you are here: Column Archives > In History > Garfield I: Who Shot Garfield?

Garfield I: Who Shot Garfield?

Who knows who killed President Garfield? You ought to - what a nutcase!

Shortly after his inauguration in 1881, President James A. Garfield was assassinated by one mildly loopy Charles Julius Guiteau. Guiteau joins the splendiferous ranks of political assassins in this country with the distinction of not only being mildly deranged but exceedingly depraved to boot. Guiteau's father beat his son recklessly and accused him of wanting "things beyond your earnings," and "having been guilty of things that were criminal according to human as well as divine laws."

As one might expect, Charles Guiteau left home at the age of 16 in 1857. Two years later, in a brief shining moment, he inherited $1,000 from his grandfather. Eager to make something of himself, he ventured to the newly-founded University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, where he promptly flunked the entrance exams. Hoping to eventually attend the University, he took remedial classes while his father sent him Oneida Community literature.

Free Love?

The Oneida Community was among the flurry of religious revivals in the late 1800s. Its founder, John Humphrey Noyes, was a personal friend of Guiteau's father, and firmly believed that Christ's Second Coming occurred in A.D. 70. Noyes also felt that monogamy was against Church doctrine, and he spent much of his time playing sexual musical chairs with the followers. Excited at this prospect, Guiteau headed to New York to join the community lifestyle:

Guiteau was undoubtedly attracted by the community's doctrine of free love. Although he was small and unattractive, Guiteau convinced himself that he had great charms. He was rejected by the women of the community, who made fun of him and nicknamed him 'Charles Gitout'.

Friction soon developed. Guiteau was not working consistently, had arguments with church leaders, and had scrawled a line of chalk in his room which he insisted his roommate not cross. Guiteau's father received a letter from a church official in 1865:

[Guiteau] has manifested a decided repugnance to labor with his hands, and indeed to business of all kinds, claiming for himself the privileges of a student... he wrote Mr. Noyes a long communication, in which he was very insolent, charging him with tyranny and oppression... the truth about the matter is that we consider that there is... much evidence of an unsound insane mind in all this.

Indian Giver

Guiteau had contributed the remains of his grandfather's windfall to the community; it totaled $900. Noyes and company were wary of returning a large lump sum to such an erratic individual, and instead opted to return it to him in installments over the next year and a half. Guiteau moved to Hoboken, quickly spent what money they gave him [some $200, which in today's money would be worth $2000], and returned to the community for a three month stint before getting kicked out permanently. He wrote a series of letters to them, and grew bitter and reproachful over their reluctance to return his investment:

If it is not convenient for you to send the whole of the $700 at present, send what you can, but I will try and get along, although I should very much prefer to receive the entire amount now.

In another letter, he wrote

If I had never gone to the Oneida Community, by this time (in all human probability) I should have had a good law practice, and a nice family, and other things to match, but now I have neither.

Truly, a tale of woe. Guiteau learned it was possible to sue the community, and fruitlessly tried to extract some $9,150 from them [money owed on work he had allegedly done]. So sure was he of victory, he planned how to spend the money. Meantime, Noyes wrote that Guiteau had been "moody, self-conceited, unmanageable, and a great part of the time was not reckoned in the ranks of reliable labor." As a countermeasure, Guiteau planned to publicly release the news that Noyes personally deflowered every virgin in the community, but stopped short when the community notified both the New York Independent and the New York Tribune that Guiteau had falsely proclaimed himself their advertising agent on his business cards.

Stick it Up your Ass

Guiteau fled to a law clerkship in Chicago to avoid the ensuing fallout. He listed nearly every prominent family there as references without actually meeting them. As a lawyer, he purported to retrieve debts for clients; instead he would keep the money for himself and claim the money was irretrievable. He was jailed numerous times for debts to employers, skipped hotel bills, and misdealings with his own family. He made a habit of sneaking out of boardinghouses in the middle of the night to avoid paying the bill, and his wife lived in constant fear of death at the hands of enraged criminal clients. Landlords and creditors frequently confiscated their belongings. "In some instances I have gone personally to the creditors and actually begged them to let me go to the storeroom... and take out a dress" to pay them, his wife later said. Once he joined the Calvary Baptist Church in New York and sent her to borrow $95 from the minister.

Several creditors turned to Guiteau's well-to-do brother, John, in an effort to recover their losses. Faced with these gadflies, John wrote to Charles, and received the following curt reply:

Find $7 enclosed. Stick it up your bung hole and wipe your nose on it, and that will remind you of the estimation in which you are held by Charles J. Guiteau. Sign and return the enclosed receipt and I will send you $7, but not before, and that, I hope, will end our acquaintance.

