Tag Archives: Candice Millard

Garfield: The President, Not the Cat

Most of us don’t know very much about James A. Garfield, twentieth president of the United States.  Most of what we do know is one thing:  Garfield was assassinated in 1881 by a scorned office-seeker.

But did you know that Garfield didn’t actually die from his assassin’s bullet?  That very idea constitutes the heart of Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic:  A Tale of Modern Medicine and the Murder of a President.

While an avid reader, The Curmudgeon is not a professional book reviewer.  He assumes that if he wanted to he could go all literary on his readers and put together reasonable book reviews, but his taste for that form of expression was pretty much soured by those high school English class discussions about “what the author really meant.”  In hindsight, The Curmudgeon wishes he’d had the presence of mind to raise his hand and say, “Unless the author told you or wrote somewhere about what he really meant, we’re all just speculating about this and making it up.  None of us really know, so stop pretending there’s a right and wrong answer to that question.”  The Curmudgeon does read book reviews, primarily to learn about what’s new in the book world, but he tries not to place too much credence in a reviewer’s final judgment about a book.  It’s like taking the advice of a restaurant reviewer when you don’t know that person’s taste in food:  how can you tell if a place serves the kind of food you’d like if you don’t have a broader understanding of what kind of food the reviewer likes?

So this is the long way of saying that The Curmudgeon is going to write a little about the Garfield book and not offer a comprehensive review of its literary and historical merits.

Simply put, the thesis of the book – sorry to go all tenth grade on you and use a word like “thesis” – is that Garfield didn’t die from his assassin’s bullet:  he died from the abysmal medical care he received after he was shot.

Garfield was shot in the back by Charles Guiteau, a genuine nut job who had no role in Garfield’s campaign for the presidency yet somehow decided that he’d played a key role in getting Garfield elected and therefore deserved to be U.S. ambassador to France.  He didn’t get the job, so he decided that god wanted him to kill the president so a new president could give him the position he so richly deserved.

Back in the 1880s, the president moved around without the benefit of Secret Service or any other kind of protection, so it wasn’t unusual to see the president walking the streets of Washington by himself, or strolling with his family.  Similarly, people could simply come into the White House at their leisure and wait around to talk to the president.  Guiteau shot Garfield at the train station, where Garfield had gone accompanied only by his secretary of state and his two sons; he was to travel to New Jersey to be with his wife, who had been ill and was staying near the ocean in the hope that the sea air would help her.

The bullet didn’t kill Garfield.  Instead, it lodged somewhere in his upper torso – and that’s where the problem started.  In hindsight, if doctors had done nothing but clean up the wound, Garfield probably would have been back in the Oval Office within a week or two.  Instead, there was a real battle over who would care for the president, and again in hindsight, the wrong guy won.  The president’s doctors wanted to remove the bullet, but they weren’t sure where it was; this was before the x-ray machine was invented.

So what did they do?  They kept burrowing their fingers into the hole that the bullet made – unwashed, dirty fingers, sometimes accompanied and sometimes not by unwashed, dirty surgical tools, and tried to find it.  Even though Joseph Lister had demonstrated the value of sanitary conditions in the operating room and in the practice of medicine and even though his methods were widely adopted in Europe, American doctors didn’t believe in the existence of bacteria and germs they couldn’t see and were insulted by the very suggestion that they themselves could be the bearers of such germs.

So the doctors poked and prodded with dirty fingers and dirty instruments, and every time they did, they spread infection to more of Garfield’s body as they tried to locate the bullet on the theory that once they did, they could remove it surgically.

One person, a non-doctor, decided that there must be a way to find a piece of metal hiding in a man’s body.  Alexander Graham Bell, fresh off his invention of the telephone, set off feverishly to develop a device that could locate the errant bullet.  Even as Garfield lay suffering, and dying, Bell worked day and night to perfect what he called his “induction balance,” a device that could find metal in a human body.  When he thought it worked he tested it on Civil War veterans who knew they had bullets in their bodies, and every time he tested it on them, it worked.  When he tried it on Garfield, though, it showed nothing.  In the end, it turns out that the not-very-skilled doctor who oversaw Garfield’s care was so certain where the bullet was located that he refused to allow Bell to try his device on other parts of the dying president’s torso.  The doctor became entrenched in his opinion of the bullet’s whereabouts and became more determined, over time, not to allow himself to be proven wrong about the bullet’s location.  (An interesting aside:  As Garfield lay dying, the doctors wanted to make him comfortable in the sweltering Washington, D.C. summer, and this led the naval corps of engineers to rig up what turned out to be the very first air-conditioner.  It was crude and not always totally effective, but it’s an interesting sign of the times and a reminder of the truth in the old saying that necessity is the mother of invention.)  Eventually, much of Garfield’s body was consumed by infection and he died, three months after he was shot.  When doctors performed the autopsy, they found the bullet – nowhere near where the lead doctor said it was.  When they found it, one of the doctors turned to the others and declared, “Gentleman, this was the fatal wound.  We made a mistake.”

And so the president was dead – killed, arguably, not by his assassin’s bullet but by the incompetence of the care he received.  It’s an astonishing story.

Another astonishing aspect of the book was the information it provided about Garfield.  Apparently, he was a widely loved man who never aspired to be president.  In fact, at the political convention at which he was nominated, he actually nominated another candidate.  Only after thirty-five ballots of fruitless, deadlocked voting did the convention turn to him on ballot thirty-six and hand him the nomination.  Once nominated, he declined to campaign.  He stayed at his family’s home in Ohio, and when people came to see the man who was running for president, he spoke directly to them.  The author makes a case that Garfield was a beloved president who helped unify the still-divided north and south at a time when the wounds of the Civil War still ran deep, and this is the only area of the book in which The Curmudgeon thought she might be on shaky footing – perhaps a little too much hero worship about a public figure she had been researching for a very long time.

This very minor quibble aside, Destiny of the Republic was an excellent book.  It may or may not be great history, but it’s good history and makes for compelling reading.  It’s also a timely reminder that the best history can be found not in dry old high school and college textbooks but in the work of historians who spend years learning about their subjects and then years more writing about them.  The Curmudgeon enthusiastically recommends Destiny of the Republic.  Reserve a copy at your public library today.

Mini-Rumination: A U.S. President Born in a Foreign Country?

Think the argument that President Obama isn’t qualified to serve as President because he was born in another country is unique?

Think again.

It’s happened before.

Chester Alan Arthur came to Washington, D.C. as the ultimate political hack; he had never been elected to any public office and was fired from the one and only government job he ever held amid allegations of corruption.  When President James Garfield lay dying from an assassin’s bullet, many Americans despaired at the thought of Arthur, his Vice President, taking his place.

In her book Destiny of the Republic:  A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, Candice Millard writes that

Enraged by the very idea of Arthur taking over the presidency, Americans across the country readied themselves as if for battle.  Some took a tactical approach, frantically trying to revive the rumor, started during the campaign, that the vice president had been born in Canada, and so was constitutionally prohibited from becoming president.

So it looks like The Donald and all those tea party fools not only were wrong but also weren’t even original.