Friday, July 23, 2010

Charles Guiteau: The Assassin That Time Forgot

We all know John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald, and even some of us may know Leon Czolgosz (the man who assassinated President McKinley), but how many of us are familiar with Charles Guiteau, the man who assassinated President Garfield? That's what I thought. You might have assumed that, since nobody knows a single thing about Charles Guiteau and the Garfield assassination, the story must be really boring. But you would be wrong.

Charles Guiteau is like Emperor Norton, but minus the charm:
He inherited $1,000 from his grandfather (worth about $24,100 in year–2010 dollars) as a young man and went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in order to attend the University of Michigan. Due to inadequate academic preparation, he failed the entrance examinations. After some time trying to do remedial work in Latin and algebra at Ann Arbor High School, during which time he received numerous letters from his father haranguing him to do so, he quit and joined the utopian religious sect known as the Oneida Community, in Oneida, New York, with which Guiteau's father already had close affiliations. Despite the "group marriage" aspects of that sect, he was generally rejected during his five years there, and was nicknamed "Charles Gitout".
Oh those utopian religious sects, what a bunch of cards.
He left the community twice. The first time he went to Hoboken, New Jersey, and attempted to start a newspaper based on Oneida religion, to be called "The Daily Theocrat". This failed and he returned to Oneida, only to leave again and file lawsuits against the community's founder, John Humphrey Noyes. Guiteau's father, embarrassed, wrote letters in support of Noyes, who had considered Guiteau irresponsible and insane.
And how wrong that man turned out to be.
Guiteau then obtained a law license in Chicago, based on an extremely casual bar exam. He used his money to start a law firm in Chicago based on ludicrously fraudulent recommendations from virtually every prominent American family of the day. He was not successful. He argued only one case in court, the bulk of his business being in bill collecting. Most of his cases resulted in enraged clients and judicial criticism.
I would venture to say that great advances in the legal field have been made since 1880.
He next turned to theology. He published a book on the subject called The Truth which was almost entirely plagiarized from the work of John Humphrey Noyes. He wrote a speech in support of Ulysses S. Grant called "Grant vs. Hancock", which he subsequently revised to "Garfield vs. Hancock" after Garfield won the Republican nomination in the 1880 presidential campaign. Ultimately, he changed little more than the title (hence mixing up Garfield's achievements with those of Grant). Guiteau never even delivered the speech in a public setting, instead printing up several hundred copies, but he believed that this speech along with his other efforts were largely responsible for Garfield's narrow victory over Winfield S. Hancock in the election of 1880. Guiteau believed he should be awarded a diplomatic post for his vital assistance, first asking for Vienna, then settling for Paris. He loitered around Republican headquarters in New York City during the 1880 campaign, expecting rewards for his effort, to no avail. Still believing he would be rewarded, Guiteau arrived in Washington on March 5, the day after Garfield's inauguration, and actually obtained entrance to the White House and saw the President on March 8, dropping off a copy of his speech.
Hmm...the security detail needed a little work in those days.
He proceeded to spend the next two months roaming around Washington, shuffling back and forth between the State Department and the White House, approaching various Cabinet members and other prominent Republicans and seeking support, to no avail. Guiteau was destitute and increasingly slovenly due to wearing the same clothes every day, the only clothes he owned, but he did not give up. On May 13, 1881, he was banned from the White House waiting room. On May 14, 1881, he was finally told personally never to return by Secretary of State James G. Blaine: "Never speak to me again of the Paris consulship as long as you live." He even went to the District of Columbia jail, asking for a tour of the facility to see where he'd be incarcerated. (He was told to come back later).
So let me get this straight: he could have just stood on the Capitol steps, waved his arms around wildly in the air, shouted out at the top of his lungs, "I am going to assassinate the president!" and nobody would have done anything about it?
On one occasion, he trailed Garfield to the railway station as the President was seeing his wife off to a beach resort in Long Branch, New Jersey, but he decided to shoot him later, as Mrs. Garfield was in poor health and he did not want to upset her.
Now that, right there, is some serious crazed gunman logic.
Garfield had no bodyguard or security detail; with the exception of Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, U.S. presidents had never used any guards.
Yeah, I mean what good did bodyguards do ol' Honest Abe, anyway?
Guiteau became something of a media darling during his entire trial for his bizarre behavior, including constantly cursing and badmouthing the judge, witnesses, and even his defense team, formatting his testimony in epic poems which he recited at length, and soliciting legal advice from random spectators in the audience via passed notes. He dictated an autobiography to the New York Herald, ending it with a personal ad for a nice Christian lady under thirty. He was blissfully oblivious to the American public's outrage and hatred of him, even after he was almost assassinated twice himself. He frequently smiled and waved at spectators and reporters in and out of the courtroom, seemingly happy to be the center of attention for once in his life. At one point, Guiteau argued before Judge Cox that President Garfield was killed not by the bullets but by medical malpractice, which was more than a little true ("The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him").
Well at least somebody was having a good time.
To the end, Guiteau was actively making plans to start a lecture tour after his perceived imminent release and to run for President himself in 1884, while at the same time continuing to delight in the media circus surrounding his trial. He was dismayed when the jury was unconvinced of his divine inspiration, convicting him of the murder. He was found guilty on January 25, 1882. After the guilty verdict was read, Guiteau stepped forward, despite his lawyers' efforts to tell him to be quiet, and yelled at the jury saying "You are all low, consummate jackasses!"
I don't think that was going to help.
On the scaffold as a last request, he recited a poem he had written during his incarceration which he called "I am Going to the Lordy." He had originally requested an orchestra to play as he sang his poem, but this request was denied.
Presumably because an orchestra was not available, I hope?

1 comment:

Peter Matthew Reed said...

Yeah, which state has this 'casual' bar exam? Does that mean you can wear slacks and loafers?

And I can just imagine, "That's it! You are banned from the waiting room!"
"But...But where will I wait?"