Thursday, October 27, 2011

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard

Reviewed by Cassandra, Librarian at Mary Jacobs Library

Candice Millard, author of the bestselling book River of Doubt, brings history back to life with the riveting three-way biography of President James Garfield, Charles Guiteau, who was Garfield's assassin; and inventor Alexander Graham Bell, whose part in the story was an unsuccessful deathbed attempt to locate the bullet lodged somewhere in the president's body.  
The historical narrative, which sounds like a plot that might have been cooked up by Tom Clancy and Michael Crichton, focuses around the fact that the 20th president of the United States, James A. Garfield, is shot by a madman. It isn’t a mystery that the president dies just a few short months later; not from the assassin’s bullet but from extreme infection brought on by filthy medical practices.

The cast of characters is remarkable. There is Garfield himself, so poor that he worked as a janitor to put himself through his first year of college; so brilliant that he was promoted to lecturer for his second year of college; so unassuming that he did everything he could to block his own nomination to the presidency. Then there is his vice president, Chester Arthur, given the job to placate Garfield's foes and with the assumption that Arthur would never actually be president. Everyone was horrified by the sudden prospect that Arthur actually would be president, not least Arthur himself.  The biography of Charles Guiteau is equally intriguing and disturbing.

Of course there is Garfield's egomaniacal primary physician, Dr. Doctor William Bliss -- yes, his first name was Doctor -- whose unsanitary probing for a bullet that was doing no harm led to the infections that actually killed Garfield. When the truth came out, it led a younger doctor to say, "Ignorance is Bliss."

It is a thoroughly intriguing and interesting treat; however be warned that it gets pretty gruesome with the descriptions of “modern” medicine. It is also great on audio.