The assassination of President Garfield hardly receives the same attention as the assassination of Lincoln or Kennedy, even though the facts surrounding his death are quite fascinating. Garfield was leading a successful life in politics when he gave a speech to help his friend receive the republican nomination to be the next presidential candidate. His speech so moved the thousands in the audience, that Garfield was soon nominated as the republican candidate instead! The republican party would choose Chester A. Arthur as his Vice-President, and the two would win the election with a great deal of the popular vote. But they wouldn’t get along, and during his time in office, Garfield frequently found himself at odds with Senator Conkling who attempted to manipulate the Garfield’s office through Arthur.
Lurking in the background during this time was Charles Guiteau who actually believed that God spoke to him. He would tell authorities later that God came to him in a dream and told him to kill Garfield. Guiteau was already trying to impress Arthur and Conkling, and the dream edict pushed him to believe that he would win their favor through the assassination, since Arthur and Conkling would benefit from the president’s death. In Guiteau’s mind, they would naturally be grateful to Guiteau for opening up the presidency to them and would reward him with a political position, which he had been unable to attain on his own.
To illustrate Guiteau’s break from reality, the book describes that to prepare for killing President Garfield, Guiteau had his shoes shined to make sure he looked good when he was arrested. Prior to the assassination, Guiteau visited the jail where he believed he would be held to make sure that it was suitable for him. Assured he would be comfortable in the jail, and now looking respectable, he purchased a gun and set off to assassinate Garfield.
Remembering that when Garfield was president, the White House was open to anyone who wanted an audience with him, it is easy to understand how no one gave much thought to the president’s safety. This lack of security presented multiple opportunities for Guiteau to kill Garfield. Guiteau followed Garfield down the street at night, and positioned himself outside the window of the church Garfield attended on two separate occasions before he finally followed Garfield into a train station and fired his gun. The bullet went through Garfield’s right arm, and another bullet broke two of his ribs and lodged near his spine.
Several doctors appeared at the station and attempted to treat Garfield’s wounds. One doctor put his unsanitized finger in Garfield’s body to get the bullet out, which, unknown to him, introduced germs that ultimately lead to the infection that would kill Garfield. Because medicine was primitive, doctors couldn’t fathom Lister’s theory that antiseptics were needed to combat the invisible germs that we now know are everywhere.
An interesting sub-plot focused on Alexander Graham Bell and his invention of the telephone, which he displayed at the world’s fair. The attention given to Bell seemed misplaced until near the end of the book when Bell tried create a device that would locate the bullet still inside Garfield. Bell created an early version of the x-ray machine, but it failed to accurately locate the bullet. He then applied the telephone’s technology to create a machine that would make a clicking noise when he placed a device near the bullet. Unfortunately, it did not work either, and the bullet remained in Garfield, who died a slow and agonizing death due largely to starvation and infection.
While he laid dying in the White House, the government was left without a president because there was no mechanism in the Constitution for Arthur to assume the presidency. There was nothing anyone could do because the 25th Amendment, which allows the president’s role to be filled by the Vice-President when the president is incapacitated would not be a part of the Constitution until 1967.
The book was overflowing with historical information and facts that made the story accessible to a modern reader. The effortless writing created a plot that was easy to read and enjoyable on several levels. At times, it read much more like a political thriller than a historical piece. I would recommend the book to those particularly interested in this event in history.