The Assassination of President James Garfield by the Delusional Charles Guiteau

I couldn’t help myself…I had to share this with you.  I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

“From the studio that brought you Andrew’s Vines, Emmett’s Vines, Checkman, and Golden Boats comes a dramatic retelling of the assassination of President James Garfield in glorious Lego stop motion animation. Directed by Andrew Morin and Produced by Emmett Foss.”


Excerpts from the Guiteau Trial Transcript: Sentencing

Charles J. Guiteau
The Charles Guiteau Trial Sentencing (February 3, 1882)
Judge Cox asked of Guiteau, whether there were any reason why sentence should not be pronounced.
Charles Guiteau:  “I am not guilty of the charge set forth in the indictment.  It was God’s act, not mine, and God will take care of it, and don’t let the American people forget it.  He will take care of it and every officer of the Government, from the Executive down to the Marshall, taking in every man on that jury and every member of this bench will pay for it, and the American nation will roll in blood if my body goes into the ground and I am hung.”
Judge Cox:  “One cannot doubt, that you understood the nature and consequences of your crime or that you had the moral capacity to recognize its iniquity. Your own wretched sophistry, not inspiration overcame the promptings of conscience.  Any error of mine, may be appealed to the supreme court of the District sitting in banc.  At the moment, however, it is my duty to pronounce the sentence of the law that you be taken to the common jail of the District, from whence you came, and be kept in confinement, and on Friday, the 30th of June, 1882, you will be taken to the place prepared for the execution, within the walls of said jail, and there, between the hours of 12 M and 2 P.M., you be hanged by the neck until you are dead. And may the Lord have mercy on your soul.”
Charles Guiteau: “And may God have mercy on your soul, I had rather stand where I am than where the jury does or where your Honor does…. I am not afraid to die… I know where I stand on this business. I am here as God’s man and don’t you forget it. God Almighty will curse every man who has had anything to do with this act.”

Review from the Journal of American Academy of Psychiatry and the Law

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine, and the Murder of a President

By Candice Millard. New York: Doubleday, 2011. 352 pp. $28.95.


The Ballad of Guiteau

Charlie Guiteau

Drew a crowd to his trial,

Led them in prayer,

Said, “I killed Garfield.

I’ll make no denial.

I was just acting

For Someone up there.

The Lord’s my employer,

And now He’s my lawyer,

So do what you dare.”

—from Assassins by Stephen Sondheim1

American presidential assassinations continue to be a source of fascination for various reasons, not the least of which is attempting to understand the mentality of the perpetrator.2 We seem obsessed with reworking scenarios of these lives cut short. Indeed, at the time of this writing, there were current nonfiction books on Presidents Lincoln (Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard) and Kennedy (Jack Kennedy: Elusive Hero by Chris Matthews and Killing Kennedy: The End of Camelot by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard). One author took an “assassination vacation” to shadow places and things associated with these events.3

Bracketed by the murders of Lincoln and Kennedy, those of Garfield and McKinley, too, have their following. The killers and would-bes, as a group, took the stage in Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, a 1990 musical (book by John Weidman).1 Garfield was shot by the pathologically obsessed Charles Guiteau,2,4 and McKinley by anarchist, Leon Czolgosz. Both were tried, convicted, and promptly executed (Guiteau by hanging and Czolgosz by electrocution). The Lincoln and Kennedy assassins, Booth and Oswald, were killed before coming to trial. Whereas Czolgosz refused a defense or even to speak with a psychiatrist, the trial of Guiteau brought out a battle of expert witnesses—a “Who’s Who” of psychiatry.2

President Garfield, an Ohio Republican reluctant to run for president, was in office for a few months before the shooting in Washington, D.C., on July 2, 1881. He died in New Jersey on September 19, 1881, 200 days after taking office. The interlude between the shooting and the president’s death is the central focus of Candice Millard’s book, Destiny of the Republic. In her tale of politics, insanity, and medical bungling, Millard treats us to an insightful and engrossing look at the dynamics between Garfield and Guiteau as well as those among the professionals charged with preserving the president’s life.

