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I Did Not Kill President Garfield

“Assassination has never changed the history of the world.”—Benjamin Disraeli

Image result for james garfield

In every country and in every time and in every point in history, citizens complain about corruption in their government. There are always people saying it’s never been worse. Sometimes they’re correct about that, too, but really, in most cases, you can find at least one point in history where corruption had been worse than however terrible it might happen to be right now. In America, for all the corruption that might be going on in the national and state capitals today, it’s reasonable to say that in the 1870s, corruption was much worse. Scandals plagued the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, and his successor, Rutherford B. Hayes, didn’t manage to do much to clean things up, despite high expectations from the voters and his own best intentions. One big issue on the minds of critics of the day was the buying of offices, where a politician was allowed to offer a job to someone in exchange for help in getting elected. Or if not a job, then at least some favorable legislation, or even just cash. It was not unusual for lobbyists and congressmen to hand out stacks of banknotes right there on the floor of the House and the Senate. It was the way things got done, but nobody really liked to talk about it, as long as it was paying off for them. By 1880, civil service reform had become a big issue among voters. It sure was a good talking point, one that Presidents Grant and Hayes gave a lot of lip service to, but neither men had gotten anything done. That year, Hayes decided not to seek a second term, so the Republican nomination for president was up for grabs. Popular Civil War general George Tecumseh Sherman put his name into nomination, but the strongest candidates were former President Grant, coming back to run for a third term, and Senator James G. Blaine of Maine. Sherman’s name was put into nomination by Representative James Abram Garfield of Ohio, but failed to generate much enthusiasm, leading to a tight contest between Grant and Blaine. By the 34th ballot, the Republicans were still no closer to selecting a candidate, so for the 35th ballot, members of the Wisconsin and Indiana delegations put Garfield’s name into nomination. Garfield won 50 votes on the 35th ballot, which led to a stampede of votes for him. The next ballot was the final one. Despite Garfield’s protests, and his insistence that he would never betray Sherman, the Blaine and Sherman factions united behind the congressman, and he was nominated.

1880 GOP convention: Grant (OH), Sherman (NY), Blaine (ME), Garfield (OH)

The Grant faction, also known as the Stalwart Republicans, remained loyal to the former president, and would make trouble for Garfield. They saw to it that one of their own was put on the ballot as Garfield’s running mate: Chester Arthur, a well-known lawyer and New York City customs agent, as well as a part of New York Senator Roscoe Conkling’s notorious machine, which had been loyal to Grant to the end. What was particularly problematic about this was that the New York Customs House was a lucrative and infamously corrupt operation, which didn’t look good for Garfield, who had been an open advocate for civil service reform. The Stalwarts perhaps hoped this might make Garfield look like something of a hypocrite. Maybe it did, in some voters’ eyes, but that November, James A. Garfield was elected the 20th president of the United States, winning the popular vote by a mere 2,000 ballots, but winning comfortably the Electoral College, 214-155. Garfield (and Arthur) would head to Washington, and Garfield (and Arthur) would have to set about implementing the reforms they (Garfield) had promised during the campaign. Soon after Garfield’s inauguration in 1881 came the first test. Attorney-General Wayne MacVeagh and Postmaster-General Thomas Lemuel James reported that Second-Assistant Postmaster-General Thomas J. Brady of corruption and fingered Brady as the ringleader of the corruption. This charge also implicated former Arkansas Senator Stephen W. Dorsey, who had been Garfield’s own campaign manager! President Garfield got right to work and started the investigation. Brady and Dorsey resigned and fought the charges. They would be acquitted in court several years later, but right out of the gate, Garfield looked to be getting things done, in spite of the Capitol Hill heel-dragging by the Stalwart allies of his own vice president. Those who supported President Garfield in the 1880 campaign, despite all this high talk about civil service reform, wanted to cash in. One of Garfield’s supporters was an Illinois lawyer named Charles Guiteau. Guiteau was a mediocre lawyer, at best. Using his $1,000 inheritance, he studied law at the University of Michigan, managing shaky progress in his studies until he dropped out and moved to the Oneida Community, a utopian religious community in Oneida, New York, where his father had connections. The Oneida Community espoused love and openness and practiced group marriage, but despite all this love and warmth, Guiteau was not welcome there, earning the nickname “Charles Gitout”. (Guiteau’s name is often pronounced ghee-TOE, its French pronunciation, but he himself pronounced it “gih-TAW”.) He eventually did “git out”, only to return later to file lawsuits against John Humphrey Noyes, the Oneida Community’s founder. Guiteau’s father was embarrassed by this and wrote letters of support to Noyes, apparently taking sides with Noyes’ belief that Charles Guiteau was irresponsible and insane. Guiteau eventually found more respectable work, passing what can be called a rather loose bar exam in Chicago. He set up practice, his business mostly about chasing down past-due bills. Only once did he argue a case in court, which went badly. Worse, his wife would later assert that Guiteau had a habit of keeping a good amount of his clients’ cash for himself.

