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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
Much of the evidence for Guiteau’s guilt was based on his early October jailhouse “autobiography,” in which he had explained how, on a restless night in his boarding house, “the idea [had] flashed through my brain that if the president was out of the way, everything would go better.” He painstakingly recounted how he bought his gun, fired it on the banks of the Potomac, and then stalked the president. His narrative made the assassination seem the work of a calculating criminal, yet Guiteau soon began to show America otherwise.
From the moment the trial convened, Guiteau commanded the courtroom. Denouncing his lawyers, shouting at the judge, and exploding into religious rants, the defendant appalled and fascinated the overflow gallery. His misshapen head, closely cropped hair, and flaring eyes were equally alarming.
“Looks crazy,” said one spectator.
“Ain’t got the brains to be crazy.”
When not raving, Guiteau sat penning a long speech comparing himself to Washington and Grant and insisting that he would soon be known as “Guiteau, the patriot.” While he wrote, the prosecution mounted its case.
Witnesses tearfully recalled how sudden shots and chaos broke the stillness of the morning of July 2 as the president strode into the depot. At the defense table, Guiteau seethed. Whenever testimony veered from his version, he responded with rage—“I wore my hat in the usual way! I do not go sneaking about! I do things on the square!” Siblings tried to calm him, but Guiteau turned on them: “Oh, mind your business! Let me alone. I am lead counsel and will talk just as much as I want to!” Fearing a mistrial, the judge refused to silence Guiteau.
With a bizarre defendant and witnesses including General Sherman and several senators, the trial became the capital’s event of the season. Each morning, long lines formed outside the courthouse. Guiteau’s arrival brought hisses, while any talk of insanity bred outrage. “We don’t want any cursed foolishness in this trial and we won’t have any,” a Civil War veteran told the Washington Post. “If they play malpractice and insanity the case will end damned soon.”
On the trial’s fifth day, vengeance boiled over. That day in court, a preserved section of the president’s spine was passed from witness to jurors, each examining the bullet hole. When the ghastly object was handed to Guiteau, the gallery fell silent. For once, he said nothing. That afternoon, as he rode back to the jail in a police van, a man on horseback pulled alongside, raised a revolver, and fired. “Oh, I am shot!” Guiteau screamed, falling to the floor. Back in his cell, he nursed a bruise on his arm where the bullet had glanced off. When heckled through the bars of his cell, he shouted back: “People will learn after awhile that the Lord is with me and will not allow me to be killed!” The next day, the prosecution rested its case.
On November 24, 1881, rising to his brother-in-law’s defense, attorney George Scoville faced a daunting task. According to the McNaughten Rules, Scoville had to prove that Guiteau was so deranged that he did not know he was doing what was wrong. The insanity defense had been used frequently in recent years, yet rarely in a capital case, and only once in the trial of a would-be assassin. In 1835 a deranged man had taken aim at President Andrew Jackson, but his pistols had misfired. Attorney Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” prosecuted the assailant, who pleaded insanity—claiming to be King Richard III—and was institutionalized for life. But Jackson had been unharmed; Garfield had not been so lucky, and neither would his assassin.
Various commentators had already weighed in on Guiteau’s mental condition. “There’s nothing of the madman about Guiteau,” declared District of Columbia district attorney George Corkhill. “He’s a cool calculating blackguard, a polished ruffian, who has gradually prepared himself to pose in this way before the world.” The American Law Review added, “The danger to society from an insane murderer is at least as great as from a sane murderer . . . Let us destroy an insane murderer as we do anyone or anything else whose continued existence threatens the general safety.” Even alienists seemed to be against Guiteau. The most common causes of insanity, according to a census of asylums, were masturbation, intemperance, and ill health. Guiteau’s lawyer would have to challenge an entire culture’s conventional wisdom. Scoville reminded the jury of society’s increasing empathy with the insane, then summoned an impressive array of witnesses.
One told the court of Guiteau’s ax assault on his sister; others recounted how his fanatical father had practiced faith healing and claimed he would live forever. Another described one of Guiteau’s lectures, cut short when the “theologian” stormed off the podium: “After he went out, we had a conference and all came to the conclusion that he was crazy.” After Guiteau’s sister testified that he had “clear gone daft,” the defense called its most compelling witness: the defendant himself.
Stepping onto the stand, Guiteau riveted the courtroom. Pale, quivering, his eyes darting, he told of his brutal childhood, then read from his self-published religious pamphlet. As he spoke, 20 alienists sat nearby, taking notes: one later said Guiteau was the most fascinating psychotic he had ever seen. In the gallery, a tall, white-haired African American offered his opinion. “If it is acting,” Frederick Douglass judged, “he is the most consummate actor in the world.”