Delusions of Grandeur
July 2, 1881: Charles Julius Guiteau fires two shots. He was born in Freeport, Illinois in 1841, the fourth of six children born into a family of French Huguenots. His mother died when he was a teenager. He inherited $1000 from his grandfather and tried to go to the University of Michigan but failed the entrance examinations. He did remedial work in French and algebra, but was still unable to get into college. He gave up trying in June 1860 and moved to the Oneida Community in New York where his father had close ties. Although the community was supposed to be accepting, he spent five years there without ever truly fitting in and was called Charles Gitout. He left twice, but was unsuccessful in the larger world as well, and so returned. The group’s founder, John Noyes, considered Charles insane.
Charles tried his hand at newspapering, the law, and then book writing after publishing a book almost entirely plagiarized from Noyes’s work. He was involved in a shipwreck and no one on his ship was injured, but he felt his survival was a sign from God that he was destined for great things. He turned to politics and wrote a speech in support of Ulysses S Grant called “Grant vs. Hancock” but when James Garfield won the Republican nomination, he kept the speech the same but changed the title to “Garfield vs. Hancock”. He gave the speech a few times and after Garfield was elected, was sure that due to his great influence on the electoral process, he would be made an ambassador. First Charles asked for Vienna and then opted for Paris. He was not accommodated.
Charles borrowed $15 and purchased a revolver. He knew little about guns but purchased a large caliber handgun with ivory grips so it would look good when displayed later. He spent weeks practicing shooting and stalking the President. On this day, Charles shot Garfield twice from behind. One bullet shattered a lumbar vertebra but did not strike the spinal cord. Garfield survived the initial assault but eventually died of infection exacerbated by the treatments of the day which did not include sterile techniques. He died on September 19, 1881 and Charles was charged with murder. The trial began on November 14, 1881.
Charles’s behavior throughout the trial was bizarre. His legal team used, despite Charles’s request they not, the insanity defense. Charles loved being the center of attention and acted out, swearing at everyone in the courtroom from the judge to his own defense team. He gave his testimony in the form of an epic poem. He was sure that Chester Arthur would pardon him and he would be rewarded for his part in Arthur’s new job. Charles was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang. He danced his way to the gallows, waving gaily to the assembled crowd. He read a poem before the hood was lowered over his head although the orchestral background music was denied to him. He died on June 30, 1982 happy to be famous.
I am a Stalwart [political philosophy] of the Stalwarts. … [Chester A.] Arthur is president now! – Charles Guiteau, as he surrendered to authorities on this date
Guiteau is not only now insane, but that he was never anything else. – Dr. Edward Spitzka, expert witness
He’s no more insane than I am. There’s nothing of the mad about Guiteau: he’s a cool, calculating blackguard, a polished ruffian, who has gradually prepared himself to pose in this way before the world. He was a deadbeat, pure and simple. Finally, he got tired of the monotony of deadbeating. He wanted excitement of some other kind and notoriety, and he got it. – George Corkhill – District attorney for District of Columbia
The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him. – Charles Guiteau, at his trial
Also on this day: We Believe Good … Works – In 1962, the first Wal-Mart opened.
Did He See It Coming? – In 1566, Nostradamus died.
Lawnchair Larry – In 1982, Larry Walters flew a lawn chair into history.
Mighty Mississippi – In 1679, Daniel Graysolon, Sieur Du Luth reached the headwaters of the Mississippi River.
Lighter Than Air – In 1900, Zeppelin’s contraption flew.