Millard’s narrative begins with an eerie prologue: Guiteau survived a steamship collision on Long Island Sound in 1880, exultant because God had chosen him to survive. This is a metaphor for the collision between the future assassin and the soon-to-be president. The destinies of Garfield and Guiteau make a wonderful side-by-side tableau. Vowell considered them “cracked mirror image[s] … Garfield … was everything Guiteau was not” (Ref. 3, p 136).

In the first chapter, Garfield tours the 1876 American Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. Among the wonders of the sprawling show were Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone and the antiseptic surgical technique of Joseph Lister. Bell struggled with broken equipment, and Lister was rebuffed by incredulous Americans. Even the Exposition’s top physician, Samuel Gross, was openly hostile to antisepsis, despite Lister’s claim that it reduced mortality from infection. Later, while Bell labored in vain at Garfield’s bedside to find a bullet, Lister’s technique was nowhere to be found—an irony keenly developed by the author.

In Millard’s sober but entertaining account, we learn that physician William Bliss, not a devotee of Lister’s antiseptic technique, treated Garfield. Bliss was obsessed with locating the bullet that, unknown to him, had come to rest adjacent to the president’s first lumbar vertebra.5 Bell was recruited to locate the bullet with a crude metal detector. Dr. Bliss insisted the bullet was on the right, where it entered, but it was actually on the left, and all the probing only spread infection. The postmortem examination revealed that the bullet had been encapsulated by connective tissue, suggesting that, but for the iatrogenic infections, the president could have survived the gunshot wound.5 And had the doctors heeded their patient’s neurological symptoms, they would not have probed his pelvis continually.5 Guiteau was aware of the physicians’ contribution to Garfield’s demise, but his argument that he had only shot the president was not persuasive at trial, since legal and medical causation were the same.

There is much more to Destiny of the Republic than President Garfield’s medical course. We learn much about Guiteau’s life, his philosophy, and his spirituality. His deific delusions took on a determined concreteness, as he asserted he was “in the employ of Jesus Christ & Co., the very ablest and strongest firm in the universe.” Nevertheless, he was often ridiculed, was expelled from the Oneida (New York) Community, and engaged in shenanigans as a trial lawyer. It comes as no surprise, then, when he set his sights directly on Garfield, whom he saw as an impediment to his own ascension. Millard’s portrayals of Bell and Bliss, genius versus idiocy, are splendidly detailed and alive with the dynamic of the time.

Millard’s descriptions of Guiteau disclose a methodical and persistent man, a schemer who became a nuisance to the president, Secretary of State Blaine, and the First Lady. With instructions from on high, he believed that the Garfield administration owed him at least a prime ambassadorship. After all, he thought, his speeches were instrumental in Garfield’s election.2 Rejected, he took the matter to an extreme, formulating, for legal purposes, specific intent to kill. There is no question that he displayed psychotic grandiosity infused with religious ideas. Unrepentant and arrogant, he paraded his self-importance into the trial, ensuring an adverse outcome. His extreme narcissism was captured in Sondheim’s lyrics in the show Assassins, as Guiteau cheerfully extols the utility of a gun:

The Gun Song

What a wonder is a gun!

What a versatile invention!

First of all, when you’ve a gun

Everybody pays attention!

When you think what must be done.

Think of all that it can do:

Remove a scoundrel,

Unite a party,

Preserve the union,

Promote the sales of my book,

Insure my future,

My niche in history,

And then the world will see

That I am not a man to overlook!


—from Assassins by Stephen Sondheim1

Destiny of the Republic is as worthwhile a read as The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau4 for the forensic professional or general reader. Millard’s use of Garfield quotations and source material generally creates liveliness, and her humanization of all her characters is superb. For example, after Garfield’s inauguration in early March 1881, the author notes, as the president set out to work in the White House he was buoyed by the opportunity to see more of his five children (two had already perished), but was saddened by the fact that even his friends wanted something from him. Among the many who sought a position in the administration was one Charles Julius Guiteau—a man who “never said ‘never’ or heard the word ‘no’” (from Sondheim’s “The Ballad of Guiteau”).1


  • Disclosures of financial or other potential conflicts of interest: None.


  1. 1.
    Assassins. Music and lyrics, Stephen Sondheim. Book, John Weidman. Opened December 18, 1990
  2. 2.
    1. Phillips RTM

    : Assessing presidential stalkers and assassins. J Am Acad Psychiatry Law 34:154–64, 2006

  3. 3.
    1. Vowell S

    : Assassination Vacation. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005

  4. 4.
    1. Rosenberg CE

    : The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau: Psychiatry and the Law in the Gilded Age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968

  5. 5.
    1. Paulson G

    : Death of a president and his assassin: errors in their diagnosis and autopsies. J Hist Neurosci 15:77–91, 2006

The President Has Been Shot

Five times during our nation’s history, Americans have been stunned by the news that their president had been shot. Many Americans can recall where they were the day President Kennedy was shot. The picture of a wounded President Reagan being pushed into the back seat of the White House limousine reminded many of us how vulnerable our presidents are to would-be assassins.

Presidents Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, William McKinley, and John F. Kennedy were killed by assassins’ bullets. Questions have been raised by historians about the quality of the medical care received by these presidents after they were shot. Criticisms of the management of Garfield’s and McKinley’s cases, for example, arose almost immediately. Whether these presidents could have been saved with better medical care is an issue that is still being debated by historians and physicians.

Andrew Jackson
1829 – 1837

Assasination Attempt of President Andrew Jackson

On 30 January 1835, President Andrew Jackson went to the Capitol to attend the funeral of Congressman Warren Davis of Mississippi. When the President walked along the Capitol’s east portico after the service, he was approached by an unemployed house painter named Richard Lawrence. When Lawrence was within eight feet of the President, he drew a pistol and attempted to shoot Jackson. The pistol misfired. Lawrence then drew a second pistol, which also misfired. The ever-feisty Jackson raised his walking stick and went after his assailant, who was arrested and later declared insane. The first assassination attempt of an American president had failed.

Abraham Lincoln
1861 – 1865

Portrait of President Abraham Lincoln

This photograph, taken on 10 April 1865, shows a president wearied by the Civil War. Four days later, President Lincoln was assassinated.

On the evening of 14 April 1865, President Lincoln and first Lady Mary Todd Lincoln attended Washington’s Ford’s Theater to see the comedy “Our American Cousin.” Shortly before 10:30 that evening, John Wilkes Booth, an actor and a southern sympathizer, entered the presidential box and shot Lincoln in the back of the head with a derringer. Two Army doctors rushed to the wounded Lincoln and tried to revive him with artificial respiration and brandy. Once the President’s breathing was restored, he was moved to a nearby boarding house.

After the President was carried to the boarding house, a number of government officials and physicians arrived on the scene. The doctors used a probe to locate the bullet. The bullet traveled about seven inches into Lincoln’s brain and lodged behind his left eye. The physicians felt that here was nothing they could do to save the President.

It has since been questioned whether Lincoln could have been saved if the physicians on the scene had decided to operate, and had removed the bullet. Even if the doctors had modern techniques of surgery available, it would not have made a difference. The bullet had caused a severe hemorrhage and damaged vital brain tissue.

Lincoln died at 7:22 a.m. on 15 April. He was the first American president to be killed by an assassin’s bullet. Vice President Andrew Johnson took over Lincoln’s duties as Chief Executive.

James Abram Garfield

On 2 July 1881, two months after he was sworn in as the 20th President of the United States, James Abram Garfield was shot in Washington’s Baltimore and Potomac railroad station as he was boarding a train for Williamstown, Massachusetts. Garfield was the second American president to die by assassination. Vice President Chester Alan Arthur took over as president.

Assassination of James Abram Garfield

Garfield was shot by Charles J. Guiteau, a mentally disturbed, unsuccessful office seeker. He was struck by two bullets from Guiteau’s English bulldog .44 caliber pistol. One bullet grazed the President’s right arm. The second bullet entered the right side of Garfield’s back, breaking a rib, piercing the spine (but not the spinal cord) and lodging within inches of the backbone below the pancreas. As he was shot, the President cried out “My God! What is this?”

Surgeons in Charge of President Garfield

The wounded Garfield was moved to the White House, where he was placed under the care of a team of prominent physicians. The team was directed by Dr. D. Willard Bliss (top). Dr. Bliss and other members of the team inspected the wound with their fingers and a long silver probe to determine the track and location of the bullet. The doctors decided not to remove the bullet, believing the attempt would kill Garfield.

Portrait of David Hayes Agnew, M.D.

Dr. David Hayes Agnew was one of the members of the impressive medical team assembled to manage the case of President Garfield. At the time, Dr. Agnew was professor of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. A leading American surgeon, Dr. Agnew served as the president of the American Surgical Association and of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia.

At first, Dr. Bliss believed that Garfield would not survive the first night. As it turned out, the President lingered for 80 days. As Garfield seemingly recovered, Dr. Bliss and the other doctors closely watched his breathing, pulse, and temperature. They also drained the wound and incised any abscesses that developed.

During the weeks following the assassination of Garfield, his physicians made numerous unsuccessful attempts to locate the bullet. Alexander Graham Bell tried out his new electromagnetic Induction Balance, but he too failed.

President Garfield Dying in the White House

Garfield was moved from the White House in early September to his summer home in Elberon, New Jersey to escape the capital’s intense heat and humidity. The change seemed to help at first, but whatever hopes the doctors had of the President’s recovery were dashed. Garfield’s splenic artery burst, which caused internal hemorrhaging. He died on 19 September. Garfield’s doctors were criticized for hastening his death by introducing infection in to the wound because of their probing with unwashed fingers and instruments.

William McKinley
1897 – 1901

Assassination of President McKinley

On 6 September 1901, William McKinley, 25th President of the United States, was shot while visiting the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, New York. He was standing in a receiving line in the Temple of Music when a mentally deranged man named Leon Czolgosz approached him. The assassin had hidden a .32 caliber revolver under a handkerchief wrapped around his hand. He fired two shots and McKinley crumpled to the ground. In severe shock, the President was moved to the small Exposition Hospital.

Dr. Matthew D. Mann

The first physicians to arrive on the scene decided to remove the bullet. Dr. Roswell Park, the most qualified local surgeon, was out of town, so Dr. Matthew Mann, another leading surgeon who specialized in gynecology, was chosen to operate. The Exposition Hospital was ill equipped for such an operation, but Dr. Mann and his three assistants decided to proceed because they feared that McKinley was bleeding internally.

The lighting in the hospital was inadequate. One of the physicians used a hand mirror to reflect the rays of the setting sun into the President’s opened stomach. Dr. Mann was unable to find the bullet and decided to give up the search. After his assistants repaired the tears in McKinley’s stomach and cleaned out the wounds, Dr. Mann closed the incision. He did not drain the wound.

Chart of Pulse, Temperature and Respiration of President McKinley

After the operation McKinley was moved to the home of the Exposition’s president, where he seemed to get better. The President’s doctors thought he had a fair chance of recovering. Early news bulletins to the American people were optimistic enough to convince Vice President Roosevelt to leave town for a vacation in the Adirondacks. On the 13th however, the President’s condition began to deteriorate. McKinley died in the early morning hours of 14 September. Vice President Theodore Roosevelt assumed McKinley’s presidential duties.

President McKinley’s Casket Arriving in Canton, Ohio

Dr. Mann created a scrapbook of newspaper clippings on McKinley’s assassination. Dr. Mann and his assistants, like President Garfield’s doctors years before, were criticized for their handling of McKinley’s case. Dr. Mann’s decision not to drain the President’s wound was questioned by many of his colleagues. While the autopsy was inconclusive concerning the cause of death, Dr. Mann’s decision may have played a significant role in the President’s demise.

