The idea came to Charles Guiteau suddenly, “like a ﬂash,” he would later say. On May 18, two days after New York Senator Roscoe Conkling’s dramatic resignation, Guiteau, “depressed and perplexed… wearied in mind and body,” had climbed into bed at 8:00 p.m., much earlier than usual. He had been lying on his cot in his small, rented room for an hour, unable to sleep, his mind churning, when he was struck by a single, pulsing thought: “If the President was out of the way every thing would go better.”
Guiteau was certain the idea had not come from his own, feverish mind. It was a divine inspiration, a message from God. He was, he believed, in a unique position to recognize divine inspiration when it occurred because it had happened to him before. Even before the wreck of the steamship Stonington, he had been inspired, he said, to join the Oneida Community, to leave so that he might start a religious newspaper, and to become a traveling evangelist. Each time God had called him, he had answered.
This time, for the ﬁrst time, he hesitated. Despite his certainty that the message had come directly from God, he did not want to listen. The next morning, when the thought returned “with renewed force,” he recoiled from it. “I was kept horriﬁed,” he said, “kept throwing it off.” Wherever he went and whatever he did, however, the idea stayed with him. “It kept growing upon me, pressing me, goading me.”
Guiteau had “no ill-will to the President,” he insisted. In fact, he believed that he had given Garﬁeld every opportunity to save his own life. He was certain that God wanted Garﬁeld out of the way because he was a danger to the Republican Party and, ultimately, the American people….
On May 23, he again wrote to the president, advising him to demand Secretary of State James G. Blaine’s “immediate resignation.” “I have been trying to be your friend,” he wrote darkly. “I do not know whether you appreciate it or not.” Garﬁeld would be wise to listen to him, he warned, “otherwise you and the Republican party will come to grief. I will see you in the morning if I can and talk with you”….
By the end of May, Guiteau had given himself up entirely to his new obsession. Alone in his room, with nowhere to go and no one to talk to, he pored over newspaper accounts of the battle between Conkling and the White House, ﬁxating on any criticism of Garﬁeld, real or implied. “I kept reading the papers and kept being impressed,” he remembered, “and the idea kept bearing and bearing and bearing down upon me.” