Dead before we knew him

Sophie SmithDespite current sentiment toward the federal government, I’ve always been a fan of the institution of the President of the United States.

So many different people have given the role so many different meanings. Some presidents are beloved, some are hated; all are unique men with complicated stories. And some of these intriguing stories are hardly known.

Destiny of the Republic

“Destiny of the Republic” by Candice Millard is available at the library in hardcover.

An unnecessary death
Unlike Washington, Lincoln, or Kennedy, James Garfield always seems to end up on the list of the forgotten. After four months as president he was shot, and for the next two and a half months he was a living cadaver, the subject of a tragic scientific experiment.

The shooting, though violent and horrible, did not kill him.

That dubious honor was left to his doctors.

Candice Millard, in Destiny of the Republic, explores the political intrigue and medical mayhem of Garfield’s assassination. Fans of Devil in the White City or The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks will appreciate that this story looks at both the unbelievable-but-true history of our country and very real scientific discovery.

Desperate measures
Did you know that Alexander Graham Bell spent the time between the shooting and Garfield’s death desperately trying to invent the metal detector–to find the bullet? Did you know that Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert, on track to become the only man present at three presidential assassinations, held Garfield as he nearly bled to death? Did you know that the first air conditioner may have been invented as doctors tried to keep Garfield’s body cool as he lay dying in the White House during the summer of 1881?

To me, the most fascinating part of the book is the most simple. That rule we all learned at a very young age—Wash Your Hands!—is as essential to saving a life as any surgical tool or medication. James Garfield died as a result of unclean fingers poked into the bullet hole in his side. He was, in fact, overtreated by the multiple doctors hovering around him.

And here comes the sad truth: if he had not been president, had he not been beloved by his countrymen (minus Charles Guiteau, his shooter), his doctors would have left the bullet in and let him heal, and he very likely would have lived.

Fortunately we now have this poignant and page-turning book, ensuring that James Garfield will no longer be one of those presidents you just can’t remember when you play Sporcle.

About Sophie Smith

Sophie Smith is the supervisor of teen services at the Nashua Public Library and can also frequently be found at the reference desk. As a history and Spanish major at Kenyon College she spent a year in Salamanca, Spain. She earned her master's in library and information science from Simmons College.

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