John Fitzgerald Kennedy
1961 – 1963

No assassination of an American president, except that of Abraham Lincoln, has caused so much controversy as that of President John F. Kennedy’s on 22 November 1963. The American people were at first shocked and later mourned the death of the young and popular president. A commission appointed to investigate the events surrounding the assassination in Dallas, Texas, reported that Kennedy was killed by a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald. The commission’s report has been questioned by many since its release in 1964. Numerous conspiracy theories have been advanced in the wake of Kennedy’s death. Few would argue, however, that Kennedy could have survived the massive head wounds inflicted by the two bullets.

Ronald Wilson Reagan
1981 – 1989

On 30 March 1981, two months after he was inaugurated as the 40th President of the United States, Ronald Reagan was shot by John Hinckley, Jr. after giving a speech at the Washington Hilton, Hinckley fired a number of shots and one hit Reagan in the chest. The President was rushed to George Washington Hospital, where he underwent three hours of surgery to remove the bullet that had entered his lung. While Reagan’s wound appeared to be more serious than those suffered earlier by presidents Garfield and McKinley, he survived the surgery and made a good recovery.

Copyright © 2004 Health Media Lab. All rights reserved.

A President Felled by an Assassin and 1880’s Medical Care

A President Felled by an Assassin and 1880’s Medical Care

Published: July 25, 2006

National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology

Garfield lingered on his deathbed for 80 days, attended by doctors who disagreed on his treatment, and by his wife and daughter. Even Alexander Graham Bell tried to help locate the bullet that was lodged in the president.

National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology

Two bullets hit President Garfield. One grazed his arm; the second pierced his first lumbar vertebra, above.

National Museum of Health and Medicine, Armed Forces Institute of Pathology


Correction Appended

WASHINGTON — Three vertebrae, removed from the body of President James A. Garfield, sit on a stretch of blue satin. A red plastic probe running through them marks the path of his assassin’s bullet, fired on July 2, 1881.

The vertebrae form the centerpiece of a new exhibit, commemorating the 125th anniversary of Garfield’s assassination. The exhibit also features photographs and other images that tell the story of the shooting and its aftermath, in which Garfield lingered on his deathbed for 80 days. Located at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, on the campus of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, the exhibit opened on July 2 and will close, 80 days later, on Sept. 19.

Garfield was waiting at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, about to leave for New England, when he was shot twice by the assassin, Charles J. Guiteau.

The first bullet grazed Garfield’s arm, said Lenore Barbian, anatomical collections curator for the museum. But the second struck him in the right side of the back and lodged deep in the body.

“No one expected Garfield to live through the night,” Dr. Barbian said.

As the display makes clear, the second bullet pierced Garfield’s first lumbar vertebra, crossing from right to left.

At the time, however, without the benefit of modern diagnostics, Garfield’s doctors could not determine the location of the bullet. “Trying to understand its pathway became their primary concern,” Dr. Barbian said.

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.

Sterile technique, developed by the British surgeon Joseph Lister in the mid-1860’s, was not yet widely appreciated in the United States, although it was accepted in France, Germany and other parts of Europe. Historians agree that massive infection, which resulted from unsterile practices, contributed to Garfield’s death.

The exhibit describes how the president’s fluctuating medical condition became a national obsession in the summer of 1881. His doctors issued daily medical briefings, which were rapidly disseminated by telegraph and published in newspapers across the country. In response, the White House received letters by the bushel basket.

“One man suggested that they turn the president upside down and see if the bullet would just fall out,” Dr. Barbian said.

The exhibit also includes an image of the metal detector designed by Alexander Graham Bell to search for the bullet. It was composed of a battery and several metal coils positioned on a wooden platform and was connected to an earpiece.

Jeffrey S. Reznick, senior curator at the museum, said the device was designed to create an electromagnetic field, which would be disrupted in the presence of a metal object. The disruption would cause the device to emit a clicking sound through the earpiece.

