Below are four unique situations involving six United States presidents that lent themselves to irony. United States presidents are an interesting group, as they become known across America through their political campaigns, speeches, and elections. The President is viewed not only as the leader of the United States but also as a larger-than-life character who can withstand the rigors of daily life and maintain his composure in all types of situations, all while handling a busy work schedule. They often dictate their situations to reflect their best interests or the best interests of their country. In the ironies that follow, you will see that over these situations, the United States presidents had little control; coincidence and irony were the main characters.
1. James Garfield, the Newly Invented Metal Detector, & an Assassin’s Bullet
President James Garfield was shot twice in an assassination attempt in July 1881. The first bullet grazed his arm, and the second passed through his spine and lodged in his abdomen. Many doctors rushed to Garfield’s side, including an expert in gunshot wounds aptly named Doctor Willard Bliss; humorously, Doctor was his first name. The focus of the doctors was to find and remove the bullet. Thus, they began to stick their unwashed fingers into the wound and probe around–all without first applying anesthesia. This type of care was considered common medical practice at the time and obviously caused more harm than good in the case of President Garfield.
As the summer went on, Garfield remained bedridden at the White House and suffered from fever, chills, and increasing confusion. Doctors were still arguing about the extent of damage caused by the bullet, which they could not find. In fact, Dr. Bliss even asked Alexander Graham Bell to use his newly invented metal detector to find the bullet. But other doctors involved with the President’s care insisted it could not be used on a human, let alone any of the United States presidents.
The doctors continued to probe the president and performed many minor surgical attempts to widen the initial incision from a 3-inch wound to an extraordinary 20-inch-long incision that began at his ribcage and ran all the way down to his groin. The excessiveness of these attempts ended up creating a superinfected, pus-filled gash. Sepsis, a deadly infection at the time, began to set into his body and shut down his organs.
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Recognizing the end was near, the President’s wife insisted on him spending his last days at the New Jersey seashore, where he could be in a more peaceful and tranquil setting. On September 19, 1881, President James Garfield died in the presence of Dr. Doctor W. Bliss and Mrs. Garfield. His cause of death was ruled as a fatal heart attack, rupture of the splenic artery, and septic blood poisoning. Had the doctors been more aware of germs and allowed the new metal detection invention to be used on the President, the outcome could have been much different.
2. William McKinley & the X-Ray Machine at the Pan-American Exposition
President William McKinley attended the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901. It was regarded as a world event and people traveled by train from all over the US to visit the City of Buffalo and experience all the new light technology that had recently been discovered. On display were thousands of lights as well as other new inventions. One of those new creations was the very first x-ray machine.
When anarchist Leon Czolgosz shot McKinley, he took two bullets to the abdomen at point-blank range. The first bullet ricocheted off a coat button and lodged in his jacket fibers. The other bullet caused a serious wound in his stomach. Although the bullet wound was not lethal, McKinley died eight days later due to infection.
McKinley’s doctors, Herman Mynter and Matthew Mann, chose to perform immediate surgery, of which neither was qualified nor had any prior experience in abdominal wounds. The hospital was a makeshift room set up for more minor injuries and ailments during the exposition. It was not set up for surgery, and the basic tools needed to perform a successful surgery were unavailable.
Mann proceeded to probe the wound to find the bullet, instead finding damage to the stomach as well as an entry and exit wound. He stitched up both holes in the stomach and ceased looking for the bullet, believing it had been lodged in the back muscles and would not do any further harm. Black silk thread was used to stitch the wound without drainage and was then covered by a bandage.
The ironic part of the situation is that the x-ray machine on display at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition showcasing light and electricity could have been used to determine precisely where the bullet had stopped and assisted with removal efforts. According to Dr. Mann, its use “might have disturbed the patient and done little good.”
And yet a second, slightly different x-ray machine, sent from New Jersey by Thomas Edison after word of the president being shot had spread, was not used either, though reports vary as to why it was not used on the President.
3. United States Presidents Adams, Jefferson, & Monroe All Died on the Fourth of July
John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe are all well-known founders of the United States. These pioneering United States presidents participated in the American Revolution as political liaisons to the unhappy colonists living in North America.
