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The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Medicine, Madness and the Murder of… (2011)

by Candice Millard

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In 1880 James Garfield, an unassuming congressman of humble origins, found himself the Republican presidential nominee and subsequently elected President, a scenario he neither anticipated nor, in fact, desired. Nevertheless, he was the apple of the public's eye for several months before being gunned down by madman Charles Guiteau. Even greater a tragedy than that act of violence was that of the misguided medical treatment Garfield received from his attending physicians for a wound that was unlikely fatal to begin with.

Having just come off of Nothing to Envy, I probably should have read something more uplifting before cracking open this book; I had no sense of just how heart-wrenching it would be. A circumstance which would have been prevented with the application of modern medicine but which wasn't due to willful ignorance or mistakes, feels much more visceral a tragedy than the thousands of years of human deaths prior to scientific knowledge. There are moments of sadness -- I choked up while reading the passage about the men pushing the President's train up the hill -- and a great many "wow, cool!" beats involving Alexander Graham Bell, Garfield's daughter Mollie, and the new-and-improved Chester Arthur, to name just a few. A worthy book about an adored, inspirational and largely forgotten man. ( )
  ryner | Aug 24, 2015 |
Everything I learned about presidential assassinations I learned from musical theater.

OK, that’s not entirely true. The details of the Lincoln assassination are so prevalent in the culture that you sort of soak those up during your life. As for JFK’s killing, well, there’s always Oliver Stone (kidding!). But as for our two lesser know victims, James Garfield and William McKinley, my knowledge base really comes from Stephen Sondheim’s brilliant, macabre take on the whole political killing business, his 1990 musical Assassins. Such are the benefits of having a college roommate with both a deep appreciation of musical theater and a skewed view of the world that resembles my own.

Thus, my prior knowledge of the Garfield assassination was pretty much limited to the fact that he was shot by a crazed office seeker named Charles J. Guiteau. Guiteau claimed that he was only doing God’s will, but (as the song says) “God was acquitted, and Charlie committed until he could hang.” Turns out, of course, that the situation had a lot more factors going into it than can be distilled into one song (even a really good one).

Those factors come to life in The Destiny of the Republic: A Tale Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, a detailed examination of the whole incident by Candice Millard. Millard makes a compelling case that Garfield’s eventual death – he lingered for almost three months after shot by Guiteau – was due at least as much to the medical care he received as it was to an assassin’s bullet. American doctors, who at the time were still fighting back Joseph Lister’s theories on antiseptic medicine, poked and prodded the president with numerous unsterile instruments (including their unwashed fingers), triggering infections that eventually led to his death.

While Millard spends a great amount of time (particularly in the book’s second half) on Garfield’s lingering death, the first half of the book is spent setting up not only the lives of Garfield and Guiteau up to that point, but the world in which they lived. It’s a fascinating snapshot, showing both how different the United States of the 1870s-1880s is compared to today, and how disappointingly similar the two eras are.

Both men had formative events that would not happen in the modern era. Guiteau had a long spell as a member of a utopian socialist commune in New York, becoming part of a vibrant movement in the 19th Century that knows no real analog today. Meanwhile, Garfield managed to become President of the United States without ever seeking out the office. Not only did he enter the 1880 Republic convention in Chicago without being a candidate, his role at the convention was to make the nominating speech of a fellow Ohioan, John Sherman (brother of General William Tecuhmsa Sherman). But his speech, part of a back and forth between entrenched spoils-system Republicans and reformers, was so well received (and made, in part, on the behalf of some oppressed delegates from West Virginia), that he began to receive votes during the numerous rounds of ballots. After two days of voting, he was the GOP nominee. Imagine Chris Christie getting drafted in that way today!

