Garfield's White House portrait.

Garfield's White House portrait.

The Man Who Killed a President Over a Political Appointment

Charles Guiteau assassinated James Garfield in 1881. But, why?

Walk­ing in­to the main ex­hib­it hall of the Müt­ter mu­seum in Phil­adelphia is like en­ter­ing a mauso­leum. The re­mains of the de­par­ted are en­cased in its walls, but in­stead of marble name­plates ob­scur­ing the view, glass panes al­low vis­it­ors to look in and mar­vel. Each spe­ci­men tells a story of a life not nor­mal: From the skel­et­on of a man whose muscles turned to bone, to the world’s largest hu­man colon (it looks like a gnarly root of an oak tree), and the at­tached liv­ers of con­joined twins. All found their way here through dona­tion or be­cause doc­tors of yore would take souven­irs from their autop­sies. I’ve come to check out one spe­ci­men in par­tic­u­lar.

“These are all my brains,” cur­at­or Anna Dhody says, scan­ning a shelf in the mu­seum’s cel­lar. We’re in the wet spe­ci­men room, a re­stric­ted area that re­sembles a walk-in pantry from hell. Cold like a gro­cer’s freez­er aisle, its shelves are crammed with jars of as­sor­ted hu­man vis­cera shin­ing sickly un­der fluor­es­cent light­ing. “The­or­et­ic­ally he should be here with all my brains,” she says. A few beats pass in si­lence. “Ahh, here we go.”

Next to a shal­low dish of knee­caps, that’s where we find it—“Charlie,” as Dhody calls him.  (Ten years cur­at­ing a mu­seum of med­ic­al oddit­ies and you too will be on first-name basis with the spe­ci­mens, she says.)

In a slender jar, sev­er­al sec­tions of cen­tury-plus-old brain float—like mar­in­ated ar­tichokes in a jar—in a solu­tion of 70 per­cent al­co­hol and 30 per­cent wa­ter. A la­bel reads: “Por­tions of brain of Charles Guiteau, as­sas­sin of Pres­id­ent Gar­field.”

The brain of Charles Guiteau is more than an his­tor­ic­al oddity. Sci­ent­ists at the time of his death thought it could un­lock a mys­tery that had plagued and ter­ror­ized hu­man­ity from the be­gin­ning: What sep­ar­ates a nor­mal man who lives by the law from a man mo­tiv­ated sense­lessly to murder? Guiteau’s mur­der­ous act, his ap­par­ent in­san­ity, and the en­su­ing dia­gnos­is of his brain came at a point in his­tory where so­ci­ety was shift­ing away from the idea of sin be­ing a black and white ques­tion, to one where we re­cog­nize there’s a great field of gray ob­scur­ing these an­swers.

One hun­dred thirty years ago, those pieces of gray mat­ter resided in the body of a five-foot-five man with a crooked smile and a damned des­tiny.

Charles Guiteau, born Septem­ber 8, 1841 in Free­port Illinois, was, by all ac­counts, not a stable per­son. Guiteau bounced around from be­ing a failed law­yer, a char­lat­an preach­er, and a sticky fingered bill col­lect­or. He dodged rent his whole life, and sub­sided mainly from the sym­pathy of his sis­ter. He ab­used his wife, and when he wanted to di­vorce her, he slept with a pros­ti­tute to speed up the pro­ceed­ings. Guiteau was quick to jump on band­wag­ons, just to aban­don them in a fury. Like that time he joined the in­fam­ous Oneida com­munity, a uto­pi­an-re­li­gious (and sex) com­mune in up­state New York. Guiteau wor­shipped its lead­er John Noyes—”I have per­fect, en­tire and ab­so­lute con­fid­ence in him in all things,” Guiteau wrote of him—be­fore flee­ing (twice) and threat­en­ing Noyes with black­mail. Guiteau would later pla­gi­ar­ize Noyes’s writ­ings as his own.  

By 1875, Guiteau’s fath­er thought his son had been pos­sessed by the dev­il. His sis­ter’s phys­i­cian had de­clared him in­sane after he threatened her with an axe. Even Noyes—a man who prac­ticed a life of free-love polyamor­ism, and preached that Je­sus had re­turned to Earth in the year 70 A.D.—later wrote pro­sec­utors that “Guiteau’s in­san­ity had al­ways con­sisted of vi­cious and ir­re­spons­ible habits.”

As he aged, Guiteau in­creas­ingly felt the di­vine dic­tat­ing his ac­tions. “Like Paul, he had been chosen to preach a new Gos­pel,” The Tri­al of the As­sas­sin Guiteaua 1968 his­tory of the case, ex­plains of his men­tal state.

