Book Talk: The tale of a surprising historical footnote

Thu Oct 27, 2011 5:18am EDT
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By Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) - James Garfield, the 20th U.S. president, is a largely forgotten historical footnote because he was shot four months after taking office and died an agonizing two months later, serving only 200 days.

It is an undeserved fate for a surprisingly fascinating man, argues Candice Millard in her book "The Destiny of the Republic," which twins the life stories of Garfield and Charles Guiteau, the deranged man who shot him.

There is also the tragic subtext of Garfield's death. An autopsy found that the bullet from Guiteau's gun had been encysted within his body. Garfield died from an infection from the doctors' frequent probing, and unwashed hands.

Millard, whose previous books include "The River of Doubt," a bestseller about ex-president Teddy Roosevelt, talked to Reuters about how she discovered who Garfield really was.

Q: What got you interested in Garfield?

A: "Honestly, I wasn't interested in writing about another president. I was looking for a topic that had a lot of science in it, and I stumbled on Alexander Graham Bell, on a story about him trying to invent something to find the bullet in Garfield.

"I had never heard this story before and it really surprised me. Bell was very young. He was only 34 at the time and he'd invented the telephone just five years earlier. He was really at the height of his fame and power, and he had a lot of things he was working on and just dropped everything he was doing, turned his life upside down to try and help Garfield. It made me wonder what Garfield was like.

"So I started researching and thought, my God, this man was extraordinary. At that point I knew I wanted to tell his story."   Continued...