June/july 1981 | Volume 32, Issue 4
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.
The twentieth President of the United States was shot in a Washington, D.C., railroad station on July 2, 1881. He died seventy-nine days later from infections resulting from his wound.
Recent historians have not included James A. Garfield among the nation’s immortals, and it is difficult today to convey the grief and outrage his assassination precipitated a century ago. Garfield was not, to his contemporaries, one of Thomas Wolfe’s “gravely vacant and bewhiskered faces” who presided over the country in the decades after Lincoln. Rather, he was the embodiment of the American ideal: a poor Ohio farm boy who had scrambled to obtain an education and to make his way in Republican politics. He was a family man, a pillar of his church, and a major general of volunteers during the Civil War. Now he was dead at the very outset of his administration.
The church bells scarcely had stopped tolling when the nation turned its attention to the man who, by his own admission, had fired the fatal shot. For the first time, a presidential assassin was to be brought before the bar of justice.
Charles Jules Guiteau—he pronounced the name “gittow”—was thirty-nine years old. His mother had died when he was seven, and young Charles had grown up under the erratic guidance of his father. Profoundly religious, Luther Guiteau was a respected citizen of Freeport, Illinois, and a long-time superintendent of schools there. While Charles was still a lad, however, his father became a convert to the Utopian communalism of John H. Noyés. A sometime minister, Noyes sought to bring out the good in man through communal living. Young Guiteau was very much impressed with the dark-bearded Noyes, who often called on Charles’s father to exchange religious revelations.
The boy attended school in Freeport until he was twelve, when, to Charles’s bitter resentment, his father remarried. Thereafter, relations deteriorated until Charles was sent to live in Chicago with his sister and her husband, George Scoville. Eventually there was a reconciliation, and Luther Guiteau even persuaded his son to join Noyes’s Oneida Community. But Charles was not temperamentally suited to work in the fields, and after passing the Civil War years at Oneida he left for New York City. By then Charles himself was something of a zealot; he intended, Guiteau told friends, not to give up his work for the Lord but merely to practice in a greater arena.
Away from Oneida, Guiteau began a hand-to-mouth existence that continued up to the time of his assault on President Garfield. He first attempted to launch a religious newspaper, the New York Theocrat , but this failed, and Guiteau was obliged to return to Oneida for a time. He left for good in November, 1866, however, after a quarrel with Noyes over compensation that Charles felt was due him. Unable to obtain newspaper work, Guiteau decided upon a career in the law and began reading Blackstone. In Chicago, while clerking with a law firm, he married an attractive sixteen-year-old named Annie Bunn, who would testify that she had been much impressed with her husband’s piety. She soon began to have second thoughts, however. Guiteau had no money with which to indulge his expensive tastes, and their life together was one long round of sneaking out of the best hotels, being evicted from comfortable boardinghouses, and cheating merchants. Guiteau responded to Annie’s complaints by locking her in closets overnight.
Notwithstanding this precarious existence, Guiteau was capable of making a good impression. He had no trouble borrowing ninety-five dollars from the pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church in Manhattan and continued to attend services there long after the minister had given up any hope of seeing his money again. Guiteau might have continued indefinitely as a petty con man had he not suffered a number of setbacks beginning in 1873, when his wife obtained an uncontested divorce, on grounds of adultery. Then the New York Herald published an exposé of his practices as a collection lawyer, an article that virtually destroyed his business. Guiteau brought suit against the paper for one hundred thousand dollars but soon dropped it, explaining that he did not wish to have the Herald as an enemy should he run for President.
