A cartoon of Guiteau the assassin.

“The President is somewhat restless…”: Assassin

By Jeffrey S. Reznick and Lenore Barbian

The Assassin

On July 8, 1881, the Grand Jury of the District of Columbia was discharged without the District Attorney presenting Charles Guiteau for indictment. The reason for the delay lies with a letter from the Presidents physicians who stated:

In reply to your inquiry as to condition of the President, we would say that up to the present time he has done exceedingly well for one who has received so dangerous a wound; but while we anticipate recovery, it is not yet possible to assert with confidence that his injuries may not terminate fatally.
—Hayes, Henry Gillespie, and  Charles Joseph Hayes. 1882. A complete history of the life and trial of Charles Julius Guiteau, assassin of President Garfield.

It would be on October 8, 1881—following Garfield’s death—that the District Attorney would present an eleven count indictment against Guiteau for the assassination of the President. Perhaps at this point, it would be instructive to investigate who this would be assassin was.

Charles Guiteau

A cartoon in which Guiteau holds a paper reading an office or your life in one hand and a gun in the other.
“A Model Office-Seeker.” Originally published by Keppler & Schwarzmann in 1881.
Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Charles Julius Guiteau was born on September 8, 1841 in Freeport, Illinois, the fourth of six children of Luther and Jane Guiteau. By age seven, Charles would lose his mother and be left to be raised by his disciplinarian and devotedly religious father. During Guiteau’s early childhood, his sister Frances actually assumed most of the responsibility for raising the young boy, and she would remain his lifelong supporter even after an apparent murder attempt by Charles.

Although Charles’ early education may have been haphazard, by his teenage years he was dedicated to improving himself “physically, intellectually, and morally” (Rosenberg 1968, 16). Charles’ dream of attending college seemed to become a reality when he inherited $1,000 from his maternal grandfather. With this legacy, Guiteau set off to the University of Michigan in the hopes of completing several years of study in preparation for becoming a lawyer. Guiteau’s time in Ann Arbor was not a happy or successful one and would end in failure and financial ruin—a pattern that would become familiar. Throughout the rest of his life, Guiteau would variously pursue four passions—theology, publishing, the law, and politics—without ever achieving success or financial stability in any of them.

Charles Guiteau had the reputation of never paying a bill, even if he had the money. Most of his life was spent escaping landlords and other creditors, and he cheated everyone he dealt with. He constantly borrowed money which he never returned; he attempted to sue anyone he felt crossed him; and he fled town every time his debts mounted. He joined the Oneida Community in 1860 but was not popular with either the young people or the commune elders. He left the Oneida in 1865 to attempt his first business venture with money provided by the Oneida. Guiteau dreamed of founding a chain of daily theological newspapers. In a matter of months, Guiteau was destitute. In 1868, after a few months as a law clerk, he became a “lawyer” with a practice consisting of collecting debts on commission—but his habit of pocketing the money he collected was exposed by a newspaper. Having failed in this field of operations, he then decided to become an evangelist. He “wrote,” published, and sold a religious booklet “The Truth,” which he had stolen, almost word-for-word, from another author. Expulsion from a New York church did not stop him from calling himself “Reverend” and lecturing in various cities on such topics as “Is There a Hell?”

In 1880, an election year, Guiteau switched from evangelism to politics. He wrote campaign speeches for the Republicans, but they declined his services as an orator. Despite any official party role, Guiteau nonetheless celebrated the election victory of his party’s candidate, James Garfield. Following the election, Guiteau decided it would be nice to be an ambassador. Feeling that the Republican party owed him due to his “service” during the presidential campaign, Guiteau went to Washington to petition for the job. He spent his days at the White House and the Capitol, but Mr. Garfield and other officials ignored him. After months of persistent petitioning, Guiteau conceived the idea of killing President Garfield. On June 8, 1881 Guiteau bought a gun with borrowed money. He practiced shooting at trees by the river and awaited his opportunity.

On June 16, in his rented room in a Washington boarding house, Guiteau wrote an “Address to the American People.” In it he explained the reasons for his actions:

Ingratitude is the basest of crimes. That the President, under the manipulation of his Secretary of State, has been guilty of the basest ingratitude to the Stalwarts admits of no denial…. I had no ill-will to the President. This is not murder. It is a political necessity. It will make my friend Arthur President, and save the Republic. I have sacrificed only one. I shot the President as I would a rebel, if I saw him pulling down the American flag. I leave my justification to God and the American people.
—Rosenberg, Charles E. 1968. The trial of the assassin Guiteau; psychiatry and law in the Gilded Age.

Guiteau stalked the President, learning his daily routine and even following Garfield into church. Guiteau would let several chances pass, once because Garfield was accompanying his wife who was ill. The frail appearance of Mrs. Garfield so affected Guiteau that he simply could not kill the President with Mrs. Garfield clinging to his arm. But by July 2nd Guiteau was determined. He ate breakfast, had his shoes shined, left a packet of papers addressed to a New York Herald reporter, and waited for Garfield to arrive at the train station.

This post is one of a series reenacting the official bulletins released to the public by the physicians to President Garfield during his illness after the shooting on July 2, 1881.

