“From Grave to Gay”

December 10, 1881

Thomas Nast

“From Grave to Gay”

Assassination; Crime and Punishment; Presidential Administration, James Garfield;

Garfield, James; Garibaldi, Giuseppe;

No 'Places' indexed for this cartoon.

No caption.

This Harper’s Weekly cartoon by Thomas Nast derides the insanity plea of Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield, as a travesty of justice.  The artist contrasts the solemn image of the slain president’s casket (upper-left) with a courtroom scene of Guiteau as a court fool sitting on Garfield’s grave to the amusement (“gay” means merry) of his lawyers (left) and the jury (right).  The assassin’s bloody hands grasp a jester’s stick having a skull where a clown’s head or orb would normally be, as the loose papers at his feet attest to the deception of his insanity plea—e.g., “Any Thing for Notoriety.” 

Upset at not being given a patronage job with the federal government, Guiteau shot President Garfield on July 2, 1881, at a train station in Washington, D.C.  The president lingered for over ten weeks before dying on September 19, just days short of his 50th birthday.  Vice President Chester Arthur was sworn in as the nation’s new chief executive, and Guiteau was indicted for murder on October 14, 1881.  At his arraignment, Guiteau presented his own plea of not guilty based on three points:  (1) his own insanity; (2) the malpractice of the president’s physicians; and (3) the D.C. court’s lack of jurisdiction because Garfield’s death occurred in New Jersey.  

Although Guiteau claimed that God was managing his case, his defense lawyer was his brother-in-law, George Scoville, an attorney whose 30-years’ experience included only two criminal cases.  At Scoville’s request, the court appointed a legal assistant, Leigh Robinson.  The prosecution team was headed by District Attorney George Corkhill and aided by John Porter, one of the most well respected lawyers in the nation, and Walter Davidge, another experienced criminal attorney.

After consulting with other attorneys, Scoville decided to drop the defense that the D.C. court lacked jurisdiction, and he also decided not to pursue the medical malpractice aspect, even though co-counsel Robinson thought it was the best defense.  Guiteau’s claim was that he had been temporarily insane for a month leading up to the shooting.  The first successful use of the temporary insanity plea was the 1859 case of Congressman Daniel Sickles, who fatally shot his wife’s lover.  However, the insanity defense in general was controversial and bitterly debated in the legal, medical, and public arenas, where it was often scoffed at as the “insanity dodge.”  Scoville wanted to prove that there was hereditary insanity in the Guiteau family.  The lawyer pointed to the fact that an uncle of the accused had died in an insane asylum in 1829, and he questioned the mental stability of a female cousin.  Guiteau’s brother, John, was angered by such an approach and unsuccessfully tried to dissuade Scoville and, when that failed, to replace him with another lawyer.

The prosecution hired Dr. John Gray, head of the mental asylum in Utica, New York, and editor of the American Journal of Insanity, who theorized that if a person who lived a moral life committed a heinous crime, the possibility of insanity existed; otherwise, the crime was the natural outcome of leading an immoral life.  In a pretrial interview conducted by Dr. Gray, Guiteau admitted that he was not insane under any medical definition of the word, but was in a legal sense because he had committed “an act without malice.”  During the trial, Gray sat at the prosecutors’ table, where he advised them on questions of the witnesses.

The trial commenced on November 14, 1881.  It was a major story in the national press, and the courtroom was packed to overflowing with journalists and curious onlookers.  Because competition for space was so keen, people brought picnic baskets rather than take a lunch break outside the courtroom.  When Judge Walter Cox refused to allow Guiteau to read an opening statement, the accused handed it to the press.  The document emphasized medical malpractice, not the gunshots, as the cause of Garfield’s death, and appealed for competent legal counsel.  Guiteau also wrote to President Arthur—“My Supposed Friend”—to seek his intervention “to tell the Prosecuting Attorneys to go very slow.”  Arthur did not respond to Guiteau, but replied later to a formal set of questions from the defense attorney.  Throughout the trial, Guiteau continually interrupted his lawyers, the prosecutors, and the judge.  On November 19, a drunken man on horseback shot at Guiteau, who was being escorted back to jail, piercing his coat but missing the prisoner.

On November 28, Guiteau took the stand, testifying for almost a week about the details of his life from childhood to his decision to assassinate President Garfield.  Prosecutor John Porter then began a rigorous cross-examination of Guiteau, with the intention of demonstrating that the accused was immoral and, therefore, not insane.  The defendant admitted to sexual relations with several women, and to contracting venereal disease.  While on the stand, Guiteau mimicked and mocked the prosecuting attorney, and interrupted to appeal for money to finance new counsel.  

One of the medical experts for the defense, Dr. James Kiernan, the managing editor of the Chicago Medical Review, weakened his case when the prosecutor informed the jury that Kiernan’s claim that 20 percent of the population was insane meant that at least two of them were bound for the asylum.  When the defense’s leading medical witness, Charles Spitzka of Columbia Veterinary College, was pointedly asked whether he was a veterinarian, he sarcastically responded, “In the sense that I treat asses who ask me stupid questions, I am.”

Closing arguments began on January 12, 1882, and included Guiteau’s statement to the jury on January 21, during which he reiterated his claim to have been temporarily insane when he shot Garfield, and would not, in his present state of mind, “do it again for $1,000,000.”  The prosecution concluded its three days of closing arguments on January 26, and the jury retired.  Returning after less than one hour, the foreman read the verdict:  “Guilty as indicted.”  Guiteau leapt to his feet and shouted, “My blood will be upon the heads of that jury, don’t you forget it … God will avenge this outrage!”  On February 3, defense attorney Scoville requested a retrial, arguing that a newspaper account of the trial had been found in the jury room and that he had acquired more evidence of Guiteau’s insanity.  The judge denied the request, and on June 30, 1882, Guiteau was hanged to death.

Robert C. Kennedy

“From Grave to Gay”
June 17, 2024

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