- Historic Sites
“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
After he was barred from the White House door sometime in May, Guiteau wrote a vaguely threatening letter to Garfield—of the kind the Secret Service would automatically be notified of today. It went unanswered. And it was, naturally, about this time that he turned against Garfield and began to brood about the President’s “removal,” as he called it. On June 8, borrowing fifteen dollars from a cousin, he purchased a 44-caliber British revolver with a white bone handle. (A cheaper model was available with a wooden handle but, he said later, he wanted one that would look well in a museum.)
“That will make a good noise,” Guiteau told the gun-seller, who replied, “That will kill a horse.” Guiteau, who had never fired a gun, went to some woods along the Potomac and practiced shooting at trees. Thereafter he began to haunt the President.
His trial was a spectacle. Crowded every day, the courtroom often resounded to boos and laughter. At first, Guiteau was allowed to receive visitors in his cell. He demanded that President Arthur, since he had achieved office by the “removal,” should contribute funds for his defense. He attacked witnesses, the prosecutors, even his own attorneys, who were led by George Scoville, his brother-in-law. The defense plan was to plead insanity—but Guiteau demolished his own case by telling an alienist in jail, before the trial, “I knew from the time I conceived the act if I could establish the fact before a jury that I believed the killing was an inspired act, I could not be held to responsibility before the law.”
Perhaps the most important parts of Guiteau’s sayings and writings are those that reveal how verbal violence, following Garfield’s defiance of Conkling and Platt, had given the assassin the backbone he otherwise lacked to commit murder. Garfield had not, of course, defeated the Stalwart bosses without causing fierce controversy. A marked editorial from the Brooklyn Eagle , found in Guiteau’s pocket after he shot the President, had predicted the disintegration of the Republican party. Guiteau said, “After I saw the President and General Grant and Conkling and that kind of men were wrestling and at loggerheads, I saw that this nation was coming to grief.” Enough Americans agreed with him so that he sometimes received in his prison cell as many as a hundred favorable letters and telegrams a day. Others so thoroughly detested him that while in custody he was twice shot at. Once one of his own guards fired at Guiteau; the bullet missed its mark. Again, an assailant on horseback fired into the police van which was taking the prisoner between jail and courtroom.
On January 25, 1882, after only about an hour’s deliberation, the jury found Guiteau guilty. He was hanged on June 30, exactly one year after Garfield had talked with Robert Todd Lincoln about his father’s assassination. Guiteau was allowed to recite on the scaffold a poem he had written that morning, purporting to be the words of a dying child; he told reporters that it would sound better if set to music. It went in part,
He was still saying “Glory,” as the trap was sprung.