by Sarah Vowell
Sarah Vowell is terrific. She's a history buff with a strict reverence for historical plaques of any kind. To her, a plaque says, "Something happened!" (page159.) She gets excited about something happening anywhere.
Sarah Vowell enjoys – like Disneyland enjoys – visiting the sites of history. So much so, that she generally patterns her vacations around the landmarks of historical events. United States presidents are of particular interest to Miss Vowell and many have been assassinated. That's why she chose a year or so to visit the sites and relics of the presidential assassinations of Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, and William McKinley.
The Assassination Vacation with Abraham Lincoln included a trip to the theater in which he was shot and various museums that house relics. One such relic was the bullet that John Wilkes Booth used. Vowell also followed Booth's escape route that ended in his ultimate shooting and capture. Samuel Mudd, the doctor who assisted Booth was sent to prison at Fort Jefferson, on the island of Dry Tortugas (near the Florida Keys.) Sarah made sure to visit that site too.
Sarah Vowell's Garfield Assassination Vacation was perhaps the most eye-opening for me. As you might recall from your history lessons of 5th grade, Garfield was elected during the most serious of partisan turmoil – partisan turmoil brought afloat by the abolition of slavery.
After the Civil War, it was assumed mostly that Republicans were against slavery while Democrats were for it. Nothing like picking your team over one issue, right? (Think about the issue in which you pick your team now... not as clear.) Republicans were united in their fight against the evil of slavery. Once slavery was abolished, however, the party began to see their differences. That's what happened to the Republican party after slavery was no longer legal; without "slavery" to agree upon, the many differences in the party's politics began to boil.
When James A. Garfield received the Republican presidential nomination, there was a great deal of tumultuous disagreement among the party. US Grant, James G. Blaine, and John Sherman were all running. Due to radical views on all, Garfield received the Republication nomination as a compromise. This was a controversial event. One that would ultimately lead to his assassination by Charles J. Guiteau after Garfield's three short months in office. There was a political scandal that involved the U.S. Customs house, and the revenue therein, but that is entirely too involved to bring up here. (Hint: Read the book!)
Garfield was shot on July 2nd, 1881 at a Baltimore train station just as Garfield was leaving for vacation. He didn't pass, however, until September 19th. After the shooting, Garfield was expected to live. It appears as though an attending physician threw sanitation to the wind, then proceeded to dig around in the wound for the bullet with his bare and unclean hands. There are theories that the infection from said digging around was what killed him, not the actual bullet.
Garfield's vice president, Chester Arthur became president after the assassination. This was indeed a bad time for Arthur because the assassin, Mr. Guiteau, claimed he offed the president for Arthur's benefit. Mr. Arthur was relieved of any fault during a spectacled farce of a trial where Guiteau chose to defend himself.
Sarah's final chapter of the Assassination Vacation, was the assassination of William McKinley. In 1901, President McKinley was shot by Leon Czolgosz during a meet, greet, and handshake session at the Pan-American Exposition. Apparently, McKinley was standing in a reception line of some kind. And apparently, Czolgosz shook McKinley's hand then shot him.
If you'll recall, again from 5th grade, the Pan-American Expo was a Buffalo, New York-based gathering that was used to promote some trade and whatnot between Canada, the United States, and Latin American. This feat of public relations was issued in response to the Spanish-American War of 1898.
Vowell visited McKinley's grave, his presidential library, the site of the shooting and other such locations that relate. Leon Czolgosz, a believer in the anarchist movement, was found guilty and executed with three jolts of 1800 volts in Auburn Prison. Vowell visited that too.
Interestingly enough Robert Todd Lincoln was within the vicinity of all three assassinations. Robert Todd Lincoln, son of Abraham Lincoln, was with his father the night he was shot. During Garfield's presidnecy, Robert Todd Lincoln was secretary of war and was with Garfield when he was shot. Finally, Mr. Lincoln, feeling cursed, was at the Pan-Am expo when McKinley was assassinated. The three events led Mr. Lincoln to stay clear of activities that involved any president. This is called the curse of Robert Todd Lincoln.
There you go. The assassination vacations of Lincoln, Garfield, and McKinley, through the eyes of one Sarah Vowell. One might think her interest in presidential assassinations morbid, but Vowell's interest in such stems from a deep love of history, and an unequivocally intense respect for America. Few are as patriotic.
With that, I leave you with a quote from page 211:
"There is one thing that assassinated Americans have in common. Fate seems to grant each man one last good day, some moment of grace and whimsy before he bleeds. (Except, surprisingly, the notoriously good-time JFK, Dallas offering little by way of whimsy.) Lincoln, of course, was giggling at the moment of impact; Booth, knowing the play Lincoln was watching by heart, chose a laugh line on purpose to dampen the noise of his derringer's report. Garfield was jauntily leaving on vacation. Before Robert Kennedy went to the Ambassador Hotel, he spent his last day at the beach with his wife and children at the Malibu home of John Frankenheimer, director of The Manchurian Candidate. My favorite, though is Martin Luther King Jr., who had a pillow fight with his brother and his friends at the Lorraine Motel. I very much enjoy picturing that, and when I do, I see it in slow motion, in black and white. A room full of men in neckties horse around laughing, bonking heads, feathers floating in the air. For William McKinley, it was a day trip to Niagara Falls."
Next Up: The Life of Pi, by Yann Martel