For several years Guiteau dabbled in preaching, journalism, and the law. He gained some income from a collection of religious lectures that he modestly entitled The Truth: A Companion to the Bible . But sales fell off, and soon the author’s lecturing was also going badly. Guiteau sought new horizons. He had long been attracted to politics, and as the 1880 presidential campaign approached, he worked up a speech in pamphlet form in support of former President Grant, who was seeking a third term in the White House. During the turbulent campaign the Republican party split into two factions: the “Stalwarts,” who backed Grant, and the “Half-Breeds,” who supported James G. Blaine. This latter group eventually swung over to Garf ield, but the Republican Convention nominated Chester A. Arthur for Vice-Président as a sop to the Stalwarts. Guiteau marked the shift by making some superficial changes in his pamphlet and, thus armed, sought speaking assignments from party headquarters in New York City. The Republicans had plenty of big-name speakers and used Guiteau only for one minor rally. But while no one appears to have taken him very seriously, Guiteau did manage to gain a degree of acceptance at party headquarters, where he had at least some access to Arthur.
The Garfield-Arthur ticket won a narrow victory, and Guiteau wasted no time in importuning Garfield for a diplomatie appointment. When his letters went unanswered, Guiteau joined the swarm of office seekers who descended on Washington after the inauguration, and eventually he gained entrée to Garfield, thereby achieving the distinction of being the only presidential assassin to interview his future victim. “As soon as General Garfield was at leisure,” Guiteau later related, “I stepped up to him and gave him my speech. Of course, he recognized me at once.… I told him that I was an applicant for the Paris consulship… and I left him reading the speech and retired.”
A White House clerk subsequently told Guiteau that his file had been passed to the State Department, and the run-around began. Guiteau bombarded Garfield and Secretary of State James G. Blaine with letters and copies of Garfield vs. Hancock , all to no avail. When, in mid-May, he accosted Blaine concerning his prospects, the Secretary grew livid. “Never speak to me again on the Paris consulship as long as you live!” he exploded. But several days later Blaine listened as Guiteau expressed confidence that he could persuade President Garfield to remove the incumbent consul from Paris and give the post to him. “Well, if he will do so … ,” Blaine began, trailing off into something noncommittal. To his dying day the Secretary would reproach himself that his temporizing may have led Guiteau to blame the President for his misfortunes.
It was several days after this that Guiteau first conceived the idea of murdering the President: “I retired about eight o’clock … depressed and perplexed on account of the political situation … and the idea flashed through my brain that if the President was out of the way everything would go better. At first this was a mere impression. It startled me, but the next morning it came to me with renewed force, and I began to read the papers with my eye on the possibility that the President would have to go.…”
Guiteau claimed to have resisted his “impression,” only to have it keep returning, fed by editorials that saw the resurgent factionalism of the Republican party as threatening its destruction. By June 1 the impression had grown stronger, and Garfield’s fate was sealed.
“Two weeks after I conceived the idea my mind was thoroughly settled on the intention to remove the President. I then prepared myself. I sent to Boston for a copy of my book The Truth … and added one or two new chapters, put some new ideas in it and I greatly improved it. I knew that it would probably have a large sale on account of the notoriety that the act of removing the President would give me.…”
For much of June Guiteau stalked his victim, but always there was something wrong about the time or place. Then, on the morning of July 2, 1881, Guiteau arose at five in his room at Riggs House, had breakfast, and took a short stroll around Lafayette Park. He then returned to his room and wrote several letters, one of which offered his rationale for the assault later that morning (“The President’s tragic death was a sad necessity, but it will unite the Republican party and save the Republic”). At nine o’clock Guiteau, like the President, took a carriage for the Baltimore & Potomac depot, where Garfield planned to board a train for New England. Half an hour later, Guiteau fired two shots, one of which struck Garfield squarely in the back. The assassin told police, “I am a Stalwart and Arthur is President of the United States now. ”
President Garfield did not die right away, and for a time it appeared he might not die at all. He survived the initial shock of his wound and began what the country hoped would be a convalescence, only to fall victim to infection. The country suffered vicariously with its leader, and his death on September 19, 1881, brought an outpouring of grief reminiscent of that for Lincoln. When the impaneling of a jury to try the President’s murderer began in mid-November, passions were still high. Some 159 prospective jurors were examined before 12 could be found who were acceptable alike to the prosecution and the defense—12 who represented a cross section of urban America. There was a restaurant owner, a retired businessman, a cigar dealer, three “merchants,” an ironworker, two grocers, a machinist, and two plasterers, one of whom, Ralph Wormley, was carefully identified in press accounts as Colored.
