Illustrations for this essay.
"The Plea of Insanity"
Sarah Orne Jewett
Introduction by Terry Heller
Go to text of the essay.
This text seems to need an introduction, for it assumes from the first sentence knowledge of a course of events few readers would now possess. This introduction summarizes that course of events and opens some questions about Jewett's involvement in it.
On July 2, 1881, Charles Julius Guiteau (1841-1882) fired two shots at President James Garfield as the President passed through the Baltimore and Potomac train station in Washington D.C. to begin an excursion to his alma mater, Williams College. Guiteau was immediately arrested and jailed, while the nation and the world waited to learn whether the President would recover from his wounds. Upon his arrest, Guiteau was carrying a letter addressed to the White House, which read: "I have just shot the President. I shot him several times, as I wished him to go as easily as possible. His death was a political necessity. I am a lawyer, theologian and politician. I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts. I was with General Grant and the rest of our men, in New York during the canvass. I am going to jail. Please order out your troops, and take possession of the jail at once" (Rosenberg, p. 5). Though Guiteau had practiced law, his training and experience were minimal. His claim to be a theologian rested on his having tried itinerant preaching as a means of earning a living and upon having self-published a book on religion. His claim to be a politician rested upon his having made one minor political speech, having been an avid supporter of Ulysses S. Grant and then James Garfield in the presidential contest of 1880. To be a Stalwart meant supporting the "spoils system," by which those elected to office received the power to appoint their supporters to virtually all government jobs. Though President Garfield had solicited Stalwart support in his election, he resisted their wishes after his election. Guiteau saw this resistance is one reason why he did not receive the State Department appointment he had convinced himself he deserved. The president died on September 19.
Guiteau's trial began on November 14 and quickly became a notorious news event. People were anxious to witness the trial, seats were difficult to get, and the courtroom was always full and not always orderly. The less than competent Guiteau was active in his own defense, though his brother-in-law, George Scoville, was his lawyer. Scoville also had little experience in criminal law and sought help from others. These factors contributed to a disorderly trial that provided newspapers and spectators with dramatic entertainment through its completion in February 1882, when Guiteau was sentenced to be executed on the following June 30.
A central issue in the trial was Guiteau's responsibility for the murder. There was no question that he fired the shots, but was he sane enough to be held responsible? Charles E. Rosenberg (see bibliography below) examines this issue in detail, presenting the main opposing views. The majority view is represented by Jewett's "The Plea of Insanity." In this view, one is sane if one can distinguish between right and wrong. And it seemed clear that Guiteau could make this distinction. Instead of legal insanity, Guiteau was said to suffer from "moral insanity." Though he may seem unrestrained and sometimes out of control, this state was the result of his own choices. At some point, he made a wrong turn, failed to restrain himself when he knew he should. After that it became increasingly difficult for Guiteau to follow the moral law; having stepped off the straight and narrow path, he tumbled down the slippery slope into moral depravity. Therefore, he must be held responsible for the great crime he committed at its bottom. Jewett describes this process in a children's story that appeared in December of 1871 in The Independent (28:3), "The Boy with One Shoe": "I do wish I could make you believe how wise it is to be careful about doing right. Because you are a child, you think it is no matter if you tell lies, and are lazy, and say things at school you would not dare or wish to at home. It is the greatest harm to you, if it never troubles any one else in the least. The world is crowded with people this very day who will sadly tell you that they had this or that habit when they were children; and, though they have tried and tried, they cannot break away from it, and it makes them ashamed of themselves every day. These things grow in you just as a tree does in the ground. There is only a little twig with a leaf or two at first; but, if nobody treads on it, it grows stronger and deeper into the ground, just as your naughty ways take more and more hold in you, and the branches spread wider and wider out into the world.... And it makes it harder, every time you tell a lie, for you to tell the truth next time." Though Jewett wants to hold the morally depraved responsible for their crimes, she is also willing to recommend pity for them as in "Sheltered," her poem in Harper's Monthly (63: 444-446), August 1881.
New thinking about insanity began to gain prominence after the Civil War, and ideas approached more closely to twentieth-century notions of mental illness, but this thinking lacked coherence at the time and stood little chance of making way against a variety of social and intellectual forces of opposition, not least of which was a national consensus that Guiteau must die for his crime.
