‘A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President’


First of all,  I must say unequivocally that Candice Millard is one of the best historical writers I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading.  Never did it occur to me that the rise of James Garfield to the Presidency of the United States and, more importantly, his assassination could be so intriguing and compelling.

As Millard weaves together the life stories of several unique and significant individuals brought together by an insane man’s bullet, however, the reader learns that the shooting and subsequent death of Garfield was truly “some of the most dramatic days in U. S. presidential history.” Point in fact, this was one of the most pivotal episodes in the life of America.

James A. Garfield was an extraordinary man in his own right, having risen from poverty in his beloved Ohio to Civil War hero and general, to well-educated congressman and eventually the surprise Republican presidential nominee in 1880, despite his own bitter protests.  He was truly a man of the people, someone with whom average folks could readily identify.

By all accounts, though certainly not perfect, Garfield was an individual of upstanding character and integrity, full of conviction but always congenial and gracious, even with those who opposed him and his ideas.  He loved his wife, children and friends;  he loved people and his country; he loved life and he was strong and vigorous in mind, body and soul.

Not so his assassin, Charles Guiteau, who was in all likelihood deranged from early in his tortured, psychotic life.  At one time, this pathetic man lived in a commune; at another he married and then divorced.  He tried his hand in ministry, or evangelism, and attempted the practice of law as well.  He even “wrote” a book, stolen from another author, but in everything he attempted,  he failed … except in shooting the 20th  President of the United States.

Millard beautifully contrasts the two characters of Garfield and Guiteau, portraying them as practically polar opposites, but there were other compelling people involved in this horrendous episode that literally gripped the nation for months.  Dr. Joseph Lister, for example, had recently discovered “antisepsis – preventing infection by destroying germs.”

The British surgeon tried but could not convince American physicians of the practical importance of his theory, though, which contributed in no small part to what was likely an unnecessary death.  Only after Garfield eventually succumbed to his wounds and the poisonous infection that riddled his body did the medical community finally realize the fundamental importance of antisepsis.

Alexander Graham Bell, who had just recently invented the telephone, played a critical role as he endeavored to find the bullet still lodged somewhere inside Garfield using an “induction balance.” Two attempts were made and both failed;  however, later tests were “an unqualified success,” and notably…

the induction balance would lessen the suffering and save the lives not just of Americans but of soldiers in the Sino-Japanese War and the Boer War. Even during World War I, doctors would often turn to the induction balance when they could not find an x-ray machine or did not trust its accuracy.  (298)

Even in its early and more unrefined state, the induction machine might very well have worked had Bell been allowed to search both sides of Garfield’s back. He was not, however, due quite simply to the arrogance of one Dr. Bliss, who had taken charge of the president’s care from the first day and was thoroughly convinced he knew the general location of the bullet.

Consequently, he would not allow himself to be proven wrong anymore than he would accept the ludicrous notion of Lister and his infectious germs.  And so, as Garfield struggled from day to day and week to week in excruciating pain – and dying an agonizingly slow death – Bliss was “blissfully” ignorant and arrogant, reassuring an entire nation almost to the last day that he had everything in hand and all would be well.

Millard opens up to the reader a nation still reeling from the effects of devastating war, a government hampered by corruption, peoples divided and still downtrodden … a world of fear and death as well as the hopeful promises of ever-advancing science and glories of human achievement, where lives are turned upside down and inside out and men are forever changed.

The whole narrative reads like an action-drama thriller right to the very end, and yet Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President could easily be used (one would think) very profitably in any high school or college history class. From my own experience, in fact,  I have no hesitation recommending it over typical text books.  But, then,  I would (and do) recommend it to readers in general – not just history buffs.  It is well-worth the purchase and time spent; you are sure to both enjoy and learn.

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