Wednesday, March 18, 2015

March is Mostly Mets Reading Month: 'Destiny of the Republic,' the heartbreaking story of President James Garfield

After a short break, we’re back at the bookshelf for another presidential reading adventure.

“Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President” by Candice Millard
Published in 2011

It’s a heartbreaking story.

President James Garfield was sort of the JFK of his time, a young war hero, brilliant and well-liked with younger children.

Author Candice Miller, who also has written “The River of Doubt” about Theodore Roosevelt’s near-fatal expedition, weaves the tale of Garfield’s humble beginnings and rise to presidency with the life of his eventual assassin, Charles J. Guiteau.

They intersect on July 2, 1881 in a Washington train station when Guiteau shoots the president from behind, just months into his term. Garfield died two months later.

The tragedy is that this wouldn’t happen today.

Guiteau suffered from severe mental illness and probably wouldn’t be walking the streets untreated today. Certainly his increasingly hostile letters to the White House demanding an office would today draw attention and a visit from the Secret Service.

I’d say that no one would be able to walk up to a president in a train station these days, but I never expected someone in 2014 would be able to stroll into the White House undetected, either.

It’s also likely that modern medicine would have saved the president, who, as Millard vividly tells us, was unfortunately subjected to less-than-stellar medical care and eventually died – painfully -- from infection and starvation. The bullet, it turned out, somehow missed his spine and vital organs. If left alone, he’d have been home in a matter of days and recover completely.

In one of Guiteau’s clearer moments during his farcical trial, he said that he merely shot the president, and that his doctors killed him.

Garfield today is remembered as a president with tremendous potential who served too briefly to make an impact. But his successor, New Yorker Chester Arthur, was able to use Garfield’s death and the hands of a deranged office-seeker to create the civil service system.

My son and I were able to visit Garfield’s magnificent tomb in Cleveland in 2008.  The 20th president rests in Lake View Cemetery on the city’s east side.

We arrived at the castle-like memorial about 4:02 — only to find it closed at 4 p.m. We ran up the stairs and found the door already locked, and were about to walk away when it slowly opened.

The caretaker said he was sorry, and that he had just closed. I asked if we could quickly pay our respects. He appreciated that we had come from far away, opened the door all the way and said, "Let me go and turn all the lights back on."

And once inside we saw a spectacular rotunda with a large white statue of Garfield, dramatically lit. The caretaker said the architect didn’t want the statue in there, thinking it was unnecessary, but was overruled by the committee overseeing the project.

He pointed out some of the features, then sent us to the circular stone staircase to the lower level.

And there, on simple stone pedestals, were the caskets of President Garfield and his wife, Lucretia as well as urns containing the cremains of their daughter and her husband.
I’ve been to a number of presidential grave sites, and in every other place the caskets are either buried or encased in a vault.
The caskets of Mrs. and President Garfield.
I didn’t want to impose any longer, so we rushed back upstairs and thanked the caretaker profusely.

But he said we weren’t done, and pointed to stairs leading up to an observation deck, where, he said, we’d have the best view of the Cleveland skyline in the city.

And he was correct.

Your reading list so far:

March 5: "Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century" by Marc Okkenon
March 4: "Clemente! The Enduring Legacy" by Kal Wagenheim 
March 3: "Mets by the Numbers" by Jon Springer and Matthew Silverman
March 2: "Faith and Fear in Flushing" by Greg W. Prince


Dave J. said...

We've been there just after it closed, too. But too late to have the luck to be let back in. My son fiddled with the door until he thinks he set off an alarm. One of the most amazing cemeteries I have ever been in, and as a geocacher, I've been in quite a few.

Mets Guy in Michigan said...

Cool story, Dave! Apparently the tomb has community meeting rooms and all kinds of features that one might not expect.