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The untold story of the man behind President Garfield’s assassination: Charles Julius Guiteau

by Owen Dwyer

President James A. Garfield with Secretary of State James G. Blaine after being shot by Guiteau, as depicted in a period engraving from Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper.

When we travel back to another time and place through research, it’s often the big stuff we seek out – the events which shaped the world we ourselves live in. This gives us a sense of the continuity and can teach us important lessons, if we listen carefully enough. The assassination of President James Garfield just four months into his presidency in July 1881 is such an event. The timeline of the presidency was altered, the evolution of legislation irrevocably changed, and the progress of a nation sent in a different direction. But behind this great event lies the sad story of a small, shabby and inconsequential man, the assassin Charles Guiteau. His life in the years leading up to the assassination gives interesting insight into how a man’s destiny was shaped by the prevailing notions of his time.

Born in Illinois in 1841, Guiteau’s mother died when he was seven, leaving him in the care of a fanatically religious and brutal father, who beat him for perceived offences, like not saying his prayers properly. Having failed his entrance exam for university, Guiteau was sent by his father to an enclosed, ‘utopian’ community in Oneida, New York. The Oneida Community, established and run by John Noyes, a self-proclaimed prophet, had a doctrine of ‘free love’ and ‘mutual criticism’. The practice of mutual criticism involved standing a member of the community in the middle of a room, depriving them of their right to reply and encouraging other members to let loose with a catalogue of their faults. The journalist Charles Nordhoff, writing in 1875, described how one young man, who he called ‘Charles’, fainted after listening to a tirade of his shortcomings for several hours.

Free love meant multiple partners and the banning of monogamous relationships – older women were encouraged to take young men ‘up to but not beyond the point of release’. The restraint was apparently character building. Guiteau was spurned by the women of the community who gave him the nickname Charles Gitout. One can only imagine the effects of the community’s practices would have had on a fragile mind.

Charles Julius Guiteau in 1881

Cut loose from the Oneida Community, Guiteau went back to Chicago where he obtained a dodgy law degree, tried one case then fell into debt collecting. His refusal to hand over the money he collected led to understandable difficulties and in 1872 he made an escape to New York, accompanied by his new wife Ann Bunn. Here too he became a debt collector, but this time was arrested and jailed for keeping client money. Ann left and later divorced him for among other things, beating her and going with prostitutes.

Alone, Guiteau shambled from town to town giving speeches on street corners or in empty halls on his treatise, The Truth, based on the teachings of the Oneida Community and plagiarised from the writings of John Noyes. He never paid train fares or lodgings. Being thrown out of places or beaten up by angry beaus, whose girls he was stalking became routine. During cold winters he wandered the streets in threadbare cloths and broken shoes or hung around hotel lobbies reading discarded newspapers. He was in Boston, failing as an insurance salesman when he read about the excitement at the Republican Convention in 1880.

Travelling to New York to lend his support to the Republican election effort on board the SS Stonington, he witnessed its collision with the SS Narragansett, with the loss of 80 lives from that vessel. Guiteau could hear them screaming from the deck and was traumatised. He later interpreted the event as yet another example of divine providence sparing him for a greater purpose. Despite his unwavering conviction and belief in his divine mission, he was largely snubbed by the Republicans, which eventually led him to the assassination.

Charles Guiteau’s story tells us about an America awash with religion. God was not only worshipped but taken literally – ‘his’ word was often good enough, to supersede burdens of proof or rational examination. Wearing this religious armour, a white male elite ran the country to their own agenda. This lack of pragmatism was to have serious consequences for Garfield, who need not have died. The doctor in charge of his care after the shooting, Dr. Doctor Bliss (‘Doctor’ was his first name) refused to recognise the newly discovered science of sterilisation, and the president ultimately perished from septicaemia, not bullet wounds.

The impressionable and mentally ill Guiteau, absorbed the self-righteous religious fervour of what Mark Twain called the Gilded Age. He can be viewed as an intense personification of the ideology of his time and was in his way as much a victim as Garfield. He was hanged on 30th June 1882, just two days before the anniversary of the shooting.

The Garfield Conspiracy by Owen Dwyer is published by Liberties Press on 7th September 2021.


About the Author

Owen Dwyer is a prize-winning short-story writer who has won the Hennessy Emerging Fiction Prize, the Silver Quill (twice), the Smiling Politely Very Very Short Story competition, the South Tipperary County Council Short Story competition and the Biscuit Fiction Prize, and has had stories published in Whispers and Shouts magazine. His previous novel, Number Games, was published to glowing reviews by Liberties Press in 2019, and follows The Cherry-picker (2012) and The Agitator (2004). Owen lives in Dublin with his wife and their three children.


About The Garfield Conspiracy

A burnt-out writer is visited by the characters he is researching while writing a book about the mysterious assassination of US President James Garfield.

Richard Todd, an award-winning writer, is outwardly successful but inwardly plagued by uncertainties. Worst of all, he can’t seem to write any more. When a bright young editor, Jenny Lambe, arrives on his doorstep to work with him on his latest book, about the assassination of US president James Garfield, his life is sent spinning off in a new direction.

President Garfield was killed by Charles Guiteau, who was tried and hanged for the murder. But was he acting alone, in July 1881, or was there a more sinister force at work? Richard hears Guiteau’s voice in his head, and as his relationship with Jenny deepens, he is visited by other characters from the assassination drama – including Garfield himself, his Secretary of State James Blaine, Republican senator Roscoe Conkling, Conkling’s mistress Kate Chase Sprague, and the investigating police officer, Detective McElfresh. Are they helping Richard to solve the mystery surrounding Garfield’s murder – or pushing him further towards the edge?

A remarkable, disturbing portrait of a middle-aged man torn between his carefully constructed life and new adventures which may beckon, in the present and the past, from one of Ireland’s most exciting emerging authors, and based on original research into a little-known period in US history.


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