Leading the prosecution was District Attorney George B. Corkhill, who was assisted by special counsel, Judge John K. Porter of New York City and Walter Davidge, a prominent member of the Washington, D.C., bar. The presiding judge was fifty-five-year-old Walter S. Cox of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia. Cox had been in private practice and had taught law at Columbia University, but he had served less than two years as a federal judge. His main contribution to the forthcoming trial would be forbearance. Guiteau’s defense was known to rest on a plea of insanity, and Cox was determined to permit the defendant reasonable latitude in demonstrating his alleged incompetence.
Unlike the prosecution, the defense was short of funds and badly organized. Its ostensible leader was George Scoville, a Chicago patent lawyer who happened to be Guiteau’s brother-in-law. Midway through the trial he was joined by another Chicago lawyer, Charles Reed, who had considerably greater courtroom experience. Both were handicapped by the fact that Guiteau had made it clear that he intended to participate in his own defense. Thus, he sat not in the prisoner’s dock but at the table reserved for defense counsel.
Guiteau already had been examined in his cell and pronounced competent to stand trial; public opinion probably would not have tolerated any other conclusion. The press had indulged in a spate of self-congratulation concerning America’s respect for law and for the legal safeguards being offered “that wretch” Guiteau. But most Americans, with the memory of Garfield’s sufferings still fresh, held a deep loathing for the prisoner, and not everyone was convinced that he merited any trial at all. One letter to the Washington Star suggested that Guiteau be forced each day to consume two ounces of his own flesh “until he eats himself up.” The New York Times was slightly more tolerant; “Guiteau should have a fair trial,” ran one editorial. “Everything that can be urged in his behalf should be patiently heard. It is the right of the meanest thing that bears a human form, but such a trial, such a hearing, in a community of intelligent beings can have but one result.” Guiteau’s comings and goings from the courtroom frequently were accompanied by verbal abuse from onlookers, whom the court reporter described as “not composed of the better and more intelligent class of citizens.” And each day brought threatening letters to the defendant in his cell.
Even before the trial began, one of the guards at the federal jail had taken matters into his own hands. In early September Sergeant William Mason had aimed a shot at the prisoner from outside his window, missing only by inches. Mason surrendered quietly, complaining that he was tired of riding over the rough streets each day to guard “such a cur as Guiteau.” He eventually was sentenced to eight years’ imprisonment, but a Washington newspaper thoughtfully initiated a fund-raising drive on behalf of his family. Guiteau was moved into a more secure cell.
Physical preparations for the trial were completed by November 13 with the installation of temporary flooring and extra seats in the capital’s somewhat dilapidated criminal court. The trial was to begin four days later, and early that morning a crowd waited outside the court. Deputy marshals with their bright red badges were everywhere, and for the first time in anyone’s memory, people claiming to be reporters were required to produce credentiak About half the seats were reserved for lawyers, newsmen, and “distinguished guests.”
As testimony began, there was no question that Guiteau had shot the President and that he had acted alone. (There would be no serious conspiracy theories concerning the death of Garfield; despite his allegiance to the Stalwarts, Guiteau was emphatic that he alone—in consultation with the Deity—had conceived and perpetrated his assault.) The only issue was that of legal responsibility. Defense attorney Scoville was basing his case on a plea of insanity and had an array of potential witnesses who were prepared to testify to a strain of hereditary insanity in the Guiteau family. But he was handicapped not only by limited popular understanding of this complicated issue but also by Guiteau’s own insistence that he was as sane as the next man, except for the brief period when he had been dominated by his “impression.” As the trial unfolded, it would prove to be, on one level, a spectacle— Guiteau would see to that—and on another level, a forum for conflicting views on the subject of legal insanity.
