I judge it a victory for the legal process that no one answered the exhausted, exasperated plea of a spectator who responded to the umpteenth outburst by defendant Charles Julius Guiteau (pronounced “Gitto”, above) by begging, “Just shoot him, now.” There is no doubt Charles was funny in the head. But if he had murdered some random schmuck on the street , he would have been locked safely away in an insane asylum, where he could die quietly of tuberculous like most of the 19th century mentally ill. If that had happened, then with time he would have been considered “ha, ha” funny. As it was the children who grew up with Charles noted his “offensive egotism”, thirty years before he shot President James Garfield in the back. Because of that murder, Charles was not, as Sarah Vowell suggested, “the funniest man in American History”. But he still comes close.
Just after nine on 2 July, 1881, as he got out of the cab in front of the Baltimore and Potomac railroad station (above), his ex-girl friend, Pauline Smolens, asked, “What are you plotting now, Charles dear?” He was plotting to gun down President Garfield inside the station. But her asking the question raises the question why Miss Smolens got in a carriage with dear Charles after showing the common sense to break up with this lunatic exhibitionist. Fifteen years earlier Charles' long suffering wife Anne Bunn had divorced him only after he re-gifted her the syphilis he had received from one of the prostitutes he frequented. The judge who granted Anne's divorce ordered Charles to never marry again. Legally the judge couldn't do that, but that was the effect Charles Guiteau eventually had on everybody who knew him - they were all driven to extremes.
Having shot the President, Charles was run to a nearby police station by officer Patrick Kearney. All the way there Charles kept shouting, “I have killed Garfield!...I have a letter that will tell you all about it!” Charles' note read, “I have just shot the President. I shot him several times as I wished him to go as easily as possible...I am a lawyer, theologian, and politician.... Very respectfully, Charles Guiteau” Almost nothing in that note was true.
First, Charles was a no theologian. As a teenager he joined the free love cult of John Humphrey Noyes. But Charles' groundless arrogance offended so many members, he literally couldn't get laid in a free love commune. After five years of celibacy “Charles Git Out”, as his fellow cult members called him, tried suing Noyes, and failing that, then plagiarized two of the leaders' books. Then Charles became an itinerant preacher (above). One newspaper described a typical performance by the self described “Little Giant of the West”, “...The impudent scoundrel talked only 15 minutes.” Charles then ran out the back with the ticket receipts in his pocket. According to one member, the abandoned audience, “had a conference and all came to the conclusion that he was crazy.”
Charles was also not really a lawyer. His bar exam was four questions long, and a passing grade was just 50%....so he did get his law degree. But he only used it to make himself a bill collector, keeping whatever he collected whenever he felt like it.. Oh, and President Garfield was not dead – yet - and would not die easily. And Charles was never respectful of anybody. The only truth in the note was that being an egomaniac Charles did fit the working definition of a politician. He decided Garfield owed him an ambassadorship, and when he did not receive it, Charles bought a gun and began stalking President Garfield. But that was just the latest in a life time of arrogant fantasies. It seemed as if before he shot the President, everybody in Chicago, Boston and New York thought Charles ought be hanged. So after he pulled the trigger, he set out to convince everybody in Washington, D.C., as well.
While James Garfield was slowly dying of septicemia, Charles Guiteau was writing his autobiography and planning his lecture tour. From his prison cell Charles offered the suit he wore while shooting Garfield, for sale, as well as photographs of himself. Again, after only a few weeks, most of the people in the closest contact with Charles, his jailers, wanted to kill him..
On 11 September, Sargent William Mason, of the 4th Artillery regiment, got so fed up with “coming to work every day to protect a dog like Guiteau.” that Mason shoved a pistol through the grate in Charles' cell door and ordered the assassin to “Get up and meet your death like a man.” Instead Charles began screaming and running back and forth in his tiny cell, while Mason kept firing and missing him. In desperation Mason yelled “Stay still, you rotten shit!” just before the gun was knocked from his hand by another guard. Despite widespread public acclaim, and funds raised for his family, Sargent Mason was sentenced to eight years in jail, perhaps because he missed.
After James Garfield finally died on 19 September, 1881, Charles was charged with murder and hate mail began to flood the new jail at 19th and B Streets, SE (above). Typical was the opinion of one writer who called Charles a “dirty, lousy, lying rebel traitor”, adding, “hanging is too good for you, you stinking cuss... You damn old mildewed assassin. You ought to be burned alive and let rot. You savage cannibal dog.”