John Guiteau pooh-poohed his brother:

I have no doubt that masturbation and self-abuse is at the bottom of his mental imbecility.

As for his wife, Guiteau "had no business to have married that woman to start with... I only married the woman on ten hours' notice." He contracted syphilis from a prostitute, and his wife divorced him in 1874.

Road Trip!

Guiteau, seeking a new source of revenue, turned to religious revival, and spent some years touring the country, incoherently mumbling a short, garbled religious message and charging for it. A newspaper review of his lecture:

Is There a Hell? Fifty Deceived People [are] of the opinion that there ought to be. The man Charles J. Guiteau, if such really is his name, who calls himself an eminent Chicago lawyer, has fraud and imbecility plainly stamped upon his countenance... Although the impudent scoundrel had talked only fifteen minutes, he suddenly perorated brilliantly by thanking the audience for their attention and bidding them good-night. Before the astounded fifty had recovered from their amazement... [he] had fled from the building and escaped.

By 1880 Guiteau had begun to suck up to politicians; James Garfield in particular. Guiteau scurried about the country, giving horrible speeches originally written to extol Grant but renamed to boost Garfield's Presidential campaign. These speeches told some old Grant war stories, and then suggested that the listener ought to vote for Garfield. Guiteau was so pleased with himself following Garfield's election that he felt he deserved an consul generalship to Vienna. He began to write the President letters:

Next Spring I expect to marry the daughter of a deceased New York Republican millionaire and I think we can represent the United States Government at the court of Vienna with dignity and grace.

He had seen the above-mentioned woman once in a church. He next wrote to the Secretary of State:

If President Garfield appoints Mr. A to a foreign mission, does that supercede President Hayes' commission for the same appointment? ... Please answer me at your earliest convenience. I am solid for General Garfield and may get an appointment from him next spring.

While my Guiteau Gently Weeps

Guiteau soon moved to Washington. He began calling at the White House daily, looking for a job, until the staff grew weary and denied him entry:

I called to see you [President Garfield] this A.M., but you were engaged. In October and January last, I sent you a note from New York touching on the Austrian mission. Mr. [John A.] Kasson, of Iowa, I understand, wishes to remain at Vienna till fall. He is a good fellow. I do not wish to disturb him in any event. What do you think of me for Consul-General at Paris? I think I prefer Paris to Vienna, and if agreeable to you, should be satisfied with the Consulship at Paris... Senators Blaine, Logan and Conkling are friendly to me [he had met none of them], and I presume my appointment will be promptly confirmed. I claim to be a gentleman and a Christian.

He then wrote to Senator James G. Blaine (R-Maine, aligned with Garfield in the so-called "half-breed" faction of the Republican Party. Basically, the Republicans were at odds with themselves over overhauling the contemporary system that made graft easy. Garfield and Blaine wanted the overhaul.):

In October and January last I wrote General Garfield touching the Austrian Mission, and I think he has filed my application and is favorably inclined. Since then I have concluded to apply for the consul generalship at Paris, instead of the Austrian mission as I prefer Paris to Vienna. I spoke to the General about it, and he said your endorsement would help... I will talk with you about it as soon as I can get a chance. There is nothing against me. I claim to be a gentleman and a Christian.

Guiteau snuck his way into a reception and met the First Lady on April 25, 1880, and apparently she contracted malaria that evening and fell ill for several weeks. Rebuffed, Guiteau continued to write both Garfield and Blaine many times. On May 13, the generalship was given to someone else, and the dismayed Guiteau waited outside the State Department for Blaine to exit. Guiteau once again asked for a position, prompting Blaine to cry, "Never speak to me again on the Paris Consulship as long as you live."

Guiteau blamed his troubles on Senator Blaine as he spiraled into poverty. He was unable to pay for his coat at the cleaners, and shivered in the early Washington spring. Wracked with failure, he decided that the President needed assassinating:

Mr. Blaine is a wicked man, and you ought to demand his immediate resignation; otherwise you and the Republican party will come to grief.

On July 2, 1881, Guiteau shot President Garfield in a train station next to Capitol Hill. Garfield languished through medical foibles for three months before dying, and Guiteau attempted to defend himself hilariously in a much-hyped trial, both of which we'll soon investigate.

Bibliography

  1. James C. Clark. The Murder of James A. Garfield : The President's Last Days and the Trial and Execution of His Assassin. McFarland & Company, 1993.

 
Discuss this article in our forums

©1996-2006 History House Inc.
All Rights Reserved.