I never would have expected to come back from vacation fascinated by the untimely death of the 20th president of the United States. You can blame Sarah Vowell and Rick Geary.
Vowell started the ball rolling with her very readable survey of presidential murder, Assassination Vacation (Simon and Schuster). In it, she explores the quirkier backwaters and oddly human moments surrounding the deaths of James Garfield, Abraham Lincoln, and William McKinley.
She hooks me into her nerdish obsessions (history, cultural, political, and personal) by falling in love with one of mine (musical theatre). The book opens with an evening at the Stephen Sondheim musical Assassins, which is a very different survey (with singing!) of the people who thought it would be a good idea to shoot America’s chief executive. Later, she takes in a performance of 1776 at the Ford Theatre.
Throughout the book, Vowell drags friends and family along to various pivotal and not-so-pivotal sites in her tour of presidential death: a utopian free-love community in New York State, a godforsaken prison fort in the Gulf of Mexico, monuments national and local, and so on. She mixes and mingles with others who share her fascination with these turning points – curator of a collection of grisly medical memorabilia, the descendants of a doctor accused of conspiring with John Wilkes Booth, the citizens of the seaside town where Garfield died. She has a wonderfully effective and affectionate way of introducing the subculture of history fanboys and girls.
But Vowell wouldn’t be Vowell if her fascination with past presidents didn’t occasionally give way to her anger with the current occupant of the White House. These moments are a bit jarring, and understandably so. She doesn’t have the benefit of 100 years distance between herself and George W. Bush. It’s a tricky balance, and she doesn’t always maintain it, but I can’t really criticize her for an excess of political passion. (Of course, my beliefs align with hers almost perfectly.)
Having grown up in Ohio, you’d think I’d have been subjected to more Garfield factoids in school. But I was in Cincinnati, and we had the almost entirely uninspiring William Howard Taft as our hometown president. I feel strangely cheated, as Garfield is much more interesting in his decency, intelligence, and oddly subdued political courage. Charles Guiteau, the man who killed him, is another thing altogether, a fascinating, almost comic con man and nut job.
I brought Assassination Vacation with me and read it in a couple of sittings at Zion. I found Geary’s The Fatal Bullet from his series, A Treasury of Victorian Murder (NBM), at Alternate Reality Comics in Las Vegas. I’d heard of the series before and had been looking for The Beast of Chicago, his survey of the murderous career of H.H. Holmes, America’s first serial killer. I had no idea he’d taken on the Garfield story and snatched it up, along with Beast and The Borden Tragedy. (I love a well-stocked comic shop.)
Geary’s books are terrific, fact-filled, wonderfully drawn, and driven by a perfectly deadpan writing style. He captures the voice of a Victorian potboiler, but he infuses it with sly, morbid humor. His style is delightful.
At the same time, he captures very human moments of pathos – Garfield’s reluctant entry into presidential politics, his post-shooting suffering, and the grief that followed his death. Guiteau is an irresistible figure, too – egomaniacal, crafty, and deeply disturbed. Geary does a fine job outlining the startling similarities between the backgrounds of the two men and their very different outcomes.
It was a lot of fun seeing the same story told in very different ways. Vowell’s personal, anecdotal approach sits very nicely next to Geary’s highly stylish, meticulously researched telling. Either would have left me wanting to know more about Garfield and Guiteau, and together, they have me wishing the library wasn’t closed for Memorial Day.