One hundred and thirty-three years ago today, on June 30, 1882, a very strange man named Charles Julius Guiteau was executed by hanging in a Washington, D.C. prison. Though few but history and trivia buffs know Guiteau’s name today, he was quite infamous at the time, and briefly was the most famous man in America. Almost exactly a year earlier, on July 2, 1881, Guiteau walked into the ladies’ waiting room of a Washington railroad station, where President James Garfield was rushing to meet a train to take him to his summer vacation, and pulled out a high-caliber revolver called a Webley. Guiteau pumped two bullets into the President, tried to escape and was apprehended by a policeman who just happened to be on the scene. Garfield was still alive, but lay in excruciating torment for weeks, his wounds ultimately infected by the incessant prodding by doctors with non-sterile instruments. When he died on September 19, 1881, this made Guiteau, already charged with attempted murder, the second successful Presidential assassin in American history.
Guiteau’s life was a very odd one, and a profile of it is interesting for more than just what it brings to bear on the question of whether or not he was insane when he shot Garfield–which remains an ambiguous one. Guiteau’s story touches a lot of the fringe elements and unique resentments that were floating around in 19th century society. His first brush with the odd came in the summer of 1860, when the 18-year-old Guiteau left his home of Illinois to join the religious community in upstate New York known as the Oneida Community. This was a group–some say a cult–surrounding Christian socialist philosopher John Humphrey Noyes. Sex was a major preoccupation of the Oneida Community; Noyes wanted to engineer a perfect, sin-free society partially through implementing a eugenics program that involved young women having a lot of sex with John Humphrey Noyes. Unfortunately for Guiteau they also had to do a lot of manual labor, which he didn’t want to do. He was ostracized from the group, even nicknamed “Charles Gitout.” He tried unsuccessfully to sue Noyes more than once.
John Humphrey Noyes, leader of the unconventional Oneida Community, disliked Guiteau and cast him out of the group. Guiteau later plagiarized some of his religious tracts.
Trying his luck in Chicago, Guiteau was a ne’er do well in that city for a while, fancying himself a lawyer–he barely passed an extremely lax bar exam–and sucking up money sent to him by his relatives. On one occasion when his brother John asked to be repaid some money, Charles sent him $7 with a letter enclosed, advising John to take the money and “stick it up your bunghole.” John blamed his brother’s impossible personality on too much masturbation, perhaps learned at Oneida. The family believed he was insane and tried to have him committed in 1875, but somehow he wormed out of it. Guiteau drifted to other cities, eventually winding up in Boston and New York in 1880, coincidentally as the Presidential campaign was getting going that year.
In June 1880, a fateful thing happened. Guiteau was traveling on a paddle steamer called the SS Stonington which collided with another ship, the Narragansett, off New York City. The latter ship burned. Guiteau thought God had saved him and began to believe that he had a grand destiny to fulfill. This experience led him to drift toward politicians. He started hanging around various places where politicians, especially Republicans, were known to gather. The 1880 Republican Convention was in New York, and Guiteau was there, ready to attach himself to the star of whoever looked likely to win.
The gun Guiteau used to assassinate Garfield wound up in a museum, as he hoped, but its whereabouts now are unknown.
At first that seemed to be former President and Civil War hero Ulysses Grant. After serving two terms and then living in semi-retirement, Grant made a surprise bid for the Republican nomination in 1880. Guiteau wrote a speech extolling Grant’s virtues, but at the convention suddenly the delegates shifted from Grant to the dark horse, Ohio Senator James Garfield. Guiteau scratched out Grant’s name on the text of his speech and replaced it with Garfield’s. He handed out copies of the speech to Republican delegates. When Garfield narrowly prevailed over Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock, Guiteau was convinced that his speech had done it. He started writing letters to the President-Elect, telling him how pleased he’d be if Garfield would appoint him Ambassador to Austria.
Things got worse after Garfield’s inauguration in March 1881. At the time, applicants for federal positions were allowed to walk into the White House and plead their case to various officials, including the President, any time they wanted. Many 19th century Presidents bemoaned the plagues of “office seekers” that hounded them. Guiteau was one of the worst. He kept telling anyone who’d listen that he deserved to be Ambassador to Austria, but then changed his mind and decided he liked France better. He wrote numerous letters, showed up to a White House reception, and tried repeatedly to impress Secretary of State James Blaine. Eventually as Blaine realized Guiteau was becoming a troll he gave orders to the White House staff not to admit him again. Guiteau was outraged. Only one option remained: Garfield must die.
Guiteau went about the grim business of preparing to kill the President with a fastidiousness that revealed his bizarre narcissism. He bought the Webley, a .44 caliber, because he thought it would look good in a museum. (In fact it did wind up in the Smithsonian). He wrote letters warning various high officials that he was planning to do it, but no one listened. At one point he went to the D.C. district jail for a tour because he wanted to see where he would be imprisoned. After a few furtive encounters with Garfield–including one where Guiteau decided not to shoot because he would upset Garfield’s wife, who was present–he finally grew tired of waiting and stalked him into the train station on July 2. The rest of the sad story is stated above.
Garfield was on his way to Long Branch, New Jersey to escape the heat of Washington at the time he was shot. After he was wounded he was taken to the White House, and eventually Elberon, NJ, where he died.
Was Guiteau crazy? It depends on how you define “crazy.” Insanity, as a legal plea, bears little resemblance to what most people think of when they contemplate whether someone is insane as a factual matter. This was also the problem with John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan a century later. Guiteau clearly wasn’t all there, mentally. In prison he sang songs, composed epic poems about himself and conducted bizarre courtroom theatrics; when he was found guilty he shouted at the jury that they were “jackasses.” He tried to convince the new President, Chester Arthur, to pardon him because he (Guiteau) had increased Arthur’s salary by making him President. He also asked for an orchestra to play at his execution, though of course that didn’t happen. Guiteau was certainly a very strange and not very pleasant personality, and a very strange character in American history.
The murder of President Garfield was utterly senseless and a tragedy for the nation. Unlike the assassinations of Lincoln, McKinley or even Kennedy, there was no underlying ideology being advanced, no political point to make. Not that those would ever justify such a terrible act, but at least ideologically-driven murder is easier to understand. Guiteau, like his dreadful act, is impossible to make sense of.