Charles Guiteau [Laws E11]

DESCRIPTION: Charles Guiteau, having assassinated President Garfield, is unable to escape the law. His insanity defense is rejected, and he is sentenced to die.
AUTHOR: unknown
EARLIEST DATE: 1907 (Belden)
KEYWORDS: homicide execution gallows-confession madness
July 2, 1881 - James A. Garfield is shot by Charles Guiteau, who thought Garfield owed him a patronage job. Garfield had been president for less than four months
Sept 19, 1881 - Death of Garfield
June 30, 1882 - Hanging of Charles Guiteau
REFERENCES (26 citations):
Laws E11, "Charles Guiteau"
Belden, pp. 412-413, "Charles Guiteau" (1 text)
Randolph 134, "Charles Guiteau" (2 texts plus 3 excerpts or fragments, 3 tunes)
Moore-Southwest 168, "Charles Guiteau" (1 text, 1 tune)
Owens-1ed, pp. 118-119, "Charles Guiteau" (1 text, 1 tune)
Eddy 128, "Charles Guiteau, or, The Murder of James A. Garfield" (1 text)
Stout 88, pp. 110-112, "Charles Guiteau" (2 texts plus 3 fragments)
Neely, p. 172, "Death of Garfield" (1 fragment)
BrownII 249, "Charles Guiteau" (4 texts, 3 fragments, plus 1 excerpt and mention of 3 more)
BrownSchinhanIV 249, "Charles Guiteau" (2 excerpts, 2 tunes)
Chappell-FSRA 111, "Charles Guiteau" (1 fragment, 1 tune)
Morris, #32, "Charles Guiteau" (1 text plus mention of at least two more, 1 tune)
Wells, p. 323, "(no title)" (1 short text, from Chappell)
Hudson 101, pp. 238-239, "Charles Guiteau" (1 text plus mention of 3 more)
Friedman, p. 230, "Charles Guiteau" (1 text)
McNeil-SFB1, pp. 56-59, "Charles Guiteau" (2 texts, 2 tunes)
Combs/Wilgus 58, pp. 186-187, "Charles J. Guiteau" (1 text)
Lomax-FSNA 142, "Charles Guiteau" (1 text, 1 tune, claiming to be a transcription of the earliest recorded version by Kelley Harrell -- but in fact the text has been slightly modified)
LPound-ABS, 65, pp. 146-148, "Charles Guiteau or James A. Garfield" (1 text, joined with "The Murder of F. C. Benwell")
Burt, pp. 226-227, "(Charles Guiteau)" (1 text plus a fragment, 1 tune)
Hubbard, #135, "Charles Guiteau" (1 text, 1 tune)
Darling-NAS, pp. 192-193, "Charles Guiteau" (1 text plus a fragment of "James Rodgers")
Asch/Dunson/Raim, p. 48 "Charles Giteau" (sic) (1 text, 1 tune)
Silber-FSWB, p. 290, "Charles Guiteau" (1 text)
cf. Gardner/Chickering, p. 478, "Charles Guitea" (source notes only)

ST LE11 (Full)
Roud #444
Loman D. Cansler, "Charles Guiteau" (on Cansler1)
Kelly Harrell, "Charles Giteau" (Victor 20797B, 1927; on KHarrell02, AAFM1)
Roscoe Holcomb, "Charles Guitau" [instrumental version] (on Holcomb1)
Wilmer Watts, "Charles Guiteaw" (Paramount 3232)

cf. "The Murder of F. C. Benwell" [Laws E26] (tune & meter)
cf. "Jack Rogers" (form and meter)
cf. "Gustave Ohr" (meter)
cf. "George Mann" (meter)
cf. "Ewing Brooks" [Laws E12] (tune & meter)
cf. "Gruver Meadows" (meter, some lyrics)
cf. "The Fair at Turloughmore" (floating lyrics)
cf. "Big Jimmie Drummond" (lyrics)
cf. "Mister Garfield" (subject)
The Murder of F. C. Benwell (file: LE26)
Jack Rogers (file: Dean050)
Gustave Ohr (file: E121)
George Mann (file: E122)
Ewing Brooks (file: LE12)
A New Song on the American War (probably to this tune; see Leslie Shepard, _The Broadside Ballad_, Legacy Books, 1962, 1978, p. 159, "A New Song on the American War" (reproduction of a broadside page))
NOTES: The song probably derives from "The Lamentation of James Rodgers" (executed Nov. 12, 1858) or one of its kin (e.g. "My Name it is John T. Williams") - PJS, RBW
According to Mazor, p. 84, this song owes its old-time popularity to a peculiar circumstance. Andrew Jenkins had written a song about a fire (Mazor doesn't say which song). The famous A&R man, Ralph Peer, worried about copyrights, discovered that Jenkins had used many aspects of this song. Since the tune was old, he didn't have to worry about defending the copyright -- but Peer liked the song, and induced Kelly Harrell to record it. It has been well-known ever since.
It's worth remembering that, at the time Harrell recorded the song, there were still people around who remembered the assassination of James A. Garfield, although they were older and perhaps not the most likely people to buy recordings.
The story of Garfield is enigmatic. Only one President (William Henry Harrison) spent less time in office, and much of the time Garfield spent as President was occupied with dying. He hadn't had much time to establish policy as President, and his campaign was a typical late-nineteenth-century all-hoopla-and-no-substance campaign; "the Republicans made [much] of his birth in a log cabin, the last time that venerable cliche was dragged out" (Morison, p. 735). But there is reason to think that he could have been a distinguished President. His intellectual gifts were noteworthy, and his interests were unusually diverse, according to Jameson, p. 258:
"Garfield, James Abram (November 19, 1831-September 19, 1881), twentieth President of the United States, was born at Orange, Cuyahoga County, O[hio], and after miscellaneous experiences, including work on a canal tow-path, he entered Hiram College in Ohio. From there he went to Williams College, and graduated in 1856. For a short time he taught the classics in Hiram College, and in 1857 became President of that institution. Two years later he entered the State Senate. In the opening year of the [Civil] war he was appointed lieutenant-colonel of volunteers; having been entrusted with a small independent command he routed the Confederates at Middle Creek, Ky., January 10, 1862. He was made Brigadier General, served at Shiloh, etc., and became chief of staff in Rosecrans' Army of the Cumberland.. [He] was made major-general after Chickamauga."
Remini, p. 232, says of him, "A former college president and war hero who loved to read classical literature in the original languages, Garfield stood six feet tall and exuded massive physical strength. In addition, 'he was handsome, a soldier, widely read, eloquent of speech, and charming in manner.'"
He was elected to Congress in the election of 1862, and Jameson reports he "took his seat in December, 1863. From this time he served continuously and was one of the leading debaters and orators on the Republican side. He was member of important committees, like Military Affairs and Ways and Means, and was chairman of the Committee on Banking and Currency and on Appropriations. General Garfield served on the Electoral Commission of 1877 [more on this below] and was elected U. S. Senator from Ohio in 1880."
