Assassin and Victim

Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard jumped to the head of my reading queue.  It’s the story of James Garfield’s assassination by Charles Guiteau in 1881 and, in particular, the grotesquely bad medical care Garfield received after he was shot, which had as much to do with his death as the bullet from Guiteau’s gun.


It’s an interesting little story, although maybe not quite interesting enough for an entire book.  A few points:

  • Garfield’s life story was every bit as inspiring as Lincoln’s — born in a log cabin; lost his father at an early age; studied relentlessly to better himself; became a successful general in the Civil War despite having no military training; elected president in 1880 despite trying his best not to be nominated, then refusing to campaign….  His problem is that he ended up serving as president for only a few months, and the big national issue of his time was not the survival of the union but civil service reform.  Who cares?  So now he’s lost in the backwaters of history.  Millard tries hard to make us feel his greatness, but really, the best we can do is agree that he was a helluva guy.
  • Lincoln’s son Robert Todd Lincoln was his secretary of war.  He was nearby when his father was shot at Ford’s theater.  He was nearby when Garfield was shot at the Washington train station. He was with McKinley when he was assassinated in Buffalo in 1901.  This caused him to have second thoughts about accepting later invitations to presidential events.
  • We learned in school that Guiteau was a “disappointed office seeker.”  But the key element to Guiteau’s character was that he was absolutely bonkers.  The assassination theme of the book is relevant to Pontiff, but in novels characters need comprehensible motivations.  Being absolutely bonkers works in real life, but not in fiction.  And being a helluva guy doesn’t really work for the victim; you need something more than that to keep the reader interested.

6 thoughts on “Assassin and Victim

  1. I tend to make sense of Guiteau as a particularly American brand of bonkers. Self-made man, author, stalker, optimist; he defended himself and thought it was the right way to go, travelling preacher… my view of him is colored by the musical Assassins, but I did do a long paper on him in college and it didn’t change my perspective very much. It’s like the classic American Entrepreneurial Spirit turned up to eleven. Looking at him that way, I kinda love him as a character, because he can be made consistent and archetypal in a story where in real life he was a nutjob.

    Ambitious, narcissistic, yet only marginally competent, always going after the next big thing and not getting it and then getting incredibly rageful for it; heck, I’ve met people like that who just happen to not be murderous. That I know of.

    One of my favorite parts of the story is how they tried to use a newfangled metal detector to find the bullet in Garfield’s body; they proved that it worked on civil war vets and it worked every time. It didn’t work on Garfield because he had one of very few newfangled beds with metal springs, and nobody mentioned it.


    • The newfangled metal detector was invented by Alexander Graham Bell, and that’s a big part of the story the book tells. They figured out about the metal springs eventually, but they insisted he use the device only on the right side of the body, because that’s where the bullet was. They were wrong.


  2. Pingback: Another Assassin, Another Victim | richard bowker

  3. Pingback: Replica prolog: A would-be assassin thinks too much | richard bowker

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