The newly-elected President James Garfield was standing at the train station in Washington, D.C. railway, deep in conversation with his secretary of state while waiting for his ride when Charles Guiteau drew an ivory-handled .44 caliber pistol, which he carefully selected thinking it would look good in a museum later on, and fired at the President. The first shot hit his elbow, while the second shot made its way in his back. In his mind, the President had wronged him, and Guiteau believed Garfield’s death was needed to save the country.

The assassin tried to escape, but the crowd converged him as the President yelped, “I am dead!” but he wasn’t. He lived for the next two months in agony before succumbing to the infected wounds he got during surgery in failed attempts to locate and remove the bullets.

The Would-Be Assassin

Charles J. Guiteau (Bell, C. M. (Charles Milton), approximately 1849-1893, photographer, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Before the very act of shooting the Garfield, Charles Guiteau’s life had been a whirlwind from the very beginning. After inheriting $1,000 (which amounts to around $29,000 in 2020) from his grandfather, he went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, to attend the University of Michigan. However, due to his insufficient academic preparation, he failed the entrance exams. His father kept writing him letters to ask about his progress. He soon decided to quit and join a utopian religious sect called Oneida Community, which his father had close affiliations with. Guiteau greatly looked up to the group’s founder, John Humphrey Noyes, seeing him as a perfect being.  The Oneida’s were part religious cult and part utopian socialists living a communal existence, practicing group marriage and believed Christ had already returned and they could create a heaven on Earth.  The cult never had more than 100 members and when they eventually dissolved a part of them became suddenly capitalist and formed a joint-stock company called Oneida Community Limited to run their small business operations.  This eventually led it to become the Oneida that makes silverware and cutlery today.

Despite being an active member, his fellows were not too fond of Guiteau in the entirety of his five years stay. He left the community and started a newspaper called The Daily Theocrat. When it failed, he went back to sue the Oneida Community, demanding payment for the work he had supposedly performed for them. This greatly embarrassed his father, who thought he was either insane or possessed by the devil. His sister, who was initially on his side, withdrew her support after he threatened her with an ax.

He soon worked as a clerk at a Chicago law firm and passed a cursory exam to attain admission to the bar. He was a failure as a lawyer, handling only one case in court. He soon married and moved with his wife to New York City, running away from the pile of bills chasing them. He identified himself with the Democratic Party and supported Horace Greeley in the 1872 presidential election. During that time, the best way to persuade people into voting for a specific candidate was through public speeches. He prepared a disorganized speech for Greeley, who lost anyway. In Guiteau’s head, he would’ve been given the ambassadorship of Chile post had Greeley won. This, of course, was just a delusion.

Unmet Expectation

And so, in the 1880 Presidential election, he again delivered a speech in support of the Republican nominee, James Garfield, and when he won, he was convinced that he played an instrumental role in his election. And so he wrote a letter to Garfield, requesting a post as the ambassador to Austria,

Being about to marry a wealthy and accomplished heiress of this city, 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.

None of that was true, be it the heiress or the dignity he wrote in his letter. When he received no response, he wrote another letter, this time asking for the post in Paris, which he said would suit him better. He didn’t receive anything for the second time, and he admitted that “hurt me very badly.”