Garfield's Assassination: The Limits Of What We Know

President James Garfield did not have to die. It appears as if the medical care he received killed him. Even so, Charles Julius Guiteau fired the shots that led to his death on July 2, 1881. Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of the President, is a skillful account of Garfield’s shooting, his lingering death and the cloud of unknowing that blinded the physicians who treated him. Millard brings the sensibility of a novelist to historical narrative. I knew far less about the Garfield assassination than I realized as I read this splendid book. I am tempted to read it all over again.

Garfield’s death is credited with having led to civil service reform and the death of broad patronage. Charles Guiteau, a disappointed office seeker, was tried, found guilty and executed for shooting the president. This much is a known even to causal students of American history.

Millard tells the story in terms that resonate with our times. Guiteau was more than a disgruntled office seeker. He was also mentally ill, so delusional and paranoid that he expected to be thanked by a grateful nation for his assassination of the president; had Garfield but done what Guiteau wanted and named him ambassador to France, why things might have turned out differently. When Garfield died, the murder was turned to political use. Let’s do away with patronage and there will be no more Guiteaus.

History is the stuff of illusion. Assassins stalk the pages of history.

Guiteau was tried, convicted and killed. Garfield’s death was transformed into political capital. Random events were made into a coherent narrative. We compress random variables into coherent stories out of a sense of necessity. I read about Guiteau and I wondered about Jared Loughner’s attempted assassination of Arizona Congresswoman, Gabrielle Giffords. Loughner was quickly found to be insane, and a nation rallied behind Giffords. For a time, political narrative drove reaction to the Giffords shooting. But within months, the narrative died. The act neither inspired reform nor produced a collective and mobilizing narrative. I don’t know whether that is a sign of progress or not. Our politics lack unifying narratives. We are adrift in ways foreign to Garfield’s times.

Millard consulted with physicians in researching this book and concludes that had Garfield been shot in a like manner today, he would have been treated, and released from the hospital in a matter of days. He didn’t have to die. What killed him was his physicians’ refusal to provide antiseptic care. In the mad dash to treat the nation’s most prominent patient, doctors rushed to the scene of the shooting at the Washington, D.C. train station. They probed the wound to his back, inserting unsterilized fingers into the president’s back. Secondary infection killed the president. 

Historians of medicine and science will love this book. As the president lingered for weeks, then months, gradually weakening before he died, Alexander Graham Bell raced frantically in his laboratory to create a device, an “induction balance,” that would permit doctors to locate the bullet lodged in the president’s back. A frantic effort to apply the device failed. Bell struggled day and night to perfect the technique, testing it on wounded Civil War veterans. We are only several generations removed from medical care that was as much a function of guesswork as it was of applied science.

Garfield was not in office long before he died, a mere 200 days. He is largely an unknown president. Millard’s treatment of him is generous. His father died young; his mother dedicated herself to her children. Garfield was a self-made man drafted to serve as president against his will. His greatest loves were his children, his farm, and his books: he was expert at Latin. Perhaps our time would be better served if men and women who did not want the office were elected president. There is an enervating quality to the campaigns we now endure: the men who seek office are perhaps least able to serve with distinction. Of course our politics are vapid; those who want office badly enough to sacrifice all to be elected are perhaps the least reliable leaders.

This is a wonderful read. Millard’s scholarship is impressive, her prose even throughout, and her sense of pace seems just right. She could easily have written another chapter on Guiteau’s trial, of course. She let this tragic madman drop from view when his story was only half told. Telling his complete story would have rounded out her primary theme: medicine failed the president, and cost him his life. The same ignorance then led us to kill Garfield’s assassin: There was no dispute the Guiteau was insane, but we killed him nonetheless. Call the episode a double failure for medicine: we let a man who could have survived die, and then we killed a sick man. 

We still kill the sick and call it justice. But we are far better at treating physical evidence. Some things have changed; some things sadly remain the same. And violence is always waiting in the shadows of our national life.

Also listed under: Good reads


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