by Candice Miller
Miller tells the story of the assassination of James Garfield, 20th president of the United States. In so doing she portrays the events, the politics, the science and the morals of that era to place into context the tragedy of a lone assassin’s bullet.
The result is a highly readable text. This book could stand on its entertainment value alone, though is also filled with points of historical relevance, so the story educates as well as entertains. The reader learns about the Joseph Lister’s invention of antisepsis, which could have saved Garfield’s life but was instead ignored by his doctors. Miller touches on the spoils system and how this pork-barrel method of doling out political favors played a role in motivating the assassin. And we learn of Garfield’s successor and generally disrespected vice president, Chester Arthur, who much to everyone’s surprise performed his duties respectably well during his three years as president.
After suffering their second assassination of a president in just sixteen years, the American people still refused to believe that their leader needed protection. They held to the ideal that the president should be accessible to the people, rather than ensconced like a king in a foreboding royal palace. Indeed, the White House in that era was open to all, with only an over-worked secretary standing between the president and the masses. Government leaders, including the president of the United States, routinely traveled around the nation’s capital unescorted and unprotected. It would not be until 20 years later, following the assassination of McKinley, that the nation would yield to the concept of protecting their president.
Other changes occurred more quickly. Shortly after Garfield’s death, and in fact immediately after the autopsy, it became clear the the president did not die of his bullet wound, but in fact died of infection caused by the doctors that treated him. American doctors had willfully ignored the success of antisepsis in Germany, continuing to perform invasive surgeries without so much as washing their hands. In fact in his own defense, the insane gunman who shot the president made this very claim. Ironically it was an accurate defense, though not sufficient to save the assassin from the gallows of an angry nation.
So it took the tragic death of a beloved president to overcome the arrogance of a stubborn medical profession. Following the condemning results of the autopsy, the American medical profession finally adopted the antisepsis practices created by Joseph Lister. Ironically, the doctor in charge of Garfield’s care was a man named Willard Bliss, whose very name conformed to Thomas Gray’s famous line: ‘ignorance is bliss.’
Another outcome of this tragedy was to finally dismantle what was known at the time as the spoils system, in which politicians awarded plum jobs to supporters who helped them achieve political office. This system was seen as ultimately contributing to Garfield’s death, and the nation was sufficiently motivated to eliminate it. Chester Arthur, who owed his entire political career to the spoils system, was the president who signed the bill dismantling that system.