A few years ago, I was amazed to read Candice Millard’s first book, The River of Doubt, a harrowing tale of adventure that involved Teddy and Kermit Roosevelt’s ill-fated 1912 trip down the Amazon. Despite what seemed to be a well-planned journey, the excursion was a disaster replete with unanticipated predators and sudden deaths for some of the travelers. Millard’s account was vividly written, and it earned the label of a “Best Book of the Year” by the New York Times Book Review.
I looked forward to Millard’s latest book, Destiny of the Republic, with great anticipation, and I was not disappointed. This new account of the assassination of President James A. Garfield is just as captivating as that earlier Roosevelt book. But as I read, I was struck by the ironies that made the 1881 tragedy play out the way it did.
Would-be assassin Charles Guiteau lacked any substantial reason for the shooting. He didn’t have any particular desire to kill Garfield; rather he was disappointed with the way his own life was playing out. He approached Garfield with the request that he be appointed ambassador to France, despite any experience or talent for such a position. When his request was denied, Guiteau concluded that killing the president was the answer. When the deed was completed, Guiteau was convinced that newly invested President Chester Arthur would free him from prison because he would certainly appreciate Guiteau’s noble gesture. Guiteau even spoke of being rescued by General William T. Sherman who would come storming the prison and bestow honors on the assassin. Guiteau’s delusions created this confusing scenario that baffled all those who dealt with him.
Yet another irony is found in the wounding of Garfield. Medical experts of that time felt confident that the president would survive the shooting; the Civil War had repeatedly demonstrated that shooting victims could survive much worse than what Garfield suffered. But: these were the early days of the discovery of septicemia. In fact, most physicians doubted that such a threat really existed. Doctors Smith Townsend and D. Willard Bliss, who took over the care of the president, put no faith in the new notion of blood poisoning. When they examined Garfield, both probed the two wounds with unwashed hands, thus making infection a certainty. When Garfield died, after suffering greatly for some two months, his body was riddled with infection, and the subsequent autopsy revealed tragic miscalculations that doomed the president. Just a few years later, the combination of X-ray and antiseptic treatment would have spared the man.
Alexander Graham Bell’s involvement in the tale is equally ironic. In addition to recently inventing the telephone, Bell was working on what he called an “induction balance.” This machine, he determined, would act as a metal detector. When he learned that the president had been shot and the location of a missing bullet was a mystery, he rushed to help with his invention. Once again, fate interfered. Dr. Bliss, the physician now in charge, directed Bell to use his machine on the wrong side of Garfield’s body. Bell believed that his invention malfunctioned, and he was crushed to learn that the apparatus would have worked if used near the right area of the body.
Maybe, too, there’s irony in Garfield’s presidency. Today most readers know little about the man and his vision for the country. This is certainly due to the fact that he was in office for only four short months. Millard’s information about the president’s background is quite revealing. A self-educated man who was a voracious reader, Garfield was born in abject poverty. He proved to be an outstanding orator, and when the 1880 election approached, his nomination surprised him more than it did the others who backed him. What he might have accomplished in office remains a great mystery.
Enough about irony. This is an outstanding book which I recommend to anyone interested in history, biography or just a well-told story. I learned much about a historical period that was vague to me, and I learned more about the spread of infection than I ever cared to discover. This is top-notch writing from an excellent writer. I look forward to her next efforts.