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Garfield III: Guiteau Head in That Noose

Garfield's assassin Guiteau finally meets his maker after providing a most entertaining trial.

As outlined in a previous article, President Garfield[1] died a somewhat unpleasant death two months after being shot on July 2, 1881, by one Charles Julius Guiteau. In a time where the use of the insanity plea was questioned,[2] Guiteau's future suddenly looked uncertain. Prior to Garfield's death, Guiteau felt assured that his freedom was imminent. The press purported that the President's condition was improving; rather than defend himself against a murder charge, all the assassin had to do would be to convince the jury that the assault was due to insanity. In particular, Guiteau wished to claim that the inspiration to attack Garfield had come from the hand of God Himself. In blissful ignorance of his abysmal public relations, Guiteau had whiled away his hours in prison expecting to command large lecturing sums following his release (a well-known and thoroughly-hated atheist made $30,000 last year, he mused) and dictating his autobiography to the press, complete with singles advertisements ("I want an elegant Christian lady of wealth, under thirty, belonging to a first class family..."[3]). In short, Guiteau expected his release from prison to be heralded in song and gracious deed. Meanwhile, the prison itself was being deluged with letters:

You dirty, lousy, lying rebel traitor; hanging is too good for you, you stinking cuss. We will keep you spotted, you stinking pup. You damn old mildewed assassin. You ought to be burned alive and let rot. You savage cannibal dog.[4]

Editorials in national newspapers held similar views:

There is an American judge whose decisions are almost always just, and whose work is always well done. His name is Judge Lynch; and if he ever had a job that he ought to give his whole attention to, he has it waiting for him in Washington.[5]

Garfield died on September 19, sending Guiteau into a short period of fervid prayer. It dawned on Guiteau that his mission really had been divine; after all, how else could God dictate Garfield's death and deny the prayers of so many other god-fearing Americans? On October 14, Guiteau was arraigned:

I plead not guilty to the indictment and my defense is threefold: 1. Insanity, in that it was God's act and not mine. The Divine pressure on me to remove the president was so enormous that it destroyed my free agency, and therefore I am not legally responsible for my act. 2. The president died from malpractice[6] ...if he had been well treated he would have recovered. 3. The president died in New Jersey, and, therefore, beyond the jurisdiction of this court.[7]

Guiteau's own brother-in-law, George Scoville, was his defense attorney. Scoville had been a lawyer for over 30 years but had only participated in two criminal cases. He was assisted by attorney Leigh Robinson. The prosecutor was George B. Corkhill, a well-connected[8] if unrespected lawyer. The trial opened on November 14, 1881, to enormous crowds of people waiting outside. Luminaries such as Frederick Douglass witnessed the proceedings and ladies in petticoats arrived with picnic baskets so as not to lose their seats during lunch. The courtroom quickly filled to standing-room-only capacity. Guiteau turned around and began passing out little fliers to the press seated behind him. These notes said, among other things,

I am... charged with maliciously and wickedly murdering one James A. Garfield. Nothing can be more absurd, because General Gafield died from malpractice... the issue here is "Who fired that shot; the Deity or me?"[9]

He also announced to the press that "I am on trial for my life... any well known lawyer of criminal capacity desiring to assist in my defense please telegraph without delay to George Scoville, Washington, D.C."

In his opening statement, the jittery Robinson immediately requested that the trial be postponed. He also mentioned something about a third lawyer of prominence joining the defense team at a future date, but cryptically left this man unnamed. Guiteau interrupted him with an outburst:

I do not want to hear any more speeches of Mr. Robinson's. I want him to get out of the case... I want to say emphatically that Mr. Robinson came into the case without consulting me; that I know nothing about him; that I don't like the way he talks; and I ask him to retire. I expect to have some money shortly, and I can employ any counsel I please. I want it understood that I am not a beggar or a pauper.[10]

Scoville distinguished himself with, "I understand that I am not competent for a criminal trial of this kind... I do not want to have this case continued, nor does the prisoner."[11] Scoville also glared at Robinson and mentioned that perhaps he ought to tell the court who this mystery lawyer was. It became increasingly obvious that Robinson had not bothered to let Scoville in on this scheme. Presiding Judge Walter S. Cox threw up his arms in disgust and ordered the trial onward.

