I picked up this book (actually, my brother gave it to me), and I couldn’t put it down. It’s got everything. It’s got a brave heroic protagonist. It’s got a god-soaked repellent psychopath for a villain who could have stepped straight out of a Steven King novel. It’s got establishment schemers who make everything worse. And most of all, it’s got grisly body horror. I kept reading because I had to know what abomination would be perpetrated on the innocent victim next.
Only it’s not a novel. It’s Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, and it’s about the assassination of James Garfield.
The protagonist: James Garfield was one of those forgotten, minor presidents I didn’t know much about, because he served less than a year and months of that was was spent slowly dying in agony. But, I learned, he was a rather progressive candidate who accepted a nomination by popular acclaim reluctantly, and was a vigorous defender of civil rights who campaigned for dignity and equality for all races. He was a Republican. That tells you how much the party has declined in the last 140 years.
The assassin: Charles Guiteau was a cheap grifter, a narcissist with delusions of grandeur. He wanted to exploit the spoils system, whereby an incoming administration would freely hand out jobs and high ranking positions to their pals and people with money (hey, so the system hasn’t changed that much). Guiteau talked himself into thinking he deserved to be ambassador to France and that he was good friends with various politicans (he wasn’t), and when he didn’t get his due, decided to murder the president for the fame.
The real assassin: Guiteau pulled the trigger, but the real killer were the swarm of incompetent doctors who wanted the acclaim that would fall on whoever saved Garfield. Worst of the bunch was Dr. Doctor Bliss — his first name was actually “Doctor”, which would have been improbable in a novel — who seized control of the patient and limited what could be done, all the while issuing enthusiastically optimistic daily progress reports as the President spent months in steady decline. A later analysis of the treatment found the aphorism “Ignorance is Bliss” appropriate.
The body horror: the American doctors did not believe in the germ theory of disease, and rejected Lister’s antiseptic technique. So, as Garfield lay bleeding on the filthy train station floor, what did Bliss do? He stuck his unwashed finger in the bullet hole. He pulled out a series of non-sterile probes and poked them in there. He’s looking for the bullet in the worst way possible, and further, he ends up misdiagnosing him. The bullet had gone through to the left side of Garfield’s body, but Bliss was confident it was on the right, and so he kept probing on the right — every day, he seemed to be torturing Garfield further with this pointless insertion of his finger into the open wound — and eventually got the confirmation he wanted: an abscess formed, and a river of pus ran through the track he’d made with his dirty tools.
Really, you will learn more about pus than you ever wanted to know in this book. Pools of the stuff form in Garfield’s body, streams of it drain out of him, boils full of pus erupt all over his body as sepsis sets in. It is not for the squeamish. I probably just ruined everyone’s breakfast by mentioning it.
It doesn’t have a happy ending. Garfield dies. Bliss is disgraced. Guiteau is hanged. Oh, sorry, spoilers.
The one glimmer of optimism at the end is in Garfield’s vice-president, Chester Arthur, another of those easily forgotten presidents. He is a product of the spoils system, and a minion of a scheming senator who opposed Garfield and who groomed Arthur as a tool to serve his ends. Arthur was also something of a bumbler who’d lucked into appointments without actually getting elected, and who was terrified at the idea of taking over the job. He spends most of the book offstage, blubbering in fear, aware of his own incompetence. But then, when the president dies, he steps into the role, tells the scheming senator to take a hike, and rises to the occasion. His main accomplishment is the reform of the civil service, doing his best to end the spoils system.
I guess that sort of counts as a happy ending.
Anyway, if you’re one of those people into horror novels, who enjoys harrowing, gut-twisting tales of nightmarish experiences, try reading some history. It’s far scarier than anything fictional.