Tuesday, January 31, 2012

The Stalking of a President

This article looks at Charles J. Guiteau's "stalking" of President Garfield up to shooting him:
Charles J. Guiteau, a mentally unstable 41-year-old lawyer, had stalked Garfield for months before shooting him at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station in Washington on July 2, 1881. Though Guiteau had passed the bar exam and used money from an inheritance to start a law firm in Chicago, he could never bring in much business beyond bill collecting, and he’d gotten in trouble more than once for pocketing what he collected. Turning to politics, Guiteau wrote a speech supporting former president Ulysses S. Grant as the Republican Party’s nominee for the 1880 campaign; when Garfield surprisingly captured the nomination instead, Guiteau revised his speech (mostly by changing references from Grant to Garfield) and delivered it on a few occasions to small audiences. He fell under the delusion that he was responsible for Garfield’s victory over Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock and immediately began pressing the president-elect for an appointment as ambassador to Austria.

“Being about to marry a wealthy and accomplished heiress of this city,” Guiteau wrote Garfield, “we think that together we might represent this nation with dignity and grace. On the principle of first come first served, I have faith that you will give this application favorable consideration.” There was no heiress, however, and Guiteau was down to his last few dollars. He wrote again to ask for a post in Paris, which he said would suit him better. None of his requests were answered—a slight that, Guiteau admitted, “hurt me very badly.” He moved to Washington, where he stayed in hotels and skipped out without paying. He spent most of his days in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. He had already decided to kill the president.

At first, he thought he would do it with dynamite, but then he reconsidered. “I was afraid to handle the stuff, for fear in my inexperience it might explode in my hands, and thus tear me to pieces,” he later admitted. He also feared killing innocent bystanders, which, to him, was “too Russian, too barbarous. No! I wanted it done in an American manner.”

He considered, too, a stiletto, but conceded that the president was too strong to approach with a knife; Garfield “would have crushed the life out of me with a single blow of his fist,” he said. He finally settled on a pistol, where he “could creep up behind him and shoot him in the head, or through the body opposite the heart.”

Guiteau was certain he would be caught: “Of course I would be executed, but what of that, when I should become immortal and be talked of by all generations to come?” He borrowed some cash from a friend and spent $10 on a handsome, short-barreled British Bulldog revolver; he thought it would display well in an exhibit on the president’s assassination. He practiced firing into a fence and concluded he was a better marksman than he had thought.

I have to say that Guiteau's "defense" makes sense to us now, although, obviously, doesn't excuse him shooting Garfield: "The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.” We could say the same thing about McKinley's...and Harding's (although no one else (at least proven) was involved in that one)....ah, makes me glad for modern medicine!

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