The politics of the day, however, would be depressingly familiar to anyone who pays attention to the way the game is played today. While Garfield holed up on his Ohio farm (it was considered unseemly for presidential candidates to actually campaign in that era – outgoing President Hayes suggested to Garfield that he sit on his porch and “look wise”), his surrogates engaged in the kind of negative campaigning we find today. His opponent, former Union General Winfield Scott Hancock (at one point, it seems like every pol in the book can be called “General”), is bashed not only on his lack of a record (printing up blank pamphlets titled “Hancock’s Achievements”), but for being a Democrat and, therefore, quite possibly a Confederate sympathizer (in spite of, you know, being a Union general and all). Undaunted, Hancock’s forces lobbed corruption allegations at Garfield, scrawling “329,” the amount of money he allegedly gained from an insider trading scandal, all over the place – even including inside the homes of prominent Republicans. The result was a comfortable Garfield victory, although the popular vote margin was on 1898 votes (out of nearly 9 million cast).

Guiteau, meanwhile, leads a life that would be familiar to anyone who deals with mental illness and the criminal justice system. There’s little doubt that Guiteau is insane. He was also a crafty con man, managing to repeatedly run up various debts and then simply slip away under cover of darkness. He could be violent, threatening his sister with an axe and tormenting his wife during their short-lived marriage. However, given that he was a pauper and his family had few assets, they couldn’t afford to have him committed. Even his purchase of the gun has a ring of Dirty Harry to it – he knows nothing of firearms, so he goes in an buys the biggest damn pistol he can find.

Even the nation’s reaction to the shooting seems familiar. In spite of popular conceptions of 19th-century America as being a collection of isolated parochial places, fact is the nation was uniting as it never had before, thanks to railroads, telegraphs, and the recent introduction of Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone (more of him later). Word of the shooting spread across the wires immediately after it happened. Some papers printed rushed incorrect information that Garfield had already died. Letters of support and advice poured in to the White House from all over.

Sadly, the reaction to Guiteau’s act was also something that would not look out of place today. He was locked up immediately, more for his own protection than because he was charged with anything. One of his jailors took a shot at him. Crowds gathered and called for Guiteau to be lynched (Millard even quotes newspaper editorials in favor of it). Once Garfield died and Guiteau’s legal defense hinged on insanity, it was clear that nothing other than a guilty verdict and the death penalty would do. And, of course, political points were scored, with civil service reformers linking Guiteau’s acts to the politicians most associated with the spoils system (including Chester A. Arthur, who became president when Garfield died).

All of this lends rich context to the basic story Millard tells of the President, the assassin, and incident that linked them in history forever. That being said, the book tends to drag a bit in that second half, partly because the story of Garfield’s slow death is redundant and partly because of an odd shift in focus.

Guiteau slinks to the shadows for much of the second half (at least until his trial), while Bell comes to the fore, feverishly working on an invention that would allow Garfield’s doctors to find the bullet lodged within him. While fascinating that the inventor was involved in the situation at all, there’s really no payoff. For one thing, it’s never clear what the doctors would have down had they known where the bullet was (their guesses, it turned out, were way off). Millard even mentions that many gunshot victims and Civil War vets walked around with bullets still inside them with no ill effects, so it’s an odd thing to focus on. But, more importantly, Bell’s gizmo doesn’t work in the end, so the whole tangent seems a bit pointless. In this interview, Millard explains that she came to the Garfield assassination while doing research on Bell, so maybe she was just reluctant to let that research go to waste.

Instead of leaning on Bell’s story, I wish Millard would have focused more on Guiteau and what happened to him after the shooting. As I said, he was in jail the whole time, but it doesn’t appear he was charged with anything until Garfield died. Did anybody suspect that might be a problem? And we learn that the only lawyer willing to represent Guiteau is his own brother, who practiced patent law, not criminal law. Surely they searched for someone else, the era’s version of Clarence Darrow or Gerry Spence, who would have reveled in the challenge. Did they all say “no”? Did nobody even look into the possibility? Yes, I admit, I’m a criminal procedure geek, but c’mon!

Millard also falls a little short of her title, Destiny of the Republic. Although there is some discussion of the political calculus in when to bring the vice president into the mix, there is no sense of urgency about the matter. Garfield, while dying, was fully lucid and conscious to the end. There was nothing like, say, Ronald Reagan’s unconsciousness following his assassination attempt (or an equivalent to Alexander Haig’s “I am in control here” declaration). And once Garfield was dead, Arthur stepped in and performed admirably. However traumatic Garfield’s lingering death was to the national psyche, it’s hardly a turning point in the nation’s history.

