German puff and the insanity plea

Special to The Ellsworth American

For a few years, the Oneida Community in upstate New York was the home of a notorious assassin whose trial was the first well-known application of the insanity defense in the United States. Charles J. Guiteau (1841-1882) joined the Oneida religious community because his father was a loyal member. The narrative of his relationship with the community was an ominous foreshadowing of his delusional thinking about President Garfield.

Guiteau was born in Illinois in 1841. His mother died when he was 7, and his older sister Frances (later Frances Scoville) took care of him. Charles was slow to learn to talk but was clearly intelligent. As a young man, he had trouble fitting in anywhere; people found him narcissistic with rapid mood swings and grandiose ideas about himself.

Guiteau made several unsuccessful attempts to launch a career. His brother-in-law, George Scoville, hired him as a law clerk. He would start a job with great enthusiasm but would soon lose interest in routine tasks and would express his opinion that he was too important to be wasted on mundane work. He worked as a bill collector but spent brief stints in jail for stealing legal fees.

When he moved into the Oneida Community in 1860, Charles was initially impressed by the founder, John H. Noyes, but became disillusioned and angry when he was not made a leader or treated as someone with great spiritual potential. Though he had received some compensation after he left the community, he unsuccessfully sued Noyes and the community in 1867 to pay him for his labor. He then tried to blackmail the community, but Noyes responded that they had ample evidence to sue him for extortion.

Charles’s delusions about his spiritual greatness were matched by his delusions about his importance to James Garfield’s campaign for the presidency. Guiteau delivered a trite speech in support of Garfield to a couple of small groups. He soon convinced himself that James Garfield owed his election to his efforts. Repeatedly, Guiteau tried to see President Garfield and plagued Secretary of State James Blaine with his demands to be made a consul or ambassador to Paris or Vienna, despite his lack of qualifications.

Under the patronage system then in effect, congressmen and senators of the president-elect’s political party customarily picked some of the candidates for high-level government positions. These candidates were then expected to contribute to their patron’s political party. Garfield resisted making some of the appointments demanded by Republican Senator Roscoe Conkling, who opposed any reform of the spoils system that rewarded supporters with political appointments. Charles, a Republican, thought that he, like other disgruntled Republicans, was entitled to high office as well.

From feelings of resentment and entitlement, Charles’s mental state gradually evolved to a conviction that God had commanded him to eliminate President Garfield for the good of the American people. He bought a pearl-handled pistol that he thought would look good in a museum exhibit. For several weeks he stalked Garfield, who had no security detail. He finally fired two shots at the President at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, D.C., on July 2, 1881. One shot grazed Garfield’s arm, the other lodged in his back. For 80 days, the President lingered before he died of sepsis and bronchial pneumonia.

Charles was arrested immediately. His long-suffering brother-in-law, George Scoville, defended him along with a court-appointed attorney who quit and was replaced. The defendant was an uncooperative client who insulted his defense team, sang, shouted and recited poetry or read the newspaper during his trial. The prosecution did not have to disprove his mental illness, merely his intention when he pulled the trigger and his awareness of the legal and moral wrong he was inflicting.

Merry Post

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