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Assassin of our 20th President of the United States
Charles Julius Guiteau, born September 1841 in Freeport, Illinois, was the 4th child born to businessman Luther Guiteau and his wife Anne. Two more children followed Charles. His mother died when Charles was barely 7 years old. Although Luther would later remarry, his sister Frances raised Charles and would become his substitute mother and primary source of moral and financial support for most of his life.
Luther was a stern father, and young Guiteau received many whippings and along with lots of verbal abuse. Guiteau seems to have coped with his father's abuse and his own feelings of worthlessness, by developing an inflated sense of self-importance that would be displayed over and over with those people he came in contact with throughout his troubled life.
Financial problems followed Guiteau throughout his life. His financial problems led to a long history of unscrupulous business practices, unpaid bills, short stays in jail, and a constant moving from one area to another trying to stay one step ahead of his mounting creditors trying to track him down.
Guiteau met Annie Bunn while staying at a YMCA in Chicago. In 1869 they were married Annie Bunn. During this time Guiteau was trying to make something of himself by becoming an Illinois lawyer. But his past practices slowly surfaced in his small legal practice.
When his reputation and demanding creditors made life impossible for him in Chicago, the couple left for New York. In a few years, Annie divorced Guiteau in 1874 on the grounds of adultery when it became known that Guiteau had frequented prostitutes and eventually contracted syphilis.
Like Chicago, New York proved to better for Guiteau. Without the financial support of his wife, money continued plaguing Guiteau while at the same time his massive ego fueled the hope that prosperity was just around the corner, if only someone would take an interest in his ideas.
Creditors were still trying to track Guiteau down, and this forced him to frequently move, often in the middle of the night to avoid paying his current rooming charges. Some of Guiteau's creditors approached his brother John for the settlement of Guiteau's mounting debt. When John wrote to Guiteau about the importance of paying off these debts, Guiteau was outraged and wrote John a 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 (the money), but not before. And that, I hope, will end our acquaintance.
This ended his relationship with his brother, but Guiteau still had his sister. After a brief stay in jail, he went to live with Frances and her family. But after a few months, Guiteau tried to kill Frances with an axe for no apparent reason. A local doctor who treated Frances' wounds, recommended that her brother be institutionalized, but before she could act, Guiteau once again fled.
Guiteau was again without a home or money; his journalistic and legal careers were worthless. To raise enough money to get by Guiteau began making speaking appearances to take advantage of popular religious revival "meetings."
Guiteau had neither the background or the sincerity to successfully pull off this new image and had to rely on forged credentials. One newspaper article appearing after one of his nearly-incoherent religious lectures said:
Is There a Hell? Fifty deceived people (believe) that there ought to be. Charles J. Guiteau (if such really is his name), has fraud and imbecility plainly stamped upon his (face). The impudent scoundrel talked only 15 minutes and suddenly thanked the audience for their attention and bid them good night. Before the astounded 50 had recovered from their amazement... he had taken their money and fled from the building and escaped.
By the time he turned 40, none of his past efforts had accomplished what he felt was his destiny at becoming the important and prosperous personality he felt he was owed.
As a lifelong Republican, Guiteau sided with the most conservative faction of the Republican party known as the Stalwarts. Guiteau wrote letters and speeches in support of their plan to put Ulysses S. Grant back into the White House. When moderate Republicans narrowly defeated the Stalwart faction and put Garfield on the ticket, Guiteau switched sides becoming a pro-Garfield supporter.
After Garfield won the election Guiteau believed that a little-heard speech he had given in August of 1880 was the primary cause for the Garfield's victory. Without any logical proof to even suggest this was possible, Guiteau was certain he was now approaching the greatness he had sought throughout his entire life. He was also certain that the Republican Party (and Garfield in particular) were forever in his debt for getting Garfield elected to the Presidency, Guiteau moved to Washington, D.C., where he would be in a position to receive his rewards.
However, Garfield's administration completely ignored him. Guiteau nevertheless decided to allow himself to be appointed to an international consulate, and he began writing letters to that effect after his arrival in Washington.
To President Garfield, Guiteau wrote:
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 Vienna with dignity and grace.
Not receiving any response, Guiteau sent Garfield another letter, even more confident than his previous letter:
I called to see you this morning, but you were engaged. I sent you a note touching on the Austrian mission. The current Austrian Consul, I understand, wishes to remain at Vienna till fall. He is a good fellow (and) 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 I presume my appointment will be promptly confirmed.
