In recent years I've been attracted to books about obscure presidents. When I read about the Candice Millard book on James Garfield I was instantly intrigued. I mean no one knows much of anything about Garfield including myself. He is easy to pass over because he barely survived 6 months into his term as president and a good portion of that time he was fighting for his life. The only time his name is brought up in conversation is when someone is struggling to remember the names of the four assassinated presidents. James A. Garfield
Garfield is a self made man, a true American success story. He grew up on a modest farm in Ohio with his brothers and his mother. He loved books and was a life time reader of literature scoring big points with me and certainly moving up in my esteem. He worked as a carpenter at college to pay for his tuition. Everything he seemed to turn his hand to he showed above average aptitude including strategy in war time during the nations civil struggle, and in peace time as a president trying to heal the divides in his own party.
Garfield's rise to the nomination in the 1880 Republican convention was not only improbable, but would have been a ludicrous thought for Garfield as well. He had no intention of seeking the nomination; in fact, he went to the convention to give the nomination speech for John Sherman, brother to General William Tecumseh Sherman. At the end of the speech instead of hearing chants for Sherman he heard chants for Garfield. In the first balloting Grant is leading by a healthy margin with Garfield only receiving a single vote. As the voting continues Garfield steadily gains a handful of votes on each round until it becomes obvious to everyone that he is the bipartisan candidate and a flood of votes go to him. Guiteau thought he deserved an office for his fervent (demented) support of the election of President Garfield.
Charles J. Guiteau, to put it mildly was deranged, and history should have passed without anyone knowing his name, but for the singular moment when he was able to borrow the money from an acquaintance, go down to the local shop, and purchase a handgun for the purpose of shooting the president of the United States. The Secret Service, at this time in history, was used primarily to investigate counterfeit money. The American public felt it was too much like royalty for a President to be guarded. They felt he should be accessible to the public. Guiteau shot Garfield twice once in the arm and once in the back in the middle of a train station. After 80 days of battling for his life Garfield died not from the assassin's bullets, but from the abysmal care of his doctors. He died from an infection he acquired from his doctors poking their unsterilized fingers and equipment into his wounds. Alexander Graham Bell
When Alexander Graham Bell discovered that doctors were searching for the bullet that entered Garfield's back he thought there should be a way to find the bullet without probing for it. He invented what he called an induction machine which is basically a precursor to the Geiger counter. Doctor Bliss, the self-appointed lead doctor on the Garfield case, insisted the bullet was on the right side and would only allow Bell to scan the body on that side. If Bell had been allowed to do a full scan they would have found that the bullet was on the left side and possibly would have given Garfield a chance at life. Bell regretted for the rest of his life that he didn't insist that the machine be passed over the left side as well. Candice Millard
This is such a well researched book, copiously notated and indexed. The writing style is free and easy and the chapters laid out in such a compelling fashion that I actually found myself rooting for Garfield to live even though I knew the outcome. I was also cheering for Bell, who was frantically trying to do his part to save the president. I certainly came away with a heightened respect for several people including Bell who was not only a great inventor, but a wonderful humanitarian; Garfield who was a man of vision and integrity; and Candice Millard who is a writer with passion and wonderful insight. I certainly look forward to reading her next foray into history.
Will Byrnes wrote an excellent review of this book is well. It is not to be missed. Here is the link to his review: Byrnes Garfield review
Scott Miller wrote a book about the McKinley assassination that works great as a companion read to the Candice Millard book. My review is here: My McKinley Review