Guiteau tried to maintain that he was legally insane: "I do not claim to be insane as a medical man would judge what is ordinarily called insane, but legal insanity ... It is an insanity in a legal sense, irresponsibility [i.e. not responsible], because it was an act without malice . . . . I knew from the time I conceived the act if I could establish the fact before a jury that I believed the killing was an inspired act I could not be held responsible before the law. You may add this, that the responsibility lies on the Deity, and not on me, and that, in law, is insanity" (Clark, p.121). Few took this position seriously.
Whether in later years Guiteau would be judged legally insane and institutionalized rather than tried is difficult to determine. The portraits that emerge in Rosenberg and in Clark suggest that from childhood on Guiteau was delusional and barely capable of distinguishing fantasy and reality. He wanted to be important, imagined himself to be a succession of great persons, and once he imagined something, came quickly to believe it was true. He seemed to lack the ability to carry through a sustained effort, and his life took the shape of repeated attempts to leap by sheer will into the position of greatness he felt belonged to him. Much of his life consisted of schemes for achieving greatness in some field, supported by petty swindles that just barely kept him out of poverty. He was resourceful and canny, but could not formulate and carry out a practical plan for achieving a long-term goal. His second-to-last scheme was to secure an ambassadorial appointment from the newly elected Garfield, for whom Guiteau had campaigned in a minor way. In the weeks before shooting the President, he wrote many letters to Garfield and his assistants offering familiar advice concerning patronage appointments, re-election strategies, and the first lady's health. Though he had managed to speak on a couple of occasions with Garfield and Secretary of State James Blaine, he felt he was on familiar terms with both and that he fully deserved appointment to a consulate in Paris or Vienna. Throughout this period, he seemed convinced such an appointment would come, and he traded upon it in every way. When the idea of killing President Garfield came into his head, he hardly questioned it. That he had thought of it made it seem right, and he quickly rationalized it in the ways suggested by the letter he carried during the assassination, justifying the assassination ultimately as a sort of divine command to save the Republican Party and the United States from Garfield's mild but mistaken efforts at reigning in the spoils system. Clark reports that when Guiteau bought a pearl-handled pistol, paying $10 of borrowed money, and rejected a less expensive hard-rubber-handled model, he asserted that the former would look better in a museum (p. 49). There is evidence to suggest that Guiteau's deepest, though perhaps unacknowledged, motive for the assassination was to bound into greatness at last. For example, his first action upon conceiving the idea was to revise his self-published book, The Truth - a mishmash of the doctrines of J. H. Noyes of the Oneida Community, where Guiteau was a member for several years in his youth. He anticipated demand for this book after the assassination made him famous.
These glimpses of Guiteau suggest that he was pathological from an early age, that he probably never had occupied a position above the pit of moral depravity into which popular thought was persuaded he must have fallen. If he were examined today, it is possible he would be considered incompetent to stand trial, though this is not certain. To have him judged insane in 1881, his defense had to show that he had a hereditary tendency to insanity, that he had suffered from fits of madness in which he was incapable of reasoning about right and wrong, and that he had been suffering in this way when he shot the President. There was little chance that such a case could be proven, especially when Guiteau was repeatedly before the jury and the public acting in his own defense. Though he clearly was incompetent and unrestrained in many ways, he always seemed aware of his own self-interest. His wildest behavior was fairly easily interpreted as a deliberate if clumsy attempt to appear insane. He seemed to fit easily into the category of "moral insanity" for which he could be held responsible.
Jewett's essay was published on January 11, near the end of the trial; sentencing took place on February 4. The essay is somewhat unusual in several ways, for it shows a side of Jewett that readers of her collected fiction may not so easily notice.
This is one of the few known pieces in which Jewett comments directly on a current public event. The terms of her argument are consistent with a number of other pieces she wrote in the first decade of her career - in which the concepts of moral laziness and the importance of a kind of Emersonian self-cultivation figure - see for example her other essays in The Congregationalist, notably "Lucky People" (34:18, Wednesday, May 3, 1882, p. 149). Generally, however, she prefers to express such ideas in the context of a story or poem.
Readers familiar with Jewett also may be surprised to find her expressing essentially conventional views, remembering for example her somewhat more radical opinions on women's work in A Country Doctor (1884). It would be an interesting project to sort out Jewett's views on moral depravity and moral laziness as they appear in A Country Doctor to determine their consistency with her previously expressed opinions. "The Plea of Insanity" articulates the official position of The Congregationalist, a newspaper with a theological interest in the concept of moral depravity. The appendix that follows Jewett's text below shows that Jewett's leading ideas had nearly all appeared in reports and commentary on Guiteau's trial in The Congregationalist before her essay appeared. Her readers would recognize the essay as a full statement of the weekly's editorial view that Guiteau was guilty, responsible, and deserving of execution. Appearing shortly before the verdict and sentence and reinforced by other pieces before and after its appearance, the essay presents the paper's position on what the verdict and sentence should be.
