In 1881, silk top hats and bow ties were the height of gentlemanly fashion, monocles were the preferred means of corrective vision, and the suggested greeting on newfangled telephone contraptions was a cheerful “ahoy-hoy”. One June Saturday of that year, as the sweaty, swampy summer was just beginning to settle over Washington DC, a gentleman strolled into the US capital’s district jail on the banks of the Anacostia River. The visitor was well-dressed, about 40 years of age, slight of frame, and sunken of cheek. A weedy patch of gray-tinged whiskers sprouted from his chin, and his face was punctuated by a pair of dark, wide-set eyes which were predisposed to shiftiness. He was an attorney named Charles J Guiteau. He approached the attending guard at the Bastille jail and requested a tour of the facilities.
Deputy Warden Russ eyeballed the man, as deputy wardens do, and explained that visitors were only allowed to tour on particular days. Undeterred, Mr Guiteau surveyed the fraction of the structure that he could see from the office, and remarked that the facility was, “a very excellent jail.” The steadfast deputy warden urged the would-be sightseer to return at a more appropriate time. Mr Guiteau decided that he would do exactly that, and departed.
Although Charles Guiteau was a licensed lawyer, his visit to the Bastille was not on behalf of a soon-to-be-incarcerated client. As he would later explain, he had visited the prison to “see what kind of quarters I would have to occupy.” Perhaps most importantly, he wanted to ensure that the structure would be able to withstand the angry mob that would soon pursue him. Such were the details that a gentleman must attend to when he plans to assassinate the president.
Charles Julius Guiteau was born in 1841, the fourth of six children in a well-respected Illinois family. As a boy he demonstrated normal intellect, yet as he matured it became evident that he was moody, shrewd, dishonest, and deluded. In contemporary vernacular, he was said to be “not exactly right in the upper story.”
As a young man Guiteau traveled to Oneida, New York to join a Christian commune where his father had once resided. Oneida’s founder John Humphrey Noyes presided over a pseudo-utopia where people and property were shared; where postmenopausal women were assigned to teenage boys as a form of birth control; and where an experimental human selective-breeding program was underway in a special wing of the community’s Mansion House. Members preached that Jesus Christ had a second coming in the year 70 AD, at which time he laid the foundation for a perfect world. Although the Oneida commune’s claims were perfectly compatible with Guiteau’s anomalous upper story, his collection of eccentricities proved unbearable even for the most hogwash-hardened of the radical Christians. He was rude at the dinner table, he complained about chores, and he slunk about in rubber galoshes even on the fairest of New York afternoons. Consequently he was not welcomed into any of the commune’s “complex marriages.”
Feeling snubbed, Guiteau departed and embarked upon a parade of misadventures. He founded a newspaper to disseminate the news of Jesus’s stealthy second coming, but it failed to draw a readership. In his spare time Guiteau penned and printed books plagiarized from the Oneida teachings, but few readers bothered to bend many pages before setting these aside. Guiteau also fancied himself to be a brilliant orator, and hung posters inviting the public to attend lectures by “The Little Giant of the West.” Guiteau made it known—presumably as a selling point—that he drafted all of his lectures in the nude. During his speeches he pontificated bombastically about Jesus and the end of the Earth, but the scant few attendees found these entirely lacking in substance and oratorical merit.
Unable to attract the audience he felt he deserved, Charles Guiteau moved to Chicago and somehow obtained a law license. He used his flimsy new credentials to invoice clients despite negligence in his duties, and he engaged in bill-collecting yet failed to relay the money to the creditors who hired him. He seemed genuinely astonished when this agitated his clients. The majority of his litigation was on his own behalf as he unsuccessfully sued the various newspapers which exposed him a fraud. He also attempted to sue the Oneida commune for work done without pay.
In his mid-twenties Guiteau wooed and wed a librarian named Annie Bunn. The couple resided in boarding houses, moving often. Soon Bunn discovered that these frequent relocations were due to her new husband’s distaste for paying the rent. Guiteau’s kindness waned over several years until his attention consisted mostly of shouting at her, locking her in closets, beating her, and spoiling her good standing with creditors. Occasionally he was jailed for his debt-dodging. But it was not until she discovered that Charles had been patronizing ladies of the night that she sued for divorce. Adultery was a sin a Bunn could not abide. Charles moved in with his sister Frances for a time, but he disappeared after injuring her in an inexplicable axe attack. Their father Luther Guiteau—a respected member of his community—issued many embarrassed apologies on Charles’s behalf. In a letter to one of his other sons he wrote, “I have been ready to believe [Charles] capable of almost any folly, stupidity, or rascality. The only possible excuse I can render for him is that he is insane.”