Few presidents were more self-made; Garfield lost his father before his second birthday (Rutkow, p. 4). Physically large and strong, he rarely applied himself in early life. His reading had caused him to dream of a life at sea, so he left home at 16 (Rutkow, p. 5) and went to work on a canal. This proved disastrous -- he couldn't swim, and nearly drowned several times (Rutkow, p. 6), so he returned home in 1848.
Having learned his lesson, he finally took his education seriously. He started at Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in 1851 (Rutkow, pp. 6-7). It wasn't much of a college, but Garfield proved quite capable of educating himself, learning Greek and Latin, studying the classics, and teaching himself geometry. He then went to Williams College, where he added astronomy, chemistry, German, mechanics, and political economy to his list of subjects and earned his degree in 1856 (Rutkow, pp,. 7-9),
In this period, he became involved in politics, with a strong anti-Slavery bent. In 1858, he married Lucretia "Crete" Rudolph, a childhood sweetheart (Rutkow, p. 12). Soon after, he became the youngest member of the state legislature (Leech/Brown, p. 94). When the Civil War began, he volunteered, was made lieutenant colonel, was quickly promoted colonel, and as acting brigade commander won the minor skirmish at Middle Creek in early 1862 (resulting in a couple of dozen casualties on each side; Rutkow, p. 15). It was trivial, but it earned him headlines and a commission as a brigadier general (to date from Jan. 11, 1862, according to Phisterer, p. 272 -- the day after Middle Creek).
He ran for congress at this time, knowing that the congress elected in November 1862 would not actually go to Washington until December 1863 (Rutkow, p. 17). After winning election and hanging around Washington for a time (Rutkow, p. 18), he went back into military service as Chief of Staff to General Rosecrans (Rutkow, p. 19), commander of the Army of the Cumberland (the Union army based in Tennessee). Garfield's role in the disastrous battle of Chickamauga was perhaps somewhat ambiguous -- but he was rewarded with a major generalship (to rank, according to Phisterer, p. 255, from September 19, 1863, the first day of the battle of Chickamauga) before he retired to take up his seat in congress (Rutkow, p. 23).
Garfield in congress was an ally of the Radical Republicans, and went so far as to oppose Lincoln's renomination in 1864 (Rutkow, pp. 25-26). He supported the impeachment of Andrew Johnson (Rutkow, p. 28) and was a firm supporter of a hard money policy (Rutkow, p. 30). This was typical of his economic views; he was pro-business, anti-labor, and in favor of (eventual) free trade (Rutkow, pp. 30-31). He helped pass civil rights legislation in 1875, although not until after it was watered down (Remini, p. 213).
He was probably the most scientifically-inclined President since Thomas Jefferson -- he is, for instance, the only President to have produced an independent proof of the Pythagorean Theorem (Crease, pp. 30-31; who says Garfield did it in 1876. There are hundreds of independent proofs of the theorem, but few are by politicians! Dunham gives a version of the method on pp. 97-99, and declares it "really a very clever proof" although he points out a page later that something rather similar went back to the Chinese mathematicians).
In congress, Garfield found financing for federal scientific expeditions and publications, and was important in founding the United States Geologic Survey (Rutkow, p. 32). He was the single most important voice in creating what later became the Bureau of Education (Leech/Brown, p. 166). Library of Congress records show that he spent more time using the library than any other congressman; he was passionate about learning (Rutkow, p. 45). Frankly, we could use a few hundred more congressmen with his interests today....
After he was elected President, The Nation wrote in 1881 that Garfield "does not, like Lincoln, or Grant, or Hayes, need cabinet officers to teach him, or 'keep him straight,' on any point whatever, There is not one of the departments of which he is not himself fully competent to take charge" (quoted by DeGregorio, p. 303).
If he had a weakness, it was leadership. Although he had been a general, he had been primarily a staff officer. He was a thinker, not a "decider." This combination of strong intellectual gifts with a lack of organization and self-control has led to internet speculation that he had Asperger's Syndrome or some other autism spectrum disorder. (Speculation which I think almost certainly correct; I've marshaled the evidence for this in the appendix)
Rutkow, p. 137, sums him up by saying he "was not a natural leader and did not dominate men or events. He was a kindhearted and intelligent individual who was also a calculating politician. Garfield uneasily occupied two worlds, one of ego-driven actions and another of introspection and prudence. Ultimately, it was his lack of assertiveness and worry over the slightest hint of criticism that interfered with his presidential decision-making." His contemporaries knew it; ex-President Hayes declared that "He was not executive in his talents -- not original, not firm, not a moral force." Senator Sherman later declared, "His will power was not equal to his personal magnetism. He easily changed his mind and honestly veered from one impulse to another" (DeGregorio, p. 304).
There were also rumors that his relationship with his wife was strained -- Rutkow, p. 43, says that he "maintained intensely close relationships with a number of women.... Whether an of these associations included a sexual element remains historical conjecture." Ackerman, p. 148, claims he had an affair in 1863; Leech/Brown, pp. 70-73, tell of a complex three-way relationship before the Civil War. (Indeed, Leech/Brown, pp. 121-122, claim that he didn't fall in love with his wife until four years after they married, and only then came to rely on her.)
Accusations of infidelity apparently plagued him throughout his career, including even claims that he visited a brothel in the 1870s (Leech/Brown, p. 195). Yet Leech/Brown, p. 195, point out that "No evidence has been found that, after the Mrs. Calhoun episode [which ended no later than 1867 and probably years before], Garfield ever again engaged in extramarital dalliance." And he and his wife had seven children, although two of them died young (Rutkow, p. 44).
Personally, I think the doubts about his fidelity exaggerated; his letters to his wife seem to have been genuinely affectionate, and after he was shot, he desperately wanted her by his side (Ackerman, p. 389). Once he wrote to her, "When you are sick, I am like the inhabitants of countries visited by earthquake" (Leech/Brown, p. 2). In his diary, he would declare, "This is the anniversary of our wedding which took place 17 years ago. If I could find the time... to write out the story of Crete's life and mine... and the beautiful results we long ago reached and are now enjoying, it would be a more wonderful record than any I know in the realm of romance" (Leech/Brown, p. 194).
Garfield was one of the congressmen implicated in the Credit Mobilier scandal of the 1870s (Rutkow, p. 33, who on p. 60 notes that Democrats in 1880 made a slogan of "329" -- the amount of his stock dividends). He also seemed to profit from a retroactive congressional pay increase (Rutkow, p. 34). There were other financial oddities involving his law practice. It appears from his diary that Garfield considered his actions entirely ethical, but even the sympathetic Rutkow (p. 37) calls his actions "naive."
On the other hand, he led the defense in the vital case of ex parte Milligan, and did it on a pro bono basis (Rutkow, pp. 45-46). Milligan and his associates were anti-war Democrats during the Civil War who, in 1864, were arrested for actions harming the war effort. Although they were not taken in a war zone, and were unquestionably American citizens, they were put before a military commission and sentenced to death (Hall, pp. 549-550).