One might wonder why The Congregationalist would even bother to publish an essay that does little more than reiterate what its various writers had been saying since July 2. Perhaps the editors saw some value in having a guest writer summarize the paper's position as the trial drew to a close. It is possible that the editors welcomed this moderately expressed piece from Jewett because she had developed her reputation as a story-teller and poet, especially for children, in another denominational newspaper, The Independent. This is Jewett's first known piece to appear in The Congregationalist, but she had been publishing regularly in The Independent for a decade, beginning with "The House that Ran Away" in September 1871 (23:3). There she contributed more than twenty stories and poems, many addressed to younger readers. As the quotation from "The Boy with One Shoe" suggests, these pieces tended to be moralistic; indeed, they returned with some regularity to themes she expresses in "The Plea of Insanity." Her views on this topic were likely to be of interest to readers.
Below appear the text of Jewett's essay, a bibliography of books that discuss Guiteau's trial in detail, and an appendix that helps to establish the context of news and commentary within which Jewett's essay appeared.
Text of Jewett's "The Plea of Insanity"There is something exasperating to many persons in the promptness with which the plea of Guiteau's irresponsibility was brought forward. Such mania as this seems to be the fault and not the misfortune of the possessor - it is the effect upon character of constantly doing what is known to be wrong. People educate themselves up (or down) to this sort of insanity because they lose hold of themselves and yield to wrong impulses until they have lost all power of resistance, and are like vanes, that whirl about with the wind, and point first one way and then the other. The muscles of our minds grow weak from disuse and the lack of self control, and we must expect to be punished by outward force and blame, as well as by the calamity of conscious worthlessness. The excuse is often heard that an injury or annoyance to a friend, to one's self, to the world at large, could not be helped. "I cannot do this thing or that, though I know that I ought;" "I have a superstitious fear of the other thing." How often one hears such words as these, and pities the persons who are allowing their whims, their selfishness or their nervous fantasies to make their laws of conduct. We are all gifted, to begin with, with the power of knowing the difference between right and wrong. It is only our own wickedness and carelessness that deprives us of it.
There is a deplorable number of worthless people, some of whom claim great sympathy on the score of being nervous invalids, who have only themselves to blame for their sad and provoking condition. It is common to see people who are ill and worn out with over-work - wounded soldiers in the battle of life - but it is far more common to see others who are the victims of their own weakness of mind, who have willfully grown more and more inefficient in body and soul, and are a drag and sorrow to themselves and to everybody else. No one ought to take any pride in being a discipline to his neighbors, even if it brings out the good traits of patience and charity! As for such insanity, there is seldom a case of it, or in fact of any insanity, for which the unhappy subject is not himself responsible. A drifting ship must come to harm, and, as old Thomas Fuller says: "The house of correction is the fittest place for those who are lame through their own laziness." The sooner most cases of sham insanity are a disgrace instead of an excuse, the better. It would warn back many who are now far on the road towards such a condition. It is a crime against his neighbors when a man is not fulfilling his duties in life; every man should take good care of himself and make the most of himself that is possible, for the sake of society. We are too apt to pity people when we ought rather to reproach them. The theologians tell us that we are responsible for the state of our consciences, and we shudder to think it is true. We are to blame if any instinct has become blunted; if the quality of our characters and actions is not what it should be. The lack of a proper moral motive power is something that cannot be forgiven when one thinks of it soberly; for growing to be better men and women is the only purpose that is sure, in this world, of success. A man may be disappointed and baffled who wishes to be rich or wise or great in any other thing than goodness.
The distance between a life and a crime like Guiteau's - a life that is laughed at and avoided, and a crime that the nations of the earth have looked at with horror - and the selfishness and petty tyranny and silly imprudence and weakness that make one household miserable, is a wide distance: the likeness between a man who calls himself a nervous invalid and a man like Guiteau is not apparent at first thought. A human being whose mind and body are the prey of a diseased brain is the saddest and most cruel and mysterious sight in the world. But Guiteau and any man whose mind is lame through his own laziness in taking care of it, are no kindred cases to a man who is the victim of real mania.