“Electricity and magnetism were just being appreciated as ways to explore the body’s interior,” Dr. Reznick said.

Bell’s invention failed on two occasions to pinpoint the bullet’s location. Historians say this may have been because the device picked up metal coils in the president’s mattress, or because Bell searched only on the right side of Garfield’s body, where the lead physician, Dr. Doctor Willard Bliss — Doctor was his given name — had come to believe the bullet was lodged.

In early September, the president was moved from the White House to a cottage in Elberon, N.J., on the shore.

Also in the exhibit is an image of the president on his deathbed, lying on his back draped in a sheet and surrounded by friends and family, including his wife, Lucretia, and his daughter, Mollie. Garfield died in New Jersey on Sept. 19, 1881.

Photographs of Drs. Daniel S. Lamb and Joseph J. Woodward, who led the autopsy, are shown in the exhibit as well. Dr. Lamb and Dr. Woodward were affiliated with the Army Medical Museum in Washington, which later became the National Museum of Health and Medicine.

At the autopsy, it became evident that the bullet had pierced Garfield’s vertebra but missed his spinal cord. The bullet had not struck any major organs, arteries or veins, and had come to rest in adipose tissue on the left side of the president’s back, just below the pancreas.

Dr. Ira Rutkow, a professor of surgery at the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey and a medical historian, said: “Garfield had such a nonlethal wound. In today’s world, he would have gone home in a matter or two or three days.”

In addition to causing sepsis by probing the wound with unsterile hands and instruments, Garfield’s doctors did him a disservice by strictly limiting his solid food intake, believing that the bullet might have pierced his intestines, said Dr. Rutkow, the author of “James A. Garfield,” a book in the American Presidents Series.

In mid-August, the doctors insisted that Garfield be fed rectally, and he received beef bouillon, egg yolks, milk, whiskey and drops of opium in this manner.

“They basically starved him to death,” said Dr. Rutkow, noting that the president lost over 100 pounds from July to September.

Garfield’s assassination occurred at a time of transition in American medicine. There was little standardization of medical practice, and various sects — including homeopaths and allopaths, who took opposite approaches to treatment — competed for patients.

Behind the scenes, relations between Garfield’s physicians were acrimonious, historians say. While the head physician, Dr. Bliss, released optimistic reports to the press, his rivals, including Dr. Silas Boynton, repeatedly leaked negative — and ultimately more truthful — information. (Dr. Bliss was an allopath and Dr. Boynton was a homeopath, which partly accounts for their rivalry.)

Medical journals also published scathing editorials criticizing the president’s care. “You wouldn’t see that kind of bickering in medical journals today,” Dr. Rutkow said.

Dr. Rutkow said that sterile practice was widely accepted in the United States by the early 1890’s. X-rays, which would also have been helpful to the president, were discovered in the 1890’s as well.

The Garfield exhibit is on display alongside the museum’s permanent Civil War exhibit, which includes the bullet that killed President Abraham Lincoln and fragments of his skull, as well as bone saws, artificial limbs and various other Civil War artifacts. The museum also holds the spleen, the brain and most of the skeleton of Garfield’s assassin, Guiteau, although these artifacts are not part of the current exhibit.

Sarah Vowell, the author of “Assassination Vacation,” which explores the assassinations of Lincoln, Garfield and President William McKinley, says Garfield’s vertebrae were passed around to the jurors at Guiteau’s trial.

The assassin’s lawyers tried to argue that their client was not guilty by reason of insanity. The defense was unsuccessful, and he was hanged on June 30, 1882.

Guiteau himself repeatedly criticized Garfield’s doctors, suggesting that they were the ones who had killed the president.

“I just shot him,” Guiteau said.

Correction: July 28, 2006 A picture in Science Times on Tuesday with an article about a new exhibit at the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, showing the medical care given President James A. Garfield after he was shot by an assassin in 1881, was provided by the museum in reverse and printed that way. As the article noted, the second bullet pierced Garfield’s first lumbar vertebra, crossing from right to left — not left to right, as shown in the picture.