Perhaps the most inventive suggestion was that Charles be forced to eat two ounces of his own cooked flesh every day, as long as he lasted.. About this time, another guard was driven to attack Charles with a knife. Again, Charles' screams brought help. But none of this seemed to shake Charles' reality, or lack thereof. He assured courtroom spectators, “I've had plenty of visitors...everybody was glad to see me...they all expressed the opinion without one dissenting voice that I will be acquitted.” He sounded only slightly more sure of himself than Donald Trump!
The serialization of Charles' arrogant autobiography in the newspapers would have poisoned the jury pool if those waters were not already putrid with hate. Worse, Charles complained that while a fund had been set up to support the newly widowed Mrs. Garfield, he still needed money for his expected dream team lawyers.
The trial began on Monday, 14 November, 1881, in the courtroom of Walter Smith Cox (above), a longtime D.C. attorney, who had only been on the bench for two years. Fearing any verdict might be appealed, Judge Cox allowed Charles to to act as one of his own attorneys.
“I came here...as an agent of the Deity,” asserted Charles, “and I am going to assert my right in this case.” As a practical matter this meant Charles kept springing up whenever he was inspired to, to argue or spew insults and obscenities on witnesses and his own “blunderbuss lawyers”, ordering his brother-in-law to “Get off the case, you consummate ass!”, telling Judge Cox, “I would rather have some ten-year-old boy try this case than you!”, and often spitting and foaming at the mouth while he did so.
Meanwhile the search for an impartial jury eliminated 175 on grounds they wanted Charles dead. Prospective juror John Lynch suggested that Charles “ought to be hung or burnt”, adding, “I don't think there is any evidence in the United States to convince me any other way”. Potential juror John Judd said Charles ought to be hung – not for murdering Garfield, but because he had once cheated Judd out of $50. A writer to the New York Times suggested, “it would be best to execute him first and try the question of his sanity afterward.” After three days, Charles' great objection to the chosen twelve was that one of them, Ralph Wormley, was black.
On Saturday the doctors offered their account of the President's injuries, introducing a preserved section of Garfield's spine (above). It was passed among the hushed jury, and was eventually handed to Charles, who looked it over and handed it back without comment. Much to everyone's relief.
According to the papers, that night, “a wild and reckless youth” named Bill Jones - who was actually 29 and had been drinking heavily - rode up next to the carriage returning Charles to jail, and let loose a shot. “The Avenger” then lead police on a high speed (one horsepower) chase, south to the outskirts of Fredricksburg, Virginia, where he was arrested. Worse, in most estimations, was that, like every body else, Jones had missed.
“People will learn after awhile”, said Charles, “ that the Lord is with me and will not allow me to be killed!” The Washington Times labeled young Jones a hero, despite his record for impersonating police officers and threatening strangers with arrest. Several thousand dollars were raised by “The Evening Star” to support Jones' wife and child and hire attorneys while he sat in jail for two years. In 1884, a jury quickly acquitted Bill Jones of the assault, which must have made Sargent Mason, who was still in jail, feel like a complete fool.
On Monday, 21 November – the first court date after the Bill Jones assault - the only actual criminal lawyer working for Charles Guiteau, Mr. Leigh Robinson, resigned from the case. The 49 year old Confederate veteran had only taken the thankless job at the request of Judge Cox.
But Robinson was now clashing with Charles' brother-in-law, George Scoville (above), whose legal career had focused on property rights. George wanted to plead Charles temporary insane.
But Charles refused to admit he was insane, shouting at George in open court, “You are no criminal lawyer! I can get two or three first-class criminal lawyers in America to manage this case for me.!”
Where those lawyers were hiding was unclear, so Judge Cox finally had the lunatic handcuffed in his chair. As the bailiffs struggled with him, Charles kept shouting, “Mind your own business. Mind your own business!” Once restrained, Charles sulked, and Robinson was released from his painful duties.
George Scoville put Charles' older brother John (above left)on the stand, who said of Charles, “His life is a wreck and worthless." When John wrote to ask when he could expect repayment of a loan, Charles wrote back, “Find $7 enclosed. Stick it up your bung hole and wipe your nose on it...” However there was no money in the letter. Charles' big sister Francis (above, right) testified Charles had “gone daft” without warning and chased her with an ax. And then Charles spent a week on the stand, driving his legal defense six feet under ground.
