Thursday, April 5, 2012

Assassins: Charles Guiteau

I know I didn't start off with a well known assassin, but Guiteau is probably one of the most interesting. If not interesting, the craziest. Guiteau is the poor fellow who assassinated President Garfield. What's that? You don't know anything about either of them? Well, that's pretty typical, as the only thing people know about Garfield is that he got shot, and others don't even know that much. They just know that he shares the name of a certain comic strip feline. Allow me to at least illuminate crazy old Guiteau. Guiteau was born in Freeport, Illinois in 1841, the fourth of six children. His life was marked by ups and downs, as evidenced by his mother dying when he was just fourteen, but then inheriting $1,000 dollars from his grandfather so he could go to college. He decided to try his hand at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, though wasn't able to attend since he failed the entrance exam.

He bummed around Ann Arbor until his father sent him a bunch of letters telling him to join this really awesome cult...er...utopian religious sect that Poppa Guiteau was really fond of: The Oneida Community. The group preached group marriage and free love, lest you go on and marry just one person, which would be selfish. In fact, John Noyes, the religion's founder, probably invented the notion of free love in the modern sense. Guiteau stayed there for about five years but never really fit in. In fact, they nicknamed him "Charles Gitout." Guiteau left the community twice, the first to start a Oneida religion newspaper, which failed, and the second just to get away from Noyes and his followers. Guiteau subsequently tried to sue Noyes, as he felt Noyes owed him tons of back pay for all the work he did during the five years he was at the community. Suffice to say that nothing ever came of it, and Poppa Guiteau sent a bunch of letters to Noyes apologizing for his son, calling him "irresponsible and insane."

Guiteau traveled around until he realized what his true calling was: practicing law. Though he was completely underqualified for being a lawyer, Guiteau got extremely lucky when he got an easy entrance exam that consisted of only three questions, two of which he answered correctly. He opened his own firm in Chicago and basically acted as a bill collector, only going to court a few times. But in those times he was in court he was quite the spectacle. Either he would be wholly unprepared for his cases or wouldn't even address his client's charges, instead deciding to give lectures on religion and philosophy. His clients were not happy. After basically getting run out on a rail, he decided to try his hand at theology. He printed out a pamphlet that was basically word for word Noyes' work and would distribute it at the random towns that he visited. Few would show up to his advertised sermons and began to heckle him after only hearing a few sentences. Guiteau was not doing too well.

Most of Guiteau's family had deserted him. His father was done trying to keep his son from making a fool of himself and even his big sister, whom had raised him as if she were his mother, couldn't help feeling that Guiteau needed to be committed. She had loved her brother so much, but judging from his behavior the last couple times he had stayed with her and her husband, he was possibly a danger to those around him. She attempted to have him committed but he took off before they could apprehend him. Everyone around Guiteau saw how delusional he was, except of course Guiteau himself. Guiteau perhaps went completely off the deep end when he was a passenger on the SS Stonington. The Stonington had hit the SS Narragansett due to a heavy fog, leading to the SS Narragansett to first burn, then sink. The Stonington, however, was able to make it back to port with no loss of life. Guiteau felt that he had been spared by God; meant for a divine purpose that he didn't know yet. This part of the story is always a little funny to me, since Guiteau was on the ship that had no casualties at all and didn't sink, yet he found himself lucky to be alive and basically thought himself marked by God as a person what would carry out his will.

With this new delusion, Guiteau turned to politics. Guiteau wrote a pamphlet titled "Grant vs. Hancock" about the upcoming election in 1880. Guiteau meant the pamphlet to voice his support for the Republican candidate Ulysses S. Grant, who had already served two terms and now was trying for a non-consecutive third. There was only one problem with Guiteau's pamphlet: it had the wrong Republican candidate. Guiteau, like many others in the U.S. thought that former President and Union General Ulysses S. Grant was a shoe in for the nomination. However, much to everyone's surprise, Garfield included, James A. Garfield secured the Republican nomination. This was very interesting considering that Garfield had never wanted to be president. He considered the congressmen who devoted their lives to being president as becoming shells of their former self. Many had been ruined by the fight for the white house, and Garfield wasn't going to be one of them. Garfield did speak at the Republican convention however, though it was for support of John Sherman, brother of William Tecumseh Sherman, for president. Garfield's speech to the delegates caused many to consider Garfield a great compromise candidate. The convention had held thirty-six ballots to finally decide the winner, which fell to Garfield since nobody seemed to want to give enough votes to anyone else. Garfield protested the whole time, but saw his nomination coming towards him like a speeding train.

Now that the reluctant nominee was in the official running and not Grant, Guiteau had to change his pamphlet. In the end, he only changed the name, nothing more. Luckily for Guiteau, Winfield Scott Hancock was a shoe in for the Democratic nomination. Guiteau passed his pamphlets out to anyone he could, but only gave a speech supporting Garfield twice. When Garfield won, Guiteau felt that he was the one who had won the election for Garfield, that his pamphlet had swayed the masses and decisively won it for the Republicans. For this service, he asked the Garfield administration for an ambassadorship. Ambassador to Vienna! That's it! No, wait! Paris is way better! He was rejected several times, and finally told to never return by Secretary of State James G. Blaine.

