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Charles Julius Guiteau

Charles Guiteau Signature.svg
Charles Julius Guiteau
Born September 8, 1841(1841-09-08)
Freeport, Illinois, U.S.
Died June 30, 1882 (aged 40)
Washington, D.C., U.S.
Charge(s) assassination of a U.S. President
Penalty Death by hanging
Status Executed
Occupation Lawyer
Spouse Annie Bunn (divorced)
Children none

Charles Julius Guiteau (September 8, 1841 – June 30, 1882) was an American lawyer who assassinated U.S. President James A. Garfield on July 2, 1881. He was executed by hanging.



Guiteau was born in Freeport, Illinois, the fourth of six children of Luther Wilson Guiteau and Jane Howe.[1] He moved with his family to Ulao, Wisconsin, (now Grafton, Wisconsin) in 1850 and lived there until 1855,[2] when his mother died. Soon after, Guiteau and his father moved back to Freeport.

He inherited $1,000 from his grandfather (worth over $23,000 in year-2009 dollars)[3] as a young man and went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in order to attend the University of Michigan. Due to inadequate academic preparation, he failed the entrance examinations. After some time trying to do remedial work in Latin and algebra at Ann Arbor High School, during which time he received numerous letters from his father haranguing him to do so, he quit and joined the controversial religious sect known as the Oneida Community, in Oneida, New York, to which Guiteau's father already had close affiliations. Despite the "group marriage" aspects of that sect, he was generally rejected during his five years there, and he was nicknamed "Charles Gitout".[4] He left the community twice. The first time he went to Hoboken, New Jersey, and attempted to start a newspaper based on Oneida religion, to be called "The Daily Theocrat".[5] This failed and he returned to Oneida, only to leave again and file lawsuits against the community's founder, John Humphrey Noyes.[6] Guiteau's father, embarrassed, wrote letters in support of Noyes, and Noyes maintained that he did not hold any ill-will towards Guiteau, saying "I consider him insane."[citation needed]

Guiteau then obtained a law license in Chicago, based on an extremely casual bar exam. He used his money to start a law firm in Chicago based on ludicrously fraudulent recommendations from virtually every prominent American family of the day. He was not successful. He only argued one case in court, the bulk of his business being in bill collecting in which his annoying persistence was a useful characteristic. Most of his cases, however, resulted in enraged clients and judicial criticism.

He next turned to theology. He published a book on the subject called The Truth which was almost entirely plagiarized from the work of John Humphrey Noyes.

Guiteau's interest turned to politics. He wrote a speech in support of Ulysses S. Grant called "Grant vs. Hancock", which he revised to "Garfield vs. Hancock" after Garfield won the Republican nomination in the 1880 presidential campaign. Ultimately, he changed little more than the title (hence mixing up Garfield's achievements with those of Grant). The speech was delivered at most two times (and copies were passed out to members of the Republican National Committee at their summer 1880 meeting in New York), but Guiteau believed himself to be largely responsible for Garfield's victory. He insisted he should be awarded an ambassadorship for his vital assistance, first asking for Vienna, then deciding that he would rather be posted in Paris. His personal requests to the President and to cabinet members (as one of many job seekers who lined up every day) were continually rejected; on May 14, 1881, he was finally told personally never to return by Secretary of State James G. Blaine (Guiteau is actually believed to have encountered Blaine on more than one occasion).

Assassination of Garfield

President James A. Garfield with Secretary of State James G. Blaine after being shot by Guiteau, as depicted in a period engraving from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.[7].[8]

Guiteau then decided that God had commanded him to kill the ungrateful President. Borrowing fifteen dollars, he went out to purchase a revolver. He knew little about firearms, but did know that he would need a large caliber gun. He had to choose between a .442 Webley British Bulldog revolver with wooden grips and one with ivory grips. He wanted the one with the ivory handle because he wanted it to look good as a museum exhibit after the assassination, but he could not afford the extra dollar.[9] (The revolver was recovered and even photographed by the Smithsonian in the early 1900s but has since been lost). He spent the next few weeks in target practice—the kick from the revolver almost knocked him over the first time[10]—and stalking the President.

Contemporary illustration of Guiteau's pistol.

On one occasion, he trailed Garfield to the railway station as the President was seeing his wife off to a beach resort in Long Branch, New Jersey, but he decided to shoot him later, as Mrs. Garfield was in poor health and he didn't want to upset her. On July 2, 1881, he lay in wait for the President at the (since demolished) Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station, getting his shoes shined, pacing, and engaging a cab to take him to the jail later. As President Garfield entered the station, looking forward to a vacation with his wife in Long Branch, New Jersey, Guiteau stepped forward and shot Garfield twice from behind, the second shot piercing the first lumbar vertebra but missing the spinal cord. As he surrendered to authorities, Guiteau fired with the exulting words, repeated everywhere: 'I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts. .. Arthur is President now!!'" (New York Herald, July 3, 1881).

After a long, painful battle with infections brought on by his doctors poking and probing the wound with unwashed hands and non-sterilized instruments, Garfield died on September 19, eleven weeks after being shot. Most modern physicians familiar with the case state that Garfield would have easily recovered from his wounds with medical care that was available 20 years later.[11]


Trial and execution

1881 political cartoon showing Guiteau holding a gun and a note that says "An office or your life!". The caption for the cartoon reads "Model Office Seeker".