Guiteau re-emerged several months later in New York, having cultivated an interest in presidential politics. His self-assigned pigeon-hole was with the far-right-wing Stalwarts. Once again he plastered fliers urging the public to hear him speak. In his few public addresses he spoke fondly of President Lincoln—who had been assassinated just 15 years prior—and spoke ill of the “ex-rebels” of the South. This lecture was so persuasive that throngs of citizens vowed to vote for James Garfield in Guiteau’s imagination. In reality, his speeches were short, bewildering, and scantily attended.
When Garfield won the election in 1880, Guiteau was naively convinced that his own lectures were the linchpins that had secured the presidency for his party. It was the custom of the day for the White House to be open to the public, so Guiteau traveled to Washington DC to collect his political comeuppance. He began inundating the president’s residence with letters and telegrams asking for a consulship. Vienna was supposed to be nice this time of year. Or Paris, perhaps. He attended every White House reception in his single deteriorating set of dress attire, handing out calling cards, rubbing influential elbows, and making delusional claims regarding his relationships with important persons. One May evening Guiteau approached Secretary of State James Blaine outside the State Department and politely asked for his endorsement. Blaine, weary of Guiteau’s constant haranguing, lashed out at the offputting elbow-rubber. “Never speak to me again of the Paris consulship as long as you live.” he said. Guiteau was taken aback.
It was around this time that Guiteau received the impression that his god would like very much for him to eliminate the ungrateful and uncooperative Garfield administration. The deity allegedly explained that Garfield and Blaine and their moderate politics were steering the country into a second civil war. Guiteau visited a local weapons vendor to contemplate his options. He didn’t want the president to suffer, so he preferred a powerful firearm to make the killing quick. He also wanted a weapon that would look nice for the inevitable museum exhibit. He purchased a .44-calibre British Bulldog revolver and put the paper-wrapped pistol into his pocket.
Divine assassination was evidently a burdensome affair. The thought of injuring or otherwise traumatizing a bystander aroused Guiteau’s greatest apprehensions. He seemed to sincerely believe that he was on a God-given errand. One May morning Guiteau was loitering outside of the White House when he spotted President Garfield strolling alone to church. Guiteau made secret chase. He found a vantage point outside a chapel window, but he was concerned for the safety of others and postponed the murder. Several days later Guiteau was among the onlookers as the president escorted his wife to the train station. Mrs Garfield was suffering from malaria, and she was being sent to the Jersey shore where the sea air was rumored to be reinvigorating. Guiteau did not wish to upset the ailing first lady, so he kept his pistol pocketed. The stalking continued on the evening of 01 July 1881 when Guiteau trailed the president and James Blaine through the shadowy streets of DC. The aspiring assassin was appalled to see the two men walking and talking arm-in-arm, but he lacked the nerve to act.
On the morning of July 2nd President Garfield arrived at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station in his finest attire. He was traveling to New Jersey to join his recovering wife, and a fraction of his friends and family had come to see him off. The station was a bustle of bobbing top hats and jingling monocle-chains. Garfield remarked to Blaine that he wished he was coming along. As the men said their goodbyes in the ladies’ lounge a terrific bang resounded through the building. “My God, what is that?” the president inquired, having felt something strike his shoulder. Another bang assaulted their ears. President Garfield’s silk top hat fell to the floor, badly battered. He turned to see a man with a weedy patch of gray-tinged whiskers holding a British Bulldog revolver, a ribbon of smoke still streaming from its barrel. The president collapsed.
Secretary Blaine looked around for the source of the calamitous noise and saw his prostrate president. “My God, he has been murdered!” Blaine cried. “What is the meaning of this!?” Secretary of War Robert Lincoln, son of the recently assassinated Abraham, looked on with utmost anxiety. The lounge attendant rushed to Garfield and cradled his head in her lap. The president vomited.
Guiteau pocketed his pistol and turned heel to flee, but his getaway was cut short by a fast-acting ticket agent who grasped him roughly. As police hauled the assassin off to jail amidst shouts of “lynch him!” a fellow named Dr Smith Townshend responded to cries for a doctor. The physician administered aromatic spirits of ammonia to revive the president, and put his finger into the bullet hole to ascertain the extent of the injury. The first bullet had inflicted only a minor flesh wound on Garfield’s arm, but the second had entered the small of his back and lodged somewhere in the thorax among the fragile vital organs. Garfield asked Dr Townshend whether the wound was serious. The doctor politely lied, stating that it wasn’t. Garfield replied, “I thank you doctor, but I am a dead man.” Other physicians arrived and they evacuated the president to the White House. He was not expected to survive the night.