Guiteau was a willful murderer, but the readiness with which the plea of irresponsibility was brought forward plainly shows how willing we are to accept the excuse in other cases of less magnitude, inside and outside the courts of law. The doctors may give us sedatives and tonics, but they cannot give us doses of common sense and self-control. The health of the mind, and the building up and care of character, are dependent upon one's self. Nothing can help us if we will not be helped. If a man himself is to blame for having arrived at the perhaps irresponsible state of mind in which he commits a crime, he certainly deserves the penalty as much for the long course of wrong doing as for the act itself. And to be praised, to be pitied, to be notorious, and to try to make oneself of consequence in any harmful way - to live for any unworthy ends like these - is certainly not right-mindedness; but a bad and useless life ought to be blamed and not excused. People are always saying I cannot when they mean I will not; they say that fate and circumstances - even their own natures have been against them, when they never have honestly tried to make the most and best of life.
"The Plea of Insanity" appeared in The Congregationalist 34 #2 p. 1; 11 January 1882. This text is made available courtesy of the Newberry Library. It is not listed in Weber and Weber, A Bibliography of the Published Writings of Sarah Orne Jewett.
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Guiteau's irresponsibility: Guiteau would be "irresponsible" or not responsible for the murder of President Garfield if it could be shown that he was a madman, incapable of understanding and controlling his own actions. The medical and religious communities were deeply divided within themselves about the issue of insanity. Jewett's essay reflects this division. His defense in court and in public discussion expressed minority views about the nature of insanity; these were seen as dangerous for several reasons. Jewett seems most concerned with the general effects on the nation of what she sees as an attempt to evade responsibility for one's moral duty of self-cultivation.
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Thomas Fuller says: "The house of correction is the fittest place for those who are lame through their own laziness.": Probably the elder Thomas Fuller (1608-1661). This quotation has not been located. If you can identify it, please contact the site manager.
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Two substantial accounts of the assassination of President Garfield and the trial of his assassin, Charles Guiteau.
James C. Clark, The Murder of James A. Garfield: The President's Last Days and the Trial and Execution of His Assassin. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 1993.
Charles E. Rosenberg, The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.
Following is a sketch of the coverage of President Garfield's assassination and the aftermath in The Congregationalist during 1881 and 1882. It consists of summaries and quotations of main pieces and some smaller items dealing with Guiteau and the trial, but includes one piece that bears on the newspaper's more general position on social issues. This will seem fragmentary without a more complete narrative such as is available in Rosenberg and in Clark, but when combined with those accounts, these materials will help the reader to understand two contexts within which it is interesting to see Jewett's essay: the context of the national conversation on Guiteau's trial and the context of The Congregationalist's contributions to that conversation. These materials are made available courtesy of the Newberry Library.
You may view illustrations relevant to these materials by clicking here: Illustrations.
Notes on Articles in The Congregationalist on the Garfield assassination.
Volume 33, 1881
July 6 (the first issue to appear after the shooting on July 2)
p. 218, under the title "Reaping the Whirlwind"
The writer asks us to think about the causes that stand behind Guiteau's actions. The current dangerous state of the nation "is the result of no chance, but rather the legitimate fruitage of seed which has been sewn for years along the furrows of the public mind."
Though the writer is unwilling to assert without evidence that there was a conspiracy - a suspicion that might easily follow from the assassination four months earlier of Russia's Czar Alexander II by Nihilist conspirators - he is convinced that "wild ideas are in the atmosphere." He names Wendell Phillips, who has spoken approvingly of the Czar's death in a recent speech at Yale, and O'Donovan Rossa, who has been involved in violence in Ireland. Other wild ideas include the promiscuous carrying of firearms in some parts of the United States and the spoils system.
That this shooting has arisen out of this atmosphere should be taken as a warning from God to clean up the moral atmosphere of the nation or expect more serious consequences. The piece ends with a recommendation to Chester Arthur, should be become President, to "develop a manly and vigorous patriotism" in the nation, one that is properly submissive to the rule of God.
p. 222, the last page of this issue.
Under the headline "A Startling Event!"
This is a narrative of the assassination attempt. The pronunciation of "Guiteau" is given as "getto."
The story reports that Guiteau has a reputation as a dead-beat "and has for years been a miserable, worthless fellow, if not a semi-lunatic. He declares that he meant to commit the deed and thereby put Mr. Arthur in the President's chair, and thus bring Mr. Conkling to power; but the general belief is that he is nothing short of a crazy man."
