History Wednesday: Going to the Lordy

If history teaches us nothing else, it teaches us the notion of “the good old days” is a myth and a sham. Need proof? Consider Charles Guiteau. He was a piece of work for the ages, one who put our contemporary wingnuts to shame.

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David Koresh had nothing on this guy.

Indeed, the 1881 series of events which led to Guiteau’s place in history look absolutely preposterous when viewed through the lenses of today. Yet there they are.

Charles Julius Guiteau was a drifter and model ne’er-do-well from Illinois. After receiving an inheritance and failing his college entrance exams, Guiteau joined the Oneida Community religious sect in upstate New York. Despite the sect’s polyamorist view of “group marriage,” Guiteau was unable to take advantage of living in by far the most sexually relaxed community in 19th Century America. Apparently he was so repulsive women took to calling him “Charles Get Out.”

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“Hey baby. Uh huh huh huh ….”

By 1880 Guiteau had tried and for the most part hilariously failed in fields such as law, newspaper publishing, preaching and writing, often resorting to fraud and plagiarism in the process. Down on his luck, he decided to try politics.

At the time the Republican Party was sharply divided into two factions over political patronage, the “Stalwarts” led by Sen. Roscoe Coltraine Conkling and the “Half-Breeds” led by Sen. James G. Blaine. With the unpopular incumbent Rutherford B. Hayes not seeking a second term in the 1880 election, come convention time the Stalwarts initially supported the return of noted general and booze hound Ulysses S. Grant for a third term in the White House. The Half-Breeds supported Blaine. However it soon became apparent neither side was powerful enough to nominate its man. After over a week of balloting, the convention finally decided to nominate James A. Garfield, a bookish and rather unassuming congressman from Ohio with ties to the Half-Breeds. Chester A. Arthur, a man with close ties to Conkling’s political machine, was named as his running mate.

Guiteau was living in New York City at the time and originally supported Grant, so he wrote a campaign speech supporting him. When Garfield emerged as the nominee, Guiteau pretty much crossed out Grant’s name and wrote in Garfield’s. Although the speech was delivered in front of small crowds no more than twice, the increasingly delusional Guiteau became convinced he single-handedly orchestrated the eventual Republican victory. Garfield became president in March 1881, and Guiteau made his way to Washington to collect his reward. He figured he should be an ambassador, either to Vienna or Paris.

As one can imagine, that didn’t go over well despite Guiteau’s determination. By May Guiteau had become so much of a pain in the ass that Blaine, now Secretary of State, found it necessary to tell him to piss off personally.

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“But the Department of Interior might have an opening in their waste management program. *heh*”

By all accounts seriously unhinged for some time, at this point Guiteau claimed he received a revelation from God to kill Garfield. So he mooched a few bucks to buy a pistol, started stalking the president throughout Washington, and sent several threatening letters to the White House. He even went to the local jail and asked for a tour since he expected to be incarcerated there. Guess who picked up on all these red flags? That’s right, absolutely no one!

Finally on 2 July 1881 Guiteau had his shoes shined (because that’s what you do when you’re about to make history) and went down to the Baltimore and Potomac railroad station, where Garfield was scheduled to leave for a summer vacation. There Guiteau shot the president twice at point-blank range, hitting him in the arm and back. At that moment Guiteau triumphantly proclaimed he just healed the long-simmering Republican schism.

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“I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts! I did it and I want to be arrested! Arthur is President now!”

In the ensuing trial Guiteau’s legal counsel is noteworthy for one of the first uses of the insanity defense. It seemed like a reasonable strategy, after all. Completely oblivious to how unpopular he had become (despite nearly being assassinated twice himself), Guiteau reveled in the attention he received. Among other things, he wrote his testimony as an epic poem, dictated his biography to a newspaper – complete with a personal ad for a “nice Christian lady under 30” – and otherwise took just about every opportunity he could to make a total ass of himself.

As for Garfield, modern medical experts agree he would have easily survived his wounds had medical care in 1881 America been appreciably better than alchemy, eye of newt and all that. Some even suggested he would have been better off had his doctors done nothing. Instead Garfield’s crack medical team did things like repeatedly examine his wounds with dirty hands and engage in other medical “practices” which were permanently filed under “What the hell were we thinking?” less than 20 years later. Oh, they knew about antiseptic techniques, but they rejected them basically because they thought germ theory was sissy European crap. At one point the president’s doctors prescribed meals of egg yolks, beef bouillon, milk, whiskey and opium … all administered rectally.

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Note to self: never do an image search for “rectal feeding” ever again.
Image credit: Gilo1969

Needless to say, Garfield’s condition steadily deteriorated. After 80 excruciating days of “treatment,” he died in a New Jersey seaside town after his doctors conceded the notoriously oppressive Washington summers were bad for his health … in early September.

Guiteau’s end came several months later, as his death sentence effectively canceled his aspirations for a speaking tour and a presidential campaign of his own. He was hanged in Washington, D.C. on 30 June 1882, but not before gleefully dancing up the gallows and regaling the assembled audience with a poem he wrote earlier that morning called “Going to the Lordy.”

History may repeat itself, but I suspect it’ll be a good, long time before we see a story like this again.

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