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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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It proved to be a fatal mistake. Bliss was headstrong, dismissive of Lister’s antisepsis and, above all, unwilling to listen to divergent medical opinions. For Bliss, Garfield offered a chance at not just glory, but redemption. In that spirit, he refused to cede authority to anyone, including Garfield’s wife and his personal physician.

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Bliss embodied the ethos of American medicine at the time. As Millard writes, “Not only did American doctors not believe in germs, they took pride in the particular brand of filth that defined their profession.”

As Garfield lingered for months amid torpid temperatures in the White House, Bliss and the rest of the medical team put the president through agonizing treatment, including frequent, painful probes in search of the bullet. Here, too, Bliss and his team misdiagnosed by a wide margin.

The ongoing search for the bullet intrigued the tireless curiosity of Graham Bell, who drove himself to the brink of a nervous breakdown trying to create an accurate detector to locate the bullet inside Garfield’s body. Bliss allowed Graham Bell two separate attempts to locate the bullet, but inconclusive results and Bliss’ strong-arming left Garfield languishing as before.

Guiteau narrowly avoided lynching in the wake of the shooting, but his delusions were hard to dispel. He believed the vice president, Chester Arthur, as well as William Sherman, the famed Civil War general, would free him and offer their thanks.

Bliss embodied his name by embracing ignorance and arrogance alike. As Garfield vomited and suffered from fever while infection and pus ravaged his body, the president’s de facto chief physician told a reporter, “I think that we have very little to fear.”

Isolated in the White House and with any hope of recovery fading, Garfield demanded to be taken to New Jersey to see the ocean one last time before his death. He died there on Sept. 19.

Bliss billed Congress $25,000 for his services – the equivalent of $500,000 today – and was instead offered $6,500. He declined, calling it an insult, and died seven years later, his reputation in tatters. Guiteau was hanged in 1882.

Even after Garfield’s assassination, presidents lacked for security. It wasn’t until 1901, after William McKinley was assassinated, that the Secret Service in its modern guise began to take shape. McKinley died eight days after being shot.

Among those with McKinley when the killer’s bullet was fired: Robert Todd Lincoln, whose presence gave him the tragic distinction of being the only man to witness three of the four American presidential assassinations.

Erik Spanberg regularly reviews books for the Monitor.

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