Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard (who previously wrote the excellent River of Doubt, an adventure story about how former President Teddy Roosevelt nearly died in the Amazon rain forest) is by no means the first book on the assassination of President James A. Garfield in 1881. In fact, for the politics of the tale, especially the bad blood between Senator Roscoe Conkling's Stalwarts and the Half Breeds in New York State, Kenneth D. Ackerman's 2003 account "Dark Horse--The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield" is a better source.
Millard focuses more on the medicine than the politics of the story, and indeed by the time you finish this new book (a quick read at 250 pages), you are sure to be convinced that it wasn't disgruntled and crazed patron seeker Charles Guiteau who killed the president, but rather his band of doctors who poked and prodded him for 79 days following the shooting in a Washington D.C. train station.
Even Alexander Graham Bell is involved as he works tirelessly to complete an invention which will locate the bullet in Garfield's body. It might have worked, but the ego of the chief doctor D. Willard Bliss was so great that he limited the area of the body Bell was allowed to explore.
Meanwhile, Bliss and others literally poked and prodded Garfield to death in an attempt to locate a bullet which had come harmlessly to rest near the pancreas. Joseph Lister had introduced the process of sterilization into European operating rooms, but the idea hadn't caught on in America at the time of the shooting, and the doctors literally killed Garfield by infecting him with germs.
That, along with insanity, was Guiteau's defense at his trial, but to no avail. The jury deliberated less than an hour, and Guiteau was hanged 363 days after he shot Garfield, the poor boy from Ohio who overcame tremendous odds to advance to the highest office in the land.
Thus, Millard tells the story on parallel tracks, a rather good (if incomplete) biological sketch of Garfield and the tragic tell of the man who fired the bullet. If anyone was genuinely insane, it was certainly Guiteau who insisted till the very end that he was acting on God's will when he shot the President (so much for those who claim to be acting on any god's will!). He thought he'd be applauded as a hero, even as one of his own jailers tried to kill the "killer".
"After the initial shock of the President's shooting," Millard writes, "the prevailing feeling throughout the country was one of unfettered rage. The fact that Guiteau had been captured and was in jail awaiting trial did little to satisfy most Americans' desire for immediate revenge." Someone even suggested that Guiteau be forced to eat chunks of his own flesh which would be cut off him.
But the medical incompetence is the real tragedy of this story.
Here is Millard again. "Science would soon exceed even Bell's expectations. Had Garfield been shot just 15 years later, the bullet in his back would have been quickly found by x-ray images, and the would treated with antiseptic surgery. He might have been back on his feet within weeks. Had he able able to receive modern medical care, he likely would have spent no more than a few nights in the hospital. Even had Garfield simply been left alone, he almost certainly would have survived. Lodging as it was in the fatty tissue below and behind his pancreas; the bullet itself was no continuing danger to the president."
The say story is well told indeed.
As a bonus, we get to learn about the first Vermonter to become President, Chester A. Arthur who had spent the first months of Garfield's Presidency doing all he could to oppose the President. Arthur was part of Conkling's spoils system.
For trivia lovers, there's one other juicy tidbit from the book. We learn that one man present not only at the assassination of James Garfield but also of Abraham Lincoln 16 years earlier and of William McKinley a generation later.
Yes that, of course, would be Robert Todd Lincoln, Abe's son and Garfield's secretary of war, but there's no glory for him here. He's the one who insisted that Dr. Bliss be called to attend the wounded President. Bliss indeed, what a name for the man who tortured the President to his death.