In the novel, The Garfield Conspiracy, the main protagonist, Richard Todd, is asked where the inspiration for his books come from, by Jenny his admiring young assistant. Anxious to make an impression he describes ‘a number of sources’: ‘Anything from an old black and white movie to something you read, to a conversation you had years ago.’ He doesn’t tell her how he ‘dredged’ the idea for his latest book from the ‘dry well of his imagination’, scrolling through Wikipedia during sleepless nights as his wife snored beside him. As is often the case with writers, there are crossovers between what you write and what you experience ‘in real life’. I am a bad sleeper, I do read Wikipedia on an iPad at night and yes, my wife snores.
While engaged in my ‘process’, I came across the name, Roscoe Conkling, and wondered who would have such a name? That the name would be so out of place today got me thinking how its owner must have belonged to a very different society – I became curious. His bio on Wikipedia told me he was a United States Congressman and later Senator, from Albany New York. At six foot three and with flaming red hair he cut a dash around Washington – his notorious vanity centered on a kiss-curl in the middle of a wide forehead, which would have taught Elvis a thing or two about kiss-curls.
Roscoe was the prominent Republican in post- Civil War America, a time known as the Reconstruction Period. This era was also called the Gilded Age, by Mark Twain to reflect the veneer of prosperity covering social inequality. Whatever you call it, this was when America consolidated its democracy and took off as an industrial superpower – an important time in US history, yet one largely forgotten outside academic circles.
The most dramatic event of the Reconstruction period is the assassination of President James Garfield in 1881 and in this, Roscoe played a central role. Most of us are familiar with the Lincoln and Kennedy assassinations, but for some reason Garfield and President McKinley, who was killed almost exactly 20 years later in September 1901, get less attention. Which is strange, because they are no less interesting.
Assassinations fascinate us. We want to know the who and the how of them but most of all, we are intrigued by the why. Debates and arguments erupt, theories are offered, documentaries and movies are made, full of expert opinion and rational analysis. But we never really know.
On the surface Garfield’s murder looks like the work of a lone and crazed gunman – a disappointed office seeker who had been refused consulships in Vienna and Paris. Charles Guiteau, by any analysis, was mentally ill – he lived entirely in his own universe where he had a hotline to God – he was doing God’s work when he pulled the trigger. And he had been listening to Roscoe Conkling, an enemy of Garfield’s, more so his Secretary of State James Blaine with whom he was involved in a 15-year feud. Political differences became personal and public – invective grew and Guiteau soaked it all up. By killing Garfield, he was aligning himself with Conkling’s faction within the Republican party, the stalwarts. He had nothing against Garfield personally who he called a ‘gentleman’s gentleman’, but the deed had to be done to fulfil his political and religious destiny – to restore balance in his deranged mind.
There have been some good books written on the subject, Kenneth Ackerman’s Dark Horse & Candice Millard’s Destiny of the Republic, were the two I relied on most. But it was in the primary sources where I really lost myself – there is an abundance of it in the New York Library of Congress, which is available for free online. I was able to access transcripts from Guiteau’s trial, interviews, contemporary newspaper articles, speeches, and medical reports on the treatment of Garfield after the shooting. With primary sources you can become absorbed in another time and place, hear the way people talk, think the way they think – the past becomes the present. After several weeks, I could smell the horse dung on Pennsylvania Avenue and was beginning to understand how two doomed characters like Guiteau and Conkling were shaped by their environment.
The more I unraveled about this sad and shabby event, the more I realized, that at any time or place, there is no such thing as an isolated incident. Every word we utter, every deed we do, contributes to the white noise of society, and can be picked up by anyone and reacted to in any way. This effect has been profoundly amplified with the emergence of social media – it is no longer just the famous or those in positions of power who have access to the public wave-length – it’s everybody. So, the next time you go public with an opinion, think twice – there may be another Guiteau listening…
(c) Owen Dwyer
About The Garfield Conspiracy:
Richard Todd, an award-winning writer, is outwardly successful but inwardly plagued by uncertainties. Worst of all, he can’t seem to write any more. When a bright young editor, Jenny Lambe, arrives on his doorstep to work with him on his latest book, about the assassination of US president James Garfield, his life is sent spinning off in a new direction.
President Garfield was killed by Charles Guiteau, who was tried and hanged for the murder. But was he acting along, or was there a more sinister force at work? Richard hears Guiteau’s voice in his head, and as his relationship with Jenny deepens, he is visited by other characters in the drama. Are they helping Richard solve the mystery surrounding Garfield’s murder – or pushing him further towards the edge?
A remarkable, disturbing portrait of a middle-aged man torn between his carefully constructed life and new adventures which may beckon, in the present and the past, from one of Ireland’s most exciting emerging authors.
Order your copy online here.