The prosecution began its four-day presentation on November 17. Many thought it far too long, considering that the facts of Guiteau’s act were not in dispute. Prosecutor Corkhill even introduced a section of the dead President’s backbone, to show the path of the bullet. There were ugly rumors that Guiteau had been allowed to fondle this grisly relic, but the assassin, who admired things “high-toned,” went to some pains to deny this. The episode probably had its origin in rumors that the defense would claim Garfield’s death had resulted from medical malpractice. The defense had in fact toyed with this idea, but questioning of one of Garfield’s surgeons persuaded Scoville that it was a dead end.
Guiteau took the stand on his own behalf on November 8 and testified for the better part of a week. His ianner was nervous, and with reason. The previous week, as Guiteau was being returned to jail in the prison van, a horseman had galloped up alongside and fired a shot at him. The shot barely grazed his arm and had the effect of convincing Guiteau that he continued to be favored by the Deity. The assailant, a Maryland farmer named Bill Jones, was identified and arrested, then released on bail and never brought to trial.
Testifying in his own behalf, Guiteau recounted his life story, with emphasis on his formative years. Scoville anticipated that the prosecution would seek to discredit the defendant as a moral leper, one who had mistreated his wife and defrauded many an honest innkeeper. Scoville pointed out that Guiteau did not smoke, never frequented saloons, and never used profanity. Since his character was basically harmless, according to Scoville, the explanation for his violent act must lie elsewhere; it lay, according to Scoville, in the defendant’s “shortcomings of mind.” Here, at a time when Scoville probably had the jury’s full attention, Guiteau chimed in with one of his many interruptions. He had brains enough, Guiteau insisted, but “there is no money in theology, and I ran behind on that pretty badly. ”
The climax of Guiteau’s testimony came with his recounting of the 1880 election campaign. The prisoner still seemed puzzled by the reception he had been accorded at Republican headquarters in New York City. He had found the party leaders “delightful”; indeed, he allowed that he could approach vice-presidential candidate Chester A. Arthur and talk to him as freely as you please. (Guiteau was not exaggerating; in a written deposition to the court, President Arthur would concede that he had met Guiteau “ten, possibly as many as twenty times,” mostly in New York City.) Nevertheless, nobody had shown much interest in giving him speaking assignments. After several letters to Presidentelect Garfield about possible diplomatic posts had gone unanswered, Guiteauwentto Washington, ostensibly concerned about the President’s split with the Stalwart wing of the party. Then, in early June, came the lethal “impression. ”
On the third day of Guiteau’s testimony, John Porter began cross-examination on behalf of the prosecution. Porter retraced the defendant’s checkered career, implying that the symptoms that Scoville had sought to portray as hereditary illness were in fact nothing more than the by-products of a life of debauchery. Porter even developed an additional motive for Guiteau’s assault on Garfield when he led the defendant to concede that he expected the assassination to increase sales of his book, The Truth . For the most part, however, Porter belabored Guiteau’s hopes for reward from a new President:
PORTER : Did you say to Officer Scott, on leaving the depot…, “General Arthur is now President?”
GUITEAU : I decline to answer that.
PORTER : Why do you object to answering that?
GUITEAU : I suppose I did say that; I want it distinctly understood that I did not do that of my own personal volition, but on the inspiration of the Deity. I never would have shot the President on my own personal account.
PORTER : Who bought the pistol—the Deity or you?
GUITEAU : I said the Deity inspired the act, and the Deity would take care of it.…
PORTER : Were you inspired to buy that British bulldog [pistol]?
GUITEAU : I do not pretend that I was inspired to do that specific act, but I claim that the Deity inspired me to remove the President, and that I had to resort to my own means to accomplish the Deity’s will.…
PORTER : Did you contemplate his removal otherwise than by murder?
GUITEAU : No, sir; I do not like the word “murder.”
PORTER : I know you do not like the word “murder. ” It is a hard word, but it is there.
