Charles Guiteau: Assassin

In 1881, Freeport, Illinois sat on the edge of civilization. To the west lay the untamed lands of Iowa and the Great Plains. To the east, Chicago was transforming into the fastest growing city in the history of the world. Freeport lay on the border of the rush of industrialization. The pace and change of life was maddening. In earlier times, one invention could happen in a lifetime that would change life. Now, inventions in large numbers transformed life . Utopian religious movements sprang up around the country. Out of Freeport emerged Charles Guiteau. On July 2, 1881, Guiteau shot President James Garfield. In the months that followed, Garfield would die while Guiteau and has madness came to the front.

Guiteau was born in Freeport in 1841. His early life was filled with moving and the death of his mother when he was 5. The family eventually returned to Freeport. Guiteau attempted to attend the University of Michigan. He could not pass the entrance exam. Guiteau failed at many endeavors while trying to forge a life. Whether  it was at religion, newspaper, editing, law, or marriage, Guiteau failed due to his own mental leanings. He plagiarized religious philosophy, references, and whatever else he wrote. He believed himself greater than he actually was.

Guiteau was a person who wanted to be part of something. He wanted to be somebody. He thought he was. In 1880, Guiteau joined the Republican Party. Guiteau was a supporter of Ulysses S. Grant and delivered a speech called “Grant v. Hancock.” After Garfield’s nomination and election, Guiteau changed the title to Garfield v. Hancock. Guiteau believed he single-handedly was responsible for Garfield’s election.

In January 1881, Guiteau moved to Washington in what he believed to be an awaiting of an appointment by Garfield to some important post. Guiteau wanted an ambassadorship to either Vienna, or as he repeatedly tried, Paris. Garfield never gave Guiteau the time of day. Guiteau was like a fringe figure at this point. However, he did not see himself that way. Guiteau thought of himself as a stalwart, a faction in the Republican Party. After four months of attempting to get an audience with Garfield, Guiteau changed plans. He felt his odds were better with Vice-President Chester Arthur at the helm, a fellow (supposedly)  stalwart. Guiteau bought a gun and practiced on the bank of the Potomac.

On July 2, 1881, at the Baltimore and Potomac Station, Guiteau shot Garfield twice. One was a flesh wound, the other hit Garfield in his back. It would take two months before Garfield would die. One day, the papers would pronounce his recovery, the next day, a relapse. In the following months, what came out about Guiteau was just how mad he was. Guiteau claimed he was acting on behalf of God. Upon his incarceration, he wrote General William Tecumseh Sherman:

To General Sherman:

I have just shot the President.  I shot him several times as I wished  him to go as easily as possible. His death was a political necessity.

I am a lawyer, theologian, and politician. I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts. I was with General Grant and the rest of our men, in New York during the canvass.

I am going to the Jail. Please order out your troops, and take possession of the jail at once.

Very respectfully,
Charles Guiteau.

Sherman replied he never had heard of nor met Guiteau.

More madness followed. Guiteau’s trial would begin in November of that year. His lawyers tried to paint Guiteau as an insane man. The defense saw Guiteau as a man who sought revenge for a post that never came. Guiteau saw himself differently, “I am a man of destiny as much as the Savior, or Paul, or Martin Luther.” Throughout the trial, Guiteau’s ramblings often included poetry, references  to God, and even some speeches alluded to his seeking the company of a nice, young, 30 year-old Christian woman through the proceedings.

The proceedings saw insanity on trial as much as Guiteau. Witnesses were brought forth to describe Guiteau’s behavior and brain and Guiteau’s visions of grandeur. The prosecution sought to discredit each and every witness brought forth on Guiteau’s behalf. One so-called expert witness was a veterinarian. In the end, Guiteau’s own behavior at his trial spoke volumes. Guiteau proclaimed, “Some of these days instead of saying ‘Guiteau the assassin’, they will say ‘Guiteau the patriot’.”

It took the jury only one hour to reach a verdict, guilty. Even the reading of the verdict was a work of madness.

Charles Guiteau: “I am not guilty of the charge set forth in the indictment. It was God’s act, not mine, and God will take care of it, and don’t let the American people forget it. He will take care of it and every officer of the Government, from the Executive down to the Marshall, taking in every man on that jury and every member of this bench will pay for it, and the American nation will roll in blood if my body goes into the ground and I am hung.”

Judge Cox: “One cannot doubt, that you understood the nature and consequences of your crime or that you had the moral capacity to recognize its iniquity. Your own wretched sophistry, not inspiration overcame the promptings of conscience. Any error of mine, may be appealed to the supreme court of the District sitting in banc. At the moment, however, it is my duty to pronounce the sentence of the law that you be taken to the common jail of the District, from whence you came, and be kept in confinement, and on Friday, the 30th of June, 1882, you will be taken to the place prepared for the execution, within the walls of said jail, and there, between the hours of 12 M and 2 P.M., you be hanged by the neck until you are dead. And may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”

Charles Guiteau: “And may God have mercy on your soul, I had rather stand where I am than where the jury does or where your Honor does…. I am not afraid to die… I know where I stand on this business. I am here as God’s man and don’t you forget it. God Almighty will curse every man who has had anything to do with this act.”

After all appeals were exhausted, even to President Arthur, Charles Guiteau was hung on June 20, 1882. Today, Guiteau and a trial would most likely have never seen a court room. Guiteau’s narcissistic inability to grasp the basics tenets and concepts of day-to-day reality would result in his spending life in a mental institution.

For more information:
Douglas Linder Great Trials Web Site


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