“Now that Garfield was dead, Americans’ greatest fear was that Guiteau would get away with murder – not because he was innocent, but because he was insane. The insanity defense was already widely known and almost uniformly despised. Even Garfield, ten years before his own murder, had expressed deep skepticism about the plea.”
So begins the aftermath of the assassination of President James Garfield from the pen of Candice Millard in her book “Destiny of the Republic.” Charles Guiteau had shot the President in July of 1881, and the President had succumbed to his wounds two months later.
And just like clock-work and daily sunrises, Guiteau submitted his “not guilty” plea to the judge in October. “I plead not guilty to the indictment,” Charles would say. “The Divine pressure on me to remove the president was so enormous that it destroyed my free agency, and therefore I am not legally responsible for my act.” In other words, Garfield’s assassin blamed God for his actions.
And so the trial, which ran from November to January, centered on Guiteau’s mental state. The defense brought psychiatrists to the stand that, after studying Charles, found him to be crazy. The prosecution brought even more of them to the stand to prove him otherwise. Guiteau himself claimed that his insanity had occurred only at the time of the shooting. He claimed that he was now sane as any man, and wouldn’t shoot Garfield (were he still alive to be shot) for any amount of money. He believed Garfield’s doctors were the true assassins of Garfield, as their rudimentary and unsanitary treatment had ultimately killed the President (a point which was pretty sane…and pretty accurate).
Those in the courtroom (and around the country) watched the drama unfold, and most of them just wanted Charles Guiteau dead for his crime, regardless of mental condition. And to their relief, jury deliberations lasted less than one hour. The jury found Guiteau sane and guilty.
Even after the verdict, Charles Guiteau hoped he would be set free. He wrote to the new President, Chester Arthur, on several occasions, desirous of a pardon. Guiteau believed his death would “make a terrible reckoning for you and this nation. I made you…and the least you can do is let me go.” John Guiteau, who had defended his brother at trial, requested a stay of execution in order to gather more evidence of insanity. All entreaties were denied.
On June 30, 1882, Charles Guiteau climbed the steps of the gallows, read some Scripture from the Bible’s book of Matthew along with a short poem, and was hanged for his crime.
Recommended Reading: Destiny of the Republic