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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
The stricken president was taken upstairs and given brandy. Looming over him, his son sobbed. Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln, who just 16 years earlier had comforted his dying father, paced the room. The night before, he and Garfield had discussed the topic of assassination. “How many hours of sorrow I have passed in this town,” Lincoln said. (Twenty years later, Lincoln would witness his third presidential assassination when Czolgosz shot McKinley.) A doctor examined Garfield’s back, inserting fingers into the wound. The president grimaced. The doctor assured him he would recover. “I thank you, doctor,” Garfield replied, “but I am a dead man.” Across town, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman read Guiteau’s letter and ordered the White House guarded against a larger plot.
The news of the shooting sent shock waves across Gilded Age America. From out west, where Indian wars still raged, to East Coast cities filling with both mansions and tenements, people took to the streets. By noon, when some newspapers reported Garfield’s death, bells tolled and crowds wept. But the president was clinging to life in the White House, as he would all summer.
Few knew much about the man who had been president for just four months, but Garfield’s biography seemed archetypal. Born in an Ohio log cabin, he had risen from one-room schoolhouses to a New England college, then to lay preaching, academia, and finally to Civil War battlefields. A veteran of Shiloh and Chickamauga, General Garfield was elected to Congress, where he survived Reconstruction’s infighting to emerge in 1880 as a Republican dark horse presidential candidate, winning the nomination on the 36th ballot. A strong debater, Garfield was known as bookish, a capable mathematician and classicist—he could simultaneously write with one hand in Greek, the other in Latin—and serious to the point of appearing boring. But the country now rallied behind him, hailing Garfield as “one of the greatest presidents ever chosen” and freely comparing him to Lincoln. Who would want to kill such a man?
The next morning, newspapers began detailing Charles Guiteau’s tawdry life. Raised in rural Illinois, he had been an irascible child, frequently beaten, scarred by his mother’s death, and abandoned when his father remarried. Unable to make friends, Guiteau had sought solace in the Oneida Community, an upstate New York commune notorious for free love and “Bible communism,” but he quarreled with his coreligionists and left in a rage. Adrift in Reconstruction-era America, he finally settled in Chicago, where he began giving religious lectures. Ranting about “the kingdom of God on earth,” Guiteau quickly earned a reputation as a “crank,” an “unendurable nuisance,” and a “knave of the darkest character.” Hadn’t he once threatened his sister with an ax? Some knew him as a “crack-brained” lawyer who thundered in court, others as a swindler who cheated merchants and skipped out on hotel bills. “There is no man who has had anything to do with Guiteau for years past but knows him to be insane,” a prominent attorney told a reporter. Since March, the nation learned, Guiteau had been in Washington, pestering the White House and the State Department to name him American consul to Paris. “Disgruntled office seeker” was how history would explain Guiteau’s crime, but throughout July it remained only an “attempted assassination.”
As Garfield’s condition stabilized, his pulse and respiration were reported daily in the press. Meanwhile, Americans eagerly anticipated the trial of “the assassin Guiteau.” Interviewed in his cell, he insisted that “the Deity” had inspired him, and that when Americans realized he had averted another civil war he would be welcomed as a hero on the lecture circuit. Then came the outrageous news that Guiteau might try “the insanity dodge.” A writer for the New York Times quipped, “The feeling is quite general that it would be best to execute him first and try the question of his sanity afterward.”
Come August, doctors were predicting Garfield’s recovery. But the “lost bullet” lodged near his liver combined with the steam heat of the nation’s capital to keep the president hovering between life and death. On August 2 Alexander Graham Bell came to the White House with a primitive metal detector he had built to find the bullet. When this device failed—Bell did not know that the bed contained metal springs—doctors again probed Garfield’s back wound. Current medical opinion holds that Garfield should have recovered from his wounds, but in an age when the “germ theory” of disease was only beginning to be accepted, surgeons continued to probe with unsterilized fingers. Sepsis soon set in. By September, the president was in critical condition, and the nation seethed with vengeance.
On September 4 a mob in Buffalo burned Guiteau in effigy. A week later, a guard disgusted at having to protect “such a cur as Guiteau” fired into his cell, the bullet grazing the assassin’s head. A few days later, another guard attacked Guiteau with a knife, but the inmate’s screams brought help. Ten days later, the president, taken to the Jersey shore to escape the heat, awoke late in the evening. “How it hurts here!” Garfield said, clutching his heart. On September 19, with his grieving wife by his side, he died.
Within minutes, bells tolled in every American city. Guiteau trembled in his cell, asking guards whether a mob might be outside, cowering when they made the slightest move toward him. Within a week, he was indicted. A speedy trial was promised, but the public had already come to its verdict.