When developing a historical novel, I try to get a sense of what’s going on in the wider world that surrounds my story’s setting. War is always there in the background: impending wars, current wars, wars still haunting the dreams of veterans. But what else happening? What’s scandalous? What’s amusing? What are people reading? What is popular? Who’s ascendant politically and why? How’s the economy doing?
For Epitaph, I collected nineteen linear feet of background books and one of them was Candace Millard’s fine account of James A. Garfield’s life and death, Destiny of the Republic: a tale of madness, medicine and the murder of a president. In all honesty, I was just doing due diligence when I Googled “American president 1881.” I just wanted to find out who was in office at the time of the gunfight. I never thought that Garfield would be so significant to the story I was writing.
President Garfield did not die immediately after he was shot in June of 1881. His months of suffering mesmerized the entire nation throughout the summer of that year. In mid-September, he finally succumbed to the massive infection caused his own doctors’ mistreatment of his wound. His death was just weeks before the October gunfight.
Coming only fifteen years after the assassination of Lincoln, the attack on President Garfield shocked the nation. Within days of that shooting, Tombstone’s city council enacted the draconian gun control laws that Police Chief Virgil Earp and his brothers were ordered to enforce on October 26, 1881. Movies will make you think that the gunfight at the O.K. Corral was lawmen vs. cattle thieves. In reality, the Earps were told to disarm several men who were seen carrying weapons within city limits. Thirty seconds and thirty bullets later, a legend was born in blood.
This week, the PBS series American Experience will be broadcasting “Murder of a President,” about the life and death of James A. Garfield. He could have been one of our finest presidents. His death was a tragedy in so many ways, and the gunfight in Tombstone is only one of them.
On a related note: Epitaph will soon be available in paperback, which means that the publisher will no longer be supporting the hardcover edition. When the hardcovers are gone, they’re gone, so if you’d want one, order soon. You can click through this website and I urge you to use the drop-down menu to find your local independent bookstore.
As always, signed copies are available through Mac’s Backs, the independent store near me. If you’d like the books to be personalized as well as signed, tell us what you’d like in the Comments section of the online order form.