The case went all the way to the Supreme Court -- and it was there that Garfield became involved. "Most lawyers do not behing their practice by pleading before the Supreme Court. Garfield did" (Leech/Brown, p. 185). The lawyers for Milligan called on him in 1866 -- and Garfield won; the court ruled that military commissions could not be used in areas where the civil courts were open; the Constitution applies even in wartime. Jameson, p. 416, summarizes it "Regarding the military commission, it was maintained that the power of erecting military jurisdictions remote from the seat of war was not vested in Congress, and that it could not be exercised in this particular case; that the prisoner, a civilian, was exempt from the laws of war and could only be tried by a jury; and finally, that the write of habeas corpus could not be suspended constitutionally, though the privilege of that writ might be." Hall declares it a "constitutional landmark" (p. 550),
Despite this, he was no moderate. As President, he would appoint several Blacks to federal offices, including Frederick Douglass as Washington, D.C., recorder of deeds and Blanche Bruce as registrar of the Treasury (Ackerman, p. 367).
His liberalism didn't keep him from being a vigorous Republican (Rutkow, pp. 38-39) -- one of those who served on the Electoral Commission that made Rutherford B. Hayes President in 1876 (the Hayes/Tilden election, in which Samuel Tilden won the popular vote, but the electoral college count was disputed; there were two sets of numbers submitted from three states, and the Electoral Commission, which had one more Republican than Democrat, gave all of the electoral votes to Hayes even though Tilden surely deserved enough of them to be President. Thus Garfield was a party to a major defiance of the popular will).
Despite this somewhat questionable history, Garfield was easily elected to Senator for Ohio in 1880 (Rutkow, p. 42).
Garfield's election to the Presidency had a whiff of the partisanship he had shown in 1876. President Hayes, being self-honest enough to know that he had been elected by a very divided nation, proceeded to govern in a largely non-partisan way, ending Reconstruction in the southern states still under Federal control and avoiding the sort of partisan appointments that had so marred the Grant administration. It made him a pretty good president -- and turned the more steadfast Republicans against him. Hayes announced early on that he would not run again (PresElections, p. 1492).
Hayes's refusal to pursue the Spoils System hardened the wing of the Republican party known as the "Stalwarts," who believed firmly that to the victors belonged the spoils of office and opposed Civil Service reforms (Rutkow, p. 52). The other Republican faction, the "Half-Breeds," didn't care much for Hayes, either (PresElections, p. 1492). That meant that, in 1880, there was no incumbent running, nor could the incumbent pick his successor. And that meant a wide-open nomination.
The leading candidate was Ulysses S. Grant, who of course had been President for the two terms before Hayes (PresElections, p. 1492). But he was not entirely liked -- the Panic of 1873 had hurt him, and so had the corruption of many of his appointees, and some people just didn't think a man should serve more than two terms. The Half-Breed leader, James G. Blaine (who would eventually be the Republican nominee in 1884), also had strong support, and John Sherman had a significant number of supporters (PresElections, p. 1493), plus there were the usual assortment of vague hopefuls.
Everyone thought the contest would be between Grant (the favorite of the Stalwarts) and Blaine (who claimed to be running only to stop Grant). But Blaine snubbed Sherman (PresElections, p. 1493), and Sherman wasn't going to stand for that. And the rules that were adopted allowed states to split their votes, which hurt Grant (PresElections, p. 1494). This left a convention with no clear favorite -- on the first ballot, Grant had 304, Blaine 284, Sherman 93, and three others a combined 75 (PresElections, p. 1495). With 756 total delegates, a candidate needed 379 to be nominated, and that meant that it was largely up to Sherman, who wasn't about to support either of the leaders.
Garfield's role in this was curious. He had actually been the man who had placed Sherman in nomination (perhaps with an understanding that Sherman might support him if the convention deadlocked; Rutkow, p. 49), and his nominating speech "was prudent, sincere, and tactful, and this restrained eloquence won more admiration for himself than for the man whose cause he espoused" (PresElections, p. 1495).
The convention proceeded through more than thirty ballots without much happening -- although there was some behind-the-scenes dealing when they halted for the night after 28 ballots (Rutkow, p. 55). On ballot #34, Wisconsin cast 17 votes for Garfield. Garfield stood up to say that they didn't have the right to vote for him. He was ruled out of order. Ballot #35 saw Indiana swing to Garfield, giving him 50 votes and placing him fourth. Sherman perhaps gave in at this point and supported Garfield (Rutkow, p. 55). On ballot #36, it appears a "stop Grant" movement swept the convention: All but three of Sherman's votes went to Garfield, and all but 42 of Blaine's supporters voted for him; with five votes for a minor candidate. Garfield ended up with 399 votes, to 306 for Grant and 50 for others. Garfield -- who had never even been formally placed in nomination -- was the nominee (PresElections, p. 1496).
It was very nearly the last truly open convention in American history; according to Brams, p. 46, the next one would be the 1952 Democratic convention, and there hasn't been another one since then. Indeed, Brams, p. 47, offers mathematical evidence that it was the most complete turnaround in a nomination contest ever.
Nonetheless, the nomination wasn't quite as spontaneous as it looked. His friends had thought there might be a Grant/Blaine deadlock, and had been prepared, encouraging applause whenever he spoke, arranging for delegates to occasionally case a vote for him in the early convention ballots, and then arranging the Wisconsin and Indiana actions to encourage a landslide (PresElections, pp. 1496-1497). There is genuine disagreement about how much Garfield had to do with this (Rutkow, p. 50), but it's clear that he felt himself ready to be a candidate for president.
It is perhaps noteworthy that this was arranged by Garfield's supporters, not the man himself. His diary seems to reveal that he did not plan for or expect the nomination (Rutkow, p. 49; Leech/Brown, pp. 203-204, quotes a diary entry which seems to imply that he thought his chances of being president would be better when he was a little older). A letter he wrote to his wife in the early stages of the convention reveals that he had heard talk of nominating him -- and shows him uncertain of how to respond (Ackerman, p. 92). It apparently shocked him (Leech/Brown, p. 208); one friend declared, "Garfield never seemed the same man after he was nominated for President" (Leech/Brown, p. 209).
It perhaps shocked others as well. Many feared that Garfield would prove indecisive (PresElections, p. 1498). They never really found out one way or the other.
Garfield was a Half-Breed, but he knew that the Republicans needed the support of the Stalwarts, and did his best to bring them aboard with his Vice Presidential pick. Plus he needed to win New York. So he first supposedly approached New York Stalwart Levi Morton -- but the powerful senator Roscoe Conkling -- who disliked the Half-Breeds and hated their leader Blaine with a passion (Ackerman, pp. 5-16, documents the beginning of the feud)-- convinced Morton to turn down the job. Then Garfield turned to Chester A. Arthur, another New York Stalwart who also happened to be the head of the New York convention delegation (Karabell, p. 39).
Arthur had done very well for himself in New York politics, and had a result been a target of the Hayes administration attempts to clean up the party (Karabell, p. 33) -- which had the ironic effect of making the local glad-handler nationally known. He wasn't entirely without principles -- he had fought hard for the rights of Blacks, and had secured for them the right to ride New York's streetcars (Ackerman, p. 62) -- but one of his principles seems to have been feathering his own nest; he was known as "Gentleman Boss." His office as Collector of the Port of New York brought with it a salary of $20,000 per year -- which was a very good salary indeed in the late 1870s!
