Candice Millard on James Garfield and PBS’s ‘Murder of a President’

James A. Garfield was assassinated shortly after he became president in 1881, but it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly who killed him — the deranged man who shot him in the back or the negligent doctors who screwed up every way imaginable in the three months between when he was shot and when he finally succumbed to infection.

“The horror and senselessness of his death, and the wasted promise of his life,” historian Candice Millard wrote in Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President, “brought tremendous change to the country he loved — change that, had it come earlier, almost certainly would have spared his life.”

For one thing, doctors no longer dig around in your back with their bare hands after you get shot or — as bizarre and impossible as it sounds — put cow manure on the wound. The remarkable story of how now-antiquated views of both mental health and surgical treatment led to a gunshot wound that someone would almost certainly survive if it happened today was the subject of Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic.

The documentary “Murder of a President”, which is based on that book, airs tonight on PBS stations as part of the network’s American Experience series and will be available starting later this week on PBS’s streaming platforms like Apple TV and Roku. Millard is featured as an expert in the documentary, and we caught up with her to talk about the short presidency and bizarre assassination of James A. Garfield.

SIGNATURE: At the end of the movie “Lincoln,” there’s a big scene where the Senate passes the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. Garfield was in the House at that time, right?

CANDACE MILLARD: Yeah, and he was very instrumental in bringing about black suffrage. He had been a hero during the Civil War and helped save Kentucky for the North. He had hidden a runaway slave. When he gave his inaugural address after he was elected president, Frederick Douglas was with him on the portico. He wanted the country to come back together around racial equality.

SIG: The chapter in the book about the 1880 Republican Convention is really interesting, particularly given the election season we’re in now. We think of getting elected president as something you practically have to sell your soul to do, and Garfield didn’t even want to be elected.

CM: That’s what would have made him a particularly powerful and effective president had he been able to serve. He didn’t have what he called “presidential fever.” He was a young man of promise and great intelligence, but he saw what this presidential fever did to men around him who were desperate to be president and willing to make any sacrifice. He was never willing to do that.

Garfield went to the convention in Chicago, where he had been asked by John Sherman to give his nominating address. There were whispers that a lot of people really wanted Garfield, and Sherman thought that the best way to contain him was to have him give the nominating address. Everyone thought that Ulysses Grant would get the nomination. There had been corruption problems during his two terms as president, but he was still wildly popular. When they started going through the ballots, Garfield got a vote and they kept accumulating until he found himself the Republican nominee for president when he had not even been a candidate.

James Garfield - General

SIG: Garfield wrote pretty extensively about his political life, and you cited his diaries in Destiny of the Republic. Is there any chance he mythologized the business about not wanting to become president, or do you think that was genuine?

CM: I think it was genuine. He was a really genuine person. He lost his father when he was just two. He didn’t have shoes until he was four years old. He worked as a janitor and a carpenter to pay his way through college. His friends wrote about how he had a quiet confidence and grace even when he was mopping floors that wasn’t much different than when he was walking to give his inaugural address. I think that’s just who he was. And from the newspaper accounts of the 1880 convention, it’s clear that he didn’t want it, that he fought it, that it was thrust on him.

SIG: What was the 1880 election about?

CM: There was still a deep, deep divide between the North and the South, and that’s why it was a very close election. There were very few people able to vote in the South without risking their lives. The Republican Party at that time was very different that what it is today. Democrats were the party of the South and the party of the Civil War who were willing to risk everything to preserve slavery.

SIG: You started researching Destiny of the Republic after your book River of Doubt, I assume. How did you get interested in James Garfield?

CM: River of Doubt was about Teddy Roosevelt in the Amazon, and there’s a lot of natural history in that book. I wanted to do another book that had a lot of science in it, and I had gotten interested in Alexander Graham Bell and came across the story of him inventing the induction balance to try and find the bullet in Garfield’s body, and I had never heard that story before.

Bell was a young man, thirty-five, and had invented the telephone just a few years before. He was famous, he had some money, and he had an opportunity to do anything he wanted. He had a lab where he was working on inventions. And then when Garfield was shot, Bell dropped everything to try and help Garfield. Like most people, I didn’t know much about Garfield beyond the fact that he had been assassinated, and then I started researching him and was blown away.

SIG: So that became a book about Garfield and what happened after he was shot.

CM: Yeah, and I think my agent and my editor were really surprised. They thought I would do another adventure book, and I gave them a proposal for this book about James Garfield.

SIG: You mention science history. One thing that really surprised me in the book was how much the medical community rejected these ideas about sterilizing surgical instruments and sanitizing the operating rooms even after there had been some initial success with that. Did the rejection of the scientific method by all these people who were ostensibly scientists surprise you a little?

CM: It surprised me a lot. Garfield almost certainly would have survived if not for his doctors, and people say, “Well, it’s not their fault.” But that’s not the case. By 1881, these techniques had been adopted throughout Europe. I think a lot of it was arrogance on the part of the American doctors.

SIG: I was going to ask if you thought it came from inertia or hubris, but it would take something closer to arrogance, I guess.

CM: I think it did. American doctors heard these methods at a medical conference and said things like, “What we like to do is leave the wound open to the air or put a poultice of manure on it.” They weren’t open to some doctor from England telling them what to do. Dr. Willard Bliss took charge of Garfield’s treatment, and it’s really stunning today to think of this doctor taking charge and firing all of the other doctors and treating this as a personal opportunity for fame and power. He wrote a letter to a friend while the president was getting worse and worse and said, “I can’t afford to let him die,” and he underlines every single word.

SIG: Why did Charles Guiteau shoot Garfield?

CM: He was insane. I have a lot of pity for him, actually, because it’s clear that he was mentally ill. He thought he was going to be this great man and had failed at everything. He failed at law. He failed at evangelism. He lived at a commune for a while where the women called him “Charles Get-Out.” [Laughs.] He became obsessed with politics and decided that he was going to single-handedly make Garfield president and be made consul to Paris even though he had no background or education that would have made him suitable for that post.

After Garfield was elected, Guiteau starts stalking him. He went to the White House. He went to the State Department. At one point, he walked into the president’s office while Garfield is in there. He went to a reception and introduced himself to the First Lady and carefully pronounces his name so she won’t forget it. It’s very Hitchcock like, very terrifying.

SIG: He was a delusional kook.

CM: He was, and his family had actually tried to get him help. His father and sister had tried to have him institutionalized many times. He was moving from boarding house to boarding house, and when the Secretary of State finally says, “Leave me alone, you’re not going to get this,” he just snaps and thinks that God tells him to kill the president.

SIG: Women are better represented than in a lot of documentaries about this period. Was that a conscious decision on your part when you were researching the book?

CM: The love story between Garfield and his wife Lucretia was important for me in understanding who Garfield was. There was a lot of material because they were separated so much while he was fighting the war or in Washington, and they lived their lives for years in letters.

SIG: Did the filmmakers find you, or were you looking to adapt the book into a documentary?

CM: They found me, and I was really excited because it’s American Experience. I really respect the beautiful, beautiful films they do, and I trusted them. They did such a great job portraying Garfield as I believe he was.