Thursday, December 8, 2011


Gentle Readers . . . and Maxwell,

Do I have a great book for you. Rory first mentioned it on Scraps of Literacy.

I thought it sounded good, and I had enough Amazon gift cards so I could get a book for free, and this was it: Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard.

I tend to be interested in more recent presidential history, maybe starting with Teddy Roosevelt. I had no idea that President James Garfield was such a fascinating guy. I knew he had been assassinated. Tale told.

But I learned so much about him and his death from this exceptionally well-written book. Not a single page was dull.

I'll tell you a few interesting facts about Garfield, but I don't want to ruin the book for you so you aren't getting all the details.

  1. He was a general in the Union Army and a strong abolitionist.
  2. After the war, he was elected to Congress and was perfectly content to serve there.
  3. He didn't run for president. He didn't say, Hey, I wanna be my party's nominee. Nope. They chose him when he didn't really want to be choosed. 
  4. He absolutely adored his wife and children.
  5. He had been president for four months when he was shot by Charles Guiteau.
  6. Alexander Graham Bell came up with an invention that could locate the bullet in Garfield's body. Although the machine worked, the doctor didn't allow Bell to use it on the side of Garfield's body where the bullet had come to rest because the doctor was convinced the bullet was on the other side.
  7. The shots didn't kill Garfield; his doctors did.
Here, I'll give you a little taste of Millard's writing:

With nothing to even ease the pain, Garfield lay silent as Bliss searched for the bullet inside him. Pressing the unsterilized probe downward and forward into the wound, Bliss did not stop until he had reached a cavity three inches deep in Garfield's back. At this point, he decided to remove the probe, but found that he could not. "In attempting to withdraw the probe, it became engaged between the fractured fragments and the end of the rib," he later wrote. He finally had to press down on Garfield's fractured rib so that it would lift and release the probe.

Although the probe was finally out, Garfield had no respite. Bliss immediately began to explore the wound again, this time with the little finger of his left hand. He inserted his finger so deeply into the wound that he could feel the broken rib and "what appeared to be lacerated tissue or comparatively firm coagula, probably the latter."

So you can see that we not only learn a great deal about Garfield in this book. We learn about common medical practices in the 1880s, but I promise, for those of you who are squeamish, it doesn't get too gross.

My favorite bits of trivia from this book are as follows:

The first physician on the scene after the shooting was one of the few black doctors in the United States. Thus, he became the first black doctor to treat a president.

Robert Todd Lincoln was present at the assassinations of two presidents and nearby at another -- when his own father was killed. RTL was on leave from the army (yes, of course, the Union Army) when Abraham Lincoln was assassinated. RTL was invited to go to the theater with his parents that fateful night, but chose to remain at the White House. As a member of Garfield's cabinet, he was with Garfield when he was shot. Now, it's up to you to find out the next assassination at which RTL was present. I can't remember and I'm too lazy to look it up.

Here's the funniest part of the book. I find this absolutely hilarious. Garfield's doctor, the doctor who took charge of the case, was named Doctor. Yes, that was his first name! So when he became a doctor he was Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss.

God bless that idiot Dr. Doctor. His name gave me a good laugh because one of my favorite characters in literature is Major Major Major in Catch-22.

Infinities of love,



  1. I'm probably one of the few people in the world who gives a crap about Garfield. (Maybe that'll change if enough people read this book.) I love the guy. I have a memorial glass plate issued in 1881 that's worth 80-100 bucks!

    As far as the Lincoln question, only two other presidents were ever assassinated: McKinley in 1900, Kennedy in 1960. Unless Robert Todd Lincoln -- or "Bobby," as I call him -- was extremely long-lived, it would have to be McKinley. I knew the answer anyway, though.

  2. I admit fully I no nothing about any of this, damn Canadian school system..haha....Doctor is a Doctor oh I could have such fun with that.

  3. I'll add it to my list, thanks!

  4. Thanks. Interesting and informative.

  5. I normally dislike history...but this sounds really interesting. I may have to check it out.

  6. Calling Dr. Doctor! hahaha too funny!

    History is fascinating! This book sounds very interesting. I might need to ask it on my future reads list. Thanks for the reccomendation. :)

  7. I'm happy to have spurred you on to read it, Lola, even though I haven't read it myself. Other books are in front of it, including the novels of Barbara Samuel, for whose "The Garden of Happy Endings" is coming out in April (as Barbara O'Neal. She used two names to be able to write different things, and Barbara O'Neal serves her very well right now, since she recently signed a new contract with Bantam which means more new books for me to be impatient about), and research for my next book. But one of these days, I'll get to that one.

    Thank you as well for this entry because it's part of a double inspiration to me. A few days ago, I received in the mail from Amazon "Citizen Kane: 70th Anniversary Ultimate Collector's Edition", which includes reproductions of memos between RKO and Orson Welles. I looked at those, amazed, and thought to myself, "Yeah, I can work on my next book. These memos exist. The resources are available." It's not that I'm uncertain about doing it because of the work involved. My first book was research-heavy, after all. But it's mainly hoping that the resources I need are available, that research libraries are receptive to what I want to find.

    And then there's this entry, and that excerpt, which shows that this is possible, that history can remain vivid, that all I can do is try once again. And again. And then again.

  8. Very informative post. :)

  9. Oh, wow! This was so intriguing!!!!!!! Dr. Doctor! LOL Too good.

    And his doctors basically cost him his life. Wow again.

    Very interesting!!! So glad you shared this with us! *Hugs*

  10. I love stuff like this, too. Like, Dr.'s killed George Washington, too. He had pneumonia and the healing of the times was to bleed someone. They bled him so much that he was too weak to fight the infection. So he croaked!

  11. Rory, You win the award for best comment of the week.

    Dr. Doctor Lola


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