Arthur was a Conkling protege -- indeed, Karabell, p. 21, says that they had a "symbiotic relationship. Arthur was best in a supporting role; Conkling followed only himself." Ackerman, p. 62, calls him "a consummate political henchman." His career to this point had been mostly due to Conkling's help; there was little reason to think he would go against his mentor.
The details of the what passed between Conkling and Arthur are known only from secondary sources (Karabell, p. 41), but it is said Conkling tried to talk Arthur out of taking the job, but Arthur -- well aware that he was unlikely to achieve such high office on his own -- decided to accept (PresElections, pp. 1497-1498; Rutkow, p. 56). Since Garfield was still a relatively young man (his mother was alive to witness his inauguration -- the first woman to see her son inaugurated President; Rutkow, pp. 70-71), Arthur probably did not have any hopes of becoming President -- nor of having any influence, since he and Garfield did not know each other well and were from different Republican factions.
Arthur had never held elective office (Karabell, p. 140); although he had held many government positions, all were appointed -- a most unusual resume for a man who became President. Nor had be been under the national spotlight (Karabell, p. 43), and he perhaps found it uncomfortable. He hadn't seen anything yet.... But he did bring genuine value to the ticket, not so much because of his reputation or ability to inspire but because of his fundraising skills (Karabell, p. 47).
The Democrats were probably overconfident. They felt (almost certainly correctly) that they should have won in 1876, and as a result of Hayes's ending of reconstruction, they now controlled three more states than they had in that year. All they had to do was repeat 1876 and they would be victorious. They nominated General Winfield Scott Hancock, a hero of Gettysburg, whose main attribute was that he had no obvious defects (PresElections, p. 1501).
The Democratic calculations were too optimistic. The panic of 1873 was over, so Republicans no longer carried that stigma. Hancock, while intelligent, produced an acceptance letter that made him seem naive (PresElections, p. 1504), and he was never able to shed this label. The differences between the parties on substantive issues were slight, except for differences over tariffs (PresElections, p. 1506) -- which mostly interested those whose party affiliations were already set.
Neither campaign was very intelligent -- there were no burning issues; the campaign "was a contest of organization and will, not a battle over the future direction of the country" (Karabell, p. 45). "To Henry Adams, E. L. Godkin, and others, Stalwart, Half-Breed, Democrat, and Republican were all arbitrary labels that could easily have been shuffled without altering anything but the names of the combatants. They had a point. What was the election about, really, other than who would win?" (Karabell, pp. 45-46).
Garfield did manage to show his intellectual gifts at least once; one of his few public campaign appearances was a speech in German to Germans in Ohio -- reportedly the first time a Presidential candidate had given a speech in a foreign language (Ackerman, p. 216).
But if the issues were trivial, the Republicans were better at hoopla, producing blank books which claimed to be a list of Hancock's "achievements" and encouraging people to sing a parody of Gilbert and Sullivan's "When I Was a Lad" which stressed Hancock's supposed popularity in the South: "In the Union War I fought so well That my name is greeted with the 'rebel yell'" (PresElections, p. 1508). Democrats responded with dirty tricks such as a faked letter which claimed Garfield favored free importation of low-paid Chinese laborers (Rutkow, p. 61) -- but the letter was easily shown to be a forgery; the writing was not Garfield's and it actually misspelled his name! (Ackerman, p. 218). Nor could the purported recipient be found. The newspaper that ran the letter finally admitted after the election that it was forged (Ackerman, p. 219); it was out of existence before the next election rolled around.
Both parties knew that the election would turn on a handful of states, with New York and Indiana being the most important. And Democrats organizers in New York were too disgruntled to go all-out (the local boss was more concerned with retaining his own power than helping the national ticket, according to PresElections, p. 1513), and Republican organization in Indiana was just enough better than Democratic to let them eke out a narrow victory (PresElections, pp. 1509-1510, which notes that immense amounts of money were spent in the state; the results came very close to buying votes). Garfield had an edge of less than ten thousand out of nine million popular votes cast (the closest popular vote in American history; Ackerman, pp. 220-221; Rutkow, p. 62), and took only 20 of 39 states, but he won in the electoral college by 214 to 155 (PresElections, p. 1558). Garfield thus became simultaneously a seated congressman, a Senator-elect, and a President-elect -- the only time any person has been all three at once (Rutkow, p. 62).
And that meant that he had to start filling patronage jobs. Garfield had bought Republican unity at a high price in promises. Quite possibly an even higher price than he realized -- PresElections, pp. 1511-1512, thinks that Roscoe Conkling expected a much higher payoff than he got, including control over appointments in New York, whereas Garfield probably considered himself simply to have promised to consult him. John Hay, the future secretary of state, described Conkling's behavior thus: "He really thinks he is the Savior of the Situation, and makes no bones about it" (Ackerman, p. 224). Which, naturally, meant that he expected a reward.
Karabell, p. 49, says that "Arthur and the Stalwarts were certain that 'pledges had been made,' and that Garfield had promised cabinet positions, patronage power, and carte blanche in New York State in return for help in winning the election. In his own notes of the meeting, however, Garfield said that he was 'very weary but... no mistakes had been made and probably much good had been done. No trades, no shackles.'"
The real difficulty was that both Blaine, the standard-bearer of the Half-Breeds, and Conkling wanted their plums -- and they were so bitter in their hatred that they could not work together. Garfield made Blaine Secretary of State, and that meant no cabinet post for Conkling (Karabell, p. 52). Indeed, Ackerman, p. 226, thinks that Garfield appointed Blaine specifically to hold off Conkling. But this produced tensions so high that, as late as February 1881 -- more than three months after the election -- Garfield still had only one cabinet officer lined up: Blaine as Secretary of State (Rutkow, p. 67). As things finally worked out, there was only one Stalwart in the cabinet (Karabell, p. 55). The battle became increasingly intense. (And Vice President Arthur had rather a strong role in this. The Senate was evenly divided, 37 Republicans to 37 Democrats, so Arthur had the casting vote; Karabell, p. 54. This, in effect, gave the Stalwarts a controlling hand on appointments.)
The problem, as a contemporary noted, was that "the method of appointment to office in this country has got to be changed.... It has outgrown those methods adopted for an old system of things never sufficient for them; but it was never dreamt by those who created it that it would be applied to the condition of things now existing in this country. It can no longer be that 200,000 office-holders can be appointed by the methods that were fit and proper for the appointment of 1,000" (White, p. 301, quoting Senator Henry L. Dawes). But, until something could be done, the whole job was on Garfield's shoulders.
The conflict was sufficiently bitter that Vice President Arthur turned against Garfield. Vice Presidents rarely had much to do in this period, but it appeared that Arthur was obeying Conkling, not Garfield. And even after the cabinet was settled (surprisingly, considering the controversies, it was approved as a body after only half a day's debate; Ackerman, p. 262), others still wanted lesser jobs. Garfield repeatedly complained about it in his diary: "The stream of callers which was dammed by my absence became a torrent and swept away my day." "Once or twice I felt like crying out in the agony of my soul against the greed for office and its consumption of my time." (White, p. 94). And then Charles Guiteau got into the act.
