On this date in 1882, America’s weirdest assassin recited fourteen verses of the Gospel of Matthew and (sans requested orchestral accompaniment) a poem of his own composition entitled “I am Going to the Lordy,” and was hanged in the District of Columbia jail for shooting forgettable Gilded Age president James Garfield.
Mad as a march hare, Charles Julius Guiteau had irritated the obscure reaches of the Republic near four decades, trying his hand at free love, law, newspapering* and evangelism. A contemporary account of his religious flimflammery survives:
Charles J. Guiteau (if such really is his name), has fraud and imbecility plainly stamped upon his (face). (After) the impudent scoundrel talked only 15 minutes, he suddenly (thanked) the audience for their attention and (bid) them goodnight. Before the astounded 50 had recovered from their amazement…(he had taken their money and) fled from the building and escaped.
Having failed at each characteristic American monkeyshine more comprehensively than the last, he naturally gravitated to politics; while today Guiteau might tilt with his psychoses on some vituperative blog, in 1880 he published and delivered as a speech a widely-ignored crackpot encomium** for his eventual victim. Guiteau reckoned the GOP carried the 1880 elections on the strength of such rhetorical thunderbolts as “some people say he [Garfield] got badly soiled in that Credit Mobilier transaction but I guess he is clean-handed.”
Stunned that his contributions did not earn him a diplomatic posting to France, Guiteau stepped out of obscurity and into this blog’s pages by shooting the ungrateful (and unguarded) executive in the back at a Washington, D.C. train station (since demolished, and today occupied by the National Gallery of Art).
Thoughtfully, he had already hired a cab to take him to jail, where he expected to be liberated by General William Sherman.
The bugger of Garfield’s assassination is that Guiteau was no better at killing presidents than he was at electing them. Despite his exultation “Arthur is President now!”, he actually inflicted what could have been a non-fatal flesh wound that through ten-thumbed medical intervention became an agonizing eighty-day Calvary for the miserable Garfield.
Doctors jabbed unwashed hands into the the wound, failing to dig out the bullet they were looking for but successfully turning the three-inch wound into a crater, puncturing Garfield’s liver, and passing him Streptococcus. Alexander Graham Bell invented a metal detector to find the missile, but the damn thing gave a bad reading … because Garfield was lying on a bed with metal springs. His doctors, feuding with one another and with the press, instituted a regimen of rectal feeding — “Nutritive enemas — consisting of beef bouillon, egg yolks, milk, whiskey, and several drops of opium … Garfield’s flatulence became intolerable,” according to one biographer — that “basically starved him to death.”† He lost 100 pounds before succumbing; the autopsy concluded that Garfield probably would have lived if not for the medical attention, which didn’t stop the doctors from submitting a sizable invoice to the feds for services rendered.
(In a moment of lucidity, Guiteau defended himself with the observation “The doctors killed Garfield; I just shot him.”)
Not Ha-Ha Funny
Horribly hilarious, this American Absurdistan. “Except for the dead-serious details of his assassinating President Garfield and being in all likelihood clinically insane, Charles Guiteau might be the funniest man in American History,” Sarah Vowell put it.
Guiteau’s circus trial — with the defendant constantly interrupting to harangue participants, object to his own attorneys or converse with the spectators, plus the macabre appearance of the late Garfield’s actual vertebrae (now at Washington D.C.’s National Museum of Health and Medicine) as an exhibit — was for all that a landmark test of evolving law around criminal insanity.
Just as Garfield probably would have survived his injury had he been treated by the next generation’s medical norms, Guiteau probably would have survived his brush with the law if treated by the next generation’s legal norms.
Against an almost-too-strict-to-achieve earlier bar for legal insanity, a more accommodating jurisprudential norm called the M’Naghten Rules or M’Naghten Test was even then being adopted from English courts: essentially, did the “criminal” realize his act was wrong? Still the basis for legal insanity claims in much of the U.S. today, the first trial of a presidential assassin would be the M’Naghten standard’s trial by fire.
While the judge gave ample leeway for the defense to use M’Naghten, the legal standards it implied were still not widely understood and the medical testimony about Guiteau’s mental condition was (embarrassingly, for the profession) wildly contradictory. Ultimately, the judge cued the jury that “the law requires a very slight degree of intelligence indeed” on Guiteau’s part to impute him with sufficient criminal culpability to hang. There were cheers in the courthouse when the jury took an hour to decide that Guiteau had that very slight degree of intelligence indeed.
In the final analysis, as Charles Rosenberg observes in The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau: Psychiatry and the Law in the Gilded Age, the jurors’ prompt conviction of the widely hated, barking-mad defendant underscored the real-life constraints of dry legal theory as applied by an outraged community to a notorious offender:
[T]he Guiteau case demonstrated anew that the circumstances of a particular case had ordinarily as much to do with its disposition as the precise injunctions of rules of law … Many observers agreed after the trial that if an individual of Guiteau’s marked eccentricity had killed an ordinary man … he would almost certainly not have been convicted; very likely he would not even have been brought to trial. Similarly, while Garfield lay on his sickbed, it was commonly assumed that his assailant would be institutionalized if the President should survive. But if not, then not.
Reckoning the gesture could cost him the 1884 Republican nomination, Chester A. Arthur declined to spare his “benefactor” (“Arthur has sealed his own doom and the doom of this nation,” was Guiteau’s reaction, picturing fire and brimstone) and left Guiteau to his strange and lonely fate. The latter was talked out of an early plan to go to the gallows in the Christlike garb of only his undergarments, but did insist upon delivering his incoherent parting ramble in a high-pitched childlike tone (“the idea is that of a child babbling to his mama and his papa”).
Wrapping up this surreal historical episode in a neat little bow, Charles Guiteau got his own bluegrass tune:‡
For more adventures through Guiteau’s looking glass, there’s a fine page at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.
* One of Guiteau’s failed newspaper ventures was to exploit the telegraph to reprint original content from other outlets. That one looks a lot less harebrained in retrospect: it’s a primitive model of the wire service, and latterly of RSS-based distributors like Google News.
‡ The “Charles Guiteau” ditty is actually a rather shameless knock-off of a murder ballad for James Rodgers, an Irish immigrant hanged in New York in 1858.