The upshot was that Scoville was reduced to an insanity defense. In the end twenty-three doctors would testify for the prosecution and thirteen for the defense. Although most had impressive credentials by the standards of the day, they practiced at a time when Freud’s theories were unknown and the term “schizophrenia” had not even been coined. The role of expert witnesses, however, was already controversial, and thoughtful observers deplored the marshaling of opposing experts in adversary proceedings. This was small comfort to the jurors in the trial of Guiteau, however, who would have to reach a verdict in the face of diametrically opposed psychiatric testimony.
Insanity as a legal defense was still in its infancy in 1881 and was viewed by the public with skepticism. It had been successfully employed for a number of “crimes of passion,” but in many of these the jury was assumed to have been predisposed in favor of an injured spouse. Popular attitudes were conditioned by a belief that an individual was responsible for his actions, however eccentric his personality. This popular view coincided closely with the narrow interpretation of legal insanity—the so-called M’Naghten Rule—which applied in most jurisdictions. Under the M’Naghten Rule, a person was legally sane if, at the time of an alleged crime, he knew that what he was about to do was unlawful.
Early in the trial the defense attempted to broaden the narrow base for an insanity defense represented by the M’Naghten Rule. Contrary to popular belief, Scoville maintained, most insane people do not behave in an outwardly irrational manner; rather, they are unable to reason properly, and lack a sense of proportion. In this line of reasoning Scoville was not without supporters. The term “moral insanity” had gained a degree of acceptance within the medical profession as an explanation for certain forms of compulsive behavior not clearly related to accepted signs of mental disturbance.
The defense set out to demonstrate that a strain of madness had marked most of Guiteau’s adult life. Not only had the defendant’s father been regarded as “cranky,” but the defendant himself had been seen as unstable. Dr. Alexander Neil, an Ohio physician, told how Guiteau had attempted to sell him a theological pamphlet; Neil was convinced that the man was insane. Similarly, Guiteau had approached a prominent Chicago merchant, Charles Farwell, in connection with his attempt to found a religious newspaper. Farwell testified concerning Guiteau that he “never thought him a sane man,” but on cross-examination Farwell added that he had never thought Guiteau so insane as to be unable to distinguish right from wrong—a key point, given the M’Naghten Rule.
The prosecution introduced a succession of rebuttal witnesses to demonstrate, in Corkhill’s words, “that what the defense calls insanity is nothing more than devilish depravity.” The Manhattan pastor from whom Guiteau had borrowed money testified that the defendant had spent wages earned by his wife on prostitutes, thereby contracting “a vile and loathesome disease.” A succession of boardinghouse keepers told of midnight departures and unpaid bills. As for Guiteau, he kept up a running commentary from the table reserved for defense counsel. One day, he maintained, the country would speak not of “Guiteau the assassin” but of “Guiteau the patriot.” He mused concerning his special relationship with the Deity: “Here is a quartet: the Lord, the jury, the court and me. ”
The defendant’s interruptions titillated the gallery and drove editorial writers to deplore the trial’s lack of decorum. When one witness disparaged Guiteau’s election pamphlet, the defendant shouted that he was not a fool, “and I won’t allow you to make me out one.” As Scoville examined a prosecution witness, Guiteau interjected, “You are making altogether too much out of this kind of fellow. You have not got much more sense than he has.” It was difficult to say whether the defendant reserved greater invective for the district attorney or for his own counsel; on another occasion he described Scoville as “stupid as a jackass,” fit only to examine title abstracts. The spectators guffawed and the public fumed, but Judge Cox remained tolerant—he wanted no grounds for a reversal of the jury’s expected verdict. But after one string of interruptions, even Cox had had enough. “Keep your mouth shut,” he told Guiteau, “and don’t interrupt during this trial. I do not desire it; but if the trial cannot go on without resort to gagging, it will have to be done.”
The defense produced eight “alienists”—the term then used for psychiatrists—to testify to their belief that Guiteau was insane. Each, if given the chance, doubtless would have set forth imaginative if subjective explanations of how he had arrived at this judgment. But Scoville, unwisely, did not inquire; rather, he put to each doctor a hypothetical question in which he described Guiteau’s history of aberrant behavior and asked the witness if he would regard such a person as insane. The answer was predictably affirmative, but much of the impact of this expert testimony was lost because there was no elaboration.
