Killing President Garfield

It was on July 2, 1881, as he was walking through a Washington, D.C. railroad station that President James Garfield was shot in the arm and lower back by a disturbed loner named Charles Guiteau. As the President slumped to the ground, Guiteau cried out "I am the Stalwart of Stalwarts" before being taken into custody. President Garfield was taken to the White House where doctors worked to save his life. Unfortunately, the sixteen doctors who were called in to tend the president had no notion that their own unsterilized hands and instruments were a danger to their patient (this was years before sterilization became common practice in medicine). The actual shooting had left no more than a minor wound but the doctors and their relentless poking and probing did the rest. After Garfield finally died on September 19, an autopsy determined that he likely would have lived had the doctors simply left him alone.  Although the lead surgeon later made a public apology, it probably didn't help that the doctors submitted a bill for their services afterwards (the bill was only partially paid).

As the first presidential assassin ever to be put on trial (or at least the first successful one), Charles Guiteau's case riveted public attention although defending him proved to be a nightmare for his legal team (led by his brother-in-law). Throughout the trial, Guiteau was housed at the St. Elizabeth's Psychiatric Hospital although he opposed any attempt to have him declared insane. His bizarre behaviour during the trial remains the stuff of legal legend. He systematically abused his defenders, wrote his testimony in the form of epic poems which he recited in court, composed his autobiography (including an advertisement for a future bride), and repeatedly tried defending himself. While his argument that he didn't kill Garfield and that the doctors were really responsible for his death was true enough, it failed to sway the jury.

Both prosecution and defence attempted to bring in medical experts to testify concerning Guiteau's mental state but the jury was put off by the spectacle of "duelling credentials"   It was also one of the first American trials in which the newly adopted M'Naghten Rule was applied and Guiteau's appearance of sanity probably helped seal his fate. Guiteau's insistence that he was "legally insane but not medically insane" worked against him and swayed the jury into thinking that he was only faking insanity. He seemed incapable of realizing the hatred that the American public had for him despite being nearly killed on two occasions during the trial.   Since he honestly appeared to see himself as the Hand of God in bringing down the president, Guiteau seemed genuinely astonished when the jury brought in a verdict of guilty (nobody else was).  

His appeal was later denied and Guiteau was executed on June 30, 1882. To the end, he tried to make the execution into a media spectacle and used the occasion to recite a poem that he composed (and if those in attendance weren't in a hanging mood at first, they likely were by the time he finished his long, rambling poem). His request to have an orchestra at the hanging was denied.   After his execution, the body was never returned to the family to be buried according to custom.  In fact, the current whereabouts of Guiteau's skeleton is somewhat of a mystery.

The usual problem with attempting a psychiatric diagnosis on the basis of historical accounts certainly applies here although Guiteau's bizarre behaviour suggests some possibilities. One of the most intriguing theories relates to the fact that Guiteau had contracted syphilis from a prostitute years before (which had been used against him in the trial to prove his "moral depravity"). An autopsy determined that his brain showed signs of damage relating to neurosyphilis but the results were felt to be inconclusive. The flamboyance and grandiosity that Guiteau showed during the trial seem to fit with the diagnosis of syphilis-related dementia but it could fit other diagnoses as well. The question of whether Guiteau was wrongfully executed was debated in the psychiatric literature long after his death.

Was Guiteau insane? Would he have been executed had he killed anyone other than a U.S. president? You be the judge.


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