OK, so I know what you're thinking. Why would this joker even bother asking the President for a job? Well, this was because of a little thing called the spoils system, or patronage. The spoils system is basically where candidates have their friends raise money for them and in return, the friends get a job in the new administration! That is, if that candidate wins. The spoils system had been around since Jackson and to say the least, its caused some problems. Remember Grant's presidency? People talk a lot about how corrupt his cabinet and administration was. Well, you can blame the spoils system for that. Grant filled all the spots in the white house with his friends who gave him campaign money. Too bad they were greedy idiots who didn't know anything about their jobs. Things did not go well for Grant in that respect. Nevertheless, there was a whole group in the Republican party that believed that the spoils system was the only way to go. They were called the Stalwarts. The other side of the Republican party was moderates, or as they were affectionately called, "Half-Breeds." The two sides hated each other, which doesn't spell success in the long run. However, with moderate Garfield getting Stalwart Chester A. Arthur the Republicans somehow pulled it off. Even though Garfield didn't believe in the spoils system, instead believing that they needed civil service reform, people still lined up at the White House demanding jobs for the money they gave or the work they put in for the campaign.

This was the last straw for Guiteau. All he wanted was some recognition for all the hard(?) work he had done. Something snapped in Guiteau's head and he decided he had to do something drastic. He was going to be remembered by everyone, even if it wasn't for his law business, or religious and political speeches. So, he went out and bought a handgun. Guiteau wanted to buy the revolver with the ivory handle, as it would look nice in a glass case at a museum exhibit, but couldn't afford it. Guiteau then went about learning how to shoot a gun, and stalking Garfield. Guiteau was ready to kill the president at any time, but needed the perfect moment. He had the chance at a train station while Garfield was seeing his wife Lucretia off, but Guiteau had known that Lucretia was not feeling well and didn't want the assassination to upset her any further. Oh how thoughtful of him!

Guiteau couldn't wait forever though, and finally decided to wait around at the same train station on July 2nd, 1881. Mind you, this is less than four months since Garfield was sworn in. Guiteau paced inside the train station and even got his shoes shined waiting for Garfield to show up. Garfield was excited that he was finally going to be able to join his wife, as they were going to spend some time at a beach resort in New Jersey. Finally seeing Garfield and James G. Blaine walking through the train station, Guiteau stepped out into the open railroad station and shot Garfield twice in the back, the second shot piercing his first lumbar vertebra but missing the spinal cord. After shooting Garfield, Guiteau yelled out, "I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts...Arthur is now President!" Guiteau quickly made his way to one of the many exits as panic ensued, but was quickly apprehended by a security guard who was surprised that Guiteau didn't put up any fight.

Garfield survived for months before dying of inections, most likely due to his doctors not using clean medical tools or washing their hands. Many modern doctors find that if sterile medical tools were used, Garfield would have made a full recovery. Incidentally, the use of sterile medical tools became commonplace just ten years later. Way to go, people. Guiteau sat in jail until September when he finally went on trial for the murder. Guiteau, feeling that he could defend himself better than any "high profile lawyer" wanted to represent himself. He didn't get his wish. His lawyers came up with a pretty good idea though, that actually could keep him from being put to death: the insanity plea. In fact, this was the first high profile case that had a person using the insanity plea. The defense even had a doctor come in to diagnose Guiteau, whom he found to have always been crazy, possibly from "a congenital malformation of the brain." Of course, the prosecution called shenanigans on the insanity plea and claimed that Guiteau had just wanted to get famous.

The case dominated the news, mainly because of the behavior of Guiteau inside the courtroom. Guiteau would constantly insulted the judge, jury, witnesses, the prosecution, and even his defense team. Good strategy! He would often speak in epic poems and even soliciting legal advice from random spectators in the audience via passed notes. He dictated his autobiography, ending it with a personal ad for "a nice Christian lady under 30 years old." Guiteau was completely oblivious to the fact that everyone in America hated him. Even after almost getting assassinated twice, he would still wave happily to spectators and reporters, seeming to be very happy that he was finally in the spotlight. Guiteau even sent Chester A. Arthur a letter telling him that Arthur should let him go since Guiteau had just given him a pay raise. The funny thing is, Guiteau knew that he didn't actually kill Garfield in the end, the doctors did. He brought up this fact in his trial, but it didn't have any legal support. Guiteau was so sure that he was going to be let go that he planned to go on a lecture tour and run for president in 1884. Good luck, buddy! Guiteau was eventually found guilty and sentenced to death. Upon hearing this, Guiteau stood up and shouted at the jury, "You are all low, consummate jackasses!"

Guiteau appealed his conviction but was denied and was hanged on June 30th, 1882, only two days before the anniversary of the assassination. Guiteau was said to be happy till the very end, smiling and waving to everyone and dancing on his way to the gallows. He recited a poem he had written called, "I am Going to the Lordy," and requested that an orchestra play during his reading of the poem. The request was denied. Guiteau is officially the longest living assassin of a president, living almost a whole year after the murder. What was the outcome of Guiteau's story? Well, the usually Stalwart Chester A. Arthur decided to change his tune because of public opinion of the spoils system. Arthur passed the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act of 1883 which stated that people could only be given jobs if they passed a test proving they were qualified for the position.

No comments:

Post a Comment