Guiteau and the Assassination of President Garfield - Summary

Charles Guiteau held a very high opinion of himself. He believed the United States owed him a powerful job and that President James Garfield was personally responsible to make that happen. When it didn’t, he shot the president.

 Immediately after the shooting, Guiteau (who’d previously been institutionalized for mental issues) sent a letter (dated July 2, 1881) to General William Tecumseh Sherman. It said, among other things: “I have just shot the President. I shot him several times, as I wished him to go as easily as possible ... I am going to the jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the jail at once.”

At the time, doctors operated in less-than-sterile conditions, often probing wounds (or searching for bullets) with unwashed fingers and unsterilized devices. A similar situation happened with Garfield (who actually died of a massive infection). Defending himself, Guiteau (an erstwhile lawyer) said he didn’t kill Garfield - the president’s doctors did.

He, and his position, crumbled under a withering cross examination. The jury declared him guilty after deliberating one hour. Sentenced to hang, Guiteau went to the scaffold still convince he’d carried out the will of a higher power.

In this story about Garfield’s assassination, meet the President and his assassin. Take a look at American justice in the nineteenth century. Review key documents (from the Guiteau Collection at Georgetown University) to determine whether Guiteau was insane when he pulled the trigger. See what his autopsy revealed about pathological findings in his brain.

Examine Guiteau’s handwritten letters, including one “To the American People” in which he tells how he “conceived the idea of removing the President.” Discover how Garfield’s wound (initially measuring 3.5 inches) grew to a reported 20 inches (from all the poking and prodding by various physicians). And ... learn where Guiteau’s bullet actually came to rest in the president’s body - and whether that was a survivable injury.

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