Guiteau was crazy by many ac­counts, but not de­bil­it­at­ingly so. Ac­quaint­ances of­ten mis­took him for an ec­cent­ric. He was able to make it through life without be­ing picked up by po­lice or re­strained in asylum.

That was, un­til 1880, when the voices in­side his head led him to the Grand Old Re­pub­lic­an party.

Cartoon showing Charles J. Guiteau holding pistol and paper reading, "an office or your life!" published in the satyric magazine Puck.  LIBRARY OF CONGRESS


Be­fore Guiteau murdered Gar­field, he was a die-hard sup­port­er. In the lead up to the 1880 elec­tion, Guiteau would haunt Re­pub­lic­an party of­fices, beg­ging to con­trib­ute to the elec­tion ef­fort. He was re­lent­less, and party of­fi­cials caved and al­lowed him to de­liv­er one in­co­her­ent speech to a small group of black voters in New York City.

The con­tri­bu­tion was min­im­al, but in Guiteau’s mind, “It was this idea that elec­ted Gen­er­al Gar­field,” he wrote. And what should be his re­ward? A cushy European dip­lo­mat­ic post. First, he thought Vi­enna. No: only Par­is would do.

After the elec­tion, Guiteau moved to Wash­ing­ton to col­lect his ima­gined prize. These were the days when any or­din­ary cit­izen could pay vis­its to of­fi­cials. Guiteau roamed the halls of the State De­part­ment and White House, im­plor­ing any­one who would listen that he de­served a dip­lo­mat­ic post.

Mean­while, he was wast­ing away. The Tri­al of the As­sas­sin Guiteau de­scribes his state:

He had no source of in­come, no lec­tur­ing, no books to sell, no bills to col­lect; he had no fam­ily; he nev­er had any friends. His clothes, shabby enough when he reached Wash­ing­ton, were de­teri­or­at­ing. Even in March, with snow on the ground, he went about without boots or an over­coat. By June, his worn sleeves were pulled down over his hands and his coat buttoned up to his neck, for he had no col­lar and pos­sibly lacked a shirt as well.

The words stung, and set Guiteau off on a bizarre chain of lo­gic which would res­ult in his de­mise. Blaine was a men­ace to the Re­pub­lic­an party. To get rid of Blaine, he reasoned, he had to kill the pres­id­ent. After all, it was Gar­field’s fault that such a man served in the State De­part­ment. Guiteau heard these in­struc­tions from God him­self. It wouldn’t be an as­sas­sin­a­tion, but a di­vinely or­dained “re­mov­al.” The plan was es­sen­tially motive­less, as the the death of the pres­id­ent wouldn’t stand to be­ne­fit Guiteau or any Re­pub­lic­an. “In the pres­id­ent’s mad­ness he has wrecked the once grand old Re­pub­lic­an party; and for this he dies,” Guiteau wrote in a let­ter of ad­mis­sion.

After weeks of care­ful stalk­ing, Guiteau shot Gar­field, twice, at the Bal­timore and Ohio train de­pot in D.C. Upon be­ing shot Gar­field said “I am a dead man.” He’d lay in agony for 80 more days be­fore that as­ser­tion be­came true.

Guiteau nev­er really had a shot of go­ing free in tri­al. He was the most hated man in Amer­ica, and the only per­son to come to his de­fense with his broth­er-in-law, an at­tor­ney with very little courtroom ex­per­i­ence.  Dur­ing the tri­al, Guiteau—who served as his own co-coun­sel—would shout ob­scen­it­ies and broke out in­to song on one oc­ca­sion. He also de­clared “The doc­tors killed Gar­field, I just shot him.” (Which soun­ded crazy at the time, but ac­tu­ally has some truth to it. “His doc­tors were ‘the best doc­tors’ mean­ing old school,” Dhody ex­plains. “They had trained be­fore the the­ory of an­ti­sepsis, so they were not tak­ing the ne­ces­sary pre­cau­tions, they were not ster­il­iz­ing in­stru­ments they were not ster­il­iz­ing hands.” They also be­lieved a per­son could be fed rectally, and would give Gar­field reg­u­lar beef broth en­emas. Gar­field died many pounds thin­ner and riddled with in­fec­tion.)

The tri­al be­came less about Guiteau’s guilt or in­no­cence, and more of a battle­ground for the day’s lead­ing men­tal health re­search­ers to de­bate a deep, dark ques­tion that stretched bey­ond the sad cir­cum­stances of the ac­cused’s life: What was wrong with Guiteau and crim­in­als like him?

