bullet was quite the slippery escape artist, and the dirty-finger probing and surgical attempts to locate it turned the three-inch deep wound into a 20-inch-long incision, beginning at his ribs and extending to his groin. It soon became a super-infected, pus-ridden, gash of human flesh. And since Dr. Doctor and his team of Sweeney Todds weren’t making much headway, the press was soon putting out a call throughout the country for medical professionals, and just anyone really, to join in on the goddamn awful treatment of this poor man.

One group of naval engineers, responding to the reports of the President’s terribly high fever, attempted to make the first air conditioner. It worked by using a fan over blocks of ice, which makes sense and did kinda cool the room, but unsurprisingly did absolutely nothing for a raging fever.

One article happened to land in front of a young inventor, one Alexander Graham Bell. He has invented the telephone by this point, but was so wrapped up in litigation with other people claiming to have also invented said phone, so he had yet to make a real name for himself.

Anyway, Bell reaches out to Dr. Doctor Bliss with an offer of assistance, which surprisingly Bliss accepted. To help with locating the bullet, Bell created a very early version of the metal detector, which he called an ‘induction balance’. It was a block of wood with coils/chords which had an electrical current running between them. If the current encountered metal, it would make a noise as the connection was interrupted.

Being a good scientist, he ran several experiments, mainly by finding civil war veterans with shrapnel or hiding bullets in chunks of butcher meat. When he feels confident the machine is ready he heads to the White House to find that damn bullet. Unfortunately, with an almost theatrical showing of stagefright, the metal detector fritzed and hummed and basically did nothing that it was supposed to do when locating shards of metal embedded in the flesh. Annoyed, Dr. Doctor Bliss kicked the dejected young inventor out and was surely wrist-deep in poor Garfield by lunchtime.

In a ridiculous later-discovered twist, Graham Bell was eventually exonerated. Turns out Garfield was slowly dying on one of the very few, brand new METAL spring mattresses in the entire country.

Not surprisingly, news of the terribly wounded and treated president reached Europe. Bringing our stories together, guess who reached out with some suggestions to Garfield’s medical team? That’s right, hero surgeon, Sir Joseph Lister. As a matter of fact, Lister had toured America about 5 years before Garfield was shot, giving lectures and hospital demonstrations. Was he greeted with thankful praise and adulation? Nope. He was booed, shouted at, laughed at, and just generally derided by the American medical elite. One doctor said, “He has a grasshopper in his head”, which I’m sure was devastatingly clever at the time. Some younger doctors had embraced the ideas, but established older medical regimes, including those treating Garfield, found the idea of ‘tiny lifeforms’ causing deadly infections preposterous. Sadly, Lister’s offer for help was ignored, though honestly by this point his help was probably no longer viable.

Garfield’s ordeal lasted an excruciating 80 days. From pbs.org: “Garfield wasted away from a plump 210 pounds to a bony 130 pounds. On September 6, a special train transported him to his seashore cottage at Long Branch, New Jersey. The president’s final breaths were inspired on the evening of September 19. Clutching his chest and wailing, “This pain, this pain,” he died. Without the aid of a stethoscope, Dr. Doctor W. Bliss raised his head from the president’s chest at 10:35 pm and announced to Mrs. Garfield and the medical retinue, “It is over.” The assigned causes of death include a fatal heart attack, the rupture of the splenic artery, which resulted in a massive hemorrhage, and, more broadly, septic blood poisoning.”

I’m giving the last word of the story, surprisingly, to Charles Guiteau. He pled not guilty by reason of insanity, but was found guilty anyway, and sentenced to death. When interviewed on death row, he had this to say, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”

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Perpetual Stupidity


The Industrial Revolution paved the way for many wondrous things. It ignited the creativity of the world and progressed us into the modern age. But with new technology and ideas, we inevitably get hoaxes and charlatans. This is one such story…

On a bright sunny day in 1812, Charles Redheffer showed up in Philadelphia with a perpetual motion machine, empty pockets, and a dream. He immediately set up and started charging admission. The public was enthralled and with physics still being a new field we didn’t yet have physical laws to deny the perpetual motion, but common sense did run against it. Redheffer’s machine drew huge crowds and started making him pretty popular in town. After a few false claims, he offered a huge bet that no one could debunk the machine. I’m sure you can see where this is going.

Looking to cash in on his current popularity and riding high Redheffer wrote to the state of Pennsylvania looking for funds to develop his machine. An inspector shortly arrived to see the machine but was met with a barred viewing window behind which was the mysterious machine, a gravity-driven pendulum affair. The inspector couldn’t discern much about the device but he thought it unusual that the driveshaft was worn on the wrong side looking like the machine didn’t drive the shaft.

Our eagle-eyed inspector took to his workshop to see if he could replicate the device using hidden clockwork to drive it. Next, he set up a showing in town and made sure to invite Redheffer. Redheffer took the bait and was quick to corner the inspector and offered him great sums of money for the secret.

And so Redheffer was unmasked in Philadelphia. He had to take his scam to New York. This time Robert Fulton (inventor of a popular steamship) went to see it. Fulton noticed the motion wasn’t steady — the speed kept varying. Redheffer surely didn’t use hidden clockwork, but Fulton realized what was driving it.


I’m Jenn, and I’d like to thank all our listeners, supporters, and my co-hosts.

Find out more about the show, social links, and contact information at InterestingIfTrue.com.

Music for this episode, Retro, was created by Wayne Jones and was used with permission.

The opinions, views, and nonsense expressed in this show are those of the hosts only and do not represent any other people, organizations, or lifeforms. All rights reserved, Interesting If True 2020.

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