Jeffrey S. Reznick, PhD, is Chief of NLM’s History of Medicine Division and author of two books and numerous articles on the cultural history of war and medicine. Lenore Barbian, PhD, is Associate Professor and Anthropology Program Director at Edinboro University of Pennsylvania. She is author of numerous articles, including “Remains of War: Walt Whitman, Civil War Soldiers, and the Legacy of Medical Collections“, co-authored with Jeff Reznick and Paul Sledzik, which received the 2013 best article award from the Archivists and Librarians in the History of the Health Sciences (ALHHS).

8 comments

  1. Congratulations on this excellent new blog! We at James A. Garfield National Historic Site are enjoying it immensely. Regarding Guiteau’s political involvement in 1880, he thought of himself as a Stalwart Republican and backed Ulysses S. Grant for the party’s nomination that year. He wrote a long, rambling, nonsensical speech promoting Grant; when Garfield received the nomination instead, he simply crossed out “Grant” in his text and inserted “Garfield.” He gave the speech once or twice in New York during the campaign; when New York ended up being the decisive state in Garfield’s electoral victory, Guiteau’s delusions of grandeur led him to conclude that his role had been integral.

    1. Thank you to all of our colleagues at the James A. Garfield National Historic Site! We appreciate your interest very much and the opportunity to share this Garfield-related content with you and the world.

  2. Guiteau also watched the political battle between President Garfield and New York Senator Roscoe Conkling unfold in the newspapers. He came to believe that the President, in addition to not recognizing his “service” during the election, was also causing a wider divide in the Republican Party because of his dispute with Conkling. President Garfield had aligned himself with Senator James G. Blaine of Maine, the leader of the Half-Breed faction in the Republican Party (and now his Secretary of State), while Conkling was certainly a leader, if not THE leader among the Stalwarts. Guiteau, identifying himself with the Stalwart faction, believed that the President had to be “removed” in order to save the Republican Party – and therefore the country.

    Although the divisions within the national Republican Party were being played out in 1881 between Garfield and Conkling, it seems to me entirely likely that whoever had been president in 1881 (other than Grant), he might have met the same fate at the hands of the demented Charles Guiteau. This is mere speculation, of course. Is it plausible to suggest – not considering for the moment the medical treatment that the President received – that this very intelligent, thoughtful, and good man was sacrificed in the maelstrom of the Republican Party politics of his day?

    1. Thanks for your observation, and your intriguing suggestion about what might, or could, have been. That Garfield was, as you say, an intelligent, thoughtful, and good man is an important aspect of the larger story you helpfully share. With this, one must wonder how is life would have unfolded, and how American history could well have been different, had he survived?

  3. The hubris of Garfield’s physicians was appalling . The state of the art of medicine at that time was to find and remove the bullet. Because the entry was posterior, on the right side of the body they were certain that the bullet was on the right side , most likely in the vicinity of the liver. This resulted in countless explorations of the wound with bare hands and unsterile instruments, resulting in death by sepsis. Alexander Graham Bell had devised an instrument that would sound a signal when in the vicinity of metal ( there was no x-ray at that time). He was only allowed to use the instrument to search the right side of the body, anterior and posterior. The missile was actually on the left side, in the area of the pancreas. The bullet was encased in scar tissue and would, if left alone, pose no threat. Another example of temerity in the face of supposed superior knowledge and authority was exemplified by the Tenerife airport disaster of 1977, when junior pilots refused to challenge or alert the senior pilot that there may have been something wrong with the take off., namely that there was another plane on the runway that was not seen because of fog . What ensued was the greatest aviation loss in world history—approximately 580 lives.

  4. “Hubris” is an excellent word to describe the attitude of Garfield’s doctors, especially the head physician, Dr. Willard Bliss. As Mr. Kapanjie points out, the standard practice of the time was to find and remove the bullet. However, Bliss had been a Civil War surgeon and therefore surely knew that thousands of veterans were walking around with bullets and shrapnel in their bodies and living relatively normal lives. The other sad irony is that by 1881, many European physicians had accepted and applied Joseph Lister’s methods of antisepsis. Most American doctors (including Bliss) had not yet done so and still saw no problem with using dirty hands or instruments to probe wounds (and, of course, introduce infections into patients like James A. Garfield.

  5. Two medical symptoms piqued my interest.
    1. Soon after President Garfield was shot he complained of pain in his legs and feet, not in the back where the bullet entered—why?. In Candace Millard’s excellent book ” Destiny of the Republic “, a postmortem sketch showed the first lumbar vertebral body was tunneled through by the bullet but the spinal cord was not touched. I suspect that the cord was indirectly traumatized by traction or by severing the afferent sensory spinal roots which in turn caused Garfield to perceive the pain in his legs and feet.
    2. The terminal event caused the president to suddenly exclaim of pain in the chest area. There was severe bleeding in the abdomen with the implication in the book that the bleeding was the cause of the pain. I beg to differ. I feel that the pain was generated not by the bleeding but rather by the event that caused the bleeding–i. e. dissection of the splenic artery. The bullet had originally grazed the artery, thereby weakening it and predisposing to eventual rupture.
    3. Lastly I feel that if anyone deserved a verdict of not guilty by means of insanity lt was Guiteau. He was clearly mentally unhinged , delusional , with feelings of grandeur, paranoia, etc. He should have been sentenced to life in a mental institution. But that was not to be, the zeitgeist of the times was revenge.

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