Book Review – James A. Garfield

James A. Garfield: The American President Series: The 20th President, 1881-1881
Ira Rutkow
Hardback, 2006

There is a series of books out, obviously titled The Presidents that has gone through most, if not all of them by now. I’m not going to lie, I don’t really care about Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. They’ve been talked about to death by our “glorious” edumication system. Besides, my interest in history lies in what Mark Twain called the Guilded Age and what many of us like to refer to as America’s Victorian Era. In other words, roughly post-reconstrution until the start of World War I. Garfield, having grown up and having made his estate so close to where I grew up, I tended to take a bit more interest in him than most other people do.
I read Dark Horse, which is hands down one of the best non-fiction books I’ve ever read, and that’s saying a lot. Also, I’ve been to his house, which is now a state park, several times. So I was really excited to get another book about Garfield to read.
This book seemed to have a bit of a different take. For instance, Ira Rutknow, the author, isn’t really a historian. He’s a doctor and his interest was more in the medicine of the time. [For those of you not at all into this sort of thing, I promise that will be a point in a little bit…]
The book starts out pretty simply, with an overview of Garfield, including his family and all of his education and political success through the years. It’s written in a way that’s really easy to read. In fact, if there was such a thing as young adult non-fiction, I’d almost expect this to be there, which is spectacular. This is a series meant for people that want to know a bit about each of the presidents, not for people that want in-depth scholarly information.
After that, we get into Garfield’s inauguration, and then more than I knew before about his issues with his vice-president, Chester Arthur.
For those not in the know, just a few months into his presidency, a man by the name of Charles Gateau, who was a bit of a loon and convinced that he should be given a high-ranking office for no reason other than he told people to vote for Garfield (nobody asked him to, nor did they as much as know who he was before Garfield started getting called upon by him), decided that Garfield had screwed him over and, under the banner of being for the New York Republicans, who were unhappy with Garfield, shot him in the back at a train station.
I now need to say that Lucretia Garfield was an incredible woman, and she has, from what I’ve read about her, quite a bit of grace and decorum that I’m sad we don’t get to see today. She sat by his bedside for weeks.

Anyway, back to this book itself. Here’s the problem with Garfield. He was shot in 1881. Medicine was nothing like we have today, and really, he’s lucky he didn’t get the leech treatment, which isn’t saying much because there was nothing lucky about any of his treatment.
And this is where the book shines. Ira’s interest in Garfield’s story was the mishandling of his medical care from the time he was shot until the time that he finally died of a horrible infection of the oozing-puss kind. I won’t go into all the details, but basically, the doctors spent weeks probing the wound with unwashed utensils and dirty hands.
I really liked hearing about the politics of medicine back then. His doctor, a man named Bliss, decided to take it upon himself to be the leader of his care, and turned away anybody with their newfangled notions of antiseptics. Bliss even refused to use that new listening tube device known to us as a stethoscope. I guess I can understand being old school and being afraid/unsure/whatever of new, invasive procedures, but I can’t imagine why he wouldn’t use a stethoscope instead of putting his head against Garfield’s chest and trying to listen.
In fact, the care was so mis-managed that a reporter (after the president’s death) made a comment in a newspaper that “Ignorance is Bliss” – and now you know what you get that from.
In Dark Horse, there was a reference to Louis Pasteur that wasn’t in this book, which made me a little sad – I liked that global connection. Also, there was some update of the Garfield family, but I would have liked to see a tad bit more.
The one thing that I really, really liked was the epilogue. It started with a paragraph of Ronald Regan’s assassination attempt and how modern medicine, just about 100 years later, had him patched up and he was back in the Oval Office in a week. Then it discussed what would have happened to Garfield if he had been shot today.

You know, in the end, the thing that killed Garfield was arrogance – Bliss was too arrogant to share control of the case or to listen to anybody else’s reason. Hell, he even lied to the newspapers and anyone who asked about the president. Had the wound been wiped off and stitched up, he would have waked with a limp for the rest of his life but lived for many, many years.

As a doctor, I consider Bliss a total failure.

As for this book, I give it a solid four pages.

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