In the end, where the book really shines is in the contrast of Garfield and Guiteau, two men swept into their fatal confrontation by things beyond their control. It’s ironic that Garfield, who never really wanted to be president, is the kind of person who we should want to become president – educated and inquisitive, a voracious reader, and apparently a genuinely decent guy. And yet, even as part of a very select club of assassinated presidents, he’s pretty much forgotten these days. Of course, Guiteau is not exactly a household name, either.

Unless you’ve been to the theater.

www.jdbyrne.net ( )
  RaelWV | Aug 16, 2015 |
I never would have picked up this book if it hadn't been for my book club. The book is about James Garfield, his assassination, and the people and events surrounding it. Given that I have little interest in the subject, I enjoyed the book more than I thought I would, and I am glad that I read it.

I would have enjoyed the book a lot more if it moved faster. I know that good historical non-fiction books require quoting of primary source documents, but the quoting of letters and journal entries was too much for me. It got really boring and repetitive. However, everyone else in my book club seemed to think it was very intriguing and well written and they couldn't put it down. ( )
  klburnside | Aug 11, 2015 |
(160)
  activelearning | Jul 18, 2015 |
James Abram Garfield was the twentieth president of the United States. Not very well known or well remembered in light of very renowned presidents shortly before and after him, his story is non-the-less extremely fascinating. A humble man, coming from very impoverished beginnings, he was a most reluctant president. Bullied into accepting the presidential nomination, he was duly elected and served only a short time before meeting with an assassin’s bullet.

But, this book is not just the story of an assassinated president and that fact is what was most appealing. Ms. Millard manages to give the reader a taste of the late 1800’s. A time of radical change in politics, technology and medicine. Alexander Graham Bell had introduced the telephone, and out of need, the metal detector to determine where the bullet resided in Garfield’s body. Dr. Lister had introduced the idea of “antisepsis” for sterilizing wounds and operating environments. Doctors of the time found the concept of unseen organisms quite absurd and Dr. Lister was ridiculed. Unfortunately, that ridicule cost Garfield his life. The reader is also given a credible glimpse into the madness of his assassin, Charles Guiteau, quite a fascinating story in and of itself.

I enjoy books that have an interesting “back story”, the action that goes on behind the actual purpose of the book. In some instances I find that I become so intrigued with the background that I lose interest in the subject of the book. No so in this case. Yes, this is a biography but it is also a story of an interesting time in history. Enjoyable because it reads like a novel but Ms. Candice backed up her writing with extensive endnotes and documentation. My only complaint … it’s pulled a thread … and now I need to find an interesting biography of Bell.
( )
  ChristineEllei | Jul 14, 2015 |
Very interesting insight into a part of American history I knew nothing about. We could use a president like Garfield today! The author wove together the stories of Garfield, his assassin, and the stubborness of the American medical establishment toward sterile processes as if it were a novel. I thought the inclusion of Alexander Graham Bell was not quite as successful, but it did point out how the late 19th century was on the cusp of immense technological changes that are still echoing today. I love that authors are presenting history in books that are easy to read and keep your attention. ( )
  TerriBooks | May 14, 2015 |
The book provides a very detailed account of assassination of president James Garfield, including combination of events that led to it and futile attempts to save that very likable president. It's makes for a very interesting read most of the times, it just slowed down after Garfield shooting. ( )
  everfresh1 | Apr 27, 2015 |
Four American presidents have died at the hands of assassins, but all the books seem to be written about just two of them, Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Scores of books have been written about these tragic events, and more continue to be published each year. But when is the last time you've seen a book about the assassination of William F. McKinley?

Thanks to Candice Millard, one of our very best writers to focus on American history for a general audience, we have the 2011 book "Destiny of the Republic" about the murder of James Garfield. Her book is so good, perhaps we won't need 50 or 100 more books on the same subject.