The court waded through 131 prospective jurors over three days to find the requisite twelve. Most of them were removed when they said things like, "He ought to be hung or burnt," and "No amount of torture is too great for him." On November 16, Guiteau was let back into the courtroom, where he wasted no time badmouthing his defense team in untimely outbursts. Guiteau fancied himself quite the lawyer, and attempted to convince the court that he was at the helm of his defense. Judge Cox felt otherwise: " must not be held again in the case, or I shall be under the necessity of ordering your removal from the court and proceeding with the trial in your absence."[12]

Guiteau replied, "One or two blunderbuss lawyers constitute my entire defense, but I won't allow it if I can help it." On November 18, Guiteau leapt to his feet and pursued Scoville across the courtroom, crying out, "You are no criminal lawyer. I can get two or three first-class criminal lawyers in America to manage this case for me." The bailiffs held him down and perhaps thumped him a little, and he shouted at them, "Mind your own business! Mind your own business!"[13] Scoville requested that the court prevent Guiteau from directly addressing the press, to which Guiteau replied, "I want first class talent in this case, or there will be trouble."[14]

On November 20, Guiteau was rattled when a bullet whizzed through the bars on the prison wagon and pierced his coat. The gun fired was held by one very drunken farmer, Bill Jones, who was quickly apprehended and dubbed a "hero" by the Washington Times. Despite this attack, however, Guiteau remained confident in his ability to charm the American people. This eagerness to please, however, did not stop him from interrupting Scoville every chance he got. Scoville, trying to make the insanity plea stick, did his damndest to undermine Guiteau's sanity to the court. It is an unfortunate misunderstanding that Guiteau took these examinations as personal affronts, and responded to them accordingly:

When Scoville intimated Guiteau was an incompetent lawyer, Guiteau insisted that "I never had the reputation of being a fool when I was a lawyer."[15]
Scoville claimed "[Guiteau] had neither the mental nor the physical capacity for hard work," whereupon Guiteau burst in with "I had brains enough, but I had theology on my mind... there is no money in theology... I left a $5000 law business to do that kind of work, but you see how I came out."[16]
Scoville noted the politicians to whom Guiteau had endeared himself prior to the assassination did not recognize Guiteau "as a competent man." Guiteau interrupted with, "I was competent enough, but I did not have reputation enough."[17]
Scoville insulted one of Guiteau's political speeches. "I protest solemnly against your trying to make out that I am a fool," Guiteau inerjected, "The Deity is responsible for this and I am His agent."

The prosecutor Corkhill, expressing the commonly-held belief that sexual activity led to insanity, asked Guiteau if he had held his virtue while staying at the rather-infamous Oneida Community.[18] Guiteau replied, "Well, not absolutely... I had to do with three distinct women in a very short time... but aside from that, I was strictly virtuous."[19]

The weeks flew by. On December 1, Guiteau repeated his appeal for money: "I again desire to invite my friends throughout the nation to send me money for my defense." On December 14, he did it again: "The rich men of New York gave Mrs. Garfield $200,000... it was a splendid thing, a noble thing. Now I want them to give me some money."[20]

The trial was a showcase for the psychological debate of the time, that is, whether or not an insanity defense was legitimate.[21] Both sides brought in their share of neurologists and phrenologists. For example, Dr. Allan McLane Hamilton, a phrenologist, mesaured Guiteau's head to determine any mental illnesses. Hamilton found a normally-shaped head, and said "the flatness of Guiteau's head was due to his haircut."[22]

Each group made Guiteau all the more testy, especially towards his own lawyer:

You are about as consummate a jackass, I must say, as I ever saw... I would rather have some ten-year-old boy try this case than you... I could have got three or four first-class lawyers on this case that were anxious to come if you hadn't elbowed them off with your consummate egoism and vanity."
Get off the case, you consummate ass. You have got no more brains for this kind of work than a fool... you have compromised my case in every move you make."