It is ironic to note that Senator John Sherman, after Garfield was elected, warned the President-elect to beware of assassination in light of the bitterness of the campaign. Garfield brushed it off as an unavoidable risk of the job (Rutkow, p. 63). There was no budget for guards anyway; Garfield would have had to pay out of his own pocket (Ackerman, pp. 277-278).
Assassin-to-be Charles Guiteau was the child of a mother who reportedly suffered from schizophrenia (although, contrary to the song, she had died long before, in 1848; Ackerman, p. 135) and a father who was a religious fanatic. His sister was officially declared insane in late 1882, half a year after Guiteau's execution, and some thought she should have been institutionalized even before that (Rosenberg, p. 256). Guiteau was himself mentally troubled and "stole from everyone he knew" (Rutkow, pp. 71-72). He had even stolen the copies of the book he had had privately printed (Ackerman, p. 280). As a child, he could not keep still and was beaten regularly (Fetherling, p, 171). His father tried to put him in the Oneida community, but even in that society which allowed free love, no one would go near him. He managed to marry a woman named Annie Bunn, but he beat her and committed various crimes around her; the marriage ended after five years (Ackerman, p. 135).
It is Fetherling's opinion that he suffered from syphilis, acquired from a prostitute. Certainly he patronized at least one such woman; it was part of the process of obtaining a divorce (Fetherling, p. 172).
By the time of the election of 1880, Guiteau was forty years old, small and unimpressive, "a self-educated lawyer [who] fancied himself more a world-class theologian and novelist" (Rutkow, p. 71). After working for the famous evangelist Dwight Moody, he was fired because he was such a poor preacher (Fetherling, p. 172). Nonetheless, he wrote and tried to sell a book, The Truth: A Companion to the Bible (Ackerman, p. 134); he also sold insurance, but without much luck. He tried to gain work as a lawyer -- and defrauded his clients (Fetherling, p. 172).
Guiteau initially hoped to be part of Garfield's administration; on one occasion he handed a paper to Garfield, "a copy of a short speech, 'Garfield against Hancock,' on which, boldly written in pencil, were the words 'Paris Consulship' connected by a drawn line to the author's name, Charles Julius Guiteau" (Rutkow, p. 71). Guiteau made several other attempts to gain a job (meanwhile defrauding those who rented him rooms; Ackerman, p. 273), but finally was told (by Blaine, not Garfield) to stop pestering the White House staff; he was finally barred from the building at a time when people were routinely admitted without being screened (Rutkow, p. 72).
While Guiteau was trying to get a patronage job, the issue of patronage itself was the issue in the Senate. Garfield and Conkling had been fighting over appointments, with Conkling stopping Senate business entirely. But Garfield managed to outfox him by maneuvering a vote on the appointment Conkling opposed above all (Ackerman, p. 330). Conkling, seeing his caused doomed, Conkling resigned his Senate seat in an attempted power play (Karabell, pp. 57-58), and even induced the junior Senator from New York to do the same (Ackerman, pp. 342-344). For Conkling, it was a flop; he was out of a job for no profit.
As a side effect, Charles Guiteau concluded that Garfield could not be trusted to give patronage appointments to those Stalwarts such as himself to whom the new President supposedly owed so much (Ackerman, pp. 345-345). Clearly Garfield had to be gotten out of the way.
According to DeGregorio, p. 382, Guiteau three times approached Garfield with a weapon, but chickened out each time. Rutkow, p. 79, mentions an occasion when Guiteau visited Garfield's church and started shouting during the service -- which Garfield even noted in his diary: "a dull young man, with a loud voice, trying to pound noise into the question, 'What think ye of Christ?'" (Rutkow, p. 79). Guiteau planned to attack Garfield at the church the next week, but Garfield coincidentally decided not to visit the church that week (Rutkow, pp. 79-80).
Garfield's wife Lucretia was sick at this time, with what is believed to have been malaria (Rutkow, p. 80); it apparently was almost fatal (Ackerman, p. 332, describes the high fever and other symptoms). The first family had decided to take a vacation to try to help her recover. Guiteau actually prepared to shoot Garfield at the time but abandoned the plan because Mrs. Garfield looked so frail (Rutkow, p. 80). But they planned another trip to help her recover, and it was announced in the papers that Garfield would be leaving on a 9:30 train from the Baltimore and Potomac depot. Guiteau wrote one more explanation for his conduct and prepared for the final confrontation (Rutkow, p. 81).
The story of the assassination is a tale of one botch after another. Rutkow, p. 2, points out that even in 1881, when Lincoln's assassination was still a matter of personal memory to most Americans, the President had no guards, and his itinerary was often published. Garfield was talking with Secretary of State Blaine (who had driven him to the train station; Rutkow, p. 82) as he prepared to leave town. The song alludes to the fact that the assassination took place at a train station when it says Guiteau was "down at the depot."
Rutkow, p. 2, says that Guiteau took up a position just a short distance behind Garfield and fired two shots with a pistol. "The first shot caused a slight flesh wound of the right arm but the second entered the middle of the right side of Garfield's back, jolting him forward."
It was an utterly inept attempt at assassination; the first bullet wound was trivial and the second, although more serious, need not have been fatal.
Guiteau tried to flee, but was quickly taken into custody by a policeman by the name of Patrick Kearney (DeGregorio, p. 382). Supposedly he said something like, "I did it and will go to jail for it. I am a Stalwart and Arthur will be president" (Rutkow, p. 2) or "I am a Stalwart! Arthur is now President!" (Morison, p. 735). As he was taken away, he brandished a paper he said would explain everything (Rutkow, p. 84). We have record of Guiteau writing to the new President, Chester A. Arthur, on the day Garfield died, declaring "My inspiration is a God send to you and I presume that you appreciate it.... It raises you from a political cypher to president of the United States" (DeGregorio, p. 383). He carried another letter saying that the death of Garfield was sad but necessary for it would save the Republican party (Karabell, p. 61).
Nothing seemed to be working on that fatal day. As Garfield's wife Lucretia sped back to Washington, her train engine broke down, leading to significant delays (Rutkow, p. 89).
It took time to find a doctor, and when one was located, he did little except probe the wound and feed Garfield a useless mix of brandy and ammonium salts (Rutkow, pp. 84-85. The latter, presumably, was to rouse the president -- but while ammonia does tend to jerk people awake, it is not in fact a stimulant and is no help medically; Schwarcz, p. 29). It sounds very much as if Garfield was in shock, but nothing useful was done to counteract the condition except to get him away from the crowd (Rutkow, p. 85).
Even when more respected doctors showed up, they proved equally incompetent. The first genuine medical act was to give Garfield morphine (Rutkow, p. 90), which seems to have induced nausea. The wives of several of the cabinet secretaries served as nurses for a time (Rutkow, p. 91). This was probably good; unlike the doctors, they didn't do any active harm.
