Death, Dying, and Murder?

In recent weeks, fellow ECW authors have posted about the death totals in the American Civil War and the Disease of two Regiments. Now a blog post about murder! Not to harp on a morbid theme, but the history Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard chronicles the tragic assassination of James Garfield, the 20th president of the United States. Borrowing the subtitle, the book is a “tale of madness, medicine, and the murder of a president.”

Candice Millard’s history shows the transition of medicine and technology in the latter decades of the 19th century. Bordering on the cruel, the medical profession in America had mostly had rejected the findings of Dr. Joseph Lister and antisepsis and the sterilization of medical instruments. Within a few years, according to Millard, both antisepsis and even the x-ray was routine, which would save the lives of thousands of fortunate people. Unfortunately, President Garfield was not one of them.

Millard chronicles the lives of three gentlemen–Alexander Graham Bell, James Garfield, Charles Guiteau. Bell’s greatest desire was to help humanity, especially the deaf, and his technological advancements were misused in the effort to save the president’s life. She also discusses the teachings of Lister, who tried in vain to convince American doctors that antisepsis was critical in medical practice.

Garfield, Millard shows, was highly intelligent, and as president he harbored ideas that would have benefited Americans both North and South and white and black.

Thrown into this mix was Charles Guiteau, a man who was, putting it bluntly, insane, who held illusions of political prominence, messages from God, and finally a calling from God to murder the president. His motives: to create peace within the Republican party and finally get the recognition he thought he deserved. He also had the crazed idea he would be seen as an American hero and celebrity!

So why is “murder” in the title of both this entry and the title? Take a look over the following passages about the medical treatment of President Garfield by renowned physicians. First, Dr. Smith Townsend, the District of Columbia’s health officer, was the first doctor to arrive at the train station in which Garfield had been shot. What he did makes even a non-medical person like the author cringe:

“As the president lay on the train station floor, one of the most germ-infested environments imaginable, Townsend inserted an unsterilized finger into the wound in his back, causing a small hemorrhage and almost certainly introducing an infection that was far more lethal than Guiteau’s bullet.” (pg. 138)

Later physicians, including Dr. D. Willard Bliss,

“inserted an unsterilized finger or instrument into Garfield’s back, something that happened several times every day, they introduced bacteria, which not only caused infection at the site of the wound, but entered Garfield’s bloodstream.” (pg. 196)

Bliss’s list of incompetencies goes on and on, yet as the doctor in charge of Garfield’s treatment, he remained highly protective over access to his patient.??Eventually, Garfield’s body would be ravaged with infection–labeled septic poisoning–which the autopsy would classify as what killed him. The doctors, probing with unsterilized fingers and fingers, tried in vain to find the bullet, and they dehydrated the president with their medicinal concoctions.The doctors had, in no lesser term, murdered the president.

In conclusion, Millard’s history is a great read, showing the frustrations but also the steady improvements that took time and eventually saved lives. She also hits on the lasting legacies of these men. It is truly history writing at its best–tragic, but enlightening.
As a post-script, if one is looking to get a deeper and up-close look at medicine of the time frame, a great place to visit is the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland. Some of the same practices from the war, in which Garfield fought and rose to the rank of brigadier general in the Union army, was still around twenty-five years later when he was suffering from his mortal wounding. For more information, their website:

Also, you can check out Chris Mackowski’s discussion of this book back in October.

Please leave a comment and join the discussion!