In Assassination Vacation, one of my all-time favorite books, Sarah Vowell calls the circumstances surrounding the Garfield assassination “an opera of arrogance, a spectacle of greed, a galling, appalling epic of egomania dramatizing the lust for pure power, shameless and raw.” After reading Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, which details said circumstances, Vowell’s characterization now almost seems like an understatement.
The things I did while reading Destiny ranged from yelling at Dr. Bliss’s casual (and admittedly good-faith) malpractice in his care of the wounded president, cringing at the horrific realities of nineteenth-century medicine, admiring Garfield’s resilience and character in general (as well as his beard), and considering how naturally New York senator Roscoe Conkling could have excelled as a cable-news talking head today.
Many factors influenced the outcome of this high drama, all of which Millard captures and deftly welds together in service of this strange, tragic, and largely forgotten pocket of U.S. history. Each subplot—Garfield’s rise to prominence, the perky madness of the assassin Charles Guiteau, Conkling’s political machinations, the dunderheaded care of Dr. Bliss—deserve its own book, but this one (wisely) keeps its focus on the assassination itself. Even the detours showing the involvement of Alexander Graham Bell, fresh off inventing the telegraph with a contraption he thinks will help locate the bullet still lodged inside Garfield, help serve the larger narrative of how disparate elements (science, politics, medicine) can combine into an extraordinary mezcla.
I sometimes wonder how historical events would have been colored differently if Twitter and other social media had been around. But it turns out coverage of a major news story in 2014 isn’t all that different from one in 1880. With the telegraph and newspapers churning out daily, even hourly, updates on Garfield’s health and prognoses from his chief doctor, the coverage seemed just as anxious and overheated then as it does now.
It’s worth reading Destiny of the Republic not just to get a detailed picture of this “opera of arrogance,” but also for an illuminating look at an oft-forgotten pocket of U.S. history.