Eventually one Doctor Willard Bliss (whose given name was Doctor -- Rutkow, p. 85) took charge. He had been a successful Civil War surgeon (Rutkow, p. 92). But surgery had changed since the Civil War. Louis Pasteur began to enunciate the germ theory of disease in 1865. Joseph Lister had started using carbolic acid (phenol) as a sterilizing agent in that year, and had published his work in 1867. In the 1870s, Robert Koch had shown that heat and steam could sterilize surgical instruments. (Porter, p. 437). When Bliss had been trained, sterile working conditions were unknown, and half of all surgical patients had developed septic infections. By 1881, septic infections were nearly unknown in the more developed parts of Europe.
But many American surgeons, including Bliss, had paid little attention. Rutkow, p. 97, caustically declares, "For Bliss and his minions, ancient remedies, old-world philosophies, and a stubborn resistance to scientific progress characterized their every word and deed." A contemporary doctor would accurately remark that "ignorance is Bliss" (Rutkow, p. 131). The situation resembled a bunch of alchemists trying to clean up a chemical spill. Nothing was done to create a sterile environment for the President, and Garfield's clothing was changed only infrequently (Rutkow, p. 90). The doctors at the White House, like those at the train station, probed Garfield's wound with unwashed, un-gloved hands (DeGregorio, p. 383). It was that which proved fatal. Plus their constant prodding of his shattered rib (Rutkow, p. 94) doubtless increased his pain and prevented healing. He could not eat, he was feverish, and he probably suffered from an infected abscess somewhere (Rutkow, p. 96). The doctors released regular reports, but their accuracy was dubious at best.
On top of that, it appears Garfield was overdosed with morphine and supplied with unsuitable foods. And Bliss and Co. refused to let Garfield's regular doctor come near him (Rutkow, pp. 104-105), even though (or perhaps because) this Dr. Boynton actually knew the value of cleanliness. Nor did they remove the bullet (Rutkow, p. 116-117), which makes you wonder why they spent so much time probing the wound.
Garfield took two and a half months to die -- the assassination was on July 2; the President died September 19. There had been several crises in the interim. On July 22, Garfield's wound discharged much fluid, and he began to display chills, tremors, and an exceptionally high pulse and fever (Rutkow, p. 113). It was believed at the time that he was dying. Eventually surgery was done to drain the fluid and clean up Garfield's damaged ribs, but the surgery was not antiseptic (Rutkow, p. 115).
By August, the signs of secondary infections were manifest, such as a facial carbuncle which caused intense pain (Rutkow, p. 119). By August 14, Garfield was unable to eat and the doctors "fed" him by shoving food up his rectum toward the intestines -- a technique which does not in fact supply significant nutrition (Rutkow, p. 120). Fewer and visitors were allowed; even his children were denied entrance by the incompetent Bliss (Rutkow, p. 122).
Rutkow, p. 122, believes Bliss wrote deliberately deceptive bulletins for the public. Garfield himself, although not always lucid, apparently wanted a change, but it was not permitted (Rutkow, pp. 121, 123). Finally, on September 5, the President demanded to leave Washington, and was allowed to do so; special cars on a special rail line carried him to the New Jersey seashore. (Rutkow, pp. 123-124). It sounds like it was a dreadful journey for the dying man -- and it afforded Bliss the opportunity to get rid of more of Garfield's doctors (Rutkow, p. 125).
On September 17, Garfield began to exhibit signs of pneumonia. Although he still had lucid moments, he was delirious most of the time (Rutkow, pp. 126-127). Bliss still managed to issue optimistic medical bulletins. But on the evening of September 19, Garfield began screaming to the man watching him about chest pain. Bliss was summoned, and listened to Garfield's heart (although he refused, in his typical way, to use a stethoscope; Rutkow, p. 127). At 10:35 p.m., Garfield -- who was not quite fifty years old -- died.
An autopsy showed that the bullet had damaged two ribs but had not punctured any organs (Rutkow, p. 128). The cause of death was massive infection, as demonstrated by the several cavities of pus in his emaciated body.
To add insult to injury, many of the doctors proceeded to bill the government for thousands of dollars for their work on the President. Fee-for-service was a source of controversy even in 1881, it seems -- Bliss asked for $25,000; Congress finally granted him $6500, and most of the others had their requests similarly pared down (Rutkow, pp. 134-135). We will never know what Dr. Doctor Bliss thought of his incompetence, as he left no diaries or memoirs, but one of his assistants committed suicide in 1884 (Rutkow, p. 134).
Vice President Arthur was inaugurated the day after Garfield died (Karabell, pp. 63-64). Karabell suggests that Garfield's lingering death helped prepare the nation; there was no real succession crisis. And Arthur began to dismantle the spoils system, if only because, after Guiteau's action, he didn't dare be accused of rewarding the Stalwarts too strongly (Karabell, pp. 70-73).
His actions in promoting civil service reform initially met with little success, but after the Republicans were slaughtered in the 1882 congressional elections, a bill which had initially been proposed by a Democrat was brushed off and pushed through (Karabell, pp. 101-104). From that time on, the number of patronage jobs declined dramatically. (It will perhaps tell you something about American politics at the time that the Senate vote on the Pendleton Civil Service bill was 38-5 -- with 33 abstentions! -- Karabell, p. 105. It became law in January 1883; Karabell, p. 106).
Initial news reports of the crime were unclear of what to make of Guiteau. Karabell, pp. 64-65, points that he "was not, as news accounts labeled him, a disgruntled office seeker, except in his own mind. He had been floating around Washington and New York for years trying to catch the favor of the powers that were. In an era when there were fewer gatekeepers separating men of influence from those who wanted to meet them, Guiteau had wandered into Senate offices and White House anterooms seeking audiences, and he had written a steady stream of letters to dozens of congressmen and federal officials. He imagined himself a loyal Republican who had been repeatedly denied a post because of factional maneuvers between Stalwarts and Half-Breeds, and he believed that killing Garfield would remove that logjam."
Among Guiteau's papers were a request to General Sherman (who of course was fond of General Grant, which presumably in Guiteau's mind made him a Stalwart) asking Sherman to take troops to occupy the jail where Guiteau was held. Plus Guiteau told President Arthur who to name to his cabinet!
According to Karabell, p. 74, Guiteau was "deemed an unhinged loner." Frankly, he does sound wacko, and the song is correct in saying that Guiteau tried to "play off insane." His defense, according to Karabell, pp. 86-87, hinged on three parts:
* Insanity: "[I]t was God's act and not mine. The Divine pressure on me to remove the president was so enormous that it destroyed my free agency, and therefore that I am not legally responsible for my act."
* Malpractice: That Garfield would have recovered had his doctors been competent.
* Lack of jurisdiction: Since Garfield died in New Jersey, the court that was trying him did not have authority over the case.
Thus Guiteau never attempted to contest the fact that he had shot Garfield. And the absurdity of the latter two points is obvious. So Guiteau's only real defense was the insanity argument. (On this point, as at many others, Guiteau disagreed strongly with his lawyers. He also spent much of his time in the court shouting and making a spectacle of himself; Rutkow, p. 130; Ackerman, p. 444. Apparently he was only allowed to stay in the court because having him removed would have been considered an admission by the court that he was insane; Fetherling, p. 175.)
