Everyone has heard of and John Booth, and Lee Oswald. Or maybe not, without their middle names, eh? They are, of course, the first and most recent members of the Presidential Assassins Club, thanks to their handiwork with respect to messrs Lincoln and Kennedy. That club has two other members, however, and the average person probably has no idea who they are or who they killed (possibly because both of them are not typically styled with their middle names). We met one in anagram form this past week: Charles Guiteau, who killed president James Garfield.
And who bears more than a passing resemblance to Charles Manson.
Guiteau had a pretty crazy life, not surprisingly. He attempted to go to university but failed the entrance exams and eventually wound up joining the Oneida Religious
Community Cult in 1860, in New York state. I won’t get into all the details here but the mid 1800s were a wild religious time, particularly in New York, as several apocalyptic cults emerged and people were taken up with a sort of religious mania in an event labelled the Third Great Awakening. This period birthed Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventism, and Christian Science, amongst other wacky/evil ideas.
The 300 person Oneida group, of which Guiteau was an on-again off-again member, believed that Jesus had already returned in 70 AD, and that they could therefore bring about the glorious end times themselves by having a lot of sex with each other (no unplanned orgasms allowed for men, seriously), convening shaming circles, and manufacturing silverware (they employed almost as many people as they had members of the cult, and Oneida silverware still exists today!). Free love and deals on forks, you can see why Guiteau would have wanted to hang out with them.
But he didn’t last there, and eventually wound up practicing law, sort of, in Chicago, followed by roaming around the countryside preaching a plagiarized sermon. A not altogether stable life, let’s agree. Now let’s take a quick look at the political situation of the day.
Following the Civil War, the U.S. under president Ulysses S. Grant undertook a grand program of reconstruction, to undo the horrific damage caused by the war and to attempt to bring some measure of real union back to its deeply fractured society. This amounted to a northern military occupation of the south, and was an ideal time for graft, corruption, and plunder on an incredible scale. It would seem that sometimes the victorious manage to profit by bloodshed.
At this point there emerged two camps in the Republican Party: the Stalwarts and the Half-Breeds. For real! And the only meaningful difference between them was that the Stalwarts were in favour of machine politics and out of control patronage, and the Half-Breeds were in favour of civil service reform. Deadlocked when nominating a candidate for the 1880 election, the two factions agreed on Garfield provided that he be teamed up with Chester Arthur, whose corruption was sufficient to keep the Stalwarts happy. Upon election Garfield started trying to make various reforms, which didn’t sit well with everyone in his party, or in the public.
Re-enter Guiteau. Guiteau wrote a speech favouring the Republicans, and delivered it a couple of times. In spite of the fact that it was irrelevant in the extreme, he decided that his hard work merited him an ambassadorship (France, thank you very much) and so he started showing up around Washington asking for a job. And the administration had the nerve to eventually tell him no, and never come round here again, sir. This was the last straw for Guiteau.
He purchased a revolver and stalked the president. On July 2, 1881 he camped out at the Baltimore railway and when Garfield came by he shouted “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts! Chester Arthur is President now!” and shot the president twice.
But Garfield didn’t die. At least, not yet. Doctors rooted around inside him looking for the second bullet, which they failed to find, and Alexander Graham Bell even invented a metal detector to try and locate it. Modern sources say that the unsanitary conditions of the day caused infection, and that the wounds weren’t actually that bad. One source even says that Garfield would have been fine if his doctors had literally done nothing. But poke and prod they did, and Garfield finally died after an excruciating 11 weeks.
Guiteau went immediately to trial, during which he provided testimony in his own defence via epic poems, and regularly verbally abused members of the court. His lawyers offered up an insanity defence, which no one fell for. I like this testimony by the DA:
He’s no more insane than I am. There’s nothing of the mad about Guiteau: he’s a cool, calculating blackguard, a polished ruffian, who has gradually prepared himself to pose in this way before the world. He was a deadbeat, pure and simple. Finally, he got tired of the monotony of deadbeating. He wanted excitement of some other kind and notoriety, and he got it.
And that seemed to be about right; he delighted in the publicity and did ever more ridiculous things to make sure that he stayed front and centre in the public eye. He seems, somewhat like Oswald, to be a loser who wanted to be a somebody. Well that he was, for a time. The jury returned a guilty verdict, at which point Guiteau yelled “You are all low, consummate jackasses!” and other unmentionable things. He was sentenced to hang, and was executed shortly thereafter in June of 1882 (although of the four presidential assassins he holds the record for living the longest after the deed). At his execution he recited a terrible poem that seems to have been written by a talented kindergartener.
Guiteau’s plan, to the extent that he had one at all, was to restore Stalwart control of things, such that unemployed crackpots could be made Ambassador to France, and to assure himself of permanent notoriety. The Stalwart Chester Arthur did indeed take up residence in the White House, but he felt obliged by honour to continue his predecessor’s work and is known to history as the guy who cleaned up the U.S. civil service. Dammit!
Guiteau purchased a pimped out gun, so that it would look cool in a museum and make him look classy.
But… uh oh. The Smithsonian lost it. Today Guiteau is little more than the answer to a trivia question not a lot of people can answer correctly.
Lincoln, Garfield, Kennedy, and… who? Who is the other assassinated president? Whose aim was true in shooting him (good luck with that)? And in what U.S. city did it happen, known since January of 1991 for poor aim of a different, heartbreaking sort?