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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