Apart from The Emperor and the Assassin, this is a different beast from the other biographies I’ve been reading. Dispensing with the straight telling of James Garfield’s life, Candice Millard instead paints the portrait of an era. Taking place between the war that sundered the nation and the dawn of the new century, the era in which Garfield rose to prominence was nothing if not propitious. It was a time for momentous change and novel invention. The light bulb and the telephone came to prominence. Antiseptic medicine harkened the wonders that would follow in the coming century. The proliferation of rail and oil brought with them unbounded wealth and ease of access to the vast stretches of the American West. This isn’t the biography of a man, it’s the story of an era, told through the lense of four people: President James Garfield, his assassin Charles Guiteau, Alexander Graham Bell and Joseph Lister (via his antithesis, Dr. Bliss).
Garfield was in office for a scant five months before being shot, but he served in the House of Representatives for almost 20 years. Before that, he was an academic, lawyer, and Major General, among other things. His career and life are given short shrift by Miller; given his varied background and meager beginnings, I found this cursory examination disappointing. We are given a fairly good idea of who he was as a person (he did not know his wife when they married, and ended up having an affair early in their relationship. After coming clean to his wife and agreeing to end the affair, he declared that he would “rather be respected than loved”. Garfield and his wife, Lucretia, would come to love one another deeply, however, and he evidently atoned for his earlier indiscretion.), but we aren’t given a solid picture of him as a politician. For those with no interest in politics, you might this to be the most enjoyable of all the biographies I’ve thus far reviewed. If, like me, you want to understand the president Garfield may have been, however, this book will leave you wanting.
Perhaps the most poignant and captivating part of this story is Charles Guiteau. He is a truly tragic figure who suffered from clear mental stability problems, which did him no favors in Reconstruction-era America. A transient and former member of a Utopian sex cult, Guiteau attempted to assassinate Garfield because he felt that he was owed a political appointment. Having been rebuffed by the administration, Guiteau grew to see Garfield as the root of all his problems. He honestly believed killing the president would win him fame, fortune, and the success he felt he deserved. He was so delusional that from the jail cell in which he was placed following the shooting, he solicited for marriage proposals in a newspaper, thinking he would soon be released from custody. Had Guiteau lived a few decades later, he may have been able to get some help, preventing this whole ugly affair. What he did was obviously horrendous, but it’s hard to not have sympathy for such a pathetic figure.
It’s impossible to talk about Garfield without talking about the unfortunate cause of his demise: the failure of the contemporaneous medical community to appreciate the value of antiseptic medicine. On the platform of the train depot where he was shot (and numerous times over the coming months), Garfield’s bullet-ravaged body was probed by the unclean hands of his doctors. Had he been left alone, he stood a better chance of surviving his wounds. It took the resultant infection two tortuous months to take Garfield’s life. While his body lay rotting in the White House, Dr. Doctor Bliss (real name) took control of the President’s medical care, and prevented other doctors from attending him – including those who did understand the importance of germ theory. Not only was Garfield abscess-riddled back continuous probed by long metal instruments and germ-covered fingers in search of the bullet lodged in his body, but Dr. Bliss absolutely insisted the missing projectile was on the left side of his body when it was in fact on the right. A long trench was gauged into his flesh by the probing, which served no other purpose than to torture the patient and allowed a proliferous stream of pus to seep from his body.
Charles Guiteau may have been hanged for the assassination of James Garfield, but without the ministrations of his doctors, the president may yet have lived. That is the terrible tragedy described here.
Overall, I think this is a very engaging read. Millard, I think, fairly balances all the people, and gives a clear overview of the era in which this occurred. My disappointment (such as it was) was more a product of unfairly applied expectations than any true failing of the book.