Once President Garfield died, the government officially charged Guiteau with murder. The trial began on November 14, 1881 in Washington D.C. The presiding judge in the case was Walter Smith Cox. Guiteau's court appointed defense lawyers were Leigh Robinson and George Scoville, although Guiteau would insist on trying to represent himself during the entire trial. Wayne MacVeagh, the U.S. Attorney, served as the chief prosecutor where he named five lawyers to the prosecution team: George Corkhill, Walter Davidge, John K. Porter, Elihu Root, and E.B. Smith.

Guiteau's trial was one of the first high profile cases in the United States where the insanity defense was considered. Guiteau vehemently insisted that while he had been legally insane at the time of the shooting, he was not really medically insane, which was one of the major causes of the rift between him and his defense lawyers and probably also a reason the jury assumed Guiteau was merely trying to deny responsibility for the murder of the President.

George Corkhill, who was the District of Columbia's district attorney and on the prosecuting team, summed up the prosecution's opinion of Guiteau's insanity defense in a pre-trial press statement that also mirrored public opinion on the issue. Corkhill stated; "He's no more insane than I am. There's nothing of the mad about Guiteau: he's a cool, calculating blackguard, a polished ruffian, who has gradually prepared himself to pose in this way before the world. He was a deadbeat, pure and simple. Finally, he got tired of the monotony of deadbeating. He wanted excitement of some other kind and notoriety, and he got it."

Guiteau became something of a media darling during his entire trial for his bizarre behavior, including constantly cursing and badmouthing the judge, witnesses, and even his defense team, formatting his testimony in epic poems which he recited at length, and soliciting legal advice from random spectators in the audience via passed notes. He dictated an autobiography to the New York Herald, ending it with a personal ad for a nice Christian lady under thirty. He was blissfully oblivious to the American public's outrage and hatred of him, even after he was almost assassinated twice himself. At one point, he argued before Judge Cox that Garfield was killed not by himself but by medical malpractice, which was more than a little true ("The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him"). But Guiteau's argument had no legal support. Throughout the trial and up until his execution, Guiteau was housed at St. Elizabeths Hospital in the southeastern quadrant of Washington, D.C.

There is still some debate over what constitutes legal insanity, but most authorities generally agree that the basic test is whether the defendant knew what he was doing and that his actions were wrong. At the time of the Guiteau trial, however, the prevailing test of legal insanity was whether the defendant knew his actions were criminal. Therefore, even though someone like Guiteau might be considered insane because he didn't think it was wrong to shoot President Garfield, he could be convicted if the judge determined that he understood that the law made it illegal to shoot people. By the 1880s, courts were beginning to apply the less harsh "was it wrong" test, which also gave the jury rather than the judge the task to determining insanity. In delivering the closing argument to the jury, prosecutor Davidge asserted that Guiteau's erratic behavior throughout the trial stemmed not from insanity, but from his overwhelming ego.[citation needed]

To the end, Guiteau was actively making plans to start a lecture tour after his perceived imminent release and to run for President himself in 1884, while at the same time continuing to delight in the media circus surrounding his trial. He was dismayed when the jury was unconvinced of his divine inspiration, convicting him of the murder. He was found guilty on January 25, 1882.[12] After the guilty verdict was read, Guiteau stood up, despite his lawyers efforts to tell him to be quiet, and yelled at the jury saying: "you are all low, consummate jackasses", plus a further stream of curses and obscenities before he was taken away by guards to his cell to await execution. He appealed, but his appeal was rejected, and he was hanged on June 30, 1882 in the District of Columbia. Of the four presidential assassins, Guiteau lived longer than any after his victim's death (nine months). On the scaffold, Guiteau recited a poem he had written called "I am Going to the Lordy." He had originally requested an orchestra to play as he sang his poem, but this request was denied.[13]

Part of Guiteau's brain remains on display at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.

See also


  1. ^ "Charles Guiteau Collection". Georgetown University. 2000-11-11. Retrieved 2007-06-14. 
  2. ^ History and origin of Port "Ulao"; Jill Hewitt; Retrieved October 5, 2007
  3. ^ The Inflation Calculator
  4. ^ Rosenberg, Charles E. (1968). The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau: Psychiatry and Law in the Gilded Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. pp. 19. ISBN 0-226-72717-3. 
  5. ^ Hayes, Henry Gillespie; Hayes, Charles Joseph (1882). A Complete History of the Life and Trial of Charles Julius Guiteau, Assassin of President Garfield. Philadelphia: Hubbard Brothers. pp. 25. 
  6. ^ Ackerman, Kenneth D. (2003). Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. New York: Carroll & Graf Publishers. pp. 135. ISBN 0-7867-1151-5. 
  7. ^ Cheney, Lynne Vincent. "Mrs. Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper". American Heritage Magazine. October 1975. Volume 26, Issue 6. URL retrieved on January 24, 2007.
  8. ^ "The attack on the President's life". Library of Congress. URL retrieved on January 24, 2007.
  9. ^ June, Dale L. Introduction to executive protection, Boca Raton : CRC Press, 1999. page 24. ISBN 9780849381287
  10. ^ Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. Springfield, Illinois State Historical Society. OCLC 1588445
  11. ^ A President Felled by an Assassin and 1880’s Medical Care New York Times, July 25, 2006.
  12. ^ "Guiteau Found Guilty," New York Times. Jan 26, 1882, p.1.
  13. ^ Guiteau's poem forms the basis for the song "The Ballad of Guitteau" in Stephen Sondheim's musical Assassins; it is sung as the character cakewalks up the steps to the gallows.

External links


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