Charles Guiteau

He went on to other projects, trying his hand at preaching. In 1877 he published a book called The Truth, which strongly resembled the teachings of the Oneida Community’s religion. In fact, it more than resembled their teachings. The book was mostly plagiarized from Noyes’ own teaching. Nonetheless, Guiteau took a crack at making a living at it, though never had a congregation. He would wander from city to city, offering to preach for anyone who would pay him to, and he never scored very many gigs. Guiteau spent the first half of 1880 in Boston, where he racked up debts, and decided to flee town when he came under suspicion of theft. He left on a ship in June. Not far out of port, his ship collided with another. The other ship caught fire, burned and sank, while Guiteau’s ship was able to return to Boston Harbor. Guiteau felt very lucky, even though his own ship was never in danger of sinking. The disaster convinced him that he’d been spared by a higher power for some higher purpose. That purpose, he decided, was politics. Guiteau considered himself a Stalwart Republican, but since the Republican Convention was already over, he decided to throw in for Garfield, since Garfield was the nominee, anyway. He wrote a speech called “Garfield against Hancock”, announcing the virtues of James Garfield over his Democratic rival for the presidency, General Winfield Hancock of Pennsylvania. (His “Garfield against Hancock” speech originally had the title “Grant against Hancock”, but he made some edits after Garfield beat Grant, and the speech still worked.) Guiteau offered to give the speech in many venues, for a fee, but there’s no evidence that he gave the speech more than twice, despite his handing out scores of copies of it. At the time, since there was no mass media, it was common for a campaign to pay prominent people to give speeches in favor of the candidate, but since Guiteau was nowhere near as prominent a figure as he liked to think he was, he didn’t get many takers. Still, since Guiteau, a self-described Stalwart Republican, had backed Garfield, who was of a different faction, he felt he was entitled to some kind of appreciation for his work, since he’d bridged the gap between competing factions and contributed so much to the new president’s election. The new administration didn’t see it that way and ignored Guiteau’s communications. No one in Washington had ever heard of Guiteau in the first place, so they were disinclined to entertain the lawyer/preacher/speech-giver’s requests to be made consul at the American embassy in Paris. It didn’t help Guiteau’s position that, despite his French name, he had never actually been to France, and spoke no French at all, even though he’d studied it in college. Soon enough, Washington started to hear of Guiteau. He became a regular outside the office of Secretary of State James G. Blaine’s office, milling about among the hordes of office-seekers who gathered there daily and met with no offers. Guiteau showed a little more pluck than the other office-seekers, and eventually got Blaine to notice him. It’s said that the two of them encountered each other more than once. Blaine later recalled the last encounter as one where he told Guiteau never to come back. Guiteau decided he needed to take stronger measures. With $15 he borrowed, he headed to a shop and purchased a revolver. He didn’t know much about guns, but he figured he’d need a high-caliber one if he was going to succeed at his next venture: the assassination of President Garfield, whose administration for some reason wouldn’t find him a job. One thing Guiteau knew about guns was that he wanted his weapon to have a pearl handle, because, as he later admitted, it would look good in the museum after he shot the president. The pearl-handled revolver cost $16, which Guiteau didn’t have, so the owner of the gun shop lowered the price for him. The next month and a half was filled with target practice, as Guiteau had never owned a gun before, much less fired one, and he needed to know what he was doing. Besides target practice, Guiteau’s days were filled with his stalking President Garfield around Washington. It might seem incredible today, but in 1881, the president was not surrounded by a Secret Service detail to protect him from harm. He could still stroll about at his leisure, just like any private citizen, and anyone could follow him around, if they felt like it, and no one was likely to notice. President Lincoln had been assassinated sixteen years earlier, but that was widely considered to have been a fluke, in part because the high dudgeon of the Civil War was still a factor. Newspapers would report presidents’ daily movements, and Garfield himself didn’t see why he should have bodyguards. Meanwhile, Guiteau was getting better at handling his revolver, and got to know the president’s routines pretty well. One day he followed Garfield and the first lady to the train station, and he almost pulled the trigger. He decided not to, since Mrs. Garfield was in poor health at the time, and he didn’t want to shock her. That wasn’t the only time when Guiteau almost pulled the trigger but lost his nerve. On July 2, 1881, Guiteau finally managed to pull it off. He got to the train station in anticipation of the president who was going to leave town on vacation for a while, joining his wife at the beach. The assassin got his shoes shined and hired a cab to stand by, to take him away later. He found a good spot and saw Garfield and Blaine arrive together. Guiteau stepped forward and fired two shots into Garfield, declaring, “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts—Arthur is president now!” Garfield’s words at the scene were the less grandiose “My God, what is this?”

