Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Charles Julius Guiteau Assassination, Insanity, and Celebrity

Assassination of President Garfield
Most Americans alive today have never heard of Charles Julius Guiteau.

It’s a sign of our love hate relationship with history. Guiteau was a drifter and failed lawyer from Freeport, Illinois who made his way to Washington, DC with delusions of receiving a public appointment, possibly even of becoming president.

Instead he wound up assassinating President James Garfield, and spawning a trial that enthralled the nation during the hot summer of 1881.

Guiteau testified, “I was in my bed … and I was thinking over the political situation, and the idea flashed through my brain that if the President was out of the way everything would go better … the only way to unite the two factions of the Republican party, and save the Republic from going into the hands of the rebels and Democrats, was to quickly remove the President.”

Later during his trial Guiteau told Judge Cox, “I presume I shall live to be President. Some people think I am as good a man as the President (Chester A. Arthur) now.

“Providence and I saved the nation, and why should I not be a hero and the equal of Washington, Lincoln, and Grant?”
It was a crazy mixed up summer.

A drifter from Illinois made his way to Washington determined to kill the President of the United States. Fate seemed as if it would intervene to keep Guiteau from his task, but on the morning of July 2nd, 1881 the shooter seized his opportunity.

The place was the Baltimore and Potomac Railway Station in Washington, DC. According to Guiteau he “was about three or four feet from the door. I stood five or six feet behind him, right in the middle of the room, and as he was walking away from me, I pulled out the revolver and fired. He straightened up and threw his head back and seemed to be perfectly bewildered. He did not seem to know what struck him. I looked at him; he did not drop; I there upon pulled again. He dropped his head, seemed to reel, and fell over.”

White smoke and powder filled the area around the fallen president.

By some miracle Garfield didn’t die on the spot. He lingered on the brink of death throughout the summer of 1881. Several times it appeared as if he would recover, but the president passed away on September 19th, 1881.

Guiteau’s erratic actions during his trial made him a media sensation.

He pled not guilty on three counts.
  1. Insanity
  2. “It was God’s act, not mine.” Garfield’s doctors killed him, not Guiteau. It was a simple case of malpractice.
  3.  Lack of jurisdiction.

The trial lasted over three months.

Garfield just after he was shot
Guiteau’s brother-in-law, Charles J. Scoville, acted as counsel for the defense. He dismissed the last two pleas and focused on the “insanity” defense.

On the witness stand Guiteau testified, “It was on the inspiration of the deity. I never would have shot the president on my own personal account.”

Later he was asked, “You did not succeed in the Divine will?”

He responded, “I think the doctors finished the work.”

Recent studies tend to favor the malpractice defense.  Many doctors at that time were unaware of the need for proper sanitation as a result they moved from patient to patient without washing their hands or sanitizing medical equipment, spreading germs and infections as they went.

According to medical reports doctors believed a bullet was lodged in the president’s chest. Without X-ray machines or other modern diagnostic equipment doctors used the only tools available to them at the time. They jammed their dirty fingers and instruments into the wound probing deeper and deeper in their attempts to find the lost bullet.

Guiteau was like a madman at the trial—pacing, and spouting crazy ideas, that he was a messenger from God, and God inspired him to remove the president.

Reporters ate it up, spreading reports of the trial across the nation.

The questions continued:

“Do you think it was the Will of God that you should kill the president?”

“I believe that it was His will that he should be removed, and I was appointed the agent to do it.”

“Did he give you a commission in writing?”

 “No sir.”

“Did he give it to you audibly?”

“No sir.”

“He did not come to you as a vision in the night?”
Hanging of Charles Julius Guiteau

“I do not get my inspiration in that way.”

The testimony goes on and on. Each side dragged doctors and lawyers before the court. The defense to demonstrate Guiteau was certifiably insane. The prosecution to show it was all an elaborate scam.

In the end the jury returned a guilty verdict after only twenty minutes of deliberation.

When he received his death sentence Guiteau screamed, “My blood will be upon the heads of the jury; don’t you forget it.

“God will avenge this outrage!”

Charles Julius Guiteau was hung by the neck until dead on June 30, 1882. After a half hour of dangling by a rope his body was taken down and placed in a waiting coffin.

Thus ended Guiteau’s fifteen minutes of fame.

Excerpt from my upcoming book History Bytes: 37 People, Places, and Events that Shaped American History