When the police arrived at the district jail with Guiteau in tow, deputy warden Russ eyeballed the man, as deputy wardens do. A look of recognition crossed his face. Guiteau explained, “You are the man who wouldn’t let me go through the jail some time ago.” Upon searching the prisoner’s pockets the police found a letter in his jacket explaining the purpose of the crime. They also found the British Bulldog still in his trousers with two rounds spent. In the confusion none of the officers had confiscated the weapon. The guards also removed his shoes, causing Guiteau to protest, “I’ll catch my death of cold!” His scoffing was disregarded.
Back at the White House a team of sixteen doctors descended upon Garfield and engaged in the jiggery-pokery of Victorian medicine. Although many physicians in Europe had by that time embraced Dr Joseph Lister’s antiseptic techniques, the prevailing notion in the United States was that harmful microorganisms were a silly superstition and that “bad air” was the origin of infections. Germs, after all, were only a theory. Consequently many unwashed fingers probed the president’s new perforation in unsuccessful attempts to remove the bullet and assess the seriousness of his injury.
Doctor Willard Bliss—a doctor whose first name was actually “Doctor”—appointed himself as head physician. Dr Doctor gave him the news. He explained to the president that his injury was formidable, but there was a small chance of recovery. “Well Doctor,” Garfield said with a smile, “we’ll take that chance.” Dr Bliss prescribed a diet of beefsteak, eggs, and brandy, which caused considerable vomiting. The physician thereafter fed the president rectally with “nutritional enemas” comprised of milk, egg yolks, beef bouillon, whiskey, and drops of opium. Garfield suffered a chronic cough, fever, and misery, but he seemed to stabilize, much to the surprise of the doctors. Over the weeks the flailing physicians issued conflicting reports to the press ranging from rosy to resigned, and newspapermen relayed these to the throngs of anxious citizens who crowded newsstands.
The assassin Guiteau, meanwhile, was oblivious of the gravity of his crime. From his cell he began preparing for his illustrious post-incarceration career. He began writing his autobiography and prepared to deliver a lecture series on politics and religion. He wrote letters to the press describing his future ambitions and placing ads seeking “an elegant Christian lady of wealth, under thirty, belonging to a first-class family.” He even mused over the idea of putting in a bid for the presidency in 1884. While he was imprisoned two men made independent attempts to shoot Guiteau—one a prison guard and another a drunken citizen—but neither was an effective marksman.
The summer of 1881 became a season of slapdash invention at the White House. Engineers from the Navy arrived and invented a rudimentary air conditioner to keep the president reasonably comfortable. They arranged for electric fans to blow through a series of cotton curtains that were constantly moistened by an overhead cask of ice and salt, bringing the temperature down from about 95º F to 75º F (35º C / 24º C). Letters from well-intentioned citizens suggested numerous creative ways to expel the offending bullet. One suggested using a rubber hose attached to an air pump to extract the slug, another suggested upturning the president and shaking him until the bullet fell out. Dr Bliss and his colleagues declined to try most of these treatments. One, however, seemed expedient. It came from the offices of the eminent inventor Alexander Graham Bell.
On the evening of 26 July 1881, Bell and his assistant arrived at the White House with an electronic apparatus of considerable size. It was a hastily arranged marriage of a telephone—Bell’s recent invention—along with coils of wire, batteries, condensers, and other electronics connected to a wooden wand. With some help from the famous mathematician Simon Newcomb, A G Bell had invented the first rudimentary metal detector in the hope that it might pinpoint the bullet in the president’s belly. Having tested their device on one another by hiding bullets in their mouths, armpits, and other cavities, Bell and Newcomb knew it capable of detecting a slug under several inches of flesh.
The bulk of the cantankerous equipment was placed in an adjacent room to keep noise levels at a minimum. Alexander Graham Bell pressed the cone-shaped telephone speaker to his ear, demanded quiet from the observing physicians, and began slowly moving the wood-and-wire wand over the president’s torso. He strained to hear the slight hum of detection. Garfield expressed concern of being electrocuted by the device, but Bell assured him that this was quite impossible. Although the contraption appeared to be working properly it made no definitive detections. He returned a few days later with a slightly improved prototype, but the bullet remained elusive. Although Garfield had lost some 80 pounds during his convalescence, he was still a hulking gentleman, so the bullet may have been beyond the invention’s limited range. Alternatively, some historians suggest that the president’s bed may have been among the first in the US to use a metal frame or springs, which could have confounded the instrument. Having failed, Alexander Graham Bell went back to Boston amidst accusations from the press that his metal-detecting attempt was a mere publicity stunt to promote his telephone.
