- 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
If, after two months of testimony, there were any waverers on the jury, Dr. Gray’s testimony may have been decisive. He was the last witness, but the proceedings took several more days to wind through the closing statements. Scoville alone talked for four days. On January 16,1882, Guiteau finally was granted permission to address the jury. Following a rambling rehash of his earlier testimony, he closed with a threat. “As sure as there is a God in Heaven,” he warned the jury, “if you harm a hair on my head this nation will go down in blood. You can put my body in the grave, but there will be a day of reckoning.” He assured the jury that “the mothers and daughters of the republic are praying that you will vindicate my inspiration, and their prayers I expect will prevail.”
It was dusk on the afternoon of January 25 when Judge Cox completed his charge to the jury. Through it all ran the dictates of the M’Naghten Rule. Was the defendant’s normal condition of mind, because of disease, such that he could not understand the nature of his actions, or distinguish between right and wrong? Or did he have sufficient intelligence to know that he was about to commit a wrongful act? The court recalled Dr. Gray’s testimony that Guiteau, even as he planned his assault on the President, was designing a defense based on insanity.
At the close of the eleven-week trial, it took the jury only sixty-five minutes to reach its unanimous verdict: guilty as charged. The spectators cheered, and Guiteau exchanged angry words with Scoville. A subdued defendant was escorted once more to the prison van, which returned him to the jail through a cold winter rain. On February 4 Judge Cox sentenced him to death by hanging, but Guiteau was not to be denied the last word. “And may God have mercy on your soul,” the prisoner replied. “I had rather stand where I am than where the jury does or where your Honor does.”
The defense initiated the usual appeals, but to no avail. The Supreme Court denied a writ of habeas corpus, and President Arthur declined to order either a stay or a pardon. The date of execution was set for June 30. Guiteau was slow to realize that there was no avoiding the gallows, but in his final weeks he met daily with a prison pastor.
On June 30, at noon, he was led to the scaffold where some two hundred and fifty people, some of whom had paid up to three hundred dollars for admission, had gathered for the day’s spectacle. Guiteau did not disappoint them. From the scaffold he read from the tenth chapter of Matthew (“And fear not them that kill the body but are not able to kill the soul”), but after fourteen verses he put the Bible aside, stating that he had a “pathetic hymn” of his own to read. Declaiming in an artificially high-pitched voice, Guiteau delivered his farewell:
For most Americans, Guiteau’s execution marked the close of a bizarre but transitory episode. There were those in the legal profession who criticized Cox’s gingerly handling of the trial, but his defenders were able to point out that he had given no grounds for a mistrial.
It was in the medical profession that the Guiteau case lived on. Alienists who had testified in favor of acquittal, or who had supported such a verdict, maintained that had Guiteau shot anyone other than the President, he might have been committed without even having to stand trial. Because the question of brain disease had figured prominently in the trial, there was much professional interest in the autopsy performed on the assassin. The autopsy revealed signs of syphilitic paresis but, on the whole, was inconclusive.
As time went on, the general feeling came to be that Guiteau must have been insane in medical terms, if not in the eyes of the law. Ironically, some practitioners were won over to this view only by the assassin’s deportment on the scaffold. One physician, speaking at a convention, expressed his belief in Guiteau’s incompetence, “especially at the last, when he got off that whang-doodle Oh! Lordy song.”