The assassination of President Garfield: America in 1881

Book review: 'Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President,' by Candice Millard. Doubleday, $28.95.


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By all accounts, writes Candice Millard, James Garfield was a sterling fellow who would have made a great president, but he spent most of his brief time in office dying of a massive infection after he was wounded by a lunatic gunman named Charles Guiteau July 2, 1881, almost four months after taking office.

He lingered until Sept. 19 when he died, leaving barely a whisper of a record. In fact, David Reynolds' 2009 history of the United States, "America, Empire of Liberty," omits Garfield entirely.

Ms. Millard's previous book was 2005's "River of Doubt," a readable tale of Theodore Roosevelt's near-fatal voyage down the Amazon. This time she chose a president without TR's accomplishments and larger-than-life personality.

Unfazed by her slim material, the author employed the Eric Larson school of writing history -- weaving contemporary but vaguely related elements into her story of Garfield's death. Ms. Millard brings in Alexander Graham Bell's inventions and British physician Joseph Lister's campaign to disinfect a patient's environment against infection.

While Lister makes a brief appearance, Bell's interesting -- and frequently retold biography -- forms nearly a third of "Destiny of the Republic," a distracting sideline. His part in the story proved minor when a crude metal detector he devised to find the bullet failed.

Ms. Millard largely overlooks Garfield's legislative accomplishments or political philosophy after nine terms in the U.S. House, and seems uninterested or unable to conjecture where his presidency would have headed against the challenges of the 1880s.

As for the assassin, the author confines herself to a one-dimensional description of Guiteau, who although clearly a basketcase, provided much written material for her to use.

Ms. Millard's real villain is Dr. D. Willard Bliss, a veteran Washington physician who, she says, assumed control of Garfield's treatment without real authority and proceeded to botch the case, due largely to his unsanitary approach. Yet the author is unclear about who granted Bliss his power and allowed his malpractice to continue.

What's really amiss with "Destiny of the Republic" are inspiration and originality, two elements that elevated "River of Doubt" from the ordinary. The death of James Garfield still remains an unfortunate, but minor episode in American history.


Bob Hoover: bhoover@post-gazette.com .


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