Daily Archives: June 21, 2012

June Week 3: History

The original plan was to read a book I bought several years ago, however I failed at reading it once again.  The book is on the SS-Einsatzgruppen but I just get so bogged down with the troop movements that my mind starts wandering while my eyes keep moving.  So I picked out another book that was in the Kindle Store.  The book I choose was Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard.

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

James A. Garfield is one of those Presidents that gets a bit glossed over in history classes, or at least the ones that I attended.  I can understand why, we are up to number 44 and Garfield was only in the White House for six months.  In fact, two months of that he was in bed from a bullet wound and subsequent infection!  Of the other four months, he spent two of them embattled with another member of his own party, Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York.  When your country has hundreds of years of history (those from more “ancient” cultures may titter), some stories must be left out.

For a shorter book, it gave a decent background of three figures: James A. Garfield, Alexander Graham Bell, and Charles Guiteau.  All three men are in various ways extremely passionate.  Garfield is portrayed as a self-made man for whom family and justice are his primary concerns.  Bell is a man who lives to discover and invent, to the detriment of his health and his family life.  Guiteau’s sole concern is to make himself famous and to fulfill his work as “one of God’s chosen few.”

The book goes back and forth between the three men, describing the paths that took them to become central figures of history in 1881.  Garfield worked his way through school, directed soldiers in the civil war, served in politics, and eventually elected to presidency.  Bell invented the telephone which he displayed at the 1876 World’s Fair in Philadelphia and from then on was almost buried under the weight of that one device.  He spent the next several years focused on that one invention before he left it to get back to the drawing board.  Guiteau spent most of his adult life dabbling in various occupations, skipping out on all kinds of debts, and “borrowing” money from friends and strangers alike.

Around the time that Garfield was elected the president, Guiteau became obsessed with politics.  He wrote and visited as many influential members of the government as he could, petitioning them constantly to assign him a consulship, first to Austria and later Paris.  After being firmly rebuffed by the Secretary of State, James G. Blaine, and told not to contact them again regarding a consulship, he was struck by the thought “If the President was out of the way every thing would go better.”  A month after that thought came to him, he shot the president in a train depot.

Much of the book is spent discussing the medical care prevalent at the time and the techniques used on the president.  It was interesting to read prevailing science and thoughts and how different they are from now.  Anti-sepsis techniques were only just being introduced to the U. S. and were generally met with scorn and suspicion.  The president had his fresh bullet wound probed by fingers that had likely not been washed in days.  His wound was soaked with warm water and pus was seen as indicative of healing.  Germs and bacteria were just being hypothesized!

Bell was convinced that if he could develop an instrument to find the bullet still lodged in the president, that the president might survive.  The book describes his efforts to create a metal detector, which eventually did work but he could not find the bullet due to the president lying on a metal spring mattress (discovered after he left the examination) and being confined to searching only a portion of the president’s body.  In the end, the president suffered greatly before succumbing septic poisoning and a hemorrhage in the splenic artery.

Guiteau believed that the American public would be grateful for his “removal” of Garfield.  Long after his trial was over, he believed that he would leave prison a free man, become famous, and marry a beautiful, wealthy socialite.  He only came to terms with his execution shortly before it occurred.

In short, I liked the book.  One particular bit of trivia, Robert Todd Lincoln is the only person to be present/nearby the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, and William McKinley.  The book also kept the history interesting with snippets of stories and dialogue.  A couple of my favorite quotes from the book:

“The scientific spirit has cast out the Demons and presented us with Nature, clothed in her right mind and living under the reign of law.” – James A. Garfield

“The whole theory of antisepsis is not only absurd, it is a positive injury.” – surgeon regarding Lister’s antisepsis hypothesis


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