'Destiny of the Republic': The death of James A. Garfield
Candice Millard's "Destiny of the Republic" tells the story of the assassination of President James A. Garfield, who died as much from unsanitary medical procedures as from his assassin's bullet.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President'
by Candice Millard
Doubleday, 323 pp., $27.95
Seattle has a Garfield High School, a Garfield Community Center and a Garfield Street. But the Garfield that people know is a comic-strip cat. The real Garfield — James A. Garfield — was a U.S. president killed by an assassin, 16 years after the shooting of Abraham Lincoln.
We forget the real Garfield because he was in office only a few months and did nothing famous. But the story of his assassination is in some ways more fascinating than that of Lincoln. It is told for a new generation in Candice Millard's "The Destiny of the Republic."
Millard colorfully recreates the political milieu of 1880. Lincoln's party, the Republicans, held the White House. They were divided into two factions: those who wanted to be hard on the defeated South, and those who did not. Their convention deadlocked, and after several days of balloting turned to Garfield, one of the leading Republicans in the House of Representatives.
Today, two members of the House, Michele Bachmann and Ron Paul, are running for president. Garfield was the last U.S. president elected from there, though he did not campaign for it. Told that he had been nominated, Garfield said, "I am very sorry that this has become necessary."
It was a different time.
Garfield appears as an educated and moral man. His assassin, Charles Guiteau, was an obsessive pretender.
Described by Millard as "a small, thin man in a threadbare suit," Guiteau faked at being a lawyer, snared a few clients and lost their cases. He rode trains without buying tickets and stayed in boardinghouses without paying rent. At one point this habitual deadbeat joined Oneida, a utopian socialist community that practiced free love. The women spurned him.
After Garfield's election, Guiteau decided he deserved to be the U.S. ambassador to France. He joined the men hanging around the White House for jobs. After being rejected, he stalked the president and shot him at a railroad station.
There was no Secret Service protection then. Surrounding the president with armed guards was deemed un-American.
Unlike Lincoln, who was shot in the head and died within hours, Garfield was shot in the back with a bullet that hit no vital organs.
"Had Garfield been shot just 15 years later, the bullet in his back would have been quickly found by X-ray images, and the wound treated with antiseptic surgery," Millard writes. But in 1881, "not only did many American doctors not believe in germs, they took pride in the particular brand of filth that defined their profession. They spoke fondly of the 'good old surgical stink' that pervaded their hospitals and operating rooms, and they resisted making too may concessions even to basic hygiene."
Garfield died 79 days after he was shot — not from the bullet, but from infection caused by unsterile probing for the bullet. When this was disclosed in the autopsy, Guiteau tried to use it at his trial for murder. He had shot the president, Guiteau said, but the physicians had killed him.
Guiteau was hanged.
The story is a natural for narrative history. Millard has created a readable and colorful account.
Bruce Ramsey is a Seattle Times editorial writer.
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