Charles J. Guiteau
"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, theologian, and politician. I am a stalwart of the Stalwarts. I was with Gen. Grant, and the rest of our men in New York during the canvass. I am going to the Jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the Jail at once. Very respectfully, Charles Guiteau."
Few things bring Americans together like presidential assassinations. Another thing that brings Americans together is a batshit insane assassin. By the time of his trial in 1881 and 1882, Charles Julius Guiteau (1841-1882) would fit that bill pretty accurately. In studying the man's life, it's pretty clear that he was destined for great things. And by "great" I mean batshit insane. The quote posted above is an excerpt from a letter that Mr. Guiteau sent to General William Tecumseh Sherman upon his arrest for shooting President Garfield, which hopefully does a little to bear out my convictions regarding the state of his mental wellness.
Guiteau was born in Illinois as the fourth of six children to a middle class family. His father, Luther, was a stern authoritarian who allegedly beat him on a regular basis. Luther was also an admirer of John Noyes and the idea of his Oneida Society, an association of biblical communists whose views on sexual behavior would have made some denizens of Haight-Ashbury blush. Charles went to law school and failed badly, but did what anyone would do in his situation: completely forge a résumé and practice law anyway. Needless to say, Chaz didn't really endear himself to too many people (opposing counsel aside) and decided to join the Oneidans in New York. It was an on-again-off-again love affair, with Guiteau joining and leaving in the 1860s two or three times. He started a newspaper devoted to Noyes called the Daily Theocrat but this didn't work out very well for him either. After the newspaper folded and he ran out of what little money he had, Guiteau wrote letters to Noyes and to the Oneida Society, threatening litigation if they did not send him money for services rendered -- i.e. promoting their beliefs in the Daily Theocrat free of charge. Noyes threatened to sue Guiteau if he kept it up and the letters soon stopped.
Guiteau evidently authored a book at this time called the Truth that was (a) received poorly and (b) plagiarized. After falsifying the Truth, Guiteau turned to politics (appropriately enough). A staunch Republican, Guiteau single-handedly won the election for James A. Garfield in 1880. Or so he believed. Guiteau often gave speeches in which he referred to former President James Buchanan as the paid man of the "slave oligarchy," claimed the Southern states intended to start another Civil War, and in which he seemed to be offering more support for Grant than for Garfield. (The reason for this was that Guiteau had originally supported Grant in the primary but when he lost, he merely took some of his old speeches, substituted "Garfield" for "Grant" and used them again in the campaign for the actual election.) After Garfield's victory, Guiteau expected to be justly rewarded for his hard work on behalf the administration. He knew he wouldn't get a Cabinet position -- politics being what they are, of course -- so he informed the President that he'd like a shot as the Austrian ambassador. When he received no reply, he wrote again, saying:
(The current Austrian Consul), I understand, wishes to remain at Vienna till fall. He is a good fellow (and) I do not wish to disturb him in any event.
Instead, he suggested that he be installed as the ambassador to France. When writing to the President didn't work, Guiteau got smart: he started writing to the Secretary of State, James Blaine. He wrote volumes of letters of Blaine and showed up at the White House so frequently that Blaine finally exploded at him and yelled "never speak to me again on the Paris consulship as long as you live!" Betrayed by the administration that owed him so much, Guiteau bought a gun. He had hoped to find a nice-looking pistol, as he wanted it to look good in the inevitable museum exhibit, but he eventually settled on a more affordable one. He apparently also took tours of local jails and prisons to get a feel for the place he'd likely be spending the rest of his life.
On July 2, 1881, the President was waiting for a train to take him to Baltimore when Guiteau approached and shot him twice, proclaiming "I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts! I did it and I want to be arrested! Arthur is President now!" It took eleven weeks for Garfield to finally die, and most people recognize that his surgeons' appalling disregard for sanitary medical working conditions probably contributed to his death as much as Guiteau's gun. This point of fact was offered up by Guiteau's defense (run by his brother-in-law) during his trial in the latter portion of 1881 and the beginning of 1882. During his incarceration, Guiteau addressed the nation:
To the American People: I conceived the idea of removing the President four weeks ago. Not a soul knew of my purpose. I conceived the idea myself and kept it to myself. I read the newspapers carefully for and against the Administration, and gradually the conviction settled on me that the President's removal was a political necessity, because he proved a traitor to the men that made him, and thereby imperiled the life of the Republic. This is not murder. It is a political necessity.
Guiteau and his brother-in-law, George Scoville, did not see eye-to-eye on the matter of his defense. Scoville wanted to pursue an insanity defense. Guiteau maintained that he was perfectly sane and instead advanced the notion that God Himself had commanded him to kill the President. At one point, so infuriated with Scoville's "incompetence," Guiteau declared "get off the case, you consummate ass!" Of course, he was convicted and sentenced to death. Upon being led to the gallows on June 30, 1882, he recited a poem entitled "I Am Going To The Lordy" and was summarily killed.
Today, when people speak of Guiteau and his role in Garfield's assassination, he is almost always euphemistically referred to as a "disgruntled office seeker." No. He was batshit insane. Guiteau has been the subject of folk songs, musical numbers, comic books, and even a Johnny Cash song. Is it a sad commentary that he has more media staying power than President James A. Garfield?