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

Millard, Candice

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Biography

Annotated by:
Donley, Carol
  • Date of entry: Dec-16-2011


Candice Millard portrays several figures in the 19th century whose lives came together to change history: newly-elected President of the U.S. James Garfield; the insane would-be assassin Charles Guiteau; Doctor Bliss, the arrogant physician who claimed control of Garfield's care; Alexander Graham Bell, who invented a device to find the bullet; and major political figures of the time. Ironically, Garfield attended the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876 where Joseph Lister was displaying his germ theory of infection and Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his telephone. But when Guiteau shot Garfield in 1881, the bullets did not kill him.  What killed him after months of suffering was the massive infections caused by the doctors' probing without clean hands or clean instruments. At the autopsy, the doctors saw evidence of massive infections, but the bullet was encysted and harmless. All the probing by the doctors created a tunnel, but it was not the path of the bullet.  "Gentlemen, we have made a mistake," said the doctor.


This extraordinary account of the attempted assasination of Garfield explores the motivations and character of several figures involved.  The most outrageous of them was Doctor Bliss, who announced he was in charge of the President's care and even dismissed Garfield's own family physician. Bliss claimed that the President and first lady had asked him to take over; Lucretia Garfield denied that.  Like many American doctors, Bliss scoffed at Lister's germ theory, although it was widely accepted and practiced in Europe.  At the train station where Garfield was shot, Bliss and 9 other doctors probed his wounds while he lay on a dirty horsehair mattress on the station floor. When Garfield was moved to the White House, Bliss probed the wounds daily trying to find the bullet. Bliss insisted that the bullet was on Garfield's right side; he would not let Bell use his new invention on Garfield's left side, because he was so sure of himself. Autopsy found the bullet on the left side.  Bliss's hubris and close-mindedness contributed mightily to Garfield's death.



Place Published

New York



Page Count