Charles Guiteau, thoroughly mad, pulled the trigger and ultimately died for his crime, yet it was Garfeld's doctors, not Guiteau, who actually killed the president, Millard writes. The bullet wound was serious enough for that day (1881), but it was hardly fatal. It had missed all vital organs, and Garfield could have survived and lived a long life if the bullet had simply been ignored. Plenty of Civil War veterans were walking around with similar bullets in similar places in their bodies. But this was the president of the United States, and the doctors determined the bullet must come out. Cleaning their hands and instruments before poking around in his body was never a priority, however.

In 1881, the existence of bacteria remained a controversial idea in the medical world. A man with the unlikely name of Dr. Doctor Bliss appointed himself head of the medical team and, over a period of several weeks repeatedly assaulted Garfield's body, creating a bacteria-filled cavity to where he believed the bullet must surely rest. Later an autopsy found the bullet on the other side of Garfield's body. The infection killed the president.

The inventor Alexander Graham Bell plays a key role in Millard's story. Bell worked long hours to perfect his induction balance machine capable of finding a bullet in a body. Despite technical problems, the device would have worked, but Dr. Bliss would allow Bell to test only the side of Garfield's body where he was convinced the bullet was located, not the side where it actually was.

The president's slow death accomplished something other than inspiring Bell's invention. It united the country more than anything that had happened since the Civil War. North and South, blacks and whites ... everyone loved James Garfield.

The long dying also gave Chester Arthur, Garfield's vice president, time to mature to the point he was ready for the presidency when it finally fell to him. As vice president, Arthur had been Roscoe Conkling's man, not Garfield's. Conkling favored the spoils system, handing out government jobs on the basis of connections rather than merit. Arthur had never gotten a job on the basis of merit in his life and doubted his ability to do just about anything, let alone the presidency. Millard tells how he rose to the task, thanks to advice from a woman he didn't even know.

Like Millard's previous book, "The River of Doubt," about Theodore Roosevelt's nearly-fatal South American adventure, "Destiny of the Republic" makes compulsive reading. More books have been written about the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, but few of those books have been the equal of this one. ( )
  hardlyhardy | Mar 31, 2015 |
Interesting ( )
  ibkennedy | Feb 19, 2015 |
This is a very interesting work of narrative non-fiction about a president that is overlooked in the history books. No wonder, he was only president for a matter of months before he was assassinated. The author does a good job of letting the reader come to know the extraordinary man, James Garfield, who became president, and giving us the historical context in which he was elected. The election process back in 1880 was much more exciting than it is today, and the idea that a person who was unknown at the start of the Republican convention could be nominated and then win the election is unthinkable today. The author also managed to turn the assassin into a sympathetic character. I honestly felt sorry for him when he was on his way to the gallows. When an author can turn a villain into a sympathetic character in a story that brings tension to the tale and keeps the reader reading. ( )
1 vote benitastrnad | Sep 16, 2014 |
Chester Arthur, Garfield's Vice President, was very unpopular. When people became worried that Garfield would die, a rumor was started that Arthur was Canadian and could not be President. A fascinating book about a President I knew almost nothing about. ( )
1 vote kwbridge | Sep 6, 2014 |
I would like to have known James Garfield. He sounds like a marvelous human being, statesman, father, and husband. Ms. Millard's book is non-fiction that reads like a well-constructed novel. In fact, it is the combination of fascinating peripheral events occurring simultaneously in time with the details of President Garfield's election and death which make this book so very interesting. The reader gets a glimpse into the mind of this gentle intellectual man as well as into the sociopolitical and scientific advances of the times. Excellent read! ( )
3 vote hemlokgang | Aug 16, 2014 |
The Presidency of James Garfield went unfulfilled by his untimely death. He was a victim of his time because medical treatment was not able to adequately attend to the injury. Today, he would have survived seems evident. But during his time attempting to recover from the bullet wound, Garfield's patience and character are relevant. And great lengths were made to accommodate the wounded President and make him comfortable. It's quite interesting. ( )
1 vote MikeBiever | Jul 31, 2014 |
Before reading Destiny of the Republic, I knew roughly three things about James A. Garfield: 1. He’d been president once, a long time ago; 2. He shared his name with a cartoon cat; 3. Wasn’t he one of the ones who was shot? I didn’t have any particular interest in learning any more about him, but a friend recommended this book when I said that I enjoyed Devil in the White City.