Perhaps feeling a little guilty, Guiteau later stated, "It is said that I have been abusing Mr. Scoville... his business is examining titles... I can't sit here when my life is at stake, and have him compromise my case in that way." When not bashing his lawyer, Guiteau grew fond of jauntily addressing the crowd in the courtroom:

I had a nice Christmas. Plenty of fruit, flowers, candies, etc., and plenty of lady visitors and gentlemen.
I had a very Happy New Year. I hope everyone else did. I had plenty of visitors, high-toned, middle-toned and low-toned people. That takes in the whole crowd. Public opinion don't want me hung. Everynody was glad to see me. They all expressed the opinion without one dissenting voice that I be acquitted."[23]

On January 23, the jury deliberated for less than an hour before sending Guiteau to the gallows. Even after the sentencing, he tried to cash in on his new-found celibrity. He tried to sell the suit he shot Garfield in for $100; he sold his autographs or autographed pictures ($9 a dozen, advertised in local newspapers). On June 30, he awoke to be led to his death. He requested the flowers doubtlessly sent by his legions of admirers be sent to his cell, only to be told there were none. He recited an interminable, repetitious, self-penned poem while standing before the noose ("I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad/ I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad/ I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad," etc.[24]), and the State promptly stretched his neck for the assassination of President James A. Garfield. The crowd of thousands cheered.


  1. One of a string of unremarkable, "stout, imposing, reassuringly bearded postbellum Presidents," Rosenburg ix.
  2. "In the years before Guiteau's removal of President Garfield, American newspaper readers had been treated to a number of trials in which highly paid advocates superintended the acquittal of overly enthusiastic defenders of the numptial couch... these somewhat ingenuous verdicts of innocent by reason of insanity had begun to try the patience of many respectable Americans; murder, they felt, should never go unpunished." Rosenburg, 53.
  3. Rosenburg 49
  4. Rosenburg, 50
  5. Rosenburg, 51
  6. A quick trip to our previous article would do well to remind the reader of the apparent legitimacy of this argument.
  7. Clark, 116
  8. Corkhill was married to the daughter of a Supreme Court Justice. Simple nepotism.
  9. Hayes and Hayes, 112-13
  10. Rosenburg, 113
  11. Clark, 123
  12. US vs Guiteau 111
  13. Clark 126
  14. US vs Guiteau, 164
  15. US vs Guiteau, 299
  16. US vs Guiteau, 303, 308
  17. US vs Guiteau, 334
  18. The Oneida Community, part of a Christian religious revivial in the late nineteenth century, had the curious practice of swapping sexual partners on a regular basis among its members. Interestingly enough, its founder, John Huphrey Noyes, was a close friend of Guiteau's father, Luther Guiteau.
  19. US vs Guiteau, 606
  20. US vs Guiteau, 109-110
  21. The contemporary analysis suggests that Guiteau had a fairly common form of schizophrenia. Rosenberg is an excellent treatise on the impact the trial had on views of mental health of the period (Clark is more of just the highlights).
  22. US vs. Guiteau, 1173-74
  23. US vs. Guiteau, 1079-1665
  24. Clark, 144


  1. Charles E. Rosenberg. The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau : Psychiatry and the Law in the Gilded Age. University of Chicago Press, 1995.
  2. H.G. Hayes, C.J Hayes. A Complete History of the Trial of Charles Julius Guiteau, Assassin of President Garfield. National Publishing Company, 1882. [Out of Print]
  3. . The United States versus Charles J. Guiteau Indicted for the Murder of James A. Garfield Twentieth President of the United States. (privately printed), 1882. [Out of Print]
  4. 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.

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