Sunday, February 19, 2012

Destiny of the Republic
A Tale of Madness, Medicine and Murder of a President
by Candice Millard. Doubleday, 340 pages.

At once an engaging piece of Americana and an exploration of the frightening world of 19th century medicine, Candice Millard's re-telling of the assassination of President James Garfield explores the story from more than a few surprising angles. Others have chartered this course before (see Kenneth Ackerman's 2004's Dark Horse, discussed here) but Millard stakes her claim on the subject by framing her narrative around several characters whose place in the story has heretofore been as members of the supporting cast.

At first, Destiny of the Republic threatens to be little more then a fast-paced summary of all the Garfield scholarship that came before it. Charting Garfield's ascent to power, the story has all the usual suspects - Garfield, his assassin Charles Guiteau, VP Chester Arthur, Senate boss Roscoe Conkling. Only after a time does it become clear that these characters aren't truly Millard's concern. She's more interested in the people whose role in the story is lesser-known: Joseph Brown, Garfield's personal secretary; Joseph Lister, antiseptic pioneer; Lucretia Garfield, the president's wife; Dr. Bliss, Garfield's surgeon; and Alexander Graham Bell.

It's this last angle that's truly the most unique. Fresh off the success that came with inventing the telephone, Bell was living in Washington at the time of the assassination and labored for two months to build an "induction machine" - essentially a metal detector that would help surgeons locate the bullet lodged in Garfield's body (the machine sent a signal to a telephone receiver when metal was found). It's the familiar tale of the clever scientist working against both the clock and an adversary, who is presented in the guise of D. Willard Bliss, the arrogant surgeon whose vanity is the cause of Garfield's death.

Medicine was a horrific thing in Gilded-Age America: Joseph Lister had convinced European doctors about the need for antiseptic, but in 1881, American doctors were still laughing him away. Even Garfield's assassin seemed to understand that he wasn't nearly as responsible as Garfield's own surgeons: "General Garfield died from malpractice," wrote Guiteau at his trial. "The doctors who mistreated him ought to bear the odium of his death."

Millard's unspoken assertion is that the true blame rests with one doctor in particular. Bliss - his given name is Doctor, a great case of truth being stranger then fiction - was a man anxious to improve upon a soiled reputation. After supporting the integration of black doctors, he had a brief flirtation with homeopathy, all of which earned him a great deal of scorn. Summoned almost by accident to Garfield's bedside, he quickly seized control, dismissing all other doctors and ruling over his patient with a caduceus of steel. When Alexander Graham Bell arrived with his induction machine, Bliss manipulated him into confirming his own diagnosis - one which was wrong and which eventually proved fatal.

The remainder of the book is equally thrilling as Millard bounces from Bell to Bliss to Guiteau, exploring the conflicting worlds of 19th century science, medicine and law. For her, Garfield's assassination was a crucible that forced all three of these disciplines to unite, whether through Bell's efforts in the sickroom or the role of doctors in determining Guiteau's sanity during his trial. 

As mentioned, it does take Millard time to find her focus though it should be said that, having read several books on this subject, I'm already well-versed on the particulars. Other readers may be more appreciative of Destiny's first-half and she does a fine job explaining a complicated sequence of shady alliances and backroom deals. But it's when she takes us out of the Senate and into the sickroom that, as both a writer and a historian, Candice Millard truly hits her stride. Utilizing the papers of Lucretia Garfield, Joseph Brown and Bell's assistant Charles Tainter, Millard is able to ground the story squarely in human emotion. Bliss' arrogance, Garfield's stubborn will, Lucretia's dogged support, Bell's determination: all of it turns the story of a dead president into a thrilling tale whose tragic conclusion is heartbreaking even for those of us who know how it ends.

Watch Candice Millard discuss the book here:

Related Books:
"Robert Todd Lincoln: A Man in his Own Right" by John Groff
"Gentleman Boss: The Life of Chester A. Arthur" by Thomas Reeeves
"Grover Cleveland: A Study in Character" by Alyn Brodsky
"Dark Hourse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of James Garfield" by Kenneth Ackerman
"Benjamin Harrison" by Charles W. Calhoun

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