An engraving of the assassination of President Garfield in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 16, 1881.  Garfield (front right), Blaine (front left), Guiteau (back left, surrounded by the crowd).

Guiteau was arrested, but Arthur was not president yet. Garfield did not die on the spot, as Guiteau had planned. Guiteau was sent to a holding cell, calling out, “I did it. I will go to jail for it,” as he was led away. Garfield was sent to a hospital, still lucid, and still the president. Doctors set to work on saving the president’s life, knowing they had to get the bullets out of him. The first bullet was easily found and taken out, but the other one was more difficult to locate. They could see where it went it, and they could tell that it had just missed the spinal cord and broken a rib, but since the x-ray wouldn’t be invented for another fourteen years, the best they could do was to guess at where it was and probe with medical instruments, as well as their own hands. Unsterilized hands, in fact, since the current medical thinking wouldn’t entirely embrace germ theory until early in the next century. As Garfield lay in his hospital bed, his condition weakened. Garfield would never stand up again, but over the next eleven weeks, he did manage to sit up and write a few times. Garfield lost a lot of weight, subsisting on a diet of oatmeal (which he hated) and cow’s milk. Once, when advised that Chief Sitting Bull, held prisoner by the US Army, was starving in his cell, Garfield replied, “Let him starve.” He then added, “No, send him my oatmeal.” (Garfield was known as an advocate for civil rights for blacks, but for indigenous Americans, he was not so charitable.) The medical team, headed up by Garfield’s old friend Dr. Willard Bliss, advised the president that his chances of survival were “one in a hundred”. “We’ll take that chance,” Garfield said. Despite their best efforts, and despite several apparent improvements to the president’s condition, Garfield worsened. On September 17, the last words Garfield would write were etched on a slate: “Strangulatus pro republica,” Latin for “Tortured for the sake of the republic.” The next day, Garfield asked a friend if he, as president, would have any place in history. His friend assured him he would, but said he still has much work to do. “No, my work is done,” Garfield said. The day after that, he was dead. Arthur was president. Charles Guiteau had said that he, as a Stalwart, would benefit from this, since the Stalwart Chester Arthur would reward him for taking out the opposition and elevating him to the presidency. Instead, the new Stalwart-controlled federal government formally charged Guiteau with murder. Instead of meeting with the State Department about a new posting in Paris, Guiteau met with his defense team, and immediately found things to disagree with them about. Guiteau wanted to plead insanity, specifically claiming that while he was insane at the time of the assassination, he is not medically insane, and that he’s fine now. The insanity defense hadn’t been used much before, certainly not for such a high-profile case. His legal team decided not to split hairs and decided the best way was to testify that their client was simply insane. They called to the stand Edward Charles Spitzka, a leading alienist (or, as he would be called today, psychologist) of the day as an expert witness. Spitzka testified that Guiteau “is not only now insane, but has never been anything else,” asserting that he had “no doubt” that the assassin was a “moral monstrosity”. He added that he saw in Guiteau a “morbid egoist” with “a tendency to misinterpret the real affairs of life.” If this is the best your own defense team can say about you, you’re probably in trouble.