Since I started reading this, I’ve found ways to work interesting facts about Garfield—as well as Alexander Graham Bell, metal detectors, the New York Customs House, Abraham Lincoln, mental health and medical history, and so much other stuff—into many other conversations. My friends know more about Garfield now than before I started reading this! If my American History classes in high school had been this engaging, I would have remembered a lot more of the details.

I got this from the library as an audio book that I listened to in the car. The writing is so personal and close that I found myself crying some mornings on the way to work. Sometimes just in utter frustration at how many tiny things could have gone differently, which would have allowed Garfield to live. Candice Millard does such an amazing job of convincing you that Garfield would have been a fantastic president, and he was certainly well loved at the time he died. I used to live in DC, and I always wondered why there was a big monument of him right in front of the Capitol. Now I know why he was so incredibly popular, but he died before he was able to affect much direct and lasting change.

I could go on and on about how much I learned from this engaging book (and, if you know me personally, you’ve heard me do so), but it would be better if you just read it yourself. Seriously, just give it a shot. You’ll be amazed at how much you find yourself caring about this almost-forgotten president and his life before you finish the first chapter. ( )
2 vote JLSmither | Jul 29, 2014 |
Wonderful read about a president I knew very little about, and the history of the times around his assassination that pre-date security details, access to the president, what seem to be common sense medical procedures nowadays, and the contributions of Alexander Graham Bell of the "induction machine" and teaching of deaf people. Not to mention what a highly regarded man Garfield was, and how his death and the mourning of the country brought people together for the first time, not as North & South, but as Americans. Highly recommend! ( )
  azrowan | Jul 7, 2014 |
Six-word review: How professional arrogance killed a president.

Extended review:

I don't read much in the way of history, memoir, biography, or other narrative nonfiction. Once in a while, though, I do step outside my customary paths and pick up something that holds my attention in much the same way as good fiction: with story, character, setting, theme, and capable craftsmanship. Destiny of the Republic is such a book. The element of documentable factuality adds significance, and the profound effect of this episode on the American nation as a whole confers a gravitas not to be found in any personal drama, no matter how compelling.

I had never read anything more about James A. Garfield than the few compulsory paragraphs I must have encountered in American history textbooks. His term was so brief, only six months including the two that he spent convalescing after the shooting in July of 1881, that no important changes or lasting achievements were credited to him, at least in my memory. What I never took in as a student was the impact of his assassination itself, much less the meaning of the election and then the loss of this honorable man who had never sought the presidency and had indeed tried to evade it.

As Millard so absorbingly tells it, the drama that unfolds with Garfield's nomination, election, violent injury, and tragic death reflects not only the shape of the nation a century after its founding but also the state of medical science, early advances in telephony, and so light a disregard for national security that it amounts to astounding laxity by today's standards. The intertwined threads of history weave what can almost be seen as inevitability in the way it plays out.

As told by the author, the true villain of the tale is not the deluded madman Charles Guiteau, who pulled the fateful trigger, but another deluded individual, Dr. D. Willard Bliss, the arrogant physician who interposed his own ego-driven agenda between the life of the president and the possibility of remedy by a hand other than his own.

This sad story grieves the heart for the fate of a good man who might have been a great president. It's impossible not to wonder how drastically the course of events in the United States and the world might have been altered by just one or two different choices by key individuals at crucial times. That question, I suppose, is one of the enduring fascinations of history. ( )
1 vote Meredy | Jun 1, 2014 |
When my book club first suggested and then picked Candice Millard's Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a president, I was horrified despite its cool sounding subtitle. I mean, James A. Garfield? I know he was one of our presidents who was assassinated but no one ever talks about him. He must be boring and not worth my time.

Boy, I was wrong in utterly fantastic propotions.

James A. Garfield was a simple normal who grow up in poverty. Luckily, he had parents who valued education, and after a near death experience while he worked on a canal, so did Garfield. He worked his way up through the educational system accomplishing much more than what is fathomable for any 26 year old to acheived: he was a head of a school! After that, Garfield worked his way up through the political and legislative arena until he became President of the United States.

