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Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President

Candice Millard’s account of President James Garfield’s assassination brings back to roaring life a tragic but irresistible historical period.

Destiny of the Republic:
A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
by Candice Millard
Doubleday
352 pp.

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First, the killer walks away from a deadly steamship accident on Long Island Sound.

Then, in a flashback from four years earlier, the other major protagonists, from the soon-to-be 20th president to men who revolutionized medicine and communications, share the stage at the nation’s Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876. The backdrop: portions of the yet-to-be-assembled Statue of Liberty on display for thousands of curious onlookers.

So begins Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, Candice Millard’s account of President James Garfield’s assassination and the medical bungling that led to his death at the age of 49. It is a fascinating look into a period of neglected American history.

Garfield served less than a year as commander in chief and is remembered as a footnote president, if at all. In that regard, it seems a safe bet the background of his months-long death spiral after the shooting is even more obscure.

But, as Millard makes clear, the fate of Garfield and the suffering of his wife and children wracked the country throughout the summer of 1881.

As an Ohio Congressman, Garfield was a respected, learned man with a propensity for loquaciousness. When he first appears in Millard’s account, Garfield is with his wife and six children, strolling through the exhibition in anticipation of exploring the scientific marvels on display.

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