- Historic Sites
The President and the Lunatic
After assassinating President Garfield, a lunatic gunman mounted an insanity defense, which the jury--and the nation--rejected despite compelling evidence to the contrary
Spring 2011 | Volume 61, Issue 1
One warm summer night in 1881, a scrawny, nervous man sat in his boarding house a few blocks from the White House. Outside his window, gaslights flickered and horses clopped over cobblestones, but Charles Guiteau barely noticed. For six weeks now, a divine inspiration had festered in his fevered brain. The president, God told Guiteau, had to be “removed.”
Since early June, the lunatic had stalked the president with gun in hand. Enraged at James Garfield for fracturing the Republican Party, convinced that the split would precipitate a second civil war, Guiteau pursued his prey with single-minded calculation. One Sunday he aimed at Garfield through a church window; the following Saturday he crouched in a train depot as the president walked past, but spared him out of pity for the ailing wife clinging to her husband’s arm. A few mornings later, the little man waited along the Potomac, where the president often rode. No horse passed. Now Guiteau could wait no longer, and he began a letter to be delivered the next day:
To Gen. Sherman:
I have just shot the President. I shot him several times as I wished him to go as easily as possible. His death was a political necessity. I am a lawyer, a theologian, and politician. . . . I am going to the jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the jail at once.
The following morning, July 2, President Garfield stepped from his carriage outside the Baltimore and Potomac depot at Sixth Street and Constitution Avenue. As he strolled past admirers, the president all but beamed. After weathering a season of political infighting, he was leaving Washington for the summer. Plans called for him to meet his wife at the Jersey shore, cruise the Hudson, attend his 25th college reunion at Williams College, and then spend August on a farm in Massachusetts. Chatting with his secretary of state, Garfield strode into the waiting room. Across the clutter of heads and hats, he spotted the Venezuelan minister. He had just returned the latter’s polite nod when he heard a shot and felt a stabbing pain in one arm.
“My God! What is this?” he cried. Another blast echoed; a second bullet caught him full in the back, and he pitched face down onto the marble floor.
Two names of presidential assassins are deeply etched in American memory: John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald. Fewer Americans today recall Leon Czolgosz, who shot President McKinley in 1901. The only other man to kill a U.S. president, though his name was once synonymous with villainy, has been forgotten. Yet for decades after Charles Guiteau went to the gallows singing “I am going to the Lordy,” his fate was debated in psychiatric journals, law schools, and the court of public opinion. For despite his confession and a Victorian propriety that considered mental illness a question of morality, “the assassin Guiteau” was tried on a defense of insanity.
In 1881 Sigmund Freud had just earned his medical degree in Vienna. Doctors who worked with the mentally ill were not called psychiatrists but “alienists,” a word derived from French usage. In late 19th-century America, alienists ran asylums where the “crack-brained” and “feeble-minded” raved through horror-ridden halls. Insanity was sometimes blamed on disease but more often on sin, self-indulgence, or “religious excitement.” Newspapers brought daily reports of the insane—a man driven mad by “over-study,” a teenage girl institutionalized after taking a freezing bath, a housewife suddenly eloping with a stranger. Patent medicines promised to cure “Seminal Weakness, Spermatorrhea, and many other diseases that lead to insanity.” Misconceptions about mental illness were reinforced by rigid Victorian moralism. And a criminal who pleaded insanity as a defense had to face the McNaughten Rules. Based on a British case from 1843, the rules required the defense to prove the accused “was laboring under such a deficit of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing.” A man who committed a crime, unless entirely out of touch with reality, had to suffer the consequences. The insanity defense, commonly called “the insanity dodge,” might be used in small-town murder cases; but could it palliate the assassination of the nation’s chief executive?
Toward 10 a.m. on July 2, pandemonium reigned in the Baltimore and Potomac depot. As the president lay gasping for breath amid a circle of onlookers, his assailant walked briskly through the bedlam, his .44 still smoking. Shouts filled the waiting room.
“There he goes!”
“Stop him! He shot the president!”
Guiteau scrambled for the door, but an alert policeman wrestled him to the ground. His eyes wild, his voice electric, the madman shouted, “Yes! I have killed Garfield! Arthur is president of the United States! I am a Stalwart! I have a letter that will tell you all about it. I want you to take it up to General Sherman.” Police marched him through gathering crowds calling out “Lynch! Lynch!” He was dragged off to jail, where other officers quickly noted his “loony” appearance.