Half Light: Charles Guiteau, and the Best Wikipedia Entry Around

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The assassination of a president seems like an unlikely source of comedy, but two recent events reminded me that there is always an exception to prove every rule.

The first of these circumstances was Wikipedia’s day of blackout on Jan. 16, protesting the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). Like many other computer-bound Americans, I didn’t quite realize how much I used Wikipedia until it was gone, and my frustrated attempts to reach the site inevitably made me think of my favorite Wiki entry of all time. The thought slipped away, but returned with a purpose two weeks later when I found myself back at Wikipedia to research another article. That’s when I came across the page for a man named Jimmy Jump.

Jimmy Jump is a Spanish “pitch invader” who makes it his business to disrupt sporting events by running onto the field. He’s a Barcelona supporter, and he typically crashes the party at soccer matches, breaching the fence and attempting to place a red barretina hat on one of the players. He’s expanded his repertoire in recent years, and the Wiki page contains gems like, “Waterpolo: Jimmy jumped into the CN Sant Andreu pool in the beginning of the third period of the final match of Copa del Rey between CN Sabadell and CN Barcelona.” It also includes the story of how he interrupted the Spanish performance at the Eurovision song contest by leaping onstage and joining in on the choreography. (I highly recommend you find the video, obviously.)

Jimmy Jump’s escapades met my criteria for being laugh-out-loud hysterical, and I decided it was one of my favorite Wikipedia entries of all time. But it was not, I knew, number one. Number one will always belong to Charles Guiteau. He cannot be unseated or usurped, even by a bizarre pitch invader with a wild imagination.

It occurred to me that this was the second time I’d thought of Guiteau in a short span, and perhaps that was a sign that I should spread the message to a world that has mostly forgotten his name.

So: Charles Guiteau was a lawyer. He assassinated President James Garfield in the summer of 1881. A year later, he was hanged.

Hilarious right?

No. Not hilarious. I realize that. And let these next two paragraphs serve as the disclaimer that runs like a reprimand through the rest of the story. I’m probably a bad person for finding any of this comical. If I could go back in time and prevent Garfield’s death, rest assured that I would. Murder is the foremost human atrocity, and there’s nothing funny about anyone losing life before their time.

So what’s my excuse? First, there’s the element of time. Who is James Garfield, anyway? I’m not entirely sure, beyond the fact that he was president. I wouldn’t recognize him in a lineup with other minor presidents, like John Tyler or William Henry Harrison or Franklin Pierce. They sit in the recessed nooks of history, vague, shadowy shapes of men who we fail to differentiate from their contemporaries. There is no emotional connection, and there is no modern connection. In the absence of those bridges, it’s hard to summon any empathy.

Not so for Lincoln. When I think of his death, I still get a hollow feeling in my stomach and imagine a wounded nation hearing the news. Kennedy fascinates me, and the Oswald assassination prompts speculation about what JFK might have become and how his death changed the course of our country. Yet Lincoln and Kennedy are god-like. Right or wrong, it’s easier to ignore the misfortunes of someone like Garfield. This is surely a failure of character, but I can only be honest.

But then there’s Guiteau. It’s no exaggeration to call him one of the most fascinating figures in American history, whose every move—including the assassination—was fraught with preposterous comedy.

Let’s start at the beginning, using only the Wikipedia entry. This is not just a celebration of Guiteau, after all, but a minor paean to the big W itself, without whose revolutionary format and unpaid scribes I might never have known the Guiteau’s story. He was born in Illinois in 1841, and grew up between there and Wisconsin. The Wikipedia passages that follow are in italics:

He inherited $1,000 from his grandfather (worth about $24,400 in year-2012 dollars) as a young man and went to Ann Arbor, Michigan, in order to attend the University of Michigan. Due to inadequate academic preparation, he failed the entrance examinations. After some time trying to do remedial work in Latin and algebra at Ann Arbor High School, during which time he received numerous letters from his father haranguing him to do so, he quit and joined the utopian religious sect known as the Oneida Community, in Oneida, New York, with which Guiteau’s father already had close affiliations.

That’s how it begins. This man, who would go on to assassinate a president, failed an entrance exam at a college, and responded by joining a religious sect. Can you tell things are about to get good?

Despite the “group marriage” aspects of that sect, he was generally rejected during his five years there, and was nicknamed “Charles Gitout”.

Here’s where I start to feel bad for him, but also to laugh at his predicament. I mean, the writing here is perfect. It paints a vivid picture—everyone gets married to everyone else, virtually abolishing devastating personal rejection, and yet Guiteau gets rejected anyway. Also, who knew historical people had senses of humor? Aren’t they always grimacing in the photos?

He left the community twice. The first time he went to Hoboken, New Jersey, and attempted to start a newspaper based on Oneida religion, to be called “The Daily Theocrat.” This failed and he returned to Oneida, only to leave again and file lawsuits against the community’s founder, John Humphrey Noyes. Guiteau’s father, embarrassed, wrote letters in support of Noyes, who had considered Guiteau irresponsible and insane.

