November 14, 1881 – Charles Guiteau Went on Trial for the Assassination of President James A. Garfield

On this date, the trial began for Charles Guiteau, who shot President Garfield on July 2, 1881. Guiteau had been seeking a diplomatic appointment by Garfield, bombarding the White House and State Department with visits and letters. In May, Secretary of State William Blaine reportedly told Guiteau, “Never bother me again about the Paris consulship so long as you live.”

President Garfield

President Garfield

Guiteau wrote an “Address to the American People,” making the case for Garfield’s assassination, concluding “I leave my justification to God and the American people.” Apparently the American People weren’t buying his story, for the prison, concerned about lynching, moved Guiteau to a brick cell with only a small opening at the top of a bulletproof door. Even the prison guards wanted to kill him.

After the shooting, the president did not die immediately, lingering until September 19, 1881.

Garfield on his deathbed.  Photo from National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology

Garfield on his deathbed. Photo from National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology

The defense had two primary arguments: (1) that Guiteau was legally insane and (2) that the president’s death resulted from medical malpractice, not Guiteau’s shooting. Meanwhile, the prosecution tried to suggest to jurors that what the defense claimed had been evidence of insanity was instead only evidence of sin.

The jury deliberated only an hour and found Guiteau guilty. On June 30, 1882, Guiteau was hanged.

Guiteau’s mental status aside, historians and medical experts today have concluded it was undoubtedly the unsterile conditions of Garfield’s medical treatment that actually resulted in his death. The New York Times reports, for example, that “at least a dozen medical experts probed the president’s wound, often with unsterilized metal instruments or bare hands, as was common at the time.” They also quote Dr. Ira Ruthkow, a professor of surgery and a medical historian, as saying “Garfield had such a nonlethal wound. In today’s world, he would have gone home in a matter or two or three days.”

You can learn more about the trial at this UMKC site, here.

The Judge and jury that convicted Guiteau, from UMKC site

The Judge and jury that convicted Guiteau, from UMKC site

You can learn more about the assassination in the award-winning book Destiny of the Republic by Candice Millard.

Book Review Destiny of the Republic

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