Dr. Spitzka, D.A. Corkhill

The prosecution, headed up by District Attorney George Corkhill, parried this remark in a way that was in line with the public sentiment of the day, saying “what the defense calls insanity is nothing more than devilish depravity.” Corkhill went on to say that Guiteau consorted with prostitutes, and said that he’d contracted “a vile and loathsome disease.” Such a statement, even if true, was of questionable relevance, but it was allowed to stand in the courtroom, filled with people told by the American press that Guiteau was a “vile cur” and worse. Guiteau himself was entertaining to watch, if bizarre. He frequently insulted the judge, the witnesses, the spectators, the prosecution team and even his own defense team. And if that weren’t bad enough, he would sometimes give his testimony at trial in the form of epic poems. He once dictated his own autobiography to a reporter for the New York Herald, which he ended with a personal ad for “a nice Christian lady under the age of 30.” Guiteau was either oblivious or indifferent to the loathing he faced in the media, frequently smiling and waving to spectators at his trial. He would pass notes to the spectators sometimes, soliciting the total strangers for legal advice. He even tried to send a letter to President Arthur, asking for a pardon on the grounds that Arthur should be grateful to Guiteau for having increased his salary by making him president.

An 1881 cartoon of Guiteau in Puck magazine.

The most famous defense Guiteau made of himself came when he said, “The doctors killed Garfield. I just shot him.” Though it was widely felt that Garfield had suffered and died due to medical malpractice, this comment was not well received. It did sum up pretty well the impression Guiteau seemed to have of everyone around him: that he could do no wrong, and that he was stuck in the middle of all this trouble due to the failings and inadequacies of others. He was eventually found guilty of murder by the jury, which caused him (against the advice of counsel) to immediately jump up and shout obscenities at the jurors themselves, crying, “You are all low, consummate jackasses!” On June 30, 1882, Guiteau was led to a gallows, dancing and waving all the way. He gleefully shook hands with his executioner. Before he was hanged, he took out a poem he wrote while incarcerated, titled “I’m Going to the Lordy”. The poem repeats many hallelujahs and glories to God, and names Guiteau as the savior of his party and of his country, fingering his country for “murdering” him. He requested beforehand that he be granted an orchestra to accompany his performance. (The request was denied. Guiteau did read the poem, subjected to much heckling and jeering from spectators.) Upon finishing his poem, the noose was fitted around his neck, the black hood was placed on his head, the trap door under his feet was released, and he was dead. Guiteau’s autopsy revealed that he suffered from phimosis, a condition where the foreskin is unable to retract. Medical thought at the time believed that phimosis led to insanity, and some concluded that made Guiteau insane after all. (This theory is no longer considered valid.) In 2014, criminal psychologist (or alienist, if you insist,) Kent Kiehl diagnosed Guiteau as a psychopath, insane and dangerous. After Guiteau’s hanging, public interest in souvenirs started to take off. Photographs of the event were sold for a dime apiece, but the serious collectors paid for sections of the rope that was used to hang him. Rumors began to swirl that prison guards were planning on digging up Guiteau’s body, which was buried on the grounds of the jail where he’d been held. To stop these rumors (and to make sure they didn’t actually come true), the corpse was disinterred and sent to the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland. The assassin’s brain and spleen were preserved in jars, and his skeleton was bleached. The museum did not display Guiteau’s remains, but part of Guiteau’s brain wound up at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, where it’s still on display today. Despite President Chester Arthur’s partisan leanings with the Stalwart Republicans, who opposed legislation to reform political appointments on a pay-to-play basis, he signed the Pendleton Act in 1883, requiring that federal appointments be made on merit. Arthur himself had gotten his job as customs collector in New York through connections, referred to by critics as the spoils system. Some years earlier Arthur had been removed from the post by President Hayes as an attempt at reform. He might have felt personal affront, but even Arthur saw that things had gone too far, and joined with the reformers.

President Chester A. Arthur (NY) 1881-1885

Kelly Harrell sings of Charles Guiteau, 1927

“The Gun Song” from Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, 1990.  In order of appearance: Leon Czolgosz (assassin of President McKinley), John Wilkes Booth (assassin of President Lincoln), Guiteau, and Sara Jane Moore (Manson Family member and would-be assassin of President Ford)

“The Ballad of Charles Guiteau” from Assassins.


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