It’s fair to say that Guiteau didn’t have a ton of support from the men in his life. Keep in mind that he hadn’t even reached his 30th birthday at this point, and already his biography is turning into an American comic masterpiece. And the good details keep coming:

Guiteau then obtained a law license in Chicago, based on an extremely casual bar exam. He used his money to start a law firm in Chicago based on fraudulent recommendations from virtually every prominent American family of the day. He was not successful. He argued only one case in court, the bulk of his business being in bill collecting. Most of his cases resulted in enraged clients and judicial criticism.

When I first read the entry, this is the point where I started to wonder if the whole thing was a well-written hoax.

He next turned to theology. He published a book on the subject called The Truth which was almost entirely plagiarized from the work of John Humphrey Noyes.

He sued Noyes, then stole his ideas for a book? Again, it all seems too good to be anything but well-crafted fiction.

He wandered from town to town lecturing to any and all who would listen to his religious ramblings and in December of 1877, he gave a lecture at the Congregational Church in Washington (four years before he shot Garfield).

Be honest—how much would you pay to be able to go back and hear this speech? I am far from a wealthy man, but I might consider $1,500. Seriously.

On June 11, 1880, Guiteau was a passenger on the SS Stonington when it collided with the SS Narragansett at night in heavy fog. The Stonington was able to return to port, but the Narragansett burned to the waterline and sank, with significant loss of life. Although none of his fellow passengers on the Stonington was injured, the incident left Guiteau believing that he had been spared for a higher purpose.

I’m literally dying. Whoever wrote this article did such a superb job that I can literally smell Guiteau’s insanity as it wafts off the page. I bet he had wild eyes. If I try hard enough, I can almost see them.

It’s tempting to just copy and paste the rest of the article, but you can read it yourself at your leisure. Let’s speed through the rest of his life in bullet-point format:

*After writing a speech in favor of Ulysses S. Grant and altering it to fit Garfield, he felt himself largely responsible for Garfield’s victory in the 1880 election. His speech had been read aloud twice, at most, to small audiences.

*Because he felt that he’d single-handedly won the election for Garfield, he had no compunction about asking for an ambassadorship in Vienna or Paris.

*Despite continuous rejections, he persisted until the Secretary of State himself, James G. Blaine, told him never to come back. That was in May 1881.

*After borrowing money to buy a gun, his first attempt to assassinate Garfield failed when he lost heart at the sight of the president’s wife, who was in his company and in poor health.

*On July 2, at age 39, he steeled himself and enlisted a cab to take him to jail after the assassination. He approached Garfield at a railway station in Baltimore and shot him twice in the back. “I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts,” he shouted as he was apprehended by police. “Arthur is president now!”

*It took more than two months for Garfield to die after a long struggle with infections. If he’d been shot only a decade later, medical technology would have been sufficient to save his life.

*The next part has to be read to be believed, and is the apex of the Guiteau comedy:

Guiteau became something of a media sensation during his entire trial for his bizarre behavior, which included him frequently cursing and insulting the judge, most of the witnesses, the prosecution, and even his defense team, as well as formatting his testimony in epic poems which he recited at length, and soliciting legal advice from random spectators in the audience via passed notes. He dictated an autobiography to the New York Herald, ending it with a personal ad for “a nice Christian lady under 30 years of age”. He was oblivious to the American public’s hatred of him, even after he was almost assassinated twice himself.

*He went on to blame the doctors for Garfield’s death, saying he had “just shot him,” but that the medical care killed him.

*He made plans to go on a lecture tour after the trial and run for president in 1884. When the jury declared him guilty in January 1982, he called them, “low, consummate jackasses.”

*On June 30, after a failed appeal, he danced on the way to the gallows and recited a poem called “I am Going to the Lordy” on the scaffold—his request for an accompanying orchestra had been denied. After the recitation, the bottom dropped and his life came to an end.

Guiteau fascinates me as an American folk anti-hero, the quintessential larger-than-life tall tale figure enmeshed in the religion and politics of the mid-19th century. The fact that this particular tall tale happens to be true lends him an epic magnitude. He is not merely an assassin, and not merely a lunatic, though he is certainly both of those things. He’s also something more—a force of nature and will who forged himself into the permanent company of his betters. He is the comic embodiment of an early American ideal, when strange men committed immense acts of historical proportion. They couldn’t be stopped.

In one of the cross examinations during the trial, he was asked about his place in the world:

Q: You believe in the doctrine of predestination, do you not?

A: Most decidedly. I claim that I am a man of destiny. I want to tell you and the public that I am a man of destiny. I claim that I am a man of destiny as much as the Savior, or Paul, or Martin Luther, or any of those religious men of the kind I was.

The comparison is absurd, of course. He was dead wrong, and presumptuous in his insanity. But when I consider the winding, interconnected river of history, I’m still nagged by the idea that something in those words is irrevocably true.

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