- 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 defendant’s interruptions titillated the gallery and drove editorial writers to deplore the trial’s lack of decorum. When one witness disparaged Guiteau’s election pamphlet, the defendant shouted that he was not a fool, “and I won’t allow you to make me out one.” As Scoville examined a prosecution witness, Guiteau interjected, “You are making altogether too much out of this kind of fellow. You have not got much more sense than he has.” It was difficult to say whether the defendant reserved greater invective for the district attorney or for his own counsel; on another occasion he described Scoville as “stupid as a jackass,” fit only to examine title abstracts. The spectators guffawed and the public fumed, but Judge Cox remained tolerant—he wanted no grounds for a reversal of the jury’s expected verdict. But after one string of interruptions, even Cox had had enough. “Keep your mouth shut,” he told Guiteau, “and don’t interrupt during this trial. I do not desire it; but if the trial cannot go on without resort to gagging, it will have to be done.”
The defense produced eight “alienists”—the term then used for psychiatrists—to testify to their belief that Guiteau was insane. Each, if given the chance, doubtless would have set forth imaginative if subjective explanations of how he had arrived at this judgment. But Scoville, unwisely, did not inquire; rather, he put to each doctor a hypothetical question in which he described Guiteau’s history of aberrant behavior and asked the witness if he would regard such a person as insane. The answer was predictably affirmative, but much of the impact of this expert testimony was lost because there was no elaboration.
It was through no fault of Scoville’s, however, that the potentially most influential medical witness proved a mixed blessing. Twenty-nine-year-old Dr. Edward Spitzka was a German-born alienist who had studied widely in Europe before setting up a practice in New York City. He was the enfant terrible of the fledgling psychiatric establishment, and in particular was an outspoken critic of the M’Naghten Rule. Even before setting eyes on Guiteau, Spitzka had written in a professional journal that he was certain that if Guiteau, “with his hereditary history, his insane manner, his insane documents and his insane actions were to be committed to any asylum in the land, he would be unhesitatingly admitted as a proper subject for sequestration.”
Having first had an opportunity to examine the defendant in his cell, the self-assured Spitzka elaborated on his views in court. When Scoville asked whether he thought Guiteau had been insane on the day of the assassination, Spitzka replied that in his opinion Guiteau had been “in a more or less morbid state throughout his life, and that he was probably insane at the time you mention.” The prosecution, recognizing the confident Spitzka as a potentially dangerous witness, attempted to discredit his testimony. In reply to one question, Spitzka conceded that he had never taught at a medical college, but only at a school of veterinary medicine. Asked if this did not mean that he was a veterinarian, Spitzka snapped, “In the sense that I treat asses who ask me stupid questions, I am. ” This was a tonic to the gallery, but it did nothing to make Spitzka’s testimony more palatable to a skeptical middle-class jury.
The government, for its part, called no fewer than fourteen alienists in rebuttal. As if to mock Scoville, each was asked a hypothetical question much like that employed by the defense attorney—in answer to which each replied that he regarded the defendant as sane. One of the government’s witnesses dwelt on Guiteau’s megalomania, the trait that was probably most grating to the average American. “Boasting… is not the result of disease,” Dr. Fordyce Barker observed. “It is a result of vanity and self-conceit and love of notoriety, and these are vices and not diseases.”
The prosecution’s counter to Spitzka was fifty-six-yearold John P. Gray, the superintendent of an asylum and editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Insanity . Dr. Gray was noted for his work in improving living conditions for asylum inmates and was one of the most respected names in the field of mental health. He had interviewed the defendant for two full days and had taken extensive notes. In four days of testimony—he was the last prosecution witness—Gray stressed the conventional wisdom that where there was no disease, there was no true insanity: “A man may become profoundly depraved and degraded by mental habits and yet not be insane. Such a man may become insane in the midst of his depravity, or afterward, but without such preceding disease it is only depravity.”
Describing his interviews with Guiteau, Gray emphasized the defendant’s rationality, his intelligence, and the amount of planning that had gone into his crime. Most damaging was his description of the defendant’s premeditation; he quoted Guiteau as having told him, “I knew from the time I conceived the act, if I could establish the fact before a jury that I believed the killing was an inspired act, I could not be held to responsibility before the law.” While Scoville wondered how to counter this damaging testimony, Guiteau broke in to affirm his statement to Gray, noting, “That is the law; that is correct.”