A NON-FICTION PICK: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine & the Murder of a President by Candice Millard—February 2015

By Judy Garrison

There was a Garfield Avenue in my hometown, and I had a vague memory that James Garfield was one of the assassinated presidents, along with Lincoln, McKinley and Kennedy. I also thought of him in that non-lustrous cluster of presidents most of us know little about: Rutherford Hayes, Chester A. Arthur, Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Henry Harrison. And so my curiosity was piqued by the jacket summary when I snatched the volume off our library’s New Books shelf. I found our 20th president who died at age 49 on September 19, 1881 to be an exemplary man on all counts; that included his companionable and inspiring marriage.

After tracking his extraordinary up-by-the-bootstraps rise from a childhood of extreme deprivation, fatherless at 2, in frontier-Ohio, through serious study and hard work, we readers are plunked into the midst of a Republican convention. We are immersed there in the maneuverings of the sparring political factions, hear Garfield, who has served 9 terms in the House, deliver a galvanizing speech in favor of another candidate; and then see him being drafted to run for president as a compromise candidate when neither Grant, Blaine nor Sherman can garner the requisite support. Throughout he appears to have not one iota of ambition for the presidency. And so this graduate of Williams College, classics professor, clergyman, lawyer, college president, major general and anti-slavery advocate runs for office and wins. Just 4 months into his promising presidency Garfield – devoid of bodyguard or security detail — is shot in the back by Charles Guiteau, a demented and delusionary political office seeker who had been obsessively stalking him.

We are brought along to witness in detail the subsequent medical care Garfield receives, since he hasn’t died from the gunshot. With total disregard for the new sterilization techniques implemented and recommended by Lister – practices largely adhered to in Europe but disdained in the U.S. — the head physician probes repeatedly for the bullet, a procedure ironically and tragically leading to sepsis and, weeks later, death. Another participant in the quest for removal of the bullet is Alexander Graham Bell whom we closely observe as he manically works on an induction balance electrical device that should verify the location of the bullet and help facilitate its removal.

This fully researched and dramatically told story of a brilliant and upright president driven to rid the nation of political corruption, left this reader with a rueful sigh: “If only he had survived.” Pick up a copy at our library! ~