Book 16; Continent: North America

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

  • 323 pages, Kindle edition (261 pages up to Acknowledgements and Notes)
  • Choose this compelling story of crime and madness in post-Civil War America even if history is a new genre for you

Quick: which four American presidents were assassinated while in office? If I had spot you Lincoln and Kennedy, would you have come up with Garfield and McKinley? Two weeks ago, I wouldn’t have been able to pull those names out of memory, but author Candice Millard has ensured that I will never forget James A. Garfield again.

Garfield reluctantly took office as president in 1881, a volatile time in America. He had actively not sought the nomination but was encouraged to run despite his personal misgivings about the job. The nation remained culturally divided, with Civil War veterans in Congress, in journalism, and in the farmhouse down the road. The railroad and the telegraph had changed how America thought about distance, but North and South remained as far apart as ever. Garfield had been a general for the Union Army and an ardent abolitionist, but his job now was to coax America’s two cultures to forgive and to work together. The Republican Party felt its best orator, Gen. James A. Garfield, was the right man to re-unify the United States.

His assassin, Charles Guiteau, drifted from scam to scam, boarding house to boarding house, packing only delusions and seldom paying for anything. Guiteau attempted to attach himself to notable members of the Republican Party. Shaking hands and exchanging a few words with a senator became an intimate friendship in Guiteau’s mind. In fact, he convinced himself that the political elite he had met briefly would champion his delusional bid for the French consulate under Secretary of State Blaine. In those days, Guiteau could access senators, cabinet members and even the president himself fairly easily for a moment or two. Additionally, he wrote letters to them using the hotel stationary freely available in the lobby with requests for the particular government post he wanted. Up to that time, presidents customarily dedicated some hours in their daily schedules to audience seekers. Guiteau became a regular, although Garfield’s private secretary soon began to recognize him and leave instructions for the security guard to turn him away. Disappointed that his would-be government allies seemed to offer him no support in his bid for the French consulate, his delusions eventually prompted extreme action.

Guiteau finally took his shot at President Garfield in a Washington, D.C., train station, where the president was among a crowd of onlookers (the Secret Service existed but its mission did not yet include protective detail for the nation’s chief executive). Guiteau only succeeded in wounding the president, however, only midway through Millard’s narrative. Although she does satisfy the reader’s curiosity about the man, this story is not a “true crime” story in the sense that the villain is its most interesting part. Quite the reverse: part of the tragedy of the story is how interchangeable Guiteau could have been with any other untreated delusional individual of his day. His outcome, too, proved predictable.

From here, Millard’s story includes two great names from science almost as symbols of missed opportunities to use the scientific tools of the day: Joseph Lister and Alexander Graham Bell. Their names have importance to this story in particular because the surgeon who took over Garfield’s treatment could not find the bullet. Lister did not personally treat President Garfield, and perhaps more is the pity. Lister’s ideas of antiseptic technique were catching on at long last in Europe, but he was still regarded as a quack in America during this time. Consequently, Garfield’s surgeons introduced bacteria on multiple occasions by using unwashed hands and surgical probes that could not be heat sterilized (save those fancy ivory handles!) to search the wound for the bullet. Even with the medical technology of the day, Lister’s antiseptic technique might have meant only a wound for the president, not death by sepsis (i.e., overwhelming infection). Contemporary Civil War veterans were proving that bullet wounds were survivable every day.

The surgeons kept digging into the wound because they couldn’t find the offending bullet—which, ironically, they feared would become infected if not removed (often true, but not necessarily fatal). Learning this news, Alexander Graham Bell left his other projects behind and fell into feverish work to complete a functional inductive balance, an instrument to find the missing bullet. Millard discusses Bell’s proof of concept and refinement of his design, making clear that the device did work. Alas for President Garfield, the surgeon who had taken over his case would not allow Bell to seek the bullet in the only place left it could be…until the president’s autopsy.

Millard’s outstanding work in her River of Doubt about Theodore Roosevelt’s post-presidential trip in the Amazon basin drew me to this book more than its subject matter, to be honest. Millard works diligently at the research, but she crafts an exciting and stunning story from newspaper articles, correspondence, legal documents and some other fairly dry and disjointed content. Consequently, when I downloaded the book, I knew I was in for a terrific narrative. What made this book exceptional for me, however, was the incredible scope—contemporary social impact, scientific and medical attention, not to mention sequelae of national security measures—of this essentially forgotten event in American history.

Photo credit: Cornell University Library / Foter

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One thought on “Book 16; Continent: North America

  1. Pingback: Four Books about the U.S. Presidency and Troubling Times | History Reading Challenge

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