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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
As testimony began, there was no question that Guiteau had shot the President and that he had acted alone. (There would be no serious conspiracy theories concerning the death of Garfield; despite his allegiance to the Stalwarts, Guiteau was emphatic that he alone—in consultation with the Deity—had conceived and perpetrated his assault.) The only issue was that of legal responsibility. Defense attorney Scoville was basing his case on a plea of insanity and had an array of potential witnesses who were prepared to testify to a strain of hereditary insanity in the Guiteau family. But he was handicapped not only by limited popular understanding of this complicated issue but also by Guiteau’s own insistence that he was as sane as the next man, except for the brief period when he had been dominated by his “impression.” As the trial unfolded, it would prove to be, on one level, a spectacle— Guiteau would see to that—and on another level, a forum for conflicting views on the subject of legal insanity.
The prosecution began its four-day presentation on November 17. Many thought it far too long, considering that the facts of Guiteau’s act were not in dispute. Prosecutor Corkhill even introduced a section of the dead President’s backbone, to show the path of the bullet. There were ugly rumors that Guiteau had been allowed to fondle this grisly relic, but the assassin, who admired things “high-toned,” went to some pains to deny this. The episode probably had its origin in rumors that the defense would claim Garfield’s death had resulted from medical malpractice. The defense had in fact toyed with this idea, but questioning of one of Garfield’s surgeons persuaded Scoville that it was a dead end.
Guiteau took the stand on his own behalf on November 8 and testified for the better part of a week. His ianner was nervous, and with reason. The previous week, as Guiteau was being returned to jail in the prison van, a horseman had galloped up alongside and fired a shot at him. The shot barely grazed his arm and had the effect of convincing Guiteau that he continued to be favored by the Deity. The assailant, a Maryland farmer named Bill Jones, was identified and arrested, then released on bail and never brought to trial.
Testifying in his own behalf, Guiteau recounted his life story, with emphasis on his formative years. Scoville anticipated that the prosecution would seek to discredit the defendant as a moral leper, one who had mistreated his wife and defrauded many an honest innkeeper. Scoville pointed out that Guiteau did not smoke, never frequented saloons, and never used profanity. Since his character was basically harmless, according to Scoville, the explanation for his violent act must lie elsewhere; it lay, according to Scoville, in the defendant’s “shortcomings of mind.” Here, at a time when Scoville probably had the jury’s full attention, Guiteau chimed in with one of his many interruptions. He had brains enough, Guiteau insisted, but “there is no money in theology, and I ran behind on that pretty badly. ”
The climax of Guiteau’s testimony came with his recounting of the 1880 election campaign. The prisoner still seemed puzzled by the reception he had been accorded at Republican headquarters in New York City. He had found the party leaders “delightful”; indeed, he allowed that he could approach vice-presidential candidate Chester A. Arthur and talk to him as freely as you please. (Guiteau was not exaggerating; in a written deposition to the court, President Arthur would concede that he had met Guiteau “ten, possibly as many as twenty times,” mostly in New York City.) Nevertheless, nobody had shown much interest in giving him speaking assignments. After several letters to Presidentelect Garfield about possible diplomatic posts had gone unanswered, Guiteauwentto Washington, ostensibly concerned about the President’s split with the Stalwart wing of the party. Then, in early June, came the lethal “impression. ”
On the third day of Guiteau’s testimony, John Porter began cross-examination on behalf of the prosecution. Porter retraced the defendant’s checkered career, implying that the symptoms that Scoville had sought to portray as hereditary illness were in fact nothing more than the by-products of a life of debauchery. Porter even developed an additional motive for Guiteau’s assault on Garfield when he led the defendant to concede that he expected the assassination to increase sales of his book, The Truth . For the most part, however, Porter belabored Guiteau’s hopes for reward from a new President:
PORTER : Did you say to Officer Scott, on leaving the depot…, “General Arthur is now President?”
GUITEAU : I decline to answer that.
PORTER : Why do you object to answering that?
GUITEAU : I suppose I did say that; I want it distinctly understood that I did not do that of my own personal volition, but on the inspiration of the Deity. I never would have shot the President on my own personal account.
PORTER : Who bought the pistol—the Deity or you?