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
For several years Guiteau dabbled in preaching, journalism, and the law. He gained some income from a collection of religious lectures that he modestly entitled The Truth: A Companion to the Bible . But sales fell off, and soon the author’s lecturing was also going badly. Guiteau sought new horizons. He had long been attracted to politics, and as the 1880 presidential campaign approached, he worked up a speech in pamphlet form in support of former President Grant, who was seeking a third term in the White House. During the turbulent campaign the Republican party split into two factions: the “Stalwarts,” who backed Grant, and the “Half-Breeds,” who supported James G. Blaine. This latter group eventually swung over to Garf ield, but the Republican Convention nominated Chester A. Arthur for Vice-Président as a sop to the Stalwarts. Guiteau marked the shift by making some superficial changes in his pamphlet and, thus armed, sought speaking assignments from party headquarters in New York City. The Republicans had plenty of big-name speakers and used Guiteau only for one minor rally. But while no one appears to have taken him very seriously, Guiteau did manage to gain a degree of acceptance at party headquarters, where he had at least some access to Arthur.
The Garfield-Arthur ticket won a narrow victory, and Guiteau wasted no time in importuning Garfield for a diplomatie appointment. When his letters went unanswered, Guiteau joined the swarm of office seekers who descended on Washington after the inauguration, and eventually he gained entrée to Garfield, thereby achieving the distinction of being the only presidential assassin to interview his future victim. “As soon as General Garfield was at leisure,” Guiteau later related, “I stepped up to him and gave him my speech. Of course, he recognized me at once.… I told him that I was an applicant for the Paris consulship… and I left him reading the speech and retired.”
A White House clerk subsequently told Guiteau that his file had been passed to the State Department, and the run-around began. Guiteau bombarded Garfield and Secretary of State James G. Blaine with letters and copies of Garfield vs. Hancock , all to no avail. When, in mid-May, he accosted Blaine concerning his prospects, the Secretary grew livid. “Never speak to me again on the Paris consulship as long as you live!” he exploded. But several days later Blaine listened as Guiteau expressed confidence that he could persuade President Garfield to remove the incumbent consul from Paris and give the post to him. “Well, if he will do so … ,” Blaine began, trailing off into something noncommittal. To his dying day the Secretary would reproach himself that his temporizing may have led Guiteau to blame the President for his misfortunes.
It was several days after this that Guiteau first conceived the idea of murdering the President: “I retired about eight o’clock … depressed and perplexed on account of the political situation … and the idea flashed through my brain that if the President was out of the way everything would go better. At first this was a mere impression. It startled me, but the next morning it came to me with renewed force, and I began to read the papers with my eye on the possibility that the President would have to go.…”
Guiteau claimed to have resisted his “impression,” only to have it keep returning, fed by editorials that saw the resurgent factionalism of the Republican party as threatening its destruction. By June 1 the impression had grown stronger, and Garfield’s fate was sealed.
“Two weeks after I conceived the idea my mind was thoroughly settled on the intention to remove the President. I then prepared myself. I sent to Boston for a copy of my book The Truth … and added one or two new chapters, put some new ideas in it and I greatly improved it. I knew that it would probably have a large sale on account of the notoriety that the act of removing the President would give me.…”
For much of June Guiteau stalked his victim, but always there was something wrong about the time or place. Then, on the morning of July 2, 1881, Guiteau arose at five in his room at Riggs House, had breakfast, and took a short stroll around Lafayette Park. He then returned to his room and wrote several letters, one of which offered his rationale for the assault later that morning (“The President’s tragic death was a sad necessity, but it will unite the Republican party and save the Republic”). At nine o’clock Guiteau, like the President, took a carriage for the Baltimore & Potomac depot, where Garfield planned to board a train for New England. Half an hour later, Guiteau fired two shots, one of which struck Garfield squarely in the back. The assassin told police, “I am a Stalwart and Arthur is President of the United States now. ”