In previous versions of this Index, I declared "I am no diagnostician, but [Guiteau] really, really sounds like a paranoid schizophrenic, which would also explain why he refused to pursue a pure insanity defense -- most paranoid schizophrenics cannot tolerate being called insane."
Twentieth century diagnosticians tended to agree with the above: Rosenberg, p. xiii, says, "There is no doubt that Guiteau suffered from mental illness.... The precise diagnosis is another matter.... Those twentieth-century clinicians, however, who have studied the cause of Guiteau tend to agree in their evaluation of the assassin's mental status: he was, in the facetious words of one such author, 'a common garden variety of paranoid schizophrenia.'"
On the other hand, Kiehl, pp. 50-77, tries to give Guiteau a posthumous assessment for psychopathy, based mostly on Guiteau's constant cheating of his friends. His conclusion, on p. 76, is that Guiteau would have achieved a score of about 37.5 out of 40 on a scale of psychopathy -- an incredibly high score, 25% above the guideline to be diagnosed a psychopath and more than nine times the population average.
Since the above was written, I have learned a great deal about clinical diagnosis, and I am not sure I agree with either hypothesis. Kiehl's case is weakened by the fact that Guiteau seems to have actually believed he had earned the offices and money and such that he sought. This requires more than a diagnosis of psychopathy; at minimum, we need to throw in narcissistic personality disorder. The diagnosis of schizophrenia is badly weakened by the fact that Guiteau showed no evidence of psychosis. He said the idea to assassinate Garfield occurred to him; it was not suggested by someone outside him (Rosenberg, p. 39). And his memory for dates and places was regarded as good -- he was constantly correcting the witnesses in his trial (Rosenberg, p. 180). This is not typical of schizophrenia.
According to the latest authority, the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition (2013), a schizophrenia diagnosis requires a patient to meet at least two of five criteria: delusions, hallucinations, disorganized speech, disorganized or catatonic behavior, and what are called "negative symptoms." He had delusions. He did not have disorganized behavior, negative symptoms, or hallucinations (in fact, he explicitly denied having visions or hearing voices in his erratic final statement at his trial; Rosenberg, p. 215). He showed some signs of disorganized speech, but generally only in relation to his delusion of grandeur. And he didn't smoke or drink, and schizophrenics tend to smoke like chimneys and use other drugs to excess. I question whether he meets the criteria for schizophrenia (which, to be sure, have changed since the mid-twentieth century -- among other things, since 2013, the subtypes such as paranoid schizophrenia have been eliminated). My feeling is that he had Delusional Disorder plus possibly Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder. Which doesn't change the fact that he was an absolute loonie toon.
According to Hall, p. 433, the insanity defense was clearly recognized in U. S. law by this time (indeed, Boatner, p. 760, notes that the first successful defense on the ground of temporary insanity had come some twenty years earlier), although the criteria for insanity were somewhat unclear. But although it was possible to plead insanity, in general the M'Naghten/McNaghten rule used in Britain (that the victim was so far gone that he did not recognize or have control over his behavior; Fetherling, p. 226) was accepted in America also, and Guiteau clearly did not meet the M'Naghten standard; he was sane enough to know what he was doing and to know it was against the law.
Such were the conditions of the time that at least one prominent politician, Crittenden of Missouri, called for Guiteau to be torn limb from limb (Fetherling, p. 147).
The trial took place in December 1881 and January 1882. Since there was no question of Guiteau's guilt, and since the malpractice claim went nowhere (Rosenberg, p. 122), most of the arguments were about his sanity, and since he clearly met the M'Naghten standard, the defenders for the most part were reduced to producing expert witnesses arguing that insanity needed a broader definition than M'Naghten. This took a long time (Rosenberg devotes most of pp. 123-152 and 155-166 to describing it), but Guiteau's cheap legal team apparently didn't handle it very well -- one suspects the expert witnesses didn't *really* want to say that Guiteau should get off. (The main thing that I noticed in reading Rosenberg's summary of the case was how mind-numbingly wrong these alleged experts were, about just about everything. Some had worked at length with patients suffering from mental disorders, but at best they had impressions; they had no science, and no interest in any.)
(If the question be asked if Guiteau was morally responsible for his behavior and how he should be treated, my answer would be that he was close to the borderline, but minimally responsible. Today, our goal would be to spare him and cure him; in the 1880s, with no tools to do either, I think executing him made sense lest he offend again. Nonetheless, according to Rosenberg, p. 243 and following, after Guiteau's death many observers changed their minds and concluded he was too insane to be responsible for his acts. Rosenberg, p. 253, suggests that he would not even have been put on trial had he not had such a high-profile victim.)
He did at least receive a lot of recognition -- many people came to visit him in prison, or seek his autograph -- he had become something of a tourist attraction. Most of them apparently told him that they thought he should be acquitted -- and he, in his delusion, took them seriously (Rosenberg, p. 188).
"On January 23, 1882, to Guiteau's evident surprise, the jury took all of an hour to sentence him to death" (Karabell, p. 87). He promptly denounced the jury to the press, but of course that didn't help. His lawyers promptly petitioned for a new trial, but the request was summarily rejected by Judge Walter Cox (Rosenberg, p. 224). Guiteau at once turned on his lawyer (who was also his brother-in-law). This prompted Cox, who no longer needed to show judicial calm, to tell Guiteau just what he thought of him. Having done so, he sentenced him to hang on June 30, 1882. Guiteau, evidently furious, was by this time insulting the judge and trying to escape the bailiffs (Rosenberg, p. 225).
On May 22, 1882, the appeals court rejected all defence motions to overturn the verdict, ordering the execution to go forward as scheduled, leaving Guiteau and his lawyers no option except an appeal to President Arthur for clemency (Rosenberg, pp. 226, 232).
Fortunately, Arthur was not as much of a nut as Guiteau, and did *not* do Guiteau any favors. He knew that he had to make it abundantly clear that he had nothing to do with Garfield's assassination, and tried to avoid even coming to Washington until Blaine and the cabinet begged him to leave New York (Karabell, p. 62). He certainly didn't consider a pardon! Guiteau then declared that Arthur and his cabinet were doomed to perdition (Karabell, pp. 87-88); he told a clergyman that "Arthur has sealed his own doom and the doom of the nation. He and his cabinet are possessed of the devil" and declared that they would learn the truth when in hell (Rosenberg, p. 234). Apparently Guiteau had expected to be exonerated, somehow, until about a week before his execution. Once he finally accepted the truth, he started writing absurd fictions about what was to come -- e.g. Rosenberg, p. 234, prints a bit of a "tableaux" (short play) about Arthur being sent to hell.
Ironically, once he accepted that he would be hanged, Guiteau did his best to assure that it would be a proper spectacle (Rosenberg, p. 235).
So great was the anger against him that there were two attempts to assassinate him on the way to the gallows (Ackerman, p. 444).
Guiteau did compose a poem before his execution. It was entitled "I Am Going to the Lordy" (Karabell, p. 87). This song is not it; it opened
I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad,
I am going to the Lordy, I am so glad,
I am going to the Lordy,
Glory hallelujah! Glory hallelujah!
