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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
GUITEAU : I said the Deity inspired the act, and the Deity would take care of it.…
PORTER : Were you inspired to buy that British bulldog [pistol]?
GUITEAU : I do not pretend that I was inspired to do that specific act, but I claim that the Deity inspired me to remove the President, and that I had to resort to my own means to accomplish the Deity’s will.…
PORTER : Did you contemplate his removal otherwise than by murder?
GUITEAU : No, sir; I do not like the word “murder.”
PORTER : I know you do not like the word “murder. ” It is a hard word, but it is there.
The upshot was that Scoville was reduced to an insanity defense. In the end twenty-three doctors would testify for the prosecution and thirteen for the defense. Although most had impressive credentials by the standards of the day, they practiced at a time when Freud’s theories were unknown and the term “schizophrenia” had not even been coined. The role of expert witnesses, however, was already controversial, and thoughtful observers deplored the marshaling of opposing experts in adversary proceedings. This was small comfort to the jurors in the trial of Guiteau, however, who would have to reach a verdict in the face of diametrically opposed psychiatric testimony.
Insanity as a legal defense was still in its infancy in 1881 and was viewed by the public with skepticism. It had been successfully employed for a number of “crimes of passion,” but in many of these the jury was assumed to have been predisposed in favor of an injured spouse. Popular attitudes were conditioned by a belief that an individual was responsible for his actions, however eccentric his personality. This popular view coincided closely with the narrow interpretation of legal insanity—the so-called M’Naghten Rule—which applied in most jurisdictions. Under the M’Naghten Rule, a person was legally sane if, at the time of an alleged crime, he knew that what he was about to do was unlawful.
Early in the trial the defense attempted to broaden the narrow base for an insanity defense represented by the M’Naghten Rule. Contrary to popular belief, Scoville maintained, most insane people do not behave in an outwardly irrational manner; rather, they are unable to reason properly, and lack a sense of proportion. In this line of reasoning Scoville was not without supporters. The term “moral insanity” had gained a degree of acceptance within the medical profession as an explanation for certain forms of compulsive behavior not clearly related to accepted signs of mental disturbance.
The defense set out to demonstrate that a strain of madness had marked most of Guiteau’s adult life. Not only had the defendant’s father been regarded as “cranky,” but the defendant himself had been seen as unstable. Dr. Alexander Neil, an Ohio physician, told how Guiteau had attempted to sell him a theological pamphlet; Neil was convinced that the man was insane. Similarly, Guiteau had approached a prominent Chicago merchant, Charles Farwell, in connection with his attempt to found a religious newspaper. Farwell testified concerning Guiteau that he “never thought him a sane man,” but on cross-examination Farwell added that he had never thought Guiteau so insane as to be unable to distinguish right from wrong—a key point, given the M’Naghten Rule.
The prosecution introduced a succession of rebuttal witnesses to demonstrate, in Corkhill’s words, “that what the defense calls insanity is nothing more than devilish depravity.” The Manhattan pastor from whom Guiteau had borrowed money testified that the defendant had spent wages earned by his wife on prostitutes, thereby contracting “a vile and loathesome disease.” A succession of boardinghouse keepers told of midnight departures and unpaid bills. As for Guiteau, he kept up a running commentary from the table reserved for defense counsel. One day, he maintained, the country would speak not of “Guiteau the assassin” but of “Guiteau the patriot.” He mused concerning his special relationship with the Deity: “Here is a quartet: the Lord, the jury, the court and me. ”