The story also says that Guiteau spent "the winter before last in the Congregational House (Boston), with a desk at the office of the Peace Society, Rm. 6, for which he never paid. While here, he published his book The Truth: A Companion to the Bible."
On the same page are "Notes from the Capital," dated July 2. This is commentary by a writer who remembers Lincoln's assassination. He reflects that Garfield had been very successful so far as president and that there were high expectations for him, but he has been stricken "by the bullet of a crazy fool, whose weak mind has dwelt so much on this struggle at Albany that he is willing to murder the President to atone for it. That one sour-minded, disappointed applicant for office, so weak in intellect, so without power or influence of any kind, should so nearly succeed in depriving a great nation of its head, should almost decide who should be that nation's ruler, that such an one should cast his little influence over the long current of our national history, is one of the mysteries of God's dealings with nations."
See Clark and Rosenberg for details about Conkling and the struggle at Albany, the capital of the state of New York. The struggle concerned Roscoe Conkling, a recently resigned senator from New York at the time of the shooting. He was involved in a dispute with Garfield over control of political patronage in the spoils system.
p. 229 Notes from other papers
Says this move should encourage the reform of the spoils system. Open on whether Guiteau is insane.
Strongly critical of spoils system as behind the assassination; emphatic in assertion that Guiteau is not insane.
p. 230 under headline, "The Assault on the President"
"There is a decided difference of opinion in regard to the assassin. That he is the instrument of any conspiracy seems very improbable. That he is insane we do not believe. At the least there was a very cool method in his madness. While indisputably a grave fault lies in our vicious political system, enough lies in the perpetrator to entitle him to the full penalty of the law. It is to be regretted that the penalty is so light."
Since at this time, Guiteau has merely attempted to kill the president, he can only be punished for the attack, not for murder.
August 3, 1881
p. 250 "The Epidemic of Barbarity"
Guiteau, Wendell Phillips, and Rossa are again offered as examples of the quantity of violence in the civilized world and its causes.
August 24, 1881
News report on Guiteau attacking his guard as the president's medical condition becomes critical and the number of guards at the jail is increased.
"We are obliged to write the name of the miscreant Guiteau to record the fact that he has given another manifestation of the evil of which he seems to be wholly made up.... What his object could have been in making the attack is a mystery, as he could have had neither hope or desire to escape."
Reports that in Washington, a group has formed to insure that Guiteau doesn't escape death for his crime. The writer wonders whether he can safely be transported to and from court, because no jury would serve in the trial of the man who kills Guiteau.
September 28 (after the death of Garfield on 19 September.)
p. 318 this piece appears next to an account of Garfield's funeral.
In the previous issue there is a report of an attempt to shoot Guiteau by a soldier, so the following seems misinformed: "We are gratified that as yet no attempt has been made to take vengeance upon him in any unlawful manner." "... there is no doubt that all will be adjusted, and the wretched criminal lawfully, but quietly and firmly be put out of the world. It is a most humiliating duty, but one that must be performed." Also expresses hope for a law making it a capital crime to attempt to kill the President,.
Announcement of the trial beginning soon and that Guiteau will plead insanity. The writer repeats that it is humiliating even to talk about Guiteau in print.
Various notes in previous issues have kept readers informed of difficulties with the legal process, such as getting a lawyer.
"The most humiliating duty ever imposed upon a nation is that which now rests upon the United States in the trial of Guiteau."
This is the first report of Guiteau's antics in the courtroom. It is expected that these will lose him what little sympathy he might have.
p. 379 "The Trial of Guiteau"
A summary account of the first week of the trial. It interesting how lacking the story is in sensationalism, setting this apart from more typical accounts in the daily newspapers and in more sensational weeklies such as Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly. The writer points out that Guiteau's behavior continues bad, but that the judge has quieted him by threatening to keep him from being present at his own trial.
Neither the writer nor the public in general believes him insane, rather that his courtroom antics, abetted by his lawyer, are designed to make him appear insane; everyone is said to see through this strategy.
The writer is convinced that Guiteau's true motive was the revenge of a disappointed office seeker, and, therefore, that he must be judged as sane.
The writer reports an attempt to kill Guiteau outside the courtroom, and offers his behavior during this episode as proof of his cowardice.
