Murder Trial of Assassin Charles Guiteau

Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President Garfield, was put on trial for murder, commencing November 14, 1881.  (Garfield had died two months earlier - on the 19th of September.)

The facts of the shooting were never in doubt.  The real issue was whether Guiteau was insane at the time he pulled the trigger.

It was not easy to select the group of people who would decide Guiteau's fate.  Many potential jurors already had their minds made up. 

Charles Rosenberg - in The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau: Psychiatry and the Law in the Gilded Age - tells us what some of the prospective jurors said after they were asked whether they could be fair and impartial:

Unwilling to serve as jurors in what promised to be a long trial, most members of the panel felt no hesitancy in expressing their hostility toward the prisoner.  One John Lynch - apparently his real name - answered, for example, "I think he ought to be hung or burnt or something else . . . I don't think there is any evidence in the United States to convince me any other way."

Joshua Green simply answered that "I think he ought to be hung; that is all I think."

Jacob Boll was dismissed when he too explained that he would listen to no evidence - "nothing save the rope."

Again and again such replies disqualified and on the first day only five jurors were accepted, on the second only four, and this despite the calling of a panel almost three times as large as that available for the first day.  (See Rosenberg, page 114.)

Harper's Weekly, which ran a story on the case in its December 10, 1881 issue - including a cartoon of Guiteau - provides more detail about the sensational trial:

It was a major story in the national press, and the courtroom was packed to overflowing with journalists and curious onlookers.  Because competition for space was so keen, people brought picnic baskets rather than take a lunch break outside the courtroom. 

When Judge Walter Cox refused to allow Guiteau to read an opening statement, the accused handed it to the press.  The document emphasized medical malpractice, not the gunshots, as the cause of Garfield’s death, and appealed for competent legal counsel. 

Guiteau also wrote to President Arthur - "My Supposed Friend" - to seek his intervention "to tell the Prosecuting Attorneys to go very slow."  Arthur did not respond to Guiteau, but replied later to a formal set of questions from the defense attorney. 

Throughout the trial, Guiteau continually interrupted his lawyers, the prosecutors, and the judge.

The jury found Guiteau guilty.  His punishment was death by hanging, and he was executed on June 30, 1882.

For online illustrations from the trial, see Rosenberg at page 110 (and following).

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Author: Carole D. Bos, J.D. 5190stories and lessons created

Original Release: Oct 07, 2013

Updated Last Revision: Feb 25, 2020

Media Credits

Quoted passage from Harper's Weekly and its explanation of the cartoon "From Grave to Gay."

Clip from "Assassinations that Changed the World"(1996), produced by the History Channel, featuring Lee Davis (author of 20 Assassinations that Changed the World).  Clip online, courtesy the History Channel. 


To cite this story (For MLA citation guidance see easybib or OWL ):

"Murder Trial of Assassin Charles Guiteau" AwesomeStories.com. Oct 07, 2013. Feb 25, 2020.
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