Still receiving no response from Garfield, Guiteau began writing a stream of letters to various government officials, targeting Secretary of State Blaine in particular:
...in January last I wrote 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-General at Paris instead.
I spoke (with Garfield) about it, and he said your endorsement would help, (so 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 may have seen the heiress mentioned in his first letter from a distance, but it is doubtful that Garfield had read any of Guiteau's letters, let alone advised him to get Blaine's endorsement.
With no response coming from the administration, Guiteau increased his letter-writing campaign. Secretary of State Blaine received a deluge of letters from Guiteau. It was reported that on one occasion Guiteau approached Blaine, and identified himself as the author of the letters. Blaine reportedly shouted at Guiteau: "Never speak to me again on the Paris Consulship as long as you live!"
After hearing that the position he had been seeking had been given to someone else, Guiteau was stunned. It was around this time that he began concocting his plan to force the administration to take him seriously. He would later claim God was directed him.
Guiteau bought a British Bull Dog, .44 caliber, 5-chambered revolver with a fancy grip. He made several aborted attempts at the assassination. He would later state that he decided not to act on those earlier occasions because of his desire not to accidentally shoot someone else, his displeasure with the weather, or the fact that Garfield's wife was with him and Guiteau didn't want to cause her needless anguish.
On the morning of July 2, 1881, after getting up early, Guiteau set out to assassinate the President. Guiteau lay in wait for the President at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station in Washington, D.C. The station was located on the southwest corner of present day Sixth Street Northwest and Constitution Avenue in Washington, D.C., a site that is now occupied by the National Gallery of Art.
While waiting for Garfield to arrive, it was reported that Guiteau had his shoes shined, paced about the station, and asked a cab driver if he would take him to the jail later. As President Garfield entered the station Guiteau stepped forward and shot Garfield 2 times from behind. The 1st bullet grazed Garfield's arm; the 2nd bullet lodged in his spine in the first lumbar vertebra but missing the spinal cord.
When Garfield was brought back to the White House after the shooting, various doctors swarmed around and offered conflicting advice on methods to save his life. Medical practice at the time did not include the hygienic practices common today. Doctors put their unwashed and un-gloved fingers (as well as various un-sterilized instruments) into the wound in the President's back in an attempt to find the bullet.
As the president lingered in agony for weeks, Guiteau's imprisonment did nothing to dispel his delusion that he had done something noble and would be applauded by everyone. In the days before the shooting he had drafted a letter that he presumed would be widely published after his arrest and would result in his idolization by all of America:
To the American People: I conceived the idea of removing the President 4 weeks ago. Not a soul knew of my purpose. I conceived the idea myself and kept it to myself. I read the newspapers carefully for and against the Administration, and gradually the conviction settled on me that the President's removal was a political necessity, because he proved a traitor to the men that made him, and thereby imperiled the life of the Republic. This is not murder. It is a political necessity.
He also wrote to famed Civil War General William T. Sherman:
I have just shot the President. I shot him several times as I wished him to go as easily as possible. His death was a political necessity. I am a lawyer, theologian, and politician. I am going to the jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the jail at once.
When Garfield died on September 19, Guiteau was charged with murder and his trial began November 14, 1881. It would last more than 6 months.
During this time, even despite the loads of hate mail that he received, Guiteau believed his actions had come directly from God, and that he would be freed. Once he was cleared of the charges, he would be given the proper praise for his heroic action.
During the trial he addressed the courtroom spectators:
I (have) had plenty of visitors, high-toned, middle-toned and low-toned people... everybody was glad to see me... they all expressed the opinion without one dissenting voice that I be acquitted.
Throughout the trial, Guiteau insisted that President Garfield died from complications resulting from mistreatment at the hands of the doctors. He was equally adamant that he could not be held accountable since he had been acting on God's orders. After months of testimony and countless outbursts from the defendant, the jury found Guiteau guilty. Despite reports from several noted doctors who were convinced Guiteau was insane, and impassioned pleas from his family, Guiteau was hanged on June 30, 1882.
After his execution, Guiteau's body was put on display for visitors. He was then buried in prison courtyard. A few days later his body was exhumed and sent to the Army Medical Museum where the doctor that had performed Garfield's autopsy also examined Guiteau. He was looking specifically for any medical reasons that may have caused Guiteau's behavior. He found nothing. The assassins brain was cut up and sent to other leading medical professionals throughout the country to see if they could find any clues as to why he assassinated the president. They found nothing either.