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“Murder Most Foul”
Two shots rang out in the railroad station, and the President of the United States slumped to the floor, mortally wounded
August 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 5
“I come here in the capacity of an agent of the Deity in this matter,” he declared to Judge Walter S. Cox, of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, at the opening of the trial on November 14. For two and a half months he ranted on. Sometimes the Judge reprimanded him severely, but for the most part Guiteau was allowed to have his say. (Cox, it was noted, had been counsel to two of John Wilkes Booth’s associates in 1865 and was determined that this time there would be a full and fair trial, as had hardly been the case before.) Many of the facts of Guiteau’s fantastic life were already known, and others came out, in garbled and distorted form, during his ravings.
It was just about a month before the shooting that Guiteau had at last been turned away, not only from the executive offices which he had been haunting but from the White House front door. He was one of the most persistent as well as preposterous job hunters who had ever come to Washington. Yet his interest in politics was really quite recent. He had turned to it after having failed at everything else.
Ten years younger than the President, Guiteau had grown up in Freeport, Illinois, the son of a respectable Republican, a bank cashier with only one marked eccentricity: the senior Guiteau was a devout follower of the Reverend John H. Noyes, founder of the Oneida Community, a collective farm where not only Christian communism but plural marriage and eugenic breeding were practiced, and where strange theories of divine inspiration were preached. Here young Guiteau, who had been a restless boy unable to settle down and concentrate, arrived in 1860. He was given unpleasant jobs in the kitchen and workshops, but apparently found some satisfaction in the religious teachings and the companionship of the female members; he stayed throughout the Civil War. In April, 1865, he went to New York City with, as he put it, “the Bible for my textbook and the Holy Ghost for my schoolmaster.” He lived over a bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey, on a subsistence diet, claiming to be in the employ of “Jesus Christ & Co.” and drafting plans for a chain of religious dailies. Nothing came of that.
After another stay at Oneida and another unsuccessful sojourn in New York, Guiteau decided to try Chicago. There he managed to pass the bar—then a relatively simple matter—and practiced as debt collector, keeping for himself most of the money he collected. He met, and married, a good-looking sixteen-year-old girl who worked in a Y.M.C.A. library. Periodically he and his young wife were thrown out of their lodgings for nonpayment, or fled voluntarily just before rent day. He left a chain of bills at hotels, lodginghouses, and haberdasheries across the country. He never paid railroad fare, usually telling the conductor, “I am travelling for the Lord.” If this didn’t work, he would get off at the next station. After almost five years of this uncertain life, his wife divorced him for adultery; he did not deny that he had spent some of her money on prostitutes, and had caught syphilis.
About 1876 Guiteau began to attend prayer meetings of the Moody and Sankey revivals in Chicago, where he served as an usher and was sometimes permitted to preach. This started a new phase of his career. Now, wherever he could rent a hall or borrow a church, he began to lecture on the Second Coming, giving as his own the doctrines he had learned from the Reverend Mr. Noyes at Oneida. His audiences were sometimes a hundred or more, sometimes only two or three. He also sold copies of a book called The Truth , in which he plagiarized Noyes’ ideas. But in the spring of 1880, having done poorly with a lecture called “Some Reasons Why Two-Thirds of the Human Race Are Going Down to Perdition,” he began to be interested in the coming GOP national convention.
He expected General Grant to be nominated for a third term, and wrote a campaign speech intended for him. When Garfield was nominated instead, it was not difficult to revise the speech. Guiteau had copies printed and took them, uninvited, to an August meeting of Republican leaders at the old Fifth Avenue Hotel in New York. No one used the speech in the campaign—it was dreadful. But he did get from the politicians a few kind words, and somehow conceived the notion that the GOP owed him a job.
His days in Washington, where he arrived on borrowed money on March 5, 1881, were discouraging and lonely, but he persisted. Once, pushing his way through a crowd of office seekers, he managed to see Garfield, who was of course courteous, and gave the President a copy of his speech. (He also sent him at least four other copies.) First, Guiteau asked for an ambassadorship; then for the consulship at Paris. In the White House he would help himself to stationery, write a note (“Can I have the Paris consulship?”), and leave it with a clerk. He also pestered Grant, Blaine, and Vice President Chester A. Arthur, and he asked many members of Congress to sign a petition on his behalf to obtain the consulship—with complete failure.