Four American presidents have died at the hands of assassins, but all the books seem to be written about just two of them, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Scores of books have been written about these tragic events, and more continue to be published each year. But when is the last time you've seen a book about the assassination of William F. McKinley?
Thanks to Candice Millard, one of our very best writers to focus on American history for a general audience, we have the 2011 book Destiny of the Republic about the murder of James Garfield. Her book is so good, perhaps we won't need 50 or 100 more books on the same subject.
Charles Guiteau, thoroughly mad, pulled the trigger and ultimately died for his crime, yet it was Garfeld's doctors, not Guiteau, who actually killed the president, Millard writes. The bullet wound was serious enough for that day (1881), but it was hardly fatal. It had missed all vital organs, and Garfield could have survived and lived a long life if the bullet had simply been ignored. Plenty of Civil War veterans were walking around with similar bullets in similar places in their bodies. But this was the president of the United States, and the doctors determined the bullet must come out. Cleaning their hands and instruments before poking around in his body was never a priority, however.
In 1881, the existence of bacteria remained a controversial idea in the medical world. A man with the unlikely name of Dr. Doctor Bliss appointed himself head of the medical team and, over a period of several weeks repeatedly assaulted Garfield's body, creating a bacteria-filled cavity to where he believed the bullet must surely rest. Later an autopsy found the bullet on the other side of Garfield's body. The infection killed the president.
The inventor Alexander Graham Bell plays a key role in Millard's story. Bell worked long hours to perfect his induction balance machine capable of finding a bullet in a body. Despite technical problems, the device would have worked, but Dr. Bliss would allow Bell to test only the side of Garfield's body where he was convinced the bullet was located, not the side where it actually was.
The president's slow death accomplished something other than inspiring Bell's invention. It united the country more than anything that had happened since the Civil War. North and South, blacks and whites ... everyone loved James Garfield.
The long dying also gave Chester Arthur, Garfield's vice president, time to mature to the point he was ready for the presidency when it finally fell to him. As vice president, Arthur had been Roscoe Conkling's man, not Garfield's. Conkling favored the spoils system, handing out government jobs on the basis of connections rather than merit. Arthur had never gotten a job on the basis of merit in his life and doubted his ability to do just about anything, let alone the presidency. Millard tells how he rose to the task, thanks to advice from a woman he didn't even know.
Like Millard's previous book, The River of Doubt, about Theodore Roosevelt's nearly-fatal South American adventure, Destiny of the Republic makes compulsive reading. More books have been written about the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, but few of those books have been the equal of this one.