- - Friday, September 30, 2011


By Candice Millard
Doubleday, $28.95, 339 pages

Writing about interesting, though not major, historical figures can be a challenge for even the most talented of authors. For example, it takes a gifted writer to prompt a reader to spend a lot of time with a book in which James Garfield is the main character. Candice Millard has done that.

In addition to providing insights about our 20th commander-in-chief, “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President” is an engaging, elegantly written and insightful look at the political and scientific developments of late-19th century America.

Garfield, who had been a Civil War general and a nine-term member of Congress from Ohio, was shot less than four months into his presidency. A series of medical errors resulted in his death even though the bullet wounds were not fatal. A lesser-known fact is that inventor Alexander Graham Bell worked tirelessly and was able to invent, in a short period of time, a medical device theoretically capable of finding the bullet in his back.

In the best tradition of the great writers of narrative nonfiction, Ms. Millard deftly blends the stories of Garfield and Bell and assassin Charles Guiteau and makes readers feel as if they were witnesses to the key events.

Those who read her masterful account of Theodore Roosevelt’s post-presidential trip down the Amazon, “River of Doubt,” will be pleased to find more of her research and narrative prowess in this volume. Roosevelt (who described that trip, taken when he was 55, as “my last chance to be a boy”) is a more colorful and historically significant subject than Garfield, but there are enough twists and turns in this rendition of Garfield’s life to hold a reader’s interest.

Garfield, one of a series of relatively unmemorable presidents who served in the late 1800s between Lincoln and Roosevelt, was an unlikely winner of the GOP nod for the nation’s top job in 1880. At the time, he was a congressman and gave the presidential nominating speech for Ohio Republican Sen. John Sherman. However, he was such a compelling orator and appealing candidate that he was nominated as the compromise choice. He beat out, among others, former President Ulysses S. Grant.

While Ms. Millard’s political history is solid, it’s not her main focus in this book and those looking for a first-rate political biography of Garfield should read Ken Ackerman’s “Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of James A. Garfield.”

Garfield was sworn in on March 4, 1881 and on July 2 was shot while waiting to board a train in Washington by Guiteau, a crazed patronage seeker. One of the bullets struck his back, broke two of his ribs and grazed an artery, but didn’t hit his spinal cord.

Physicians sought to remove the bullet, though in the pre X-ray era had difficulty locating its exact whereabouts. In addition, Ms. Millard argues, they made matters wore by using unsanitary equipment and ignoring the then-new discoveries about antiseptic surgery by British physician Joseph Lister.

In frustration, Garfield’s lead physician D. Willard Bliss consulted with Bell who had invented an instrument called the induction balance, a metal detection device that once it found metal would send a sound to a telephone receiver attached to it. Bell wasn’t able to find the bullet, however, because Bliss only allowed him to look for it on the right side of Garfield’s body. The bullet was lodged in his left side.

The president would die on Sept. 19, 1881. Based on details from the autopsy, Ms. Millard concludes it “became immediately, and painfully apparent that, far from preventing or even delaying the president’s death, the doctors very likely caused it.” This tale of physician error contextualized by politics and murder makes for riveting reading. Ms. Millard recounts this episode of our nation’s history in a style that keeps readers on the edge of their seats even though the ending is known.

• Claude R. Marx is an award-winning journalist whose reviews have appeared in the Weekly Standard and the Wilson Quarterly.

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