Although I often aspire to be more literary, I’ve had a lot of trouble falling into a consistent habit of reading books. I usually have some type of time consuming excuse, but right now I have none of those so I turned to my bookshelf of un-read books. I picked one that I got for Christmas last year called Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard. It’s a non-fiction book about President James Garfield’s life and mostly his assassination and death.
I know what you’re thinking, it’s sounds riveting, right? Well I’m actually a big US president nerd, so this book was right in my lane. At first it was slow going because I was skeptical about whether Garfield was an interesting or worthy topic. But after I got into it a little and the pieces started coming together, it was really great. Not only did it give a detailed and interesting account of his short lived presidency, assassination attempt, and illness, it really brought together several historical elements of the time period that helped the story significantly.
For those of you unfamiliar with Garfield, I’ll give you a brief history lesson. He was elected as the 20th president, just a few after Lincoln (who was the 16th). Garfield was considered to be a real stand-up guy, who was a great example of the American dream. He was raised in extreme poverty in Ohio, and created a life for himself through education and hard work. Really one of the only US presidents ever to have that type of personal history.
So he was inaugurated in March of 1881. On July 2nd of the same year he was going to the train station to catch a train to New England to settle his kids into school and take a little family vacation. This was pre-secret service and before presidents had things like Air Force One. Apparently Lincoln taught them nothing. So Garfield was just walking across the station with his buddy, the Secretary of State, and all of a sudden, he was shot in the back. The shooter was Charles Guiteau, a recent stalker, considered to be insane, who believed that God told him to kill the president.
The shot, however, was not fatal. Garfield did not die until September. The problem was that he had several doctors chomping at the bit to treat the president and they did everything they could think of: random incisions, probing around for the bullet, inserting and draining various things. Long story short, he died of all the crazy infections created by the crazy medical procedures. Apparently Europeans had caught onto sterilizing medical instruments at this point, but American doctors still thought those ideas were bogus.
I don’t mean to spoil the story, but this is just history. The details in the book make it worth reading: the medical issues of the day, the inventions and technology, the political and social atmosphere. It’s all fascinating. For example, this was right around the early years of the telephone, so news spread a different and faster way than before. It really brought to light many of the inventions and precedents that we take for granted today, that were new or even non-existant at that point. I love when learning about history make me understand more about my own life and surroundings.