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Monday, January 10, 2011

Charles Guiteau, James Garfield’s assassin, and the disturbing history of political assassinations

Much of the coverage of the attempted assassination of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on January 8 has speculated on what may have motivated the alleged shooter. In 1881 Cuban writer José Martí published in a Mexican newspaper a famous report of the trial of Charles Guiteau, the lawyer who assassinated President James Garfield. His account shows that heightened emotions and difficulty in attributing motivation have long followed political assassinations.
Interest in the trial of Garfield’s killer has not waned or tapered off. It’s as if a wild beast were on exhibit and the entire nation were gathered to have a look at it. Guiteau is a cold, demonic, livid figure . . . He does not arouse pity; he does not arouse forgiveness; he arouses no desire to excuse him.
Convinced that a speech he gave in support of Garfield was instrumental in his 1880 election, Guiteau appealed daily at the White House for a diplomatic appointment. Sternly and consistently rebuffed, he determined to assassinate Garfield and stalked and shot him twice on July 2, 1881.

Guiteau’s was one of the first high-profile trials to use the insanity defense. “Listen to him,” his defense attorney George Scoville urged the court. In his testimony Guiteau claimed his act was commanded by God:
. . . like a bolt of lightning the thought came to my mind that if Garfield was no longer in the way all problems would be resolved. In the morning the thought returned. And after that the idea of removing the president did not leave me; it worked on me, tortured me, oppressed me for two weeks. . . I then believed and I still believe now that it was divinely inspired. . . I wished no harm to the president. I was in great spiritual agitation, distraught and drowning. I had no relief until it was all done: then I felt happy, and gave thanks to God.
Garfield died from his wounds two months later. After a long and widely publicized trial, Guiteau’s defense failed. He was found guilty in January and executed in June 1882.

Almost exactly one hundred years later, the insanity defense was successfully employed in the trial  of John Hinckley, Jr., who was found not guilty by reason of insanity in the shooting of President Ronald Reagan.

Also of interest: David Rapp's account of the shooting of James Garfield in American Heritage

Related LOA works: True Crime: An American Anthology  (includes "The Trial of Guiteau" by José Martí)

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