Thursday, 4 September 2014

A Treasury of Victorian Murder: The Fatal Bullet: The Assassination of James A. Garfield Review (Rick Geary)


On July 2, 1881, President James Garfield, whose term has just begun a mere 4 months earlier, was shot in the back by a delusional religious fanatic called Charles Guiteau. 2 months later Garfield would succumb to the bullet wound and shortly after Guiteau would be hanged. 

The assassination took place just 16 years after Lincoln's death in Ford's Theatre and the details in Garfield's case pointed to the same mistakes that allowed Lincoln to be assassinated. Garfield had no escort, he walked about Washington D.C. by himself, unguarded. Guiteau even followed him on a couple of occasions - this is the President of the United States of America we’re talking about!!

On the fateful day, Garfield was taking the train for his holidays, walked through the waiting room with one of his ministers and his two sons, allowing Guiteau free access to stand up from one of the waiting room seats and shoot him as he passed. Amazingly it would take a third Presidential assassination - that of William McKinley in 1901 - for Congress to give the President an official guard, the Secret Service. 

Geary tells the story in an unusual way by comparing the lives of Garfield and Guiteau. Showing where one had a strong will to study and for hard work, and the other didn't, how people (in his eyes) are made either great or not. The story here isn't as compelling as Geary's other book on Lincoln's assassination with the background being less desperate and the assassin Guiteau acting alone on his own bizarre ideas rather than for a larger cause. He was a deeply religious man who believed “the Deity" had told him to kill Garfield and somehow believed this act would lead to a consulship in Paris. Strangely, it didn't. 

The other interesting point is the lack of medical knowledge at this time. The many doctors who attended the President didn't think to operate to try and remove the bullet, nor knew how, and in fact, due to their many odd choices, made the President's injuries worse. 

The Fatal Bullet is a compelling story, and Rick Geary has written another strong addition to the Treasury of Victorian Murder series - though perhaps it's not the best place to start. I'd recommend the book on Lincoln for a better Presidential assassination tale.

The Fatal Bullet: The Assassination of President James A. Garfield

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