This post was written by AHMC cataloger Miranda Schwartz.
A small, bright-red trial pass from the American Historical Manuscript Collection leads us to look back at a sensational 19th-century trial—that of Charles J. Guiteau, an unstable, itinerant bill collector and lawyer who assassinated President James A. Garfield just four months after his election.
For years Guiteau had bounced from job to job, city to city, exhibiting the warning signs of mental illness. After Garfield’s victory Guiteau seized upon the idea that he was responsible for the win because he had given a few speeches supporting Garfield and the Republican Party. (Interestingly enough, his speeches had originally been in favor of Ulysses S. Grant, the favorite of one wing of the Republican Party; when Garfield became the nominee, Guiteau simply replaced Grant’s name with Garfield’s.)
Despite his lack of diplomatic experience, the deluded Guiteau expected to be named to a European diplomatic post after Garfield’s win. He pestered the White House and the State Department for months. After constant rebuffs, Guiteau decided his only recourse was to kill the president. He followed Garfield a number of times before finally shooting him at a Washington, D.C., railway station on July 2, 1881. Garfield didn’t die right away, though. His wound—with the bullet still lodged inside him—was probed so often by his doctors’ unsterilized hands and tools that infection took hold. He lingered on painfully through the summer, dying on September 19.
Once Garfield had died Guiteau’s murder trial could finally begin. And the people were ready for it by early November, packing the courtroom each day, with lively press coverage feeding the public appetite. The trial turned on the question of Guiteau’s state of mind: Was he insane when he shot the president? It was quite difficult in 1881 to prove legal insanity and public opinion was decidedly against Guiteau. His bizarre behavior during the trial (loud outbursts claiming that God had told him to kill the president; numerous letters to President Chester Arthur; penning his autobiography from his cell) did nothing to help him. The medical experts his lawyers engaged had an uphill battle in trying to prove legal insanity, and ultimately their defense failed: Guiteau was found guilty of murder in January 1882 and hanged six months later.
Cataloging of the American Historical Manuscript Collection (AHMC), a group of 12,000 small and unique manuscript collections, is made possible by grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation, the Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and the Pine Tree Foundation of New York.