Charles Guiteau, a commune living religious zealot believes, after being one of the only few survivors of a capsized ship, that God has chosen him for divine purpose. His crazy ideas lead him believing that he should have a high position within President Garfield's cabinet. After being removed from the White House premises, Guiteau thinks Garfield is the problem and decides to shoot and kill him...which he does but it is a very slow death.

Why?

The Medical association is divided. There's a Dr. Joseph Lister who is advocating for the use of disinfectant on all medical equipment and practice of safe medicine. However, this being the 1880s, the old ways won't be abolished like that. Dr. Bliss is old school and unfortunately he is Garfield's doctor. Bliss' methods of finding the bullet, by poking his unsanitized finger into Garfield's wound, causes irreparable harm.

Candice Millard had a very difficult job to do: combine all of these different elements and still make a fluid and concise telling of history. She could have gotten boggled down by all of the minutiae and this book could have easily been double the page amount. Millard connected Garfield's, Guiteau's, Bliss', and Alexander Graham Bell's lives and made the convergence seem so simple. The near life-death experiences of Garfield and Guiteau and their reactions to them set them on paths they seemed to destined to be.

From reading Charles Johnson's The Ghost Map, I learned how deplorable and downright disgusting the medical practices were in Europe. It was interesting to see the same parallels in Destiny of the Republic. Including right down to someone emerging as the voice of reason and the collective obstinately resistent to change.

What makes Destiny of the Republic so heartbreaking was Garfield's slow and painful death. It's a shame that if he had been shot 15 years later, the x-ray would have been invented and would have located the bullet. Heck, had Bliss let Bell use his machine all over Garfield's body and not just the side the bullet had to be on, Garfield's life have been spared. ( )
  Y2Ash | Apr 16, 2014 |
As much a portrait of an era as a tale of Garfield's assignation. It sounds like Garfield could have been one of our better presidents. ( )
  bke | Mar 30, 2014 |
I loved this book. I thought it was written in a very literary way, not dry non-fiction, at all. I especially enjoyed the little tidbits of history, and the happenings of the time all over the world. President Garfield, though he served such a short term due to his assassination, was a great man from the state of Ohio. While I read this book, describing the turmoil of the time, and the state of the Republican party, torn into separate factions, I thought it was eerily similar to today's happenings in politics. So many topics can be discussed from this book, including the state of medical care and the awareness of mental illness, and of course, politics. I also thought that it was interesting how much Alexander Graham Bell was involved during this time. ( )
  Mathenam | Mar 25, 2014 |
Oh my gosh I could not believe the state of medical care that was described in this book . I do believe infection killed President Garfield not the wound itself ...people supposed drs putting dirty instruments into the wound and therefore adding infection . Oh my goodness as a person who lives in this day and age i cannot imagine the infection that contributed to this mans death . Interesting book this writer did a lot of research and rightly so .
  phonelady61 | Jan 5, 2014 |
Does anyone really care about James Garfield? You will after reading this book. Were it not for the Emperor of Brazil would Alexander Bell have been relinquished to the backwater of history? And how ironic that a British Dr. Lister proclaimed knowledge that had it been followed would have saved Garfield's life?

Our reading club decided to read this book for several reasons, perhaps the most important being that Charles Guiteau hailed from Freeport where most of us live. We used to joke it was Freeport's only claim to fame, home of a presidential assassin. I mean why not? I can see it now, assassination fairs, Guiteau banners, restoration of his house (it's still there,) and some nifty slogans. They could even rename the Freeport Pretzels to the Freeport Assassins.

The author narrates dual tracks, following Guiteau and Garfield. They were so different: Guiteau the religious fanatic and loser, and Garfield the rather brilliant orator (albeit verbose), successful Civil War general, and abolitionist who really didn't want to be president. Guiteau bounced from one scheme to another, convinced, especially after his survival from a ship-wreck, that God had special plans for him. He tried evangelical preaching, lawyering ( in the worst sense of the word), and even joined the Oneida Community where he was shunned by most of the members. They believed in non-monogamous relationships, but the women refused to have anything to do with him, calling him by the nickname, Charles Get-Out.