I am going to the Lordy.
I love the Lordy with all my soul,
Glory hallelujah!
A full text can be found at, or on pp. 237-238 of Rosenberg.
Guiteau reportedly dropped the paper when they placed the black cap on his head (Ackerman, p. 445); his body was autopsied and many of the remains went into the National Museum of Health and Medicine (Ackerman, p. 446).
If anything good came out of the assassination, it is that medical training in the United States was dramatically improved over the next several decades (Rutkow, pp. 132-133). And, of course, the Guiteau case advanced the cause of Civil Service reform -- Ackerman, p. 446, comments that although Guiteau was the nuttiest of all successful Presidential assassins, he was the only one whose actions resulted in significant legislation.
Garfield's widow and children were treated fairly well -- but not by the government; a private subscription raised some $300,000 for them (Rutkow, p. 135); the government managed a $50,000 pension (Ackerman, p. 441). "Crete" Garfield lived until 1918; she founded the first real Presidential Library, was a proud Progressive in 1912, and saw one of her sons become a cabinet member and another President of Williams College (Ackerman, p. 442).
APPENDIX: The Case for Garfield's Autism
I've mentioned several times the possibility that James A. Garfield was autistic (probably the form of autism formerly known as Asperger's Syndrome, now referred to as "high-function autism"). Being autistic myself, this subject is of particular interest to me. The evidence, in Garfield's case, is quite strong; the list below shows the the autistic traits I am aware of:
- It is typical of autism sufferers that their friends are unusually likely to be of the opposite sex and of a different generation. There were many murmurs about Garfield and young women, some of which sounds very familiar to me. This was less harmful to politicians then than now, but Garfield doesn't seem to have tried to hide it. It is noteworthy that he also had a close friendship with a female teacher half a generation *older* than he was (Leech/Brown, pp. 36-37, who imply that he considered marrying her).
- The way Garfield's marriage grew stronger as he grew older, described above, is very typical of autistics; exaggerated loyalty is very common for those with autism.
- This sense of devotion is seen in his other relationships, in which he showed extreme loyalty; he declared that "It is my greatest weakness to feel almost unable to criticize anyone I love."
- Garfield was noted for his clumsiness (at one point nearly killing a cousin because of his inability to control an ax; Rutkow, p. 5, and also causing himself much injury; Leech/Brown, p. 20), and autistics often lack fine motor control.
- Garfield was not only highly intelligent, but his intelligence was of a type typical of autistics: Detailed, with strong skills in mathematics and language. Note, in addition to his proof of the Pythagorean Theorem, his knowledge of Greek, Latin, and German. He also read French histories in the original language (Ackerman, p. 322).
- His early lack of self-application is very common in autistics, who have a strong tendency to "drift" in society.
- He apparently suffered from insomnia after being elected President (Ackerman, p. 232). Admittedly he was facing a pretty tough job. But it's a job most politicians would covet. Autistics often have severe sleep problems -- it is estimated that 80% suffer from sleep apnea, and almost as many have other sleep difficulties.
- Garfield liked to keep a firm and fixed schedule (Ackerman, p. 275); he seemingly disliked change; he "hated to end a way of life" (Leech/Brown, p. 43). Those with autism very much like their routines.
- Even more than most people, he hated job-seeking; he considered himself to have only once actively sought a job, and even said that job-seeking was unlucky for him (Leech/Brown, pp. 24-25). Job-hunting is one of the two biggest problems suffered by autistics (getting dates being the other).
- His indecision is another typical autistic trait; many autistics have peculiarities in the areas of the brain associated with decision-making. (The letter quoted by Ackerman, p. 92, shows Garfield at his most indecisive -- he declares that he wishes his wife were there to help him with her decision-making ability. Ackerman, p. 146, quotes Senator Henry Dawes as saying Garfield had "more brains, but no such will as Sherman, brilliant like Blaine, but timid and hesitating.")
- Even his ally James G. Blaine said that Garfield was a great debater but not a great parliamentary leader (Leech/Brown, p. 171). In Blaine's view, Garfield lacked the required tactical skills (Leech/Brown, p. 172). The defects Blaine describes are very typical of autism.
- Rutherford B. Hayes would later say that Garfield "could not face a frowning world" (Leech/Brown, p. 172). Others around him said similar things -- he could not stand up for his beliefs in the face of strong opposition. Speaking as one who has been there, this is a *terrible* problem for autistics -- I have, many times, had others impose their emotions on me. Disapproval, especially from someone whom the autistic person respects, is almost intolerable.
- Garfield's reactions to stress was so strong that it made him physically ill (Leech/Brown, p. 205). As with rejection, autistics tend to be acutely sensitive to stress.
- Garfield, in thinking about marriage, went through an almost mechanical process of selection, "'studying' [his future wife] Lucretia's qualifications to last a lifetime" (Leech/Brown, p. 49). This tendency to substitute the rational for the emotional is very autistic.
- Garfield's mother seems to have been more than a little neurotic (Leech/Brown, pp. 7-8), and the parents of autistics often have their own peculiar problems. Eliza Garfield sounds very much like some of the parents of autistics I have known. Garfield's brother Thomas is thought to have suffered from mild epilepsy (Leech/Brown, p. 13), and epilepsy and autism are genetically linked.
- Garfield is described as having suffered "emotional disturbances" as a boy (Leech/Brown, p. 18). Not all autistics suffer from such, and there are plenty of other reasons why an orphan boy might be disturbed, but such disturbances fit an autism diagnosis. Garfield seems to have suffered a bout of depression after his work on the canals (Leech/Brown, p. 22), and again in during the later phases of his education (e.g. Leech/Brown, pp. 41, 77), and it is estimated that 80% of those with high-function autism suffer from depression to some degree.
- We have only a few descriptions of Garfield's mental state after the tremendous Union defeat at the Battle of Chickamauga, but what is described on p. 147 of Leech/Brown sounds very familiar to me -- surging feelings, indecisiveness, mood swings, uncertainty. It sounds very much like the reaction to stress of someone with autism.
- Garfield had a very hard time understanding and responding to others' grief (Leech/Brown, p. 63). Inability to respond to situations like this is one of the key signs of autism.
- Garfield, in his diary, called himself a "poor hater" (Ackerman, p. 453) -- that is, one who was not good at hate. Autism sufferers are prone to sudden rages but tend not to carry the grudge.
- Garfield was a conciliator, but he was not good at compromise or negotiating deals; his attempts at filling the intermediate levels of his administration made everyone mad at him (Ackerman, pp. 299-347, with an especially strong example on p. 327). Problems with negotiating are hardly unique to those with autism, but many with autism have that problem.
- Topping it all off is his very un-politician-like feeling about people: "I love to deal with doctrines and events. The contests of men about men I greatly dislike" (Ackerman, p. 236).
Combine all these elements and the case for autism is very strong. Which helps explain why Garfield was not an executive; those with autism are rarely good leaders -- they lack what is called "executive function," or the ability to make strong decisions. He was fit for almost any job -- except the top job. - RBW
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