Its subtitle, “A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President” says it all.
The Assassination of James A. Garfield
Shooting a President, his lingering death, unbelievably incompetent doctors and a deranged assassin makes for a fine and exciting story. Truth is frequently much better than fiction! Author Candice Millard is a skillful and careful historian-narrator, but not a riveting storyteller.
James Garfield (1831-81) was definitely a dark horse president, nominated and elected because few people outside the political sphere knew of him. It was also fifteen years post-Civil War, and the bloody shirt was still more attractive as a motivator than real political leadership.
Author Millard is a big fan of President Garfield, and with just cause: James Garfield was decent, articulate and intelligent man, with a good sense of humor, personal character and a disposition that makes him easy to like. Some historians past and present taint him/credit him with being a conniving and ambitious politician and manipulator, and perhaps there are a few grains of truth to that as well. But by and large, the “nice guy” image seems to be universal.
Despite this, only four months into a politically embattled presidency, he was shot by Charles J. Guiteau, a certifiably insane man with an equally insane agenda and axe to grind.
Garfield’s Lingering Death
By any account of modern medicine, Garfield should have survived, recovered and gone on to live a normal lifespan. Even in his own time, Civil War veterans with far worse wounds survived.
Ms. Millard has complete and justifiable scorn and contempt for the team of doctors who were summoned to treat the President, and in particular, D. Willard Bliss, the doctor-in-chief. His overweening ego and overbearing personality precluded any shred of doubt he might be wrong, and he was without a doubt, wrong about everything. He was especially wrong about the value of basic antisepsis, which had been pioneered years earlier by Dr. Joseph Lister. Lister’s methods, by this time, were practiced widely throughout in Europe, but still pooh-poohed in America.
President James Garfield did not die of his wounds. He was poisoned by the rampant infection that erupted throughout his body, induced by medical malpractice, as the doctors probed with unwashed hands and instruments to try to find an elusive bullet. Had they merely left him alone, he would have survived.
The Assassin’s Story
The story of Charles Guiteau is probably the most interesting tale-within-a-tale. Deranged minds usually make for compelling stories. Millard treats him with general sympathy. After all, insane is insane. She is much kinder to him than she is to the doctors. She is certainly kinder than how the American people treated the assassin in 1881-82. By the time Guiteau came to trial, the country would have likely voted for his lynching.
The Alexander Graham Bell Connection
Alexander Graham Bell played a very small part in the Garfield story. The inventor had been designing a metal-detecting device which he hoped might locate the bullet in those days before x-ray. That it did not work does not negate its basically correct premise. If Bell had not been the great telephone-fellow, the entire metal-device story would have been a footnote.
And it is in telling, and perhaps over-telling the Bell part of the story that the author bogs down. It is as if she had discovered some old diaries and notes, and felt compelled to use them. It does not make for good storytelling – at least not in this story. Millard spends an inordinate amount of time dedicated to Bell and his frantic attempts for a solution. In a book about Alexander Graham Bell, and intended for a different audience, it would certainly be important, and even interesting. Here, it detracts. The author is telling a murder-malpractice story. We do not need physics lessons.
The Politics of the Age
Granted: Civil Service Reform is about as tantalizing a subject as the oatmeal Garfield detested. Meanwhile the politics-of-people, vis-à-vis the Roscoe Conkling and the James Blaine background stories – men who hated each other with passion, were passed over lightly. The true growth of Chester Alan Arthur, the Vice President and President-to-be, is probably a more interesting story than the one about Bell. The delicious and heartwarming correspondence of an invalid woman who befriended him is a wonderful revelation. Here he was, a perceived political hack who no one would have ever considered as Vice President, let alone President, and yet his transformation as an independent thinker was nothing short of remarkable.
In an age where the general population is woefully ignorant about history in general, “people stories” – and the facts that compel interest and sympathy or antipathy – are far more valuable than the minutiae that historians seem to revel in.
Bottom line: Destiny of the Republic, well-researched and well-written to be sure, is a somewhat different aspect about the death of Garfield, but Ken Ackerman’s Dark Horse is a much better “telling.”
Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
Doubleday: ISBN 978-0-385-52626-5