A rip-roaring horror story

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.


  1. Oggie. says

    Another book on my summer read list.

    Along with a history of the 30 years war. And a survey of the early middle ages. And two books about late medieval warfare. And a book about Mexican dinosaurs. And a book about ceratopsian and ornithopod dinosaurs. And rereading LoTR (again). And I’m also reading the Sam Vimes Discworld books. And I am waiting delivery of a biography of Lettow von Vorbeck. So this is definitely a book to fill in the parts of my day not filled with working, reading, cooking and Wife.

  2. Akira MacKenzie says

    Right now, I’m trying to get through Hardwiring Happiness:The New Brain Science of Contentment, Calm, and Confidence by Rick Hanson per my shrink’s suggestion. I’m also digesting the soon-to-be released rules for Cthulhu Invictus for Seventh Edition Call of Cthulhu and re-reading Leviathan Wakes (I’m re-reading The Expanse series to get ready for the next book, coming this December). After that, I’ve got The Plot Against America by Philip Roth and I may re-read Dracula along with my usual list of Lovecraft stories in preparation for Halloween.

  3. says

    Apparently “Doctor” wasn’t that unusual a name at the time. There was an early Mormon dissenter named “Doctor Philastus Hurlbutt”, with “Doctor” as his given name. He was one of the controbutors to Eber D. Howe’s Mormonism Unvailed

  4. addiepray says

    You didn’t even mention the other interesting subplot- Alexander Graham Bell rushing to invent a metal detector to find the bullet. Really interesting book.

  5. Pierce R. Butler says

    Millard is a good storyteller, but she does have a tendency to whitewash.

    F’rinstance, Garfield – though arguably successful at unifying white Americans after the Civil War – did little or nothing to control southern revanchist physical and legal attacks against the former slave population. (Rutherford B. Hayes gets a passing mention, but Millard carefully avoids his role in enabling white “Redemption” as his payback for winning the White House after an election fiasco that makes 2000 and 2016 look legitimate.)

    Nor does she mention that Garfield, like a good Republican, had unambiguously sold out to the Wall Street of the later 19th century, railroad interests.

  6. Rich Woods says

    @Oggie #2:

    And a book about Mexican dinosaurs.

    Is there a sub-plot about a bellowing American dinosaur with tiny hands and spurred feet building a wall to keep them out?

  7. says

    If people are looking for summer reading recommendations, I’m currently wading[1] my way through
    The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America
    by Louis Menand, an account of the trends in philosophical thought in America post Civil War up to the turn of the 20th Century. It’s an old-ish book (2001) but it was recommended to me by a friend who has a PhD in philosophy after I came across a reference to a somewhat obscure intellectual figure of that era named Charles Sanders Peirce in another book I was reading. Peirce was a quixotic character: he contributed to both philosophy and the physical sciences but was also an incorrigible racist (his family were Confederate sympathizers during the Civil War). Thanks to an unconventional (for the time) personal life and pissing off some powerful people, he never held a formal academic position and often had to be rescued from destitution by friends (He also suffered from chronic pain which is one of the things that interested me about him in the first place as I’m dealing with the chronic headaches ATM) but it never seemed to put a dent in his output. Along with other, better-known contemporaries, he was responsible for a school of philosophy called “pragmatism“. He was also an pioneering figure in the field of semiotics, which in turn lead to the schools of post-modernist and post-structuralist thought that cause so much consternation among mountebanks like Jordan Peterson and his ilk. Which shows that far from being some kind of self-indulgent parlour game invented by poloneck-wearing French humanities professors disgruntled by being sidelined by science triumphant, post-modernism and post-structuralism do have a distinguished intellectual pedigree, and an American one at that!

    [1] It’s a tough read because a lot of it involves reading a bit of it, then going off to think about it myself for a bit. I’ve been kind of blocked on the section dealing with the philosophy of law for the past couple of weeks… also, all those triple-barrelled New England names gives everything a somewhat Lovecraftian flavour 😛

  8. quotetheunquote says

    @oggie #2

    All very worthy goals! I’ve promised myself I will let myself read LoTR again, as soon as I’m caught up on the yard work … it’s been about 20 years, haven’t managed to get there yet (I like my JRRT reading thoroughly uninterrupted).

    P.S. Judging by the length of your reading list, I would guess that you’ve managed to dispense with that annoying habit called “sleep”…

  9. Saganite, a haunter of demons says

    This happened almost four decades after Ignaz Semmelweis demonstrated scientifically the importance of anti-septic measures for preventing childbed fever and reducing mothers’ mortality. And this man ended his life in an asylum, beaten by the wardens, mind. Tradition for tradition’s sake is sick, whether that’s in the medical and scientific fields or in the wider culture.

  10. Hairhead, Still Learning at 59 says

    And the story of Ignaz Semmelweis is worse than that. Doctors of the time were contemptuos of Semmelweis and his ideas about cleanliness because he was a Jew. Hundreds of thousands died because of insane Christian prejudice.

  11. mnb0 says

    “a god-soaked repellent psychopath for a villain”
    How boring and how outdated. Does he wear a black hat? Already Margery Allingham’s Tiger in the Smoke from 1952 took the next step: show the humanity of the psychopath.. Lawrence Sanders (First Deadly Sin) and Ruth Rendell (eg A Demon in my View).

    “you will learn more about pus”
    How predictable – such a stereotyped book cannot do without gore.
    Try to raise some understanding (just for clarification: that’s not a synonym of justification) for Guiteau and for the doctors. Now that’s a challenge.

  12. Oggie. says

    MicroRaptor @6:

    Dinosaurs and Other Reptiles from the Mesozoic of Mexico (Life of the Past)

    Rich Woods @8:

    Is there a sub-plot about a bellowing American dinosaur with tiny hands and spurred feet building a wall to keep them out?

    Not yet. It is sitting on my bedside table. And the book stares at me. All I have done is perused the pictures. I have not read it yet. Yet. It will get me. I have started it. But other things are in the way. It will get me. Maybe. Or, possibly, I may be able to resi

  13. nomdeplume says

    Reminds me of the death of King Charles II whose death was hastened, if not caused by doctors – “the symptoms of his final illness are similar to those of uraemia (a clinical syndrome due to kidney dysfunction). In the days between his collapse and his death, Charles endured a variety of torturous treatments including bloodletting, purging and cupping in hopes of effecting a recovery.”

  14. Tony Youngblood says

    I love this book, as well as Millard’s River of Doubt about T. Roosevelt’s South American expedition.

    For more on Garfield during the Civil War, read the excellent 1861: The Civil War Awakening, the most entertaining book on the Civil War I have ever read.

  15. says

    Perhaps a very tangential remark, but maybe Chester Arthur’s greatest achievement is to have provided his name to Chester Arthur Burnett, aka Howling Wolf.