Why you should care
On the gallows, he was still so sure of his bright future.
Illinois native Charles Guiteau headed inside the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C. It was July 2, 1881, and the self-professed lawyer and delusional spotlight-seeker knew President James Garfield would soon be on hand to embark on his summer holiday. All his life, Guiteau believed he would make history, and he wasn’t wrong: He would soon hang for his actions that day.
“[Guiteau’s] teeth were clenched and his mouth closed firmly. His eye was steady, and his face presented the appearance of a brave man, who is determined upon a desperate deed,” an eyewitness said after the fact, according to Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President, by Candice Millard. As Garfield entered the station, Guiteau pulled from his pocket an ivory-handled, snub-nosed handgun he’d bought across town. Aiming at Garfield, Guiteau fired and grazed the president’s right arm; a second shot hit his back, and Guiteau briefly gave chase before being captured, writes Charles Lachman in The Last Lincolns: The Rise and Fall of a Great American Family.
The would-be assassin deluded himself into thinking he had made all the difference in getting Garfield elected.
Before Guiteau became an infamous assassin, he was just a boy from Freeport, a small town 115 miles northwest of Chicago. His father, Luther, was one of 11 children and married Jane Howe, with whom he had six children. Charles was the fourth, though the two after him did not live past age 2. Jane passed away when Charles was just 7, leaving him to his religious and notoriously hard-to-please father. Because of “disreputable habits,” according to a Freeport resident interviewed by the New York Times, Charles was disowned by his father and was expected to bring “disgrace” to the family’s name. “He was never considered of sound mind by his parents, and at one time received treatment from insanity,” the resident said.
Guiteau spent a year at the University of Michigan before dropping out. From there, he moved to a utopian community called the Oneida collective, where the term “free love” comes from. Only Guiteau got none: The community despised him, even nicknaming him “Charles Gitout,” says Sarah Vowell, author of Assassination Vacation. The leader of the Oneida collective, John Humphrey Noyes, shared his concerns by writing to Guiteau’s father. “I have no ill will toward [Charles],” he wrote, noting “I regard him as insane and I prayed for him last night as sincerely as I ever prayed for my own son, that is now in a Lunatic Asylum.”
Once Guiteau was out of Oneida, “none of his jobs worked out,” says Kenneth D. Ackerman, author of Dark Horse: The Surprise Election and Political Murder of President James A. Garfield. He tried bill-collecting, lawyering and preaching — failing at all three. Annie J. Dunmire met Guiteau in 1868 while working at a YMCA in Chicago. They married the following year. She recounted how Guiteau was always short on cash. Once, he went to a pawnbroker with a fake gold watch and swindled the Jewish broker. “He clapped his hands and walked up and down the room and just laughed to think how he had cheated ‘that old Jew,’” Dunmire said. The marriage didn’t last long — Guiteau beat his wife and divorced her.
Like the rest of America, Guiteau watched the wild Republican National Committee in which Garfield, a campaign manager, was elevated to presidential candidate. The Republican Party, fractured between the stalwarts and the radicals, had struck a compromise. Guiteau went to campaign offices in New York, volunteering to give speeches on Garfield’s behalf. Only one speech seems to have taken place, to a small group of Black voters in New York, and Lachman writes that stage fright got the best of Guiteau. But from that one contribution, the would-be assassin deluded himself into thinking he had made all the difference in getting Garfield elected.
By his count, he was owed a government position. His first choice? To be named minister to Austria, but Guiteau would’ve settled for becoming the American consul in Paris, Lachman writes. A cushy civil service posting overseas, however, was not in the cards: Garfield’s administration refused and even banned Guiteau from the White House waiting room. Indignant, he picked up a gun.
“I did it. I will go to jail for it. I am a stalwart, and Arthur will be president!” Guiteau yelled, referring to Vice President Chester Arthur after the shooting, according to Lachman. While being escorted by police, driving away from a bloodthirsty mob, Guiteau told the cop that he’d make him chief of police once he became president, Vowell says. His delusions of grandeur went on: While in jail, Guiteau continued earnestly taking credit for Garfield’s assassination — the president died two months after the shooting from his wounds — telling anyone who would listen that God would vindicate him. “Some people think I am the greatest man of the age and that my name will go into history as a patriot by the side of Washington and Grant,” he wrote and was later published in the New York Times.
Instead, what followed was a trial that questioned Guiteau’s sanity and ultimately found him guilty. He was hanged, but not before reciting a poem on the gallows. “I am going to the Lordy!” he told the crowd, ever sure that his future was bright.