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The Cold Filtered Ramblings of Gene Mueller

Madness, medicine and murder: a good summer read for the history nerd

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He's a president few remember and the victim of a crime few can recall.

James Garfield was shot by a disgruntled office seeker 131 years ago this week at Washington D-C's train station.  He would linger for months before succumbing to his wound in September.

The story is the stuff of a relatively new book: "Destiny Of The Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine And The Murder Of A President" by Candice Millard.  It won't lay a glove on the "Shades Of Grey" pot-boiling trilogy that's getting all the buzz but then again, I'm a history nerd.  Give me the Oval Office over whips and chains any day.

But I digress.

Garfield was the last of the so-called "log cabin" presidents who rose from rural poverty to the nation's highest office.  By all accounts, he could've been one of the greats, but we'll never know.   He was just four months on the job when Charles Guiteau shot him in the back.  Guiteau was one of the hundreds of folks who personally visited Garfield seeking a federal job--Guiteau wanted to be a minister to France but got turned down.   Among the changes that would follow Garfield's death would be civil service reforms that ended personal petitioning of the president.

It's at this point that medicine becomes the book's key story line.   Garfield's wound, it turns out, was 100% survivable had US doctors in general and his attending physician in particular believed in the existence of germs.  Remember, it's the 19th century and Dr. Joseph Lister's practice of antiseptic medicine wasn't being bought into stateside.   It's why the first doctors at Garfield's side on the train station floor poked and prodded the wound with unwashed fingers and unsterilized instruments,  That sired the infections that would later wrack Garfield's body, causing his painful, tortuous and very preventable death.

His doctor didn't do his patient any favors when he called on Dr. Alexander Graham Bell to bring his latest invention to Garfield's bedside--a metal detector--in an effort to find the bullet still lodged in the chief executive's back.  It was all for naught, as the doctor limited the examination only to one side of Garfield's body--the slug was later found on the OTHER side--and made Bell do the probe on a bed of metal springs which no doubt threw the machine off.

Garfield kept losing weight, even though his doctor kept feeding him "sumptuous" meals, as Millard put it.  Primitive air condition was bought in to make him comfortable, but Garfield's misery continued to grow until the infections eventually claimed his life.   His death, the author writes, would unite the nation in grief, bringing the North and South together in a way that hadn't been seen since the Civil War.

The madness?   Guiteau was a mental mess, claiming he was on a mission from God when he pulled the trigger and telling anyone who'd listen that he fully expected to walk despite what he'd done.   It didn't take long for a jury to find him guilty, the verdict prompting Guiteau to say, "Yes, I shot him but the doctors killed him."   An historian of the time would say, "This insane person actually says something sane."

Garfield's death did get US doctors to buy into Lister's antiseptic approach to medicine.   Among Lister's other contributions to medicine: Listerine.

And then, there's Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abe.   Millard says he was there when his dad became the first President to die at the hands of an assassin 16 years before, and he was there when Garfield was shot.    And, Lincoln was present when another crazed gun fatally shot President William McKinley in Buffalo in 1901.   I'm guessing he wasn't welcome around too many other chief executives after that.

I'm old and I forget things but if I recall, I wrote about this book a few months ago--perhaps, even last summer.  Whatever the case, it hasn't lost any of it's punch.   If you didn't check it out then, do it now.

Or, whenever you're done with "Fifty Shades Of Grey."

 

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