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Book Talk: The tale of a surprising historical footnote

James Garfield, the 20th U.S. president, is a largely forgotten historical footnote because he was shot four months after taking office and died an agonizing two months later, serving only 200 days.
/ Source: Reuters

James Garfield, the 20th U.S. president, is a largely forgotten historical footnote because he was shot four months after taking office and died an agonizing two months later, serving only 200 days.

It is an undeserved fate for a surprisingly fascinating man, argues Candice Millard in her book "The Destiny of the Republic," which twins the life stories of Garfield and Charles Guiteau, the deranged man who shot him.

There is also the tragic subtext of Garfield's death. An autopsy found that the bullet from Guiteau's gun had been encysted within his body. Garfield died from an infection from the doctors' frequent probing, and unwashed hands.

Millard, whose previous books include "The River of Doubt," a bestseller about ex-president Teddy Roosevelt, talked to Reuters about how she discovered who Garfield really was.

Q: What got you interested in Garfield?

A: "Honestly, I wasn't interested in writing about another president. I was looking for a topic that had a lot of science in it, and I stumbled on Alexander Graham Bell, on a story about him trying to invent something to find the bullet in Garfield.

"I had never heard this story before and it really surprised me. Bell was very young. He was only 34 at the time and he'd invented the telephone just five years earlier. He was really at the height of his fame and power, and he had a lot of things he was working on and just dropped everything he was doing, turned his life upside down to try and help Garfield. It made me wonder what Garfield was like.

"So I started researching and thought, my God, this man was extraordinary. At that point I knew I wanted to tell his story."

Q: What was so extraordinary about him?

A: "What struck me first is, I think, what strikes a lot of people when they begin to learn about Garfield -- which was, he was brilliant. How many congressmen write an original proof of the Pythagorean Theorem? How many presidents have we had who are classicists, who knew the entire Aeneid by heart in Latin? And, of course, that he had come from nothing, he was born in a log cabin ...

"He rises not through ambition, what you see in so many other politicians, this hungry determination for power and fame. He rises through his intelligence and industry. He never campaigns for any office, people ask him to take the seats and to run, and he's willing. But he was always going to follow his own conscience and convictions."

Q: What kept you interested -- the story?

A: "The story itself is heartbreaking, it's sickening. First, you have this deeply, dangerously delusional man who's been mentally 'off' for a long time, who lives a peripatetic solitary life, moving in and out of boarding houses, never paying his rent ...

"You see this man with such promise, and such hope, rising, and then at the same time, perpendicularly, this madman who's had such failure, nearing him. You want to say somebody stop this, stop this man, get Guiteau some help. But he just slips through the cracks.

"Even harder to bear is what happened with the medical care, these doctors who should have known better. That's the real crime. People who know that Garfield died of infection just think that's what they knew at the time, it wasn't really their fault. But that's not the case, they absolutely should have known.

"Joseph Lister had discovered antiseptic 16 years before; it wasn't some strange little theory from some unknown doctor. He was renowned. He'd had dramatic results in his own surgical ward. It was accepted and widely adopted in Europe. He was respected and his theory widely known, but it was dismissed."

Q: Did following this story get painful?

A: "This was difficult emotionally, because he was such a fine man, any way you look at it. He wasn't without fault. He was human, but he was a good, kind, honest man -- to be honest, he reminds me of my father.

"When you do research there are all the moments you have when you are reminded that this was a person -- not just a character in your story, not just a president, but a person.

"I was at the Library of Congress and all the presidential papers ... I open a folder and I see an envelope in there. It's not sealed. The front of it is facing the table. I just think it's going to be a letter. So I open it up, and all of a sudden hair spills out on the table. I turn it over and handwritten on it is 'clipped from President Garfield's head on his deathbed' ... You think this was a man, a husband, a father, a young man, with so much life ahead of him.

"It reminds you of the responsibility you have when you're writing about these people, to not just understand what happened but try to understand who they were, as best you can." (Reporting by Elaine Lies; editing by Patricia Reaney)