The writer also points out that the White House keeps an executive file of letters believed to have come from insane people. None of Guiteau's letters were in this collection.
p. 386 a discussion of the insanity plea
The writer discusses other accused criminals who have used the insanity plea recently. The writer believes that this "trend" will work against Guiteau, for it will seem fashionable. The writer believes Guiteau has the same sort of insanity that Cain, the brother and killer of Abel in Genesis, had, and he hopes that the trial will clarify the line between the criminal and the insane.
The writer examines the difficulty for the judge of being fair to Guiteau. To treat him as crazy is to favor him; to treat him as sane may be unjust. Judge Cox has to give Guiteau ample leeway, but he shouldn't allow any special privileges though, such as his "Sunday levees."
A good number of well-connected people were able enter the Washington jail on Sundays, to look at and even visit with this notorious man. See illustrations.
p. 396, "News from the Capital"
This story reports on the trial and on several attempts to kill Guiteau. All of those caught trying have claimed they are insane.
This account of the trial describes Guiteau's continued antics, including his days on the witness stand. The writer believes there is no doubt he is sane, because he is afraid to die - he travels to court prone on the floor of the van to avoid gunshots - and because he clearly understands all the questions he is asked. He sporadically pretends to be insane.
p. 409, "Reform in the Political Status of Woman." [see note after this entry]
The opening column of this issue argues that a movement for reform that does not draw upon the Bible, that ignores or opposes it, cannot be given respect. Goes on the argue that the Bible is clear, in St, Paul, that women should be subordinate to men.
This piece argues at considerable length that women have no natural right to the vote, that men have never wanted it for them, and that no significant number of women - especially if Christian - have wanted it for themselves. The writer speaks against "thrusting an unwanted right" upon women.
He finally lists other ways in which changing women's position is society seems right, e.g. education and property rights. Development rather than reform/revolution is more a appropriate approach to improving women's lot.
I include this summary because it sheds light upon the social conservatism of The Congregationalist. However, the paper would have seemed liberal to many in 1881, because it was willing to accept writing on public issues by women such as Jewett.
"GUITEAU'S TRIAL moves slowly onward, and the testimony is mainly in. Yesterday produced a scene, the like of which, I venture to say, has never been seen in an American court before. The prisoner continually interrupted court, counsel and witnesses, especially the latter. For yesterday's testimony tended strongly to show his life of fraud, deceit and corruption; and Guiteau was greatly excited by the revelation. His sister, his counsel and the court tried to restrain him, but in vain. He could not restrain himself. All the witnesses agreed that in their opinion he was a sane but corrupt man. At the several statements of these witnesses the prisoner would shriek out, at the top of his voice, 'You were in jail,' 'That is false,' 'You are lying,' You are 'a Jew and a dirty one at that,' 'That is a lie,' and similar interruptions. He was terribly excited by this continuous tale of a life of fraud.
"Unless there are some crotchety fellows on the jury, the case may be considered settled. The killing is admitted. Has the testimony shown an insanity that lifts the defendant out of the reach of the law? If any insanity whatever has been proved - and this is a doubtful point - it is only that moral insanity which arises from a lack of moral discrimination, caused by an unrestrained career of folly and of crime. Of intellectual insanity there is hardly a trace; on the contrary, he has shown an unusual amount of clearness of thought, and of the adaptation of crooked means to crooked ends. By this life of fraud, Guiteau has nearly reduced himself to the level of the beast; he has so blunted his conscience as almost to have obliterated it. But this low state of morals and of conscience is no bar to punishment, any more than drunkenness is." (W. R. H.) [Most "Notes from Washington" columns have these initials as a by-line.]
p. 417 (first page) The Guiteau Trial, by Rev. J. L. Withrow, D.D.
[Text of the essay]
That the country is disgusted and disgraced by what has occurred in the course of the trial of the murderer of President Garfield, admits no doubt. That an outcry loud enough to startle the court has not already been uttered is owing to the self-respect and patience of the American people, not to any lack of provocation. Having served as a witness of the Government, and having sat a full day in the court-room, observing the painful scenes perpetuated, I cannot refrain from complaining of the court. The crier has hardly secured quiet, as Judge Cox takes his seat on the bench, when the prisoner breaks out in abuse of some one, present or absent. In that sharp-toned and vindictive sounding voice, which to hear once is always to remember, he assails the officers of the Government, or vilifies some witness that has already testified, and departed; or pours calumny on the name of some newspaper, or speaker, who has dared to call him by his right name. Vulgar adjectives and epithets are his chosen weapons, which he uses with entire indifference to the presence of hundreds of ladies sitting in the court-room. Then if a witness testifies to anything which hurts his vanity - which appears to be the only vulnerable spot in the poor man's being - Guiteau bursts forth upon him like a fiend. At his assaults and sallies there are many, in such an audience, who laugh. Ripples follow smiles, and audible applause the ripples. And what says the court? Usually, nothing. Sometimes a remonstrance is heard with a force that reminds one of meekness coaxing a mob with molasses candy.
