An analysis of the life and death of the 20th president, James Garfield, and his assassin, Charles Guiteau.
In a parallel and fascinating narrative, Yanoff (The Graceland Gang, 2013 etc.) chronicles the lives of the two widely different men in the style of a suspense novel. The book covers new ground—the life story and trial of Guiteau. Extremely unhappy in childhood and ruled by a violent father who despised him, Guiteau became a drifter and fraudster. He joined the Oneida Community (or “Perfectionists”) religious cult, which had peculiar views on sex and women. God and religion became the rationale for his increasingly erratic behavior. Guiteau qualified as a lawyer in Illinois, collecting overdue bills and pocketing the money for himself. His marriage was a mirror of his upbringing—except that he dished out the beatings and humiliation. Living in a series of rooming houses, the couple often skipped out without paying; Guiteau’s terrified, ashamed wife was sometimes forced to sneak back to recover their belongings. She divorced him, and his life steadily worsened. He got the notion that he would be made an ambassador to Europe. He became convinced he needed to get rid of Garfield to be appointed. At Guiteau’s trial, the defense claimed insanity: Guiteau said that he was following orders from God, but the jury unanimously agreed otherwise. Just as fascinating as the main thread is the analysis of medical knowledge at the time and the implication that the president’s death was probably caused as much by the doctors’ ineptitude as the bullet wound. Garfield’s exploits in the Civil War are highlighted along with absorbing analysis of how he became the Republican nominee for president in 1880 out of nowhere on the 36th ballot when Ulysses Grant failed to get the majority vote. Scandals such as Crédit Mobilier are covered, along with controversies such as the political storm over Chinese immigration fears. All the facts are presented in clear, uncluttered and unbiased prose. A convincing case is made that Guiteau should have been declared insane, but society wanted revenge on Garfield’s assassin.
An immensely readable narrative that portrays the mood and tumultuous events of the day.