Charles Julius Guiteau: Garfield’s Assassin

The old history books claim that the assassin of President James A. Garfield was a disgruntled office seeker – but was that really the case?


Charles Julius Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield, was tried and convicted – and hung.

President James Garfield was assassinated in July, 1881, but the trial of Charles Julius Guiteau was not held till 1882.  His attorney, a family member, entered an insanity plea.  The trial was a six-month long circus.

No question about it, the defendant was definitely “peculiar.”  He sang little songs to himself, behaved oddly and confused, threw tantrums, and gave every indication of the nineteenth century definition of “lunacy.”  He was convinced he would be acquitted.  His attorney brother-in-law presented evidence that Guiteau’s eccentricities were apparent even in early childhood.  He was a loner who never seemed to have friends.  Some said that the entire family was a little strange.

Nevertheless, Guiteau managed to read law and even pass the Illinois bar, but he never practiced the profession.  He also became a self-proclaimed evangelist minister, briefly affiliated with one of the popular religious cults of the day.  They disassociated themselves quickly when Guiteau’s abnormal behavior became too evident.  He married, but his wife divorced him.  He was never able to hold a job or earn a living.  He borrowed money continually, and never repaid the debts.  Still, he had an aggrandized opinion of himself.  Most psychiatrists today agree that Guiteau showed classic symptoms of schizophrenia.

The defense attorney produced a long list of prominent Washingtonians, including several Congressmen and Senators, and even a signed deposition from President Chester Alan Arthur, all alluding to the fact that while they were superficially acquainted with Guiteau, they were all of the belief that he wasn’t quite right in the head.

Guiteau:  The Disgruntled Office Seeker

Campaign poster

James Garfield won a squeaker of an election in 1880. Chester Alan Arthur, his running mate, was also the national campaign manager.

In 1880, thirty-eight year old Charles Julius Guiteau decided to support James A. Garfield, the Republican nominee for President.  He wrote a long rambling speech in praise of the candidate, and traveled to New York.  Day after day, he sat in the waiting room of the campaign headquarters, button-holing all politicians for a chance to deliver his speech.  People were polite in those days – even New York politicians, so Guiteau was generally turned “away” rather than turned “down.”  The politicians courteously said “good morning” or “nice day” or similar pleasantries, leading Guiteau to believe he had made a friend.  He had hope.  Eventually he was given a place on a podium in Brooklyn.  He blathered incoherently for about five minutes, left the stage abruptly and disappeared into the crowd.  His speech was never given, nor was it published in a paper or as a handbill.

James Garfield won the election – but it was a squeaker.  Guiteau believed that it was his speech that actually turned the tide, and thus was entitled to a political patronage job.  Had he wanted to be a postmaster in some small town, he might have gotten it.  After all, who really cares who sorts the mail in “Podunk?”  But Guiteau wanted a better position: a consulate in Paris or Vienna.

The Disgruntlement Continues

Immediately after Garfield’s inauguration, Guiteau went to Washington, checked into a cheap boarding house and prepared to collect the compensation due him.  He spent hours sitting in the White House waiting room, hoping to see the President and writing incoherent letters on borrowed White House stationery.  His evenings were spent in the popular hotel lobbies where congressmen gathered socially.  He badgered everyone he could corner about his “embassy appointment” trying to find allies to plead his case with the Secretary of State.

Again, the polite politicians turned him down in pleasant generalities, such as “The next time I get a chance…” or “If I see so-and-so…”  Again, Guiteau believed he had friends who were advancing his prospects.  He still had hope.

Hope Dies, All is Lost

An artist rendition of the assassination.

Finally Guiteau confronted Secretary James G. Blaine on the street.  He picked a bad day.  The Secretary was preoccupied with pressing matters, and gave the odd little man short shrift.  Guiteau suddenly realized that all was lost; his hopes, his chances, his consulate in Paris or Vienna.   His mind snapped.  He began to hear voices (a tell-tale sign of psychosis).

He came to believe that President Garfield was the one standing in his way; that if the President were eliminated, Chet Arthur would be President – and would owe it all to him.  Honors would surely follow.  From that point on, Guiteau plotted and planned, and began to stalk Garfield.  He bought a gun, took some target practice, and checked the daily papers for the President’s schedule.

dying garfield

President James Garfield lingered in pain for ten weeks after he was assassinated by Charles Guiteau.

His chance came a few weeks later, and he shot the President twice – wounding him in the arm (a minor injury), and in the side, which led to medical ineptness, infection and a painful death ten weeks later.  Guiteau, by the way, was immediately apprehended and jailed.

The Verdict: Disgruntled Office Seeker

Fifteen years after the assassination of Lincoln, that deed was still fresh in the American mind.  John Wilkes Booth had escaped the hangman’s noose (the usual judicial penalty) by opting for a fiery shoot-out with law officers.  There would be no way that the trial of  Charles Julius Guiteau was going to circumvent due process and due judgment and due hanging for assassinating the President of the United States.

Twelve men, good and true, took little time in determining that Charles Julius Guiteau was sane enough to know right from wrong.   The crime was premeditated.  He had planned it.  He readily confessed.  He would hang.  And since he was considered “sane,” he would be forever inscribed in the history books as “a disgruntled office seeker.”


About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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