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Charles Guiteau Trial: 1881

Imaginary Insult Prompts Revenge, Was Guiteau Insane?, Suggestions For Further Reading

Defendant: Charles J. Guiteau
Crime Charged: Assassinating President James A. Garfield
Chief Defense Lawyers: Leigh Robinson and George Scoville
Chief Prosecutors: George Corkhill, Walter Davidge, John K. Porter, Elihu Root, and E.B. Smith
Judge: Walter Cox
Place: Washington, D.C.
Dates of Trial: November 14, 1881-January 13, 1882
Verdict: Guilty
Sentence: Death by hanging

SIGNIFICANCE: Charles Guiteau's trial was one of the first murder trials in which the defendant's claim of insanity was subjected to the modern legal test: namely, whether or not Guiteau understood that his actions were wrong.

Less than 20 years after Abraham Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth, the United States would see another president assassinated. James A. Garfield, a Union major general, had a distinguished military career, on which he capitalized even before the war ended by getting elected to the House of Representatives in 1863. Garfield was a successful politician, becoming the House Republican leader in 1876. Garfield was known for his opposition to President Ulysses S. Grant, a Republican whose scandal-ridden administration and flawed policies had alienated many of his fellow party members such as Garfield. In 1880, Garfield was the Republican candidate for president and won the election.

Unfortunately for Garfield, his presidency had attracted the obsessive interest of one Charles Guiteau. Guiteau claimed to be a lawyer and specialized in taking small-claims court cases for an unheard-of 75 percent contingency fee. Guiteau's legal career never amounted to much, and he was frequently on the run from creditors seeking payment on overdue bills. He also toyed with various political causes, joining the Oneida Community and other experimental religious communities springing up in the 1860s and 1870s. Guiteau tired of the communal life and moved to Washington, D.C., where he joined the Garfield election campaign as a lowly staff member.

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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1833 to 1882