I had never given Roscoe Conkling a thought before reading this
book. But if you enjoy political shenanigans, you’ll enjoy his
part in this book. He was a major pain in the neck for the Half-Breeds
Party through the late 1800s. What do you know about him?
Hm, thought so.
Of course there’s more to this book than Roscoe Conkling with his
fancy little curl in the middle of his forehead. There’s also baby-faced
Chester Arthur who found himself propelled to the presidency upon
James Garfield’s death. He was an unwilling puppet of Conkling’s, and,
to his credit, shrugged him off and became his own man. But—we
are way ahead of ourselves.
First, we follow the amazing train of events that brings James Garfield
from a poverty ridden childhood in Ohio, to the White House. Early on,
with his widowed mother’s encouragement, he pursued his education–
often getting up at 5 a.m. to study his Virgil. (Just as I do.) He worked
as a school janitor to pay for his studies, and then because he was so
talented, was made an assistant professor at the school.
Anyway, time goes by, he has a struggling relationship with the woman who
will be his wife–(things turn out OK, don’t worry)–and he becomes a
U.S. congressman for eighteen years. Then, he is sent to the 1880 national
convention to nominate John Sherman for president, but instead his own
name is swept into the mix——–and he wins the nomination himself!
Coincidentally with Garfield’s rise to power, a scrawny no-good type has
survived a dangerous ship disaster and thinks he’s been especially saved
by God to do great things. His name is Charles Guiteau. He lives a shifty
life–avoiding paying rooming-house landladies, running out on friends from
whom he borrows money and so forth. He becomes interested in communes,
and joins the popular Oneida group which his father founded, but he
“doesn’t get along well with others,” and is kicked out.
Along the way he becomes a lawyer by luckily finding a judge
who asks him three questions for the bar. By answering two correctly,
he gets his degree! Later, he becomes an evangelist minister–always
handy for a few bucks– then writes a book, telling each prospective
publisher that it’s already signed for by an important New York house,
but he’ll let them print out a few copies (for him to sell at 50 cents each.)
Then he decides that in order to make a name for himself, he must enter
politics. He sits around in Washington, D.C. hotel lobbies, gets to know,
by pestering, important politicians, lobbyists, and senators like Roscoe
Conkling. His life is going downhill, clothing shabby, eating habits poor,
and his mental health, never sound, begins to fray. He decides that he
is meant to kill President James Garfield.
After Garfield is shot, a swarm of doctors rush in to treat him.
One of my favorites was Dr. D. Willard. The “D” stands for “Doctor.”
His parents named him—to give him a head start in life–
Doctor! So he was Doctor Doctor Willard!
I mused a bit on how others might have been named more advantageously:
Ambassador Stallone, Princess Clinton, Doctor Colbert—-but couldn’t
make a go of that so let’s get back to the story.
The bullet that entered Garfield’s body was not in itself life-threatening.
But because the medical world in 1880 had not yet chosen to follow the
advice of Joseph Lister–who exhibited at the Centennial World Fair in
1876, and explained how to prevent infection by destroying germs–the
importance of “antisepsis”–conditions surrounding the President’s
recovery room were filthy and rife with danger.
Probing his body to try to find and dig out the bullet, doctors reached in
with metal probes and their own unsanitized fingers—making a
playground for infections to riddle Garfield’s body.
Even Alexander Graham Bell is on the scene—in the days of his
early invention of the telephone he would work straight through the
night—-even straight through two nights in his fervor for work.
His only relief would be to play the piano in the middle of the night. (!!)
Later, at the time of Garfield’s fall, he was working on a kind of metal
detector which he thought could locate the bullet in the president’s
body. But he was ordered to only look in a certain area of the body,
and found nothing.
Unfortunately, after seventy-nine days of suffering, Garfield succumbs
to the mass of infections in his body. The country, for perhaps the
first time since the recent Civil War, bands together in sorrow.
Chester Arthur becomes president, and even in these last pages after
Garfield has died, Candice Millard, the author, keeps us reading along
with the events as they unfolded day by day.
There is very little to no sympathy for Charles Guiteau, but his
defense strategies are ingenious, if laughable. Again, good reading
right to the end of the book. So, a “tale of madness, medicine and the
murder of a president” receives a thumbs up from this reviewer.
We’ll see what book club thinks on Tuesday night. Come join us!
I’ll save you a seat.
Bulletin! Update—Book club loved the book–100% of them!
Next month’s selection is Who Stole the American
Dream? by Hedrick Smith.