The recounting of the Republican Convention in 1880 is fascinating. Garfield was not even in the running; he was there to support the nomination of a fellow Ohioan. But things got out of hand after the first ballot failed to nominate a candidate and by the 35th ballot the delegates were looking for an alternative. Despite his best efforts, the convention nominated him to run with Chester Arthur as his running mate. How the assassination changed Arthur (another presidential non-entity) and his rejection of Conklin is also quite fascinating. It wasn't until the assassination of McKinley barely two decades later that focused everyone's attention on presidential security.

Presidential openness and availability has changed drastically. The president remained open to the public, walking around the streets with little thought given to security, and Guiteau was able to just walk up to him and Blaine, the Secretary of State, in a train station and shoot him. Guiteau felt slighted because he was sure, in his mind, that he had been responsible for Garfield's election and was therefore deserving of a place in the administration, specifically the representative to France. When it was not forthcoming, God called him to eliminate the president.

Garfield would have survived easily had he been some bum on the street who received no medical care. The bullet had missed all vital organs, but the initial doctor, ignoring all Lister's medical knowledge to the contrary, poked around in the wound with septic bare fingers and the cause of death was out of control septicemia. There was also an unseemly battle for who was to be the "doctor in charge" of the president's care. The winner, Bliss, really screwed up his care. Many soldiers more severely injured in the Civil War had survived just fine. In fact, the policeman who hauled Guiteau off to jail had a bullet still lodged in his skull. The book could have been titled, The Doctor who Killed the President.

For some, the book will be a disappointment as it focuses on Alexander Graham Bell perhaps more than some would wish. Personally, I like this kind of cultural history/biography mix very much.
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1 vote ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
History buffs should try Destiny of the Republic: A tale of madness, medicine and the murder of a President, which is a double biography of the 20th President James A. Garfield and his assassin Charles Guiteau. The story begins with the presidential race of the 1880s which dark-horse Garfield won. Garfield had a distinguished career as a university president, lawyer, general, and congressman. Guiteau was a failed author, lawyer, and evangelist with delusions of grandeur. When Guiteau failed to be appointed to a post in the Garfield administration, insanity led him to believe that God meant him to kill Garfield. Guiteau shot Garfield four months into the President’s term during the summer of 1881. Garfield did not die immediately, but suffered a lingering death, poor medical care, and eventually died of infection in September. Millard includes information on the political and social realities of the times in a tale that makes for compulsive reading. Millard’s writing is accessible, engaging, and fast-paced. Garfield’s spectacular rise to political prominence, Giteau’s madness and the foreshadowing of his actions, the loss of a potentially great President, the malpractice of Garfield’s doctor’s, the involvement of Alexander Graham Bell in treating the President, and the patronage system of government appointments of the day are all points that can lead to lively discussion.
  ktoonen | Sep 10, 2013 |
I liked it and learned much. Ackerman's Dark Horse was better though, but that says a lot. ( )
  bontley | Aug 24, 2013 |
I vaguely remember studying in American history about the assassination of Garfield; it was just another bunch of stuff to remember until the test. Who knew it could be so interesting. I found this to be a page turner, reading more like a novel than a non-fiction history. Truly, truth can be stranger than fiction.

I applaud Millard's research and admire her ability to put that research into a fascinating story. And, like her in her acknowledgments, I am so happy I am living in an age where medical advances can relieve suffering rather than complicate it. As a reader of historical fiction, I have read plenty of suffering due to war; however, I believe her description of the procedures used on Garfield are some of the most vivid. Even if you are not a history fan, pick up this book and read a few pages, I think you'll be hooked. ( )
  maryreinert | Aug 22, 2013 |
An interesting, moving history of James Garfield, of invention, medicine, ego and ignorance of the times, of a truly insane killer, of politics, of post-Civil War America... I really enjoyed this, I thought it very well written. Some of the medical description was a little gruesome, and some of the political review a little dry, but I think it was all important to the story. I couldn't put it down, it moved along so well, I highly recommend it. ( )
  klib315 | Aug 18, 2013 |
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2.5 1
3 32
3.5 19
4 134
4.5 50
5 129

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