Born into poverty in the woods of Ohio, James Garfield rose through the strata of American society on the strength of his intellect and strong work ethic. A civil war hero, he was elected the twentieth president of the United States in 1880. Just a few months later, a deranged office-seeker shot Garfield at a Washington train station. With the assassination of Abraham Lincoln still fresh in their minds, the American people once again watched helplessly as their president lay dying. The extraordinary life of James Garfield, the doctors who failed to save him from death, and how a senseless tragedy unified the country.


  • Candice Millard New York Times bestselling author of "The River of Doubt"; former editor and writer at National Geographic Magazine

Program Highlights

Four months after President James Garfield took office, an insane officer seeker named Charles Guiteau shot him twice with a pistol. A team of surgeons, and even Alexander Graham Bell, could not save him. Author Candice Millard tells a story of President Garfield’s inspiring life and tragic death – and why it was, in fact, a preventable infection and not an assassin’s bullet that actually killed him.

Garfield “Absolutely Extraordinary”

According to Millard, Garfield was a brilliant man who was born into extreme poverty and ended up putting himself through college. His first year at college, he was a carpenter and a janitor. By the second year, he was made a professor of literature and ancient languages. And by the time he was 26, he was the university President.

He Never Sought the Presidency

Millard: “Garfield never had what he called ‘Presidential fever.'” He traveled to the Republican convention in 1880 to give the nominating address for someone else. But his speech was so good that at one point during it, when he uttered “What do we want?” someone shouted, “Garfield!” and people started essentially writing him in to vote for him.

The Assassin’s Profile

Garfield’s assassin was a man named Charles Guiteau, who had tried many paths in life but failed at them all. Tragically, Guiteau was obviously mentally ill and delusional. He campaigned hard for Garfield and eventually came to believe that because of his work, Garfield would reward him with an ambassadorship or some appointment. Guiteau shot Garfield at point-blank range on July 2, 1881, at a railway station in downtown Washington D.C.

Lack of Medical Knowledge

Though Joseph Lister, a British surgeon, had already discovered antisepses, the medical community in the U.S. still did not really believe in germs, and Garfield’s doctors “…certainly weren’t going to go to all the trouble that antisepsis required.” They didn’t wash or change their surgical aprons, and sometimes if they driopped an instrument during surgery they would pick it up and keep using it. Some younger doctors in the states were more open to Lister’s ideas, but many of the older, well-respected, more established doctors were not.

Botched Care

After Garfield was shot, his doctors probed for the bullet that had lodged in his back, causing an infection to spread and fester. In a real sense, the care he received was more traumatic to his body than the shooting had been. “He suffered incredibly,” Millard said. “He would have been better off if they had just left him alone.”

Read the full transcript.

Read an Excerpt

Excerpted from Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard Copyright 2011 by Candice Millard. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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