The me­dia covered the case in a sim­il­ar fer­vor as, many years later, it would the O.J. tri­al. Each day news­pa­pers would pub­lish tran­scripts of the pro­ceed­ings. On the first day of the tri­al, the courtroom was packed, stand­ing room only, with more wait­ing out­side. This was the biggest stage pos­sible for phys­i­cians work­ing in the murky sci­ence of the mind. “No single prob­lem di­vided Amer­ic­an psy­chi­at­rists more sharply than the prop­er defin­i­tion of crim­in­al re­spons­ib­il­ity,” Rosen­berg writes in The Tri­al.  

On tri­al with Guiteau were two the­or­ies of culp­ab­il­ity.

The one sup­por­ted by the pro­sec­u­tion was called the M’naght­en test, which stip­u­lated that if the ac­cused simply knew the dif­fer­ence between right and wrong, he could be held ac­count­able for his ac­tions. Guiteau was in­tel­li­gent enough to know that murder was a crime, and there­fore should be sen­tenced. Maybe it was a life of sin that led him to his con­sist­ent er­rat­ic be­ha­vi­or, the pro­sec­u­tion ad­mit­ted. But like an al­co­hol­ic tak­ing a first swig, that was on Guiteau. In the mind of John Gray, the su­per­in­tend­ent of the Utica State Hos­pit­al and the chief med­ic­al wit­ness of the pro­sec­u­tion, Guiteau was simply a de­praved in­di­vidu­al. “I see noth­ing but a life of mor­al de­grad­a­tion, mor­al ob­liquity, pro­found selfish­ness, and dis­reg­ard for the rights of oth­ers,” Gray said at tri­al. “I see no evid­ence of in­san­ity, but simply a life swayed by his own pas­sions.”

The de­fense’s phys­i­cians pro­posed a much more rad­ic­al the­ory: That even though some people may know the dif­fer­ence between right and wrong, they aren’t cap­able of pro­cessing real­ity. Ed­ward Charles Spitzka, a cocky 30-year-old who was a fierce op­pon­ent of the M’naght­en rule, test­i­fied on Guiteau’s be­half.

Spitzka agreed with Gray: Yes, Guiteau had lived an im­mor­al life. But in Spitzka’s view, Guiteau suffered from a men­tal con­di­tion that pre­ven­ted him from un­der­stand­ing mor­al­ity in the first place. He called this mor­al in­san­ity—something we might re­gard today as so­ciopathy—which he de­scribed as “a per­son who is born with so de­fect­ive a nervous or­gan­iz­a­tion that he is al­to­geth­er de­prived of that mor­al sense.”

To Spitzka, Guiteau’s con­di­tion was “ana­log­ous in that re­spect to the con­gen­it­al cripple who is born speech­less, or with one leg short­er than the oth­er, or with any oth­er mon­strous de­vel­op­ment, that we now and again see.” These poor souls should be pit­ied. Throughout the tri­al, Guiteau be­lieved that the Amer­ic­an people and the newly sworn in Pres­id­ent Chester Ar­thur would rally to his side, real­iz­ing Guiteau was an in­stru­ment of the di­vine. How is that based in any un­der­stand­ing of real­ity?

“When people brought up the no­tion of mor­al in­san­ity, it was a way of broad­en­ing the no­tion of ‘what is a le­git­im­ate ill­ness,’” Rosen­berg says on re­cent phone call. “And it was say­ing, in ef­fect, that you could be seem­ingly ra­tion­al [but still men­tally ill]—cog­ni­tion was not enough of a test of health. Of course to many people that was sub­vers­ive. It pushed the bound­ar­ies of what you could be held re­spons­ible for.”

Spitzka be­lieved that this mor­al in­san­ity was the res­ult of a de­form­ity in Guiteau’s brain, which he likely ac­quired through hered­ity. If only doc­tors could open him up, they’d plainly be able to see the dif­fer­ence.

Doc­tors did open him up. That is, after he was found guilty and sen­tenced to hang from a noose un­til dead. The chance to autopsy an in­fam­ous crim­in­al was ir­res­ist­ible to top doc­tors at the time. “You had all these il­lus­tri­ous, well known phys­i­cians, they all wanted to get their hands on his body, be­cause they wanted to be the one who could say ‘hey, this is what did it,’” Dhody says. “They were try­ing to find any vis­ible, phys­ic­al reas­on for why he did what he did.” One of the ex­am­iners was a fel­low at the col­lege that runs the Müt­ter mu­seum, which is why “Charlie” is in its col­lec­tion.

The autopsy didn’t com­pletely vin­dic­ate Spitzka’s ideas, but it did lend them some evid­ence. “Sev­er­al med­ic­al journ­als, pre­vi­ously hos­tile to any sug­ges­tion that the as­sas­sin might have been in­sane, now re­versed their po­s­i­tion” after the autopsy, Rosen­berg wrote.