It was through no fault of Scoville’s, however, that the potentially most influential medical witness proved a mixed blessing. Twenty-nine-year-old Dr. Edward Spitzka was a German-born alienist who had studied widely in Europe before setting up a practice in New York City. He was the enfant terrible of the fledgling psychiatric establishment, and in particular was an outspoken critic of the M’Naghten Rule. Even before setting eyes on Guiteau, Spitzka had written in a professional journal that he was certain that if Guiteau, “with his hereditary history, his insane manner, his insane documents and his insane actions were to be committed to any asylum in the land, he would be unhesitatingly admitted as a proper subject for sequestration.”
Having first had an opportunity to examine the defendant in his cell, the self-assured Spitzka elaborated on his views in court. When Scoville asked whether he thought Guiteau had been insane on the day of the assassination, Spitzka replied that in his opinion Guiteau had been “in a more or less morbid state throughout his life, and that he was probably insane at the time you mention.” The prosecution, recognizing the confident Spitzka as a potentially dangerous witness, attempted to discredit his testimony. In reply to one question, Spitzka conceded that he had never taught at a medical college, but only at a school of veterinary medicine. Asked if this did not mean that he was a veterinarian, Spitzka snapped, “In the sense that I treat asses who ask me stupid questions, I am. ” This was a tonic to the gallery, but it did nothing to make Spitzka’s testimony more palatable to a skeptical middle-class jury.
The government, for its part, called no fewer than fourteen alienists in rebuttal. As if to mock Scoville, each was asked a hypothetical question much like that employed by the defense attorney—in answer to which each replied that he regarded the defendant as sane. One of the government’s witnesses dwelt on Guiteau’s megalomania, the trait that was probably most grating to the average American. “Boasting… is not the result of disease,” Dr. Fordyce Barker observed. “It is a result of vanity and self-conceit and love of notoriety, and these are vices and not diseases.”
The prosecution’s counter to Spitzka was fifty-six-yearold John P. Gray, the superintendent of an asylum and editor-in-chief of the American Journal of Insanity . Dr. Gray was noted for his work in improving living conditions for asylum inmates and was one of the most respected names in the field of mental health. He had interviewed the defendant for two full days and had taken extensive notes. In four days of testimony—he was the last prosecution witness—Gray stressed the conventional wisdom that where there was no disease, there was no true insanity: “A man may become profoundly depraved and degraded by mental habits and yet not be insane. Such a man may become insane in the midst of his depravity, or afterward, but without such preceding disease it is only depravity.”
Describing his interviews with Guiteau, Gray emphasized the defendant’s rationality, his intelligence, and the amount of planning that had gone into his crime. Most damaging was his description of the defendant’s premeditation; he quoted Guiteau as having told him, “I knew from the time I conceived the act, if I could establish the fact before a jury that I believed the killing was an inspired act, I could not be held to responsibility before the law.” While Scoville wondered how to counter this damaging testimony, Guiteau broke in to affirm his statement to Gray, noting, “That is the law; that is correct.”
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.”
The rest of the country seemed satisfied with the trial and its outcome. An editorial in the Washington Star mirrored the national mood: “Let us drop him, now. Guiteau, we mean. His attorneys have done their best by him; counsel for government have done theirs; the Judge did his, and the newspapers have done theirs. The miserable wretch has had a fair trial, and a great deal more notice and consideration than he deserved. ”
Even from the perspective of a century, it would appear that if Guiteau was a victim, it was simply of the primitive state of psychiatry in 1881. Given the M’Naghten Rule then in vogue, it would have been almost impossible for a jury to acquit a man who committed an assassination in expectation of increasing sales for his book and who admitted that an insanity plea was an integral part of his planning. There was no railroading of Charles Guiteau. So strong was the case against him, in terms of the law of his day, that not a jury in the land could have voted for acquittal.