- Historic Sites
Assassin On Trial
A century ago a President’s murderer went on trial for the first time in our history. The issues raised then continue to trouble us.
June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
The twentieth President of the United States was shot in a Washington, D.C., railroad station on July 2, 1881. He died seventy-nine days later from infections resulting from his wound.
Recent historians have not included James A. Garfield among the nation’s immortals, and it is difficult today to convey the grief and outrage his assassination precipitated a century ago. Garfield was not, to his contemporaries, one of Thomas Wolfe’s “gravely vacant and bewhiskered faces” who presided over the country in the decades after Lincoln. Rather, he was the embodiment of the American ideal: a poor Ohio farm boy who had scrambled to obtain an education and to make his way in Republican politics. He was a family man, a pillar of his church, and a major general of volunteers during the Civil War. Now he was dead at the very outset of his administration.
The church bells scarcely had stopped tolling when the nation turned its attention to the man who, by his own admission, had fired the fatal shot. For the first time, a presidential assassin was to be brought before the bar of justice.
Charles Jules Guiteau—he pronounced the name “gittow”—was thirty-nine years old. His mother had died when he was seven, and young Charles had grown up under the erratic guidance of his father. Profoundly religious, Luther Guiteau was a respected citizen of Freeport, Illinois, and a long-time superintendent of schools there. While Charles was still a lad, however, his father became a convert to the Utopian communalism of John H. Noyés. A sometime minister, Noyes sought to bring out the good in man through communal living. Young Guiteau was very much impressed with the dark-bearded Noyes, who often called on Charles’s father to exchange religious revelations.
The boy attended school in Freeport until he was twelve, when, to Charles’s bitter resentment, his father remarried. Thereafter, relations deteriorated until Charles was sent to live in Chicago with his sister and her husband, George Scoville. Eventually there was a reconciliation, and Luther Guiteau even persuaded his son to join Noyes’s Oneida Community. But Charles was not temperamentally suited to work in the fields, and after passing the Civil War years at Oneida he left for New York City. By then Charles himself was something of a zealot; he intended, Guiteau told friends, not to give up his work for the Lord but merely to practice in a greater arena.
Away from Oneida, Guiteau began a hand-to-mouth existence that continued up to the time of his assault on President Garfield. He first attempted to launch a religious newspaper, the New York Theocrat , but this failed, and Guiteau was obliged to return to Oneida for a time. He left for good in November, 1866, however, after a quarrel with Noyes over compensation that Charles felt was due him. Unable to obtain newspaper work, Guiteau decided upon a career in the law and began reading Blackstone. In Chicago, while clerking with a law firm, he married an attractive sixteen-year-old named Annie Bunn, who would testify that she had been much impressed with her husband’s piety. She soon began to have second thoughts, however. Guiteau had no money with which to indulge his expensive tastes, and their life together was one long round of sneaking out of the best hotels, being evicted from comfortable boardinghouses, and cheating merchants. Guiteau responded to Annie’s complaints by locking her in closets overnight.
Notwithstanding this precarious existence, Guiteau was capable of making a good impression. He had no trouble borrowing ninety-five dollars from the pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church in Manhattan and continued to attend services there long after the minister had given up any hope of seeing his money again. Guiteau might have continued indefinitely as a petty con man had he not suffered a number of setbacks beginning in 1873, when his wife obtained an uncontested divorce, on grounds of adultery. Then the New York Herald published an exposé of his practices as a collection lawyer, an article that virtually destroyed his business. Guiteau brought suit against the paper for one hundred thousand dollars but soon dropped it, explaining that he did not wish to have the Herald as an enemy should he run for President.