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Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Candice Millard’s account of President James Garfield’s assassination brings back to roaring life a tragic but irresistible historical period.

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He quickly became a beloved figure. Blacks embraced him for taking strong stands on racial equality, while Northerners and Southerners alike appreciated his pragmatic approach and rags-to-riches rise.

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But it was the new president’s refusal to honor the spoils system of patronage that led an itinerant, deluded man named Charles Guiteau to assassinate him.

Millard’s account shows how vulnerable presidents were in the 19th Century. Despite Lincoln’s assassination less than two decades earlier, Garfield had no bodyguards or security detail of significance. Like his predecessors, Garfield was expected to — and did — meet with importunate citizens in the White House on a regular basis. On average, 100 callers per day sought presidential favors.

It was in this spirit that Guiteau arrived in Washington, where he wandered through hotels and inns, promising payments for his stays before being chased away. At the White House, he sought a consulship in Paris and other sinecures.

Finally, Garfield’s secretary of state rebuked Guiteau. A testy, humiliating exchange, combined with Garfield’s refusal to placate Conkling, the New York patronage king, led Guiteau to convince himself the president had to be killed. Long considered mentally ill by family members and others, Guiteau believed God wanted him to end the president’s life and, in turn, rescue the Republican Party by reviving Conkling’s diminished faction.

Before he went ahead with his plot to assassinate Garfield, Guiteau made a final entreaty in a letter to the president, beseeching him to meet at the White House.

It was, quite literally, an impossible request, as Garfield’s staff had already banned Guiteau from seeing the president, who never even saw the letter. Guiteau followed the president to church and elsewhere in Washington. On these occasions, he could have easily shot Garfield but didn’t.

Finally, on July 2, 1881, as the president walked through the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, Guiteau shot Garfield twice. The first bullet went through the president’s right arm, while the second missed his spinal cord by four inches and lodged near Garfield’s pancreas.

The wound wasn’t fatal, but the medical care was, starting with Dr. Smith Townshend, the district health officer who first treated Garfield. Townshend left Garfield lying on the germ-plagued depot floor and inserted his bare, unwashed finger into the wound. That decision was almost certainly more damaging than the bullet itself.

Millard, citing subsequent research and analysis, makes a convincing case that had the president not been treated at all for the gunshot wounds, he would have survived the shooting.

In one of many intriguing subplots, Robert Todd Lincoln was with Garfield during the attack. Lincoln, a member of the president’s cabinet, was 16 years removed from watching his father die from an assassin’s attack. Seeking to prevent another deathbed vigil, Lincoln summoned Dr. D. Williard Bliss, a surgeon who had tried to revive Abraham Lincoln after the shooting at Ford’s Theatre.

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