The Charles J. Guiteau collection consists of correspondence, affidavits and printed material by and about Guiteau, the notorious attorney who assassinated U.S. President James Abram Garfield on July 2, 1881. The assassination resulted in one of the most celebrated American 'insanity trials' of the nineteenth century, which became something of a legal milestone in the judgement of the criminally insane.
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Charles Julius Guiteau was born on September 8, 1841, in Freeport, Illinois, the fourth of six children of Luther Wilson Guiteau and Jane Howe. The latter died when Charles was quite young, on September 25, 1848. Luther Guiteau then remarried. As a youth, Charles Guiteau worked for his father who was a business man, later elected county clerk, and then employed as a cashier in Freeport's Second National Bank. Luther Guiteau was very much against sending his son to college. However, in 1859, an inheritance from his maternal grandfather, provided Charles with the means to attend the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. If Charles had been discontented with life at home, he was even more unhappy at university. For solace and direction, he turned to the religious doctrines of John Humphrey Noyes, founder of the Oneida Community in New York State in the 1840s, who promulgated a kind of 'Bible communism.' In fact, Luther Guiteau was already a follower of Noyes' teachings. In 1860, Charles Guiteau joined the Oneida Community in New York. Still unhappy, he then left the community on April 3, 1865, when he conceived of the notion that he had been chosen by God to spread Noyes' self-named 'millennial communism' by founding a daily newspaper. Guiteau settled in Hoboken, New Jersey, and attempted to start a paper entitled the 'Daily Theocrat.' This was apparently short lived, for on July 20, 1865, he applied to reenter the Oneida Community. Then, just over a year later, he again quit, and on November 1, 1866, he departed with some money that he had originally consigned to the community. By August 1867, Charles had run out of money. He called upon his brother-in-law, George Scoville, who had married his sister Frances. After the death of their mother, Frances had practically raised her younger brother, and was to provide him often with both moral and financial support throughout his life. Scoville offered Charles a job in his law office in Chicago, as well as a place to live. However, after a few months, the latter quit his position and returned to New York, ostensibly to work for Henry Ward Beecher's newspaper, the 'Independent.' Guiteau was soon disappointed to find that there were no editorial jobs available at the 'Independent,' and he ended up selling subscriptions and advertisements on commission. Increasingly despondent over his prospects, Charles Guiteau conceived of the idea to sue the Oneida Community on a trumped up charge of witholding compensation for the work he professed to have performed under its auspices. For a few months, Guiteau sent threatening letters to Noyes that amounted to blackmail. Eventually, he desisted, when Oneida's own lawyers threatened to prosecute him for extortion and to use his letters against him. In 1868, Guiteau left New York and returned to Chicago. He obtained a job as a clerk in the law offices of General J.S. Reynolds, Sr. and Phelps. He managed to pass the Illinois bar, and set up a small private law office on his own. In 1869, he married Annie Bunn, a librarian at the local Y.M.C.A. that he frequented. Predictably, the union was an unhappy one. Guiteau's business was scanty and disorganized. He was abusive to his wife, reportedly locking her in a closet for whole nights. In 1874 she divorced him, shortly after the couple had moved to New York in the wake of the Chicago fire. The following year, Guiteau's behavior became not merely erratic but bizarre. After failing to obtain the collatoral for another newspaper venture, this time attempting to buy a newspaper called the 'Inter-Ocean,' Guiteau again availed himself of his sister's generosity, moving into the Scoville house for some months. One day, Frances reported that Charles had gone out to chop wood. On passing nearby to him, he suddenly raised the axe at her. Frightened, she ran for the local doctor, who, after examining her brother, declared that she should have him institutionalized. After this incident, Charles Guiteau fled from his sister's house and disappeared. In 1876, he resurfaced, a regular attendant of Dwight Moody's revivalist meetings. From 1877 to 1880, Guiteau himself became an itinerant preacher, writing and disseminating his own sermons. In 1880, Luther Guiteau died. That year, his feckless son turned to politics. Since childhood, Charles Guiteau had been enamored of politics; having been an avid reader of Horace Greeley's 'New York Tribune,' he was an early convert to Republicanism. Later, Guiteau became fired by the Republicans' intraparty conflict between the 'Stalwart' faction led by Roscoe Conkling and the 'Half-Breeds' led by James G. Blaine who supported then president-elect James Abram Garfield. Initially, Guiteau favored the Stalwarts and their attempt to nominate Ulysses S. Grant for a third term. When Garfield was nominated, however, Guiteau changed sides. He soon became a familiar figure stationed outside Republican headquarters on Fifth Avenue in New York City. Here, on August 6, 1880, he delivered his speech, 'Garfield vs. Hancock,' (see Folder 11, printed copy). After Garfield's election, in 1881, Guiteau moved to Washington, D.C., in the hope of an appointment. He bombarded Secretary of State James G. Blaine with letters. Finally, after receiving either rebuff or no response at all, Guiteau again changed sides to the Stalwarts' cause. In mid-May 1881, he conceived the idea to 'remove' the president. On June 16, 1881, he delivered the first of several 'explanations' for his action, an 'Address to the American People,' (see Folder 7, original manuscript). He also wrote a letter to the White House and a similar one to be sent to General William T. Sherman, stating, 'I have just shot the President...His death was a political necessity. I am a lawyer, theologian and politician. I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts...' (see Folder 3, original to Sherman). On July 2, 1881, Charles Guiteau shot President Garfield, once in the arm and once, fatally, in the back, as the latter was about to depart for a vacation from the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station. The shooting occurred in the presence of a small entourage of Garfield's aides, including Secretary Blaine. Guiteau was promptly arrested and remanded to the District of Columbia jail near the Anacostia River. His trial began on November 14, 1881, and did not end until May 22, 1882. A plea of insanity by neurologists, as well as members of the Guiteau family to President Chester A. Arthur, was rejected, and a writ of execution was issued. On June 30, 1882, Charles Guiteau was hanged at the District of Columbia jail.
0.20 Cubic Feet (1 Slim Document Case)
Gift of William Benedict O'Connell, 1945.
Part of the Georgetown University Manuscripts Repository