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Political Assassinations: James A. Garfield


President James A. Garfield served the second shortest tenure as the nation’s chief executive—a mere 199 days—before he died on September 19, 1881, the result of an assassin’s bullet. Today little is remembered of Garfield’s time in political office, either as president or when he served as a prominent member of Congress. Moreover, his killer, Charles Julius Guiteau, is described as the proverbial “disgruntled office seeker”—one account characterized him as “a half-crazed, pettifogging lawyer, who has been an unsuccessful applicant for office under the Government”—but the gunman’s life and descent into madness are seldom explored.

I discuss Guiteau’s assassination of President Garfield in Chapter 14 of my recently published book, Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders. That chapter indicates that Guiteau was one of the most deeply disturbed individuals to take up arms against an American political figure. The assassin was a would-be evangelist and failed lawyer who had become increasingly erratic over the years. Insistent that he had helped to elect Garfield, the troubled loner believed he should be rewarded for his efforts with an ambassadorship for his services. When the commission was not forthcoming, Guiteau resolved to shoot the president.

He did exactly that on July 2, 1881. Approaching Garfield, who was standing in a train station, Guiteau discharged a pistol twice into the president’s back. As he was taken into custody, the shooter exclaimed, “Arthur is president now,” referring to the vice president, Chester A. Arthur. The statement was not quite accurate. Garfield lived for 11 weeks before succumbing to his wounds. If modern medicine had been more advanced, Garfield might have survived. His physicians repeatedly used their hands and unsterilized instruments to probe the wounds, which led to infection.

Charles Guiteau languished behind bars in the District of Columbia jail as Garfield fought for his life. The assailant thought that he had performed heroic service to the republic in shooting a liar such as Garfield, but the public acclaim he had anticipated never came to pass. Even an optimistic egotist like Guiteau realized after a while that he was not the national hero he thought he should be.

Guiteau was put on trial beginning on November 14, 1881, 56 days after Garfield’s death. The central issue of the trial—the defendant’s sanity, or lack thereof—seemed to many observers to be a waste of time. The man had shot the president, and the president eventually died. Everything else was irrelevant. The jury agreed. After suffering through two months of testimony, the jurors deliberated for less than an hour before returning a guilty verdict on January 13, 1882. As the courtroom burst into cheers and wild applause on learning of the verdict, Guiteau expressed his anger. “My blood be on the head of the jury, don’t you forget it,” he called out. “That is my answer…. God will avenge this outrage.”

Guiteau was one of the few Americans outraged at the verdict. Although Guiteau’s siblings engaged in a concerted to effort forestall his execution, the public mood would allow for no leniency. This man Guiteau had committed a terrible crime, and he must pay the price. Just after noon on June 30, 1882, he did. He was 40 years old when he died at the gallows.

With the benefit of hindsight, and far removed from the passions of the day, Charles Guiteau can be seen for what he was—a delusional, mentally-ill antagonist. His life-long pattern of hatching grandiose schemes based on an irrational belief in his own intellectual powers destroyed any chance that he had to live a normal, meaningful life. Everyone who came into contact with Guiteau as an adult recognized that there was something not quite right about this man. Until he shot President Garfield, however, no one thought him dangerous. He was odd, obnoxious, and difficult to take in large doses, but his eccentricities did not appear to be harmful to others. Encountering him today, in an era when therapy and the use of medication to control mood swings and erratic behavior do not carry the same stigma as they did in bygone days, one would urge the gentleman to seek professional help.

Guiteau seems to have been a Type 4 actor. He suffered from severe emotional and cognitive distortions. While he did not hear voices or believe that he could defy the laws of gravity, he was never able to perceive reality or his place within the world of other people. He believed that his actions were somehow supernatural in the sense that they were divinely inspired. God acted through him. The republic needed to be saved from a fiend, Garfield, and he, Guiteau, would be the instrument for carrying out the divine plan. Had the insanity defense not been so vilified in that era, he might have been declared insane and imprisoned in a psychiatric hospital for the balance of his life, as some later assassins and would-be assassins were. Charles J. Guiteau had the misfortune to be a delusional man who acted in a time and place where anyone, regardless of his motives, was required to pay the ultimate price for acting on a delusion.


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