- 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
President Garfield did not die right away, and for a time it appeared he might not die at all. He survived the initial shock of his wound and began what the country hoped would be a convalescence, only to fall victim to infection. The country suffered vicariously with its leader, and his death on September 19, 1881, brought an outpouring of grief reminiscent of that for Lincoln. When the impaneling of a jury to try the President’s murderer began in mid-November, passions were still high. Some 159 prospective jurors were examined before 12 could be found who were acceptable alike to the prosecution and the defense—12 who represented a cross section of urban America. There was a restaurant owner, a retired businessman, a cigar dealer, three “merchants,” an ironworker, two grocers, a machinist, and two plasterers, one of whom, Ralph Wormley, was carefully identified in press accounts as Colored.
Leading the prosecution was District Attorney George B. Corkhill, who was assisted by special counsel, Judge John K. Porter of New York City and Walter Davidge, a prominent member of the Washington, D.C., bar. The presiding judge was fifty-five-year-old Walter S. Cox of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Cox had been in private practice and had taught law at Columbia University, but he had served less than two years as a federal judge. His main contribution to the forthcoming trial would be forbearance. Guiteau’s defense was known to rest on a plea of insanity, and Cox was determined to permit the defendant reasonable latitude in demonstrating his alleged incompetence.
Unlike the prosecution, the defense was short of funds and badly organized. Its ostensible leader was George Scoville, a Chicago patent lawyer who happened to be Guiteau’s brother-in-law. Midway through the trial he was joined by another Chicago lawyer, Charles Reed, who had considerably greater courtroom experience. Both were handicapped by the fact that Guiteau had made it clear that he intended to participate in his own defense. Thus, he sat not in the prisoner’s dock but at the table reserved for defense counsel.
Guiteau already had been examined in his cell and pronounced competent to stand trial; public opinion probably would not have tolerated any other conclusion. The press had indulged in a spate of self-congratulation concerning America’s respect for law and for the legal safeguards being offered “that wretch” Guiteau. But most Americans, with the memory of Garfield’s sufferings still fresh, held a deep loathing for the prisoner, and not everyone was convinced that he merited any trial at all. One letter to the Washington Star suggested that Guiteau be forced each day to consume two ounces of his own flesh “until he eats himself up.” The New York Times was slightly more tolerant; “Guiteau should have a fair trial,” ran one editorial. “Everything that can be urged in his behalf should be patiently heard. It is the right of the meanest thing that bears a human form, but such a trial, such a hearing, in a community of intelligent beings can have but one result.” Guiteau’s comings and goings from the courtroom frequently were accompanied by verbal abuse from onlookers, whom the court reporter described as “not composed of the better and more intelligent class of citizens.” And each day brought threatening letters to the defendant in his cell.
Even before the trial began, one of the guards at the federal jail had taken matters into his own hands. In early September Sergeant William Mason had aimed a shot at the prisoner from outside his window, missing only by inches. Mason surrendered quietly, complaining that he was tired of riding over the rough streets each day to guard “such a cur as Guiteau.” He eventually was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment, but a Washington newspaper thoughtfully initiated a fund-raising drive on behalf of his family. Guiteau was moved into a more secure cell.
Physical preparations for the trial were completed by November 13 with the installation of temporary flooring and extra seats in the capital’s somewhat dilapidated criminal court. The trial was to begin four days later, and early that morning a crowd waited outside the court. Deputy marshals with their bright red badges were everywhere, and for the first time in anyone’s memory, people claiming to be reporters were required to produce credentiak About half the seats were reserved for lawyers, newsmen, and “distinguished guests.”