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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
Guiteau testified for five days, explaining how God had ordered him to kill the president: “The idea kept working me and working me and grinding and oppressing me.” He had prayed for a sign that “the idea” wasn’t what it seemed, but none came. He had been chosen, he concluded, “because I had the brains and the nerve to do the work and because the Deity always chooses His best material to do His work.”
Rising to cross-examine, prosecutors turned to their most potent weapon—ridicule. When Guiteau again invoked his divine inspiration, they were ready.
“Who bought the pistol, the Deity or you?”
“I said the Deity inspired the act, and the Deity would take care of it.”
“The question is, ‘Who bought the pistol?’”
“The Deity furnished the money with which I bought the pistol. I was the agent.”
“Do you believe in the Ten Commandments?”
“Have you higher evidence that the Supreme Ruler of the Universe said to you, ‘Thou shalt kill’ than you have that he said, ‘Thou shalt not kill?’”
On his final day in the dock, Guiteau admitted he had hoped that the assassination would increase sales of his pamphlet. He called himself “a man of destiny as much as the Savior or Paul or Martin Luther.” Finally, the prosecutor put the crucial question.
“Are you insane at all?”
“A good many people think I am badly insane. The Oneida people thought so, my father thought so, and my relatives thought so and still think so.”
“You told the jury you were not insane.”
“I am not an expert. Let the experts and the jury decide whether I am insane.”
Onlookers agreed that Guiteau was alarming, terrifying, indeed fascinating. But was he criminally insane? As the trial inched toward a new year, the question consumed the nation. Tourists flocked to Washington, hoping for a glimpse of Guiteau, “as if he were some rare wild animal,” noted the Washington Post. Other newspapers denounced Guiteau as an “impostor” and the chaotic trial as “a burning shame.” The nation’s most famous clergyman, Henry Ward Beecher, judged Guiteau “sane enough to hang,” and added, “I am not especially in favor of hanging but if ever there was a case for it, there is one now.” Was “the assassin,” “the coward,” the “miserable scoundrel,” an actor or a lunatic? It was time for expert opinion.
In its final days the trial pitted the 19th century against the 20th. For two weeks alienists struggled to define insanity. Was it hereditary? Yes, said defense experts, pointing to Guiteau’s father and an uncle in an asylum. Prosecution experts disagreed. Like any disease, they insisted, insanity had an onset and a deeper development, yet Guiteau’s eccentricities were consistent throughout his life. But did insanity manifest itself in physical deformity? Yes, said defense experts. Guiteau agreed. “That hits my case exactly!” he shouted. “One side of my head is larger than the other. Doctors examined me the other night!” Finally, was there such a thing as “moral insanity”?
“I believe in moral insanity,” replied Dr. James G. Kiernan, a Chicago-based physician and staunch critic of asylums and their treatment of the insane.
“You believe that the mind of a man may not be diseased and yet his moral nature may be diseased?”
“Yes, in certain rare cases.”
Prosecution experts rose in righteous indignation. The causes of insanity were many—“over-worry, hard work, insufficient food, venereal diseases”—but the chief cause was, “Intemperance, Sir!” As for “moral insanity,” the very idea was denounced by Dr. John Gray, editor of The American Journal of Insanity. Moral insanity, the staunchly Victorian doctor told the court, “is wickedness, a term loosely used to excuse or palliate conduct, which on any other theory is indefensible.” Likewise, Gray added, other so-called mental disorders—kleptomania, dipsomania, pyromania—were excuses, “make-shifts to secure from punishment for crime.”
Insane? The prosecution preferred other terms: “A shrewd scamp” perpetrating a “desperate scheme.” The defense fought back: “unquestionably insane”; “a moral imbecile,” “as insane as any inmate of any asylum I ever saw.” Guiteau added his own evidence, predicting “an act of God that will blow this court and the jury out that window to protect me if necessary!” After another tirade, public opinion mustered itself in the gallery: “Shoot him now!”
On January 25, 1882, after ten fraught weeks, nearly 100 witnesses, three attempts to murder the defendant, and Guiteau’s continued ravings, America’s first prosecution of a presidential assassin went to the jury. Outside, the late afternoon light was fading. The judge read the final instructions by candlelight. The jury retired.
“Perhaps they will hang me,” Guiteau told a guard, “but the Deity will disappoint them.”
Twenty minutes later, the jury returned. Ghostly shadows flickered on the wall as the verdict was read: “Guilty.” The gallery erupted in cheers. Guiteau shouted, “My blood will be on the heads of that jury!” Led away in handcuffs, he asked, “How does the verdict strike those people outside?”
The verdict was telegraphed across the nation, posted outside newspaper offices, and shouted from theater balconies. Spontaneous parades broke out. The press rejoiced. “the hyena hangs!” (Chicago Tribune). “the comedy is played out !” (New Orleans Bee). At his sentencing, Guiteau denounced his brother-in-law’s “jackass theory” of insanity and warned, “The American nation will roll in blood if my body goes into the ground!” He was sentenced to hang on June 30.
Over the next few months, several alienists petitioned President Chester Arthur to appoint an independent board to examine Guiteau, but the president refused. A new trial was denied. In June three alienists went to the White House to seek clemency. The president asked his attorney general for a ruling. The verdict stood.