(Here is another one of my "so late I don't remember all the details" write ups. I apologize in advance to the author.)
It suddenly occurs to me that I've read more about James Garfield than would be expected for such a minor figure on the American stage. He was the central figure in Dark Horse, Kenneth Ackerman's story of his unlikely election, and was an important player in Adam Goodheart's 1861: The Civil War Awakening. Two books, yet the 20th president served six months in office, and was really only active for three months. He was shot on July 2nd, 1881, but lingered in a debilitated state until he died on September 19th.
It is that period of lingering that is the main focus of Candice Millard's excellent The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President. Millard, a former science writer for National Geographic zeroes in on the medical debacle that led to Garfield's death; as his would-be assassin Charles Guiteau protested at his murder trial, "General Garfield died of malpractice." (That didn't help Guiteau, who was found guilty and executed.)
She begins, of course, with a mini-biography of Garfield--we'll never know if he would have been a good president, but he certainly was a very good man. He was born in a log cabin (the last president to be able to claim that), grew up in abject poverty, yet worked his way through school, rising from a janitor at the Western Reserve Eclectic College (now Hiram College) to an assistant professor; eventually he became president. He also graduated from Williams College.
He served with distinction in the Civil War and then, despite being a quiet, scholarly man who would have been just as happy staying in Ohio writing math treatises and translating ancient Greek, drifted into politics. As noted above, the circumstances that led to his election to the presidency are worthy of their own book; let's just say that at the bitter 1880 Republican convention, he became the least divisive figure left standing--not to mention one regarded as a rare, honest decent man in party politics.
Guiteau, meanwhile, had spent most of his life as a delusional drifter who failed at everything, though being delusional, was unaware of his shortcomings. Millard ferrets out the dismal circumstances of Guiteau's life as he kept searching for some way to fulfill the grand destiny he was sure he deserved. His stint at a free love utopian religious colony didn't go well; women there rapidly grew wary of him, referring to him as "Charles Gitout." He tried to make a living as an independent evangelist, but failed at that. He tried to make a career as a lawyer, but failed there, too. The only thing he succeeded at was scaring his siblings enough that they kept lending him money to keep him away from them. Eventually he became obsessed with politics, and decided that he deserved a political appointment. Guiteau wrote a speech supporting one potential Republican presidential candidate, but when Garfield won the nomination, pretty much just pencilled in Garfield's name, and then spent the election season trying to get party leaders to look at it.
After Garfield's election, Guiteau decided that his speech had been responsbile for the win. He spent most of Garfield's brief presidency hanging out at the White House (which you could pretty easily do in those days) pressing for the political appointment he believed he deserved for his aid in the election. Eventually he decided that Garfield was not loyal to the party and must be removed. Guiteau had no experience with guns, but bought one and practiced shooting. He stalked the president, scoped out the Washington jail where he believed he would be sent, decided it looked like a fine place, and shot Garfield at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station. He barely tried to escape--actually he feared the mob at the train station more than the police, and quickly sought there protection. He didn't fear going to jail; Guiteau felt that the Republican party would be so thankful that they would find a way to have him acquitted. He believed he had saved the US from Garfield.
This is where Millard's main story begins. In an era where American doctors literally laughed at Joseph Lister's ideas about sanitation in medicine, and doctors thought blood and pus-stains on their surgical gowns and hands were signs of an experienced tough man, Garfield stood little chance. At the train station he was manhandled and exposed to all the infectious material you'd expect to find in a train station. Things got worse at the White House, when Robert Todd Lincoln (yes, that kind of Lincoln) summoned Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss.
His first name was indeed Doctor, and it's too bad he decided to follow through the destiny of that name. He was an arrogant know-it all, who would rather be right and let a patient die than save a life. He also wanted to make sure he took credit for everything. He pushed anyone with any kind of expertise away from the Garfield sickroom (which, in pestilence filled, hot Washington, DC, was its own kind of disaster), including a doctor the Garfield family requested, and especially any doctor who might offer a contrasting opinion to his own. Bliss and his assistants repeatedly used their uncovered, unwashed fingers to probe the spot where the bullet entered Garfield's body, but didn't find the bullet, which they were sure had to be removed. In reality, it would have been fine to leave it where it was rather than keep pushing into the open infected wound. Additionally, there was a good reason why they couldn't find the bullet, no matter how hard they tried--Bliss was searching on the wrong side of Garfield's body, and wouldn't let anyone even suggest that they try looking elsewhere. Alexander Graham Bell designied a metal detector that he believed would find the bullet, but when he brought it to the White House, Bliss would only let him try it on the side where he believed the bullet could be found. The machine did react to something, but Bell later realized it had just detected the metal from a bedspring. He wanted to try again on the other side of Garfield's body, but Bliss would not let him.
Millard's descriptions of Garfield's final days are vivid and precise. I expected no less after reading River of Doubt, her story of Theodore Roosevelt's disastrous journey down the Amazon. There she made the jungle come to menacing life; here she makes Garfield's agonies suffocating and stomach-turning. I came away from this book feeling no one should have been made to suffer as Garfield did for three months.
Another success of this book is Millard's portrait of Chester A. Arthur, Garfield's reluctant vice-president and even more reluctant president. He's an incredibly minor figure in American history, but Millard proves once again that everywhere in history there lurks fantastic and unexpected stories. I came away from the book wishing I could find more material about Arthur's life (and I'm not specifically saying what part, just in case I decide to do something with it myself; where there is not enough info, there is always fiction...).
My only quibble with this book, and it is a tiny one, is that I felt initially that Millard had planned to make this a "three disparate figures collide" type of history, with the trio being Garfield, Lister, and Bell. I don't know if that was her intention, but I felt that way because Lister and Bell get what seemed like more than minor player treatment at the beginning of the book. However, Lister disappears quickly, and Bell seems to get more time than he warrants later. I'm not really saying that right. Yes, he had a part in this story, but I felt at times that it was verging on "Garfield and Bell," as opposed to Garfield and Guiteau, with a bit of Bell."
That might be just me, though, and most of me would still highly recommend this book by one of our most intelligent history writers. That is if, indeed, you have the stomach for it.