Most recognize Adams as the second US president, a chippy and gruff man who was highly opinionated and difficult to get along with. Prior to and even during the Revolutionary War, Adams performed lawyerly duties and was a delegate to both Continental Congresses. He held many diplomatic roles and was elected vice president under George Washington.
Jefferson is known as one of the United States’ founding fathers after writing the majority of the Declaration of Independence, effectively separating the colonies in North America from British rule. He served as the third President of the United States and was an eloquent writer but a terrible public speaker. And although he served as Adams’s vice president, they were often considered opponents. Jefferson was a silent leader, using his pen to gain political favor, while Adams was boisterous and very outspoken. The two could not have been more opposite.
James Madison, the fourth US President, was also one of the authors of the Federalist Papers and was a significant contributor to the newly created US Constitution. In fact, later in his life, Madison was referred to as the “Father of the Constitution,” to which he protested it was not the work of one but many. He served as Jefferson’s Secretary of State before being elected president and faced an uphill climb during his presidency. He was managing a feud between the newly created US, Britain, and France, eventually asking congress to declare war against Britain, beginning the War of 1812.
The US was still recovering from its revolution against Britain and was unprepared for another war. Subsequently, the British entered Washington DC and set fire to the White House and the Capitol Building. Yet, the War of 1812 was deemed a success by Americans due to a few naval and military victories. Madison left office with a positive reputation.
Adams and Jefferson, although constantly feuding, had an unspoken mutual respect, which is why it is so ironic that they both died on July 4th, 1826. In fact, Adams is said to have whispered “Thomas Jefferson survives” as his last dying words. He was unaware that Jefferson had died a few hours earlier at his Monticello estate. Madison died on July 4th, just five years later, in 1831. It is an unusual and improbable coincidence that three of America’s founding fathers all died on July 4th, which is celebrated as the National Day of Freedom.
4. Ronald Reagan, an Assassination Attempt, & a Speech in Berlin
Only months into his first term as President, Ronald Reagan was shot in an assassination attempt in Washington, DC in March 1981. Several shots were fired at the president, one of which ricocheted off the limousine he was standing near and struck him under his left armpit. The shots also critically wounded Reagan’s Press Secretary James Brady, Secret Service Agent Timothy McCarthy, and policeman Thomas Delahanty.
The President’s wounds were not immediately noticed until he began coughing up blood. He was rushed to George Washington University Hospital, where he was placed in the intensive care unit. It turns out the bullet had struck his lung, which had then collapsed, and nearly missed his heart. And yet, Reagan managed to walk into the hospital under his own power. He was prepped for surgery, and during that time, he managed to joke with his wife Nancy, saying, “Honey, I forgot to duck.”
Surgery was performed, and Reagan was placed in the ICU to heal. He spent approximately two weeks in the hospital before returning to the White House and easing back into his full presidential schedule.
Six years later, on an overseas trip to West Berlin, Reagan gave a well-known speech near the Brandenburg Gate, begging their leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “open this gate!” and “tear down this wall.” Much of Eastern Germany was still under communist rule and unable to access the freedoms associated with the Western side of the Berlin Wall. During this famous speech, a balloon popped loudly in the crowd, sounding like a gunshot. Reagan didn’t miss a beat and responded, “Missed me,” which brought cheers and applause from the audience.
In Reagan’s instance, the irony was his ability to look past the pain of his assassination attempt and make a witty joke about it during an extremely important and serious speech. It was truly a moment of situational irony as well as class and perseverance in the face of evil.
- Markel, D. (2016). The dirty, painful death of President James A. Garfield. PBS NewsHour. Retrieved 3 August 2022, from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/dirty-painful-death-president-james-garfield.
- Schulman, M. (2020). President McKinley Assassinated. Historycentral.com. Retrieved 3 August 2022, from https://www.historycentral.com/WStage/McKinleyAssassinated.html.
- Three Presidents Die on July 4th: Just a Coincidence? | The National Constitution Center. Constitutioncenter.org. (2022). Retrieved 3 August 2022, from https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/blog/three-presidents-die-on-july-4th-just-a-coincidence.
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- Remarks on East-West Relations at the Brandenburg Gate in West Berlin. Reaganfoundation.org. (2022). Retrieved 10 August 2022, from https://www.reaganfoundation.org/ronald-reagan/reagan-quotes-speeches/remarks-on-east-west-relations-at-the-brandenburg-gate-in-west-berlin/.