Charles insisted medical malpractice had killed Garfield, not him. Besides, he was not crazy in the moral sense, because “The Deity” had ordered him to kill Garfield, but he was definitely insane in the legal sense, in that the jury should not convict him. Twenty psychiatrists (called alienists) watched this performance, one telling a newspaper that Charles was the most fascinating psychotic he had ever seen. District Attorney George Corkhill, disagreed, asserting that Charles was “no more insane than I am...he's a cool, calculating blackguard, a polished ruffian... He wanted excitement..and notoriety, and he got it.”
Corkhill asked, “Who bought the pistol, the Deity or you?” Charles (above) responded, “The Deity furnished the money...I was the agent.” Corkhill asked directly, “Are you insane at all?” To this, Charles tried a clever answer. “A good many people think I am badly insane”, he told the jury, ”My father thought so, and my relatives thought so and still think so.” And that was when Corkhill sprung his trap. “You told the jury you were not insane,.” he reminded Charles. The madman smirked, certain of his own cleverness. “I am not an expert," he said. "Let the experts and the jury decide whether I am insane.” At least half the people in the courtroom, the jury included, were probably willing to lynch him right there, because of that smirk.
One of the few spectators able to hold onto their own sanity in the presence of Charles' pretentious hubris, was Fredrick Douglas. The great man pointed out that if Charles were merely acting crazy, “he is the most consummate actor in the world.” Meanwhile Douglas's old ally, Henry Ward Beecher, announced he believed Guiteau, “sane enough to hang.”
After 100 witnesses and 10 weeks of testimony, the case went to the jury. They came back with a verdict in 20 minutes. Allowing them five minutes to use the toilet, ten minutes to elect John Hamlin as foreman, and count the ballots, and five minutes to reassemble courtroom security: it cannot have been a contentious deliberation. At the reading of the verdict, Charles jumped to his feet, screaming at the jury, “You are all low, consummate jackasses! My blood will be on the heads of that jury!”. A Chicago Tribune headline caught the general public reaction. “The Hyena Hangs!”
Six months later, after his breakfast on Friday, 30 June, 1882, a clean shaven Charles Guiteau asked that the flowers and cards sent by his supporters be delivered to his cell. The warden informed him there were none. Charles then placed an order for his evening meal, which the warden took. Just before noon Charles was led out of his cell by a clergyman, his brother John and a pair of guards. He was led into the rotunda of the jail, where the permanent gallows awaited him. At the foot of the stairs, Charles paused to weep. Then he climbed the 13 steps, and found himself facing a crowd of 250 who had paid up to $300 each to watch him die. Hundreds more stood outside the walls, waiting to cheer the event.
Charles could not go without a speech. As his hands were tied behind his back, and his legs were bound together, he recited: “I am now going to read some verses which are intended to indicate my feelings at the moment of leaving this world....I wrote it this morning about ten o'clock.” He than recited in a child like voice, '“I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad, I am going to the Lordy,...” His poem went on for five stanzas and then Charles bent his head so the genial hangman, “Colonel” Robert Strong, could slip the hangman's noose over his head.
The papers called Strong "the jolliest Jack Ketch in the whole country", and bestowed on the long time city jail guard the honorary title of “Colonel” (above). The 56 year old was best known for his genial nature, who once earnestly chided a condemned man, “If you don’t cheer up you’ll never learn how to look on the bright side of life.” Said a fellow guard of Robert Strong's work, “His noose for the neck was simply perfection.” As this noose was tightened on his neck, Charles begged the hangman, “Do not pull it too tight, Mr. Strong”. Robert assured him, “I won't hurt you, Charlie.”
With the hood closed, Strong and the clergyman stepped away, and Charles shouted, “The Angels are coming to me!” He opened his left hand, dropping a square of paper. Before it hit the platform floor, Charles shouted, "Glory, ready, go!” and “Colonel” Strong jerked the lever, opening the trap door. That quick, and almost without a sound, Charles Guiteau dropped six feet and jerked to a stop. A cheer went up from the crowd, inside and outside the jail.
The body hung still for 40 seconds, and then jerked. After three minutes the body was lowered until the feet just touched the ground. The heart kept beating for another 14 minutes. After it stopped, the body was left hanging for another half an hour, and was then lowered into its coffin and cut down. On autopsy Charles Guiteau was found to have died of suffocation. His neck was not broken by Mr. Strong's noose. Charles' brain weighed 49 ½ ounces, and had asymmetry of the hemispheres and signs of Syphlitic paresis, which can produce grandiose delusions.
Charles has never been buried. His skull (above) and most of his bones are in the National Museum of Health and Medicine while sections of his brain are in the Mutter Museum, both in Philadelphia. His head, minus his skull, was part of a private collection in Indiana for some years, before it was destroyed in a fire. Free at last.