While the notorious deeds of presidential assassins John Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald are ingrained in Americans' minds, one man's impact on the nation's history was no less profound, yet his name fails to conjure the same level of infamy in the public consciousness: Charles Julius Guiteau.
In 1881, Guiteau altered the course of history when he fired at President James Garfield twice, once in the back and once in the arm, leading to an infection that claimed Garfield's life nearly three months later. While the slayings of Lincoln, Kennedy, and McKinley are still steeped in conspiracy theories and political ideology, Guiteau's motivations were simple - egomania, delusions of grandeur, and the belief that God had willed him to "remove" Garfield from office.
So who was Charles Guiteau? How did he come to follow a path of deceit, vile machinations, and eventually aggressive action? When looking back at the bizarre and eccentric details of his life - often well-documented through his own notes and others' accounts of his actions - it's tragically easy to see how his fate would be inexorably linked to the fate of the country.
When Charles Guiteau was 18, he joined the utopian commune known as the Oneida Community in New York, where he quickly gained a reputation with the other residents. Despite the community's acceptance of group marriage and free love, Guiteau could not find anyone willing to be his partner, emotionally or physically, and he soon earned the nickname "Charlie Gitout."
Guiteau was generally unskilled at communal living; he was "neither a steady nor a diligent worker and never became popular with the Community's other young people," historian Charles Rosenberg explained, adding that the others "regarded warily his alterations between brooding silence and garrulous enthusiasm."
Guiteau's most significant disappointment while in the Oneida Community came from his inability to bed any of the commune's women. "Guiteau was able neither to charm young ladies nor prevail upon any of the older men to intercede for him," Rosenberg wrote. He finally left the community in 1865, having spent the entirety of the Civil War among the Oneida Community.
After leaving the Oneida Community, Guiteau made his first of several attempts to start a religious newspaper. Much like Guiteau himself, the paper's temperament varied wildly. It often ran articles praising the leader of the Oneida sect, swiftly followed by stories ravaging the group. Guiteau quickly discovered there was no audience for his paper's specific focus, so he turned his attention to the law, managing to become a lawyer.
While he did find occasional work as a practicing litigator, he was infamous for his bizarre courtroom behavior and monumental ego, often resulting in him screaming at the judge and opposing counsel. One report claims he walked up to the bar separating the jury from the rest of the courtroom and "jumped over it like a monkey, put his fist in the face of a juryman, and talked with great vehemence... and his client was convicted without the jury leaving their seats."
The primary source of his income came from debt collections. However, he pocketed the few debts he actually managed to collect for himself, failing to turn the money over to its rightful owners. Guiteau made a life for himself traveling around the country, collecting debts, and defrauding employers until he eventually met Annie Bunn. He fell in love with her and somehow managed to gain her hand in marriage.
Unsurprisingly, Guiteau was not an easy man to live with, especially for his wife, who often found herself the target of his mercurial temper. Bunn endured much during her life with Guiteau, as the two moved from place to place to avoid debt collectors and others whom Guiteau had defrauded in his life.
When Bunn complained about their on-the-run lifestyle, Guiteau's fiery temper would flare. He was known to beat her, lock her in a closet, scream in her face, and even kick her. After five years, Bunn decided to pursue a divorce. By this point, Guiteau was frequently patronizing ladies of the night - even possibly catching syphilis during one particular liaison. One of these women then testified to his affair after Bunn filed for divorce on the grounds of infidelity.
By the mid-1870s, Guiteau was completely destitute and living with his sister in a country house. On one warm spring day, Guiteau's sister asked him to chop up some logs for firewood, and he begrudgingly agreed. Later in the day, she came out to see that he'd scattered logs all over the road leading up to the house, blocking her path.
She asked him to move them, and when he refused, she bent down to pick up the logs herself. Looking up, she saw Guiteau standing over her with an animalistic look in his eyes, the ax raised above his head about to strike her. She fortunately escaped unscathed, reported the incident to a housekeeper, and called for a doctor.
Dr. Rice and his colleague Dr. Gray came to the house, spoke with Guiteau for a short time, and agreed that he was mentally unsound. The family decided to commit Guiteau to an asylum - both for his own protection and theirs. However, Guiteau overheard their plans and snuck out of the house, returning to Chicago to avoid being committed.