Just finished reading “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President” by Candice Millard. I’m on record as disliking long subtitles, but in this case this book is all those things and more. Millard does a fabulous job telling this tragic story. Her book is the type you don’t want to end, and you worry the next one won’t be near as good. I enjoyed it so much, although the burden the reader carries, the knowledge the President will not pull through, is made even heavier when we learn the way he died.
On July 2, 1881, Charles Guiteau shot Garfield twice inside the Baltimore and Potomac train station (now the main building of the National Gallery of Art). Leading up to that tragic day, we learn about Lucretia, the President’s loyal and loving wife, Alexander Graham Bell, who tried so desperately to save Garfield with his new induction machine, a precursor to the metal detector; Guiteau, the insane assassin who argued he shot the President but medicine killed him; Senator Roscoe Conkling, the powerful Senator from New York who wanted to maintain the spoils system; Vice President Chester Arthur who gives the story its ironic ending, and Bliss, the intransigent doctor in charge of Garfield’s treatment which lasted an agonizing ten weeks.
Most of all we learn about Garfield. He was a great speaker, a beloved man who pulled himself out of a youthful rut that could have easily made him just another face in the crowd.
This is a very sad chapter in our history, but some good did come out of the tragedy. The Civil Service system was adopted to replace the spoils system, and the country united in the aftermath of Garfield’s death.
My Book of the Year is now a tight, three-way race and the oddsmakers are liking this one.
Note: The Garfield statue is on the west side of the Capitol at the end of Maryland Avenue.