As written by Shannon Mullen of the Asbury Park Press, September 18, 2006
One afternoon last month, a man and a woman walking the boardwalk in Long Branch were drawn to an imposing bronze statue near the Ocean Place Resort & Spa.
Surrounded by plaques commemorating the seven U.S. presidents who had vacationed in the city, the pair easily deduced the tall, bearded figure was a president — but which one?
The faded inscription on the base of the statue was little help.
"James . . . James . . . You know, these letters are horrible," Lois Goldberg grumbled.
Watching nearby, presidential history buff Feather Schwartz Foster offered up a clue.
"He's very little known," she said.
Goldberg, a resident of Cranford, needed more than that to go on.
"He was assassinated," Foster added.
Assassinated? Goldberg looked at the statue blankly, then stole a glance at the name on one of the closest plaques.
"Is this Benjamin Harrison?" she guessed.
"Benjamin Harrison, right," her companion, Danny Drucker, of Chestnut Ridge, N.Y., concurred, not so convincingly.
"No," Foster replied. "It does look a little like Benjamin Harrison. They did have a resemblance. It's James Garfield."
"No, really?" was Goldberg's response. Whether she was more surprised at the answer or at this unexpected encounter with a presidential historian was hard to tell. Nor was it apparent if she had ever before heard of a president named James A. Garfield, who is hardly a household name.
In any case, after Foster related a few details about his life — and the circumstances of his death in Long Branch, 125 years ago this month — Goldberg seemed to view the statue with new regard.
"Unfortunately," she tisked, "the lettering is very, very poor. They have not done this man justice."
Foster, an author who lives in Scotch Plains, hopes she has done the man justice.
She immersed herself in Garfield's obscure presidency for a historical novel she wrote titled "Garfield's Train," which was published in 2004 by Publish-
The title refers to the specially equipped train that brought the dying Garfield from Washington to Long Branch, where it was hoped the fresh air might give him respite from the swampy humidity in the malaria-infested capital, and perhaps help him rally from the blood infections that had run rampant since his shooting at the hands of a deranged office seeker two months earlier.
In the novel, an elderly woman reminisces with her granddaughter about her childhood summers in Long Branch in the 1870s, when the city was a premiere vacation destination for the rich and famous.
"If it was the Gilded Age, then Long Branch was the Gilded Strand," the grandmother muses.
While the grandmother is a fictional character, the events she describes are factual, Foster said.
The grandmother eventually reveals that she was best friends with the president's daughter Mollie, whom she got to know during the Garfields' vacations in Long Branch. Her account culminates with the heroic efforts by railroad workers and thousands of Long Branch citizens on Sept. 5, 1881, to construct a .6-mile- rail spur from the train station in the city's Elberon section to the seaside cottage where the pain-wracked president hoped to convalesce.
"When they finally arrived at the Franklyn Cottage there was a slight hill maybe twenty feet from the door," the grandmother recalls. "The engine couldn't pull the train over that hump, and rather than carry the President the extra distance, about a hundred burly men pulled and pushed the train by dint of their own force — right up to the door."
The effort lifted the nation's sagging spirits, but only briefly. Two weeks later, on Sept. 19, 1881, Garfield complained of sudden heart pain and died. He was only 49 years old and had served as president for just 200 days — 80 of which he spent bed-ridden, in agonizing pain.
Garfield's ordeal was largely caused by the ham-handed ministrations of his team of doctors, whom Foster refers to as the "Keystone Docs." In a futile and unnecessary search for the bullet, which had benignly lodged near his abdomen, they poked and prodded the unanesthetized president with their unwashed hands and unsterilized instruments for weeks on end.
Today, their misguided care is viewed as a clear case of medical malpractice, but Foster says the treatment reflected the crude state of medical science at the time. Garfield's doctors had no X-ray machines that could help them locate the bullet, no effective anesthesia, no grasp of how germs spread, and no antibiotics with which to treat the president, once infection set in.
"They were still debating the benefits of washing your hands," Foster said. "That he lasted that long is a marvel."
Foster is a retired public relations professional who has been a presidential history buff for decades, amassing a private collection of some 1,000 volumes.
"Garfield's Train" is her second published book. Her first was a fact-based fictional memoir of the first ladies, from Martha Washington to Mamie Eisenhower. After that, Foster wanted to write about one of the U.S. presidents with ties to New Jersey. Her reason was a pragmatic one: She didn't want to have travel far to do her research.
There were three candidates to choose from. Foster ruled out Grover Cleveland, who was born in Caldwell but moved to upstate New York when he was 5, because she considered him to be "deadly dull." She skipped over Woodrow Wilson, who was governor of New Jersey before he became president, because, she said, "he deserves a better historian than me."
That left Garfield, a native Ohioan whose premature death at the Jersey Shore capped one of the more bizarre episodes of American presidential history. She opted for a novelized approach, she said, because the banal political discourse of the day and Garfield's brief tenure left her little interesting material to work with.
"You can't make anything glamorous out of civil service reform; you just can't," Foster said, referring to the major issue at the time of Garfield's presidency. Her next book is about presidential marriages.
To order "Garfield's Train," which is priced at $19.95, visit the Web site of PublishAmerica, www.publishamerica.com, or Foster's Web site, www.featherfoster.com.