And, if there were nothing worse than such weakness, it were well. But time after time the court gratifies the egotism of the prisoner, and the applause of the vulgar in the audience, by smiling himself at the ghastly fun.
Now it is the swift answer to critics of the court to ask: how can it be avoided? The Judge is impotent to prevent it. It is one thing to find fault; and a more difficult to suggest a remedy. We are reminded that the assassin appears as his own attorney, and so has a right speak. That the rights of the accused demand that witnesses against him shall be examined in his presence. Therefore this man cannot be gagged, and cannot be kept out of the court-room during the progress of the trial. That if either of these remedies could be legally applied it would excite sympathy and prejudice the jury, and imperil their finding. And so the outrage must proceed, decency dare not guess to what point of shame.
This is nonsense! The excuse is second only to the outrage in exciting the indignation of the nation. Suppose the excuses of the court were valid. What follows but this, that, hereafter, our trials in the courts are to become the most demoralizing scenes that depraved culprits can make them. You say: But in ordinary cases a prisoner would be thrown into jail for contempt of court until he would promise to be decent. Why not do this with President Garfield's murderer? Because they who excuse the court say this would suit Guiteau exactly. He would enjoy the delay and costs of the interruption by his imprisonment. So would many other criminals. And such is not the method which good sense would suggest as a relief. But how very easily Judge Cox could have cut short this shameful scene, this broadly roaring farce, if he had cared to, at the very first of it, without violating law, or infringing the rights of the criminal.
The court-room will hold five or six hundred people. Let him adjourn to a room holding less than fifty. At present there are many of the audience who are admitted by ticket. Besides a dozen jurors, the lawyers and officers of the court, admit as many more as the small room could comfortably hold -- instead of, as now, allowing them to stand as thick as grass on the ground!
[Withrow next presents details of this proposed arrangement, including an agreement with reporters to censor all of Guiteau's vulgar language from their reports of the trial. His point is that Guiteau's purpose is to make a sensation and read about himself in the papers.]
This man wants a crowd. Judge Cox has no right to grant it, when he cannot control it. There is no law demanding that the court shall sit in a room holding so many. There are no rights of the accused which would not be as safe in a very small room, as in this gathering of smothering hundreds. As it is, the jam of people, producing a foul atmosphere, is already putting the health of the jury in peril. How will the court be excused if the trial breaks down from this cause?
[Withrow concludes with the idea that Judge Cox is indifferent to Guiteau making a spectacle and enjoying it, but the writer thinks that the nation is not so indifferent.]
December 28, Final issue of the year
p. 434 "Notes from Washington"
W. R. H. says the trial is nearly over and that he expects the verdict to be guilty. While Guiteau lacks self-control, he understands right and wrong, and when it comes to self interest, seems perfectly able to reason.
The Congregationalist V. 34 1882
Jewett's "The Plea of Insanity" appears on the first page.
p. 30, The Guiteau Trial
The writer expects the trial will be over by the time readers see this account. He takes up the issue of whether Judge Cox should have restrained Guiteau more effectively.
"In any case the fact that so great a freedom has been allowed him has accomplished two desirable objects. It has prevented any one from charging truthfully that he has not been permitted to have a fair chance, and it has given him an opportunity of displaying, and the world one of comprehending, his mental and moral condition."
p. 38, The Guiteau Verdict
"Very few who have followed carefully the course of the trial, especially if they also have watched the behavior of Guiteau closely, can have any reasonable doubt of the justice of the verdict, guilty of murder in the first degree. The whole country approves it as righteous. Not because of any hatred of the miserable criminal. Abhorred as he is universally, this nation is too great and too honorable to deal with any man, even one only accused as the assassin of its President, in any other spirit than that of exact fairness.... We cannot think of him without disgust, but our disgust is not unmixed with pity, as we remember what a moral wreck he has made of what might have been a noble, useful life."
Edited and annotated by Terry Heller, Coe College