Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Charles J. Guiteau


Garfield is shot, drawing
Garfield is shot, drawing

When Garfield was brought back to the White House after the shooting, various doctors swarmed around and offered numerous and conflicting advice on methods to save his life.  Medical practice at the time did not include the hygienic practices of today, and so doctors put their unwashed and ungloved fingers (as well as various unsterilized instruments) into the wound in the president's back in an attempt to find and dig out the bullet.  These doctors consequently caused numerous infections and complications that would ultimately be the reason for Garfield's death in mid-September.

Lucretia Garfield, the first lady
Lucretia Garfield, the first lady

As the president lingered in agony for weeks, Guiteau's imprisonment did nothing to dispel his delusion that he had done something noble and would be applauded by everyone.  As reproduced on the Lauinger Librarys Web site, in the days before the shooting he had drafted a letter that he presumed would be widely published after the deed and would result in his idolization:

To the American People: I conceived the idea of removing the President four weeks ago. Not a soul knew of my purpose. I conceived the idea myself and kept it to myself. I read the newspapers carefully for and against the Administration, and gradually the conviction settled on me that the Presidents removal was a political necessity, because he proved a traitor to the men that made him, and thereby imperiled the life of the Republic. This is not murder. It is a political necessity.

General William T. Sherman
General William T. Sherman

He also wrote to famed General William T. Sherman in a tone one would use to write to a trusted confidante:

I have just shot the President. I shot him several times as I wished him to go as easily as possible. His death was a political necessity. I am a lawyer, theologian, and politician. I am going to the jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the jail at once.

According to Lauinger Librarys Web site, Sherman passed along the letter saying I don't know the writer. Never heard of or saw him to my knowledge.

Guiteau's letter to General Sherman
Guiteau's letter to General Sherman

When Garfield died on September 19, Guiteau was charged with murder and his trial began November 14, 1881.  It could charitably be called a circus and would last for more than six months.

Officially, Guiteau's defense would be headed up by his brother-in-law (Francess husband), George Scoville -- but Guiteau was quite vocal in his dissatisfaction with Scoville and argued loudly with many aspects of Scovilles defense strategy, especially when any attempt to use an insanity defense was put into play.  He also chose to speak directly to the judge, witnesses, and spectators whenever he pleased -- often loudly contradicting testimony or objecting to lines of questioning.

In spite of waves of hate mail flowing into the jail, Guiteau believed his actions had been commanded by God and he would be freed and given the proper praise for his heroic action, once addressing the courtroom spectators:

I (have) had plenty of visitors, high-toned, middle-toned and low-toned people...everybody was glad to see me...they all expressed the opinion without one dissenting voice that I be acquitted.

He would call on his mythical supporters to add to the rapidly shrinking funds that were paying for his defense, even having the audacity to place himself on equal footing with the woman hed recently made a widow:

(I) desire to invite my friends throughout the nation to send me money.  (People have given) Mrs. Garfield $200,000...a splendid thing, a noble thing. Now I want them to give me some money.

Throughout the trial, Guiteau insisted (and technically was correct) that Garfield had died from complications resulting from mistreatment at the hands of the doctors.  He was equally adamant that he could not be held accountable, anyway, since he had been acting for God.

He continually berated Scoville whenever the lawyer didn't go along with his wishes.  The History House quotes just a few of Guiteaus tantrums:

Get off the case, you consummate ass!

I would rather have some ten-year-old boy try this case than you!

You have compromised my case in every move you make!

After months of testimony and countless outbursts from the defendant, the jury adjourned and promptly found him guilty.

The Lauinger Librarys Web site states that despite the reports from several noted doctors who were convinced Guiteau was insane -- and impassioned pleas from his family -- he was executed on June 30, 1882.

He enlightened the hangman and crowds around the scaffold with a muddled and peculiar poem he had written for the occasion -- a final gift for the people who should have revered him.

But the adulation he expected never came, and his name is largely forgotten today.

Shortly after his death he did become the subject of a folk ballad (one of several known versions is below), but it is infrequently performed and rarely recorded, leaving the man who believed himself destined for Great Things to become a footnote in popular history, at best.

Come all you tender Christians, wherever you may be,

And likewise pay attention to these few lines from me.

For the murder of James A. Garfield I am condemned to die,

On the thirtieth day of June, upon the scaffold high.


(Repeating Chorus):

My name is Charles Guiteau -- my name I'll never deny.

I leave my aged parents to sorrow and to die.

But little did I think, while in my youthful bloom,

I'd be going to the scaffold to meet my fatal doom.


'Twas down at the station I tried to make my escape,

But Providence being against me, it proved to be too late.

They took me off to prison while in my youthful bloom,

To be taken to the scaffold to meet my fatal doom.


I tried to play insane but found it wouldn't do,

All people were against me, for escape there was no clue.

Judge Cox, he passed my sentence, his clerk he wrote it down:

I'd be carried to the scaffold to meet my fatal doom.


My sister came to prison, to bid a last farewell.

She threw her arms around me and wept most bitterly.

She said, "My darling brother, this day you must die,

For the murder of James A. Garfield, upon the scaffold high.

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