The autopsy hin­ted that Guiteau may have con­trac­ted syph­il­is dur­ing one of his en­coun­ters with pros­ti­tutes. In its later stages, syph­il­is in­fects the brain and causes men­tal in­stabil­ity. “The dura ma­ter that sur­roun­ded his brain was thick­er than nor­mal, that is some­times a char­ac­ter­ist­ic of neur­osyph­il­is,” Dhody says. The autopsy also found dam­age to blood ves­sels in sev­er­al areas.

But that dia­gnos­is doesn’t hold up un­der mod­ern-day scru­tiny. George Paulson is the former chair of Neur­o­logy at the Ohio State Uni­versity who, in 2006, re­viewed the autopsy re­cords for the journ­al His­tor­ic­al Neur­os­cience. Look­ing back, he says, the evid­ence for neur­osyph­il­is is in­con­clus­ive. “Most people with third stage syph­il­is—even though they can be gran­di­ose and para­noid and get de­men­ted, usu­ally it doesn’t hang on slowly for four or five years,” Paulson says. There’s usu­ally a dra­mat­ic loss of cog­nit­ive func­tion, he says. Guiteau was crazy for dec­ades. Doc­tors now could def­in­itely prove wheth­er he had syph­il­is post-mortem, Paulson says, but not in the 1880s. It’s more likely Guiteau was schizo­phren­ic, with a side of gran­di­ose nar­ciss­ism.

The law likes hard rules, which men­tal health avoids. We can all know crazy when we see it, but the line between a culp­able mind and an in­sane one isn’t so eas­ily drawn. These events oc­curred more than 13 dec­ades ago, but sim­il­ar dra­mas play out in courtrooms every year. Who of sound mind could act like James Holmes, who know­ingly and without much reas­on opened fire in a crowded Col­or­ado theat­er? His in­san­ity plea was re­jec­ted by a jury, though he was spared a death sen­tence. “In a way [dia­gnos­is] makes it simple, but it doesn’t make the so­cial pro­cess about ‘what do you do about the guy’ simple,” Rosen­berg says.

Guiteau willed his body to a loc­al min­is­ter who felt some sym­pathy for him, on the con­di­tion that he would re­ceive a prop­er buri­al. Grave rob­bing, es­pe­cially of the no­tori­ous, wasn’t un­pre­ced­en­ted. A secret graves­ite was se­lec­ted in the sub cel­lar of the Army jail. A 1890 New York Times in­vest­ig­a­tion re­calls what happened next. “The body lay there un­dis­turbed for a few days… It had been ce­men­ted in­to its rest­ing place, and the stone flags covered it so that is was pro­foundly hid­den.” But “un­known and mys­ter­i­ous men were con­stantly prowl­ing around.” Pris­on of­fi­cials feared that a guard or con­vict may ex­hume Guiteau and sell his body.

So Guiteau’s body was dug up by the au­thor­it­ies in secret. It was boiled in a chem­ic­al solu­tion and re­duced to a skel­et­on. “Upon the skull,” the Times re­called, one could still see Guiteau’s “sar­don­ic leer.” The re­mains were boxed up, “and, without ce­re­mony or fresh ser­vice, put away.”

The Müt­ter mu­seum has an­oth­er fam­ous brain in it’s col­lec­tion: Al­bert Ein­stein’s. In the main col­lec­tion room, a slice of his cauli­flower-shaped cra­ni­al tis­sue is moun­ted on a slide un­der a mag­ni­fy­ing glass.

Sci­ent­ists have been spec­u­lat­ing for years what might have been dif­fer­ent about it, what clues it holds to the secret of his sin­gu­lar geni­us. Most ap­par­ent was that is showed few signs of the neuro­de­gen­er­a­tion that come with aging. His autopsy also noted that his brain lacked a sylvi­an fis­sure, which may have al­lowed for in­creased neur­o­lo­gic­al con­nec­tions across his mind. But for the most part, it was a nor­mal brain. Even a  little light­er than av­er­age.

What in the brain sep­ar­ates a man like Ein­stein from a man like Guiteau is not al­ways pos­sible to dis­cern post-mortem. Geni­us or psy­chos­is can only be seen in life. “In so many cases, you have these in­cred­ibly men­tally ill people but the brain is not phys­ic­ally dif­fer­ent upon gross ex­am­in­a­tion,” Dhody says. “That’s why study­ing the brain is much easi­er to do on liv­ing in­di­vidu­als than on dead; a dead brain is a dead brain. It’s stat­ic—all the elec­tri­city, all the spark is gone.”   

I think of that, star­ing in­to the glass jar with Guiteau’s brain. It’s just dead mat­ter. The scaf­fold­ing of a house, not its con­tents. I take out my cam­era and start to take pic­tures.

“He would have loved this,” Dhody says, as I start, try­ing to cap­ture his best angles.