A few days later President Garfield asked to be moved to an oceanfront cottage in New Jersey for some “bracing air.” By this time the original finger-sized bullet wound had developed into a large, infected gash on his back, and although he was in constant discomfort he maintained a facade of good cheer. Upon receiving the news that their damaged president was visiting the city, the residents of Long Branch spent a day and a night laying down a new half-mile spur of railroad tracks that would carry Garfield’s train car right to his cottage door. According to the account written by Dr Bliss, the train engine stalled on the uphill as it approached its destination, and the hundreds of residents who had gathered to watch the president’s arrival stepped forward to silently push the train cars up the remaining distance.
The ailing president was said to seem much more content lying in the ocean breeze. On 18 September 1881, Garfield remarked to his friend Colonel Rockwell, “Old boy, do you think my name will have a place in human history?”
The colonel answered, “Old fellow, you mustn’t talk in that way. You have a great work yet to perform.”
After a moment’s pause the president replied, “No, my work is done.” He died the following evening. The citizens of Long Branch eventually disassembled the emergency tracks and used the railroad ties to build a tea house in Garfield’s memory. This structure still stands today, not far from where he expired.
The presidential autopsy found that the bullet had not trespassed on any of Garfield’s vital organs, and that his death was entirely due to profound secondary infections. The government immediately filed murder charges against Guiteau, who responded by penning a letter to the new president, Chester Arthur. Guiteau congratulated him on his new position and salary, and preemptively accepted his gratitude for the promotion.
Charles Guiteau’s trial began the following November. He was represented by his brother-in-law George Scolville who made insanity the crux of his case. Guiteau preferred to frame it as “divine pressure,” but his deity was not available to testify. Although Guiteau admitted to the shooting he was fond of reminding the court that it was infections from dirty physician fingers that ultimately killed the president. During the six-month trial Guiteau frequently berated his “consummate jackass” of an attorney, and he occasionally burst into poetry or song. On 25 January 1882 the jury deliberated for less than an hour before reading their verdict: Guilty. In response Guiteau screamed, “The vengeance of almighty God will be upon you for this outrage!”
Five months later, having failed in a series of appeal attempts, the day of Guiteau’s execution was at hand. The prison warden arrived at Guiteau’s cell with a clergyman, Charles’s brother John, a pair of guards, and a death warrant. Charles had shaved off his gray-tinged beard and combed his hair neatly. The solemn formation shuffled out to the gallows while John Guiteau gently weeped. Some modern retellings claim that Charles danced up the stairs of the gallows upon his arrival, but contemporary accounts describe him pausing for a moment at the foot of the stairs, gathering his courage, and slowly ascending. Reports of cavorting are likely cross-contamination from the stage musical Assassins which depicted Guiteau in a song-and-dance staircase routine.
From the platform Guiteau looked out upon the rows of witnesses. All was silent, and all eyes were upon him. Here, at long last, was his rapt audience. With a soft, earnest tone he began reading a short poem he had written in his cell that morning. With each syllable his voice grew bolder and more impassioned, until he was nearly shouting when he finished with, “Glory hallelujah! I am with the Lord.” Upon finishing his speech Guiteau stooped his neck and the hangman placed the noose over his head. He turned to the executioner and requested softly, “Do not pull it too tight, Mr Strong.”
“I won’t hurt you, Charlie,” Strong replied, and drew a black hood over the condemned’s head. For a few moments there was only silence, then Guiteau shouted, “The angels are coming to me!” Guiteau opened his fist and a square of paper fluttered to the floor. This was the pre-arranged signal that he was ready. The warden waved a white handkerchief and the trap door was opened. Outside, news of the assassin’s death sent cheers through the crowds.
Guiteau’s autopsy revealed nothing out of the ordinary apart from an oversized spleen. The doctor found none of the brain lesions that are frequently seen in disturbed minds, but he did note that the flexible dura mater sac enveloping the brain appeared “unhealthy.” In retrospect it seems certain that Guiteau and his unhealthy membrane were legitimately insane, however some might argue that a hanging was a more merciful sentence than a lifetime locked in a nineteenth-century insane asylum.
The National Museum of Health and Medicine received Garfield’s bullet-damaged spinal section along with Charles Guiteau’s spleen, bones, and brains. The .44 British Bulldog that Guiteau selected for its suitability as a museum piece indeed became part of an exhibit at the Smithsonian, but the pistol has since been misplaced.
In spite of the national grief at the assassinations of Lincoln and Garfield it would require yet another assassination—William McKinley in 1901—before the Secret Service was finally tasked with protecting US presidents. Curiously, McKinley’s assassin Leon Czolgosz was also once a member of the Oneida commune. Today, the Oneida organization has grown to be one of the largest and wealthiest manufacturers of kitchen supplies in the world. Perhaps their selective breeding program paid off after all.