By Kevin Kelley
From our American history lessons, we’re all familiar with the great sense of sorrow and loss the Union felt after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, just days after the commander-in-chief had successfully achieved victory in the Civil War. And how Reconstruction policies were ineffectively administered and then abandoned in the years that followed.
And we know, either through memory or legend, of the grief that overtook the nation following the murder of John F. Kennedy. The sense of what might have been and suspicions of conspiracy at times became a national obsession.
But the national memory has forgotten a similar period of national grief – that which followed the assassination of the nation’s 20th president, James Garfield. Born in a log cabin in what is now Moreland Hills, Garfield died just 200 days after being sworn in as chief executive. He died nearly three months after being shot in a Washington, D.C., railroad station by a deranged gunman, Charles Guiteau.
Author Candice Millard revives the story of the 1881 shooting of, vigil for and death of the president in her 2011 book, “Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President.” The former writer and editor at National Geographic magazine will give a talk and sign copies of her book today at 7 p.m. at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site, 8095 Mentor Avenue (U.S. 20) in Mentor. No tickets are need for the free event, but seating is limited.
Millard traces the path of Garfield from extreme poverty in what was then rural Ohio to successful student, Civil War soldier, then well-respected politician. She also follows Guiteau, who, she wrote, “failed at everything he had tried, and he had tried nearly everything, from law to ministry to even a free-love commune.” Both men had experienced near brushes with death that caused them to believe Providence spared them to accomplish something great.
Millard, who traveled to Ohio five times over several years to conduct research, said Garfield’s poor, rural formative years defined him.
“I think he was very proud of being Midwestern, and proud of the lessons he learned growing up working on a farm,” Millard said during a recent phone interview.
The passing years and his short tenure in the White House led Garfield – and his promise as president – to be largely forgotten by Americans. But the loss of the president affected Americans deeply, Millard said.
“The attempt on Garfield’s life aroused feelings of patriotism that many Americans had long since forgotten, or never knew they had,” she wrote.
“At the time, it was a tremendous, tremendous tragedy for the nation,” Millard said of Garfield’s death. “Garfield was loved and trusted.”
By bringing himself up from extreme poverty to the most powerful position of the country, Garfield had been viewed as the American ideal. What’s more, he rose to power without sacrificing his principles or character, Millard said. As a result, just two decades after the Civil War, Garfield had come to be accepted and trusted as the leader of all Americans – North and South, former slaves and former slave owners, immigrants and pioneers, Millard said.
In addition to causing great national grief, Garfield’s death led to profound changes in medicine.
“When his autopsy results were released, Americans knew right away that he didn’t have to die,” Millard said. The author concludes that Garfield’s doctors, by the unsterilized probing of the bullet wound, caused massive infections that ultimately killed the president. Antisepsis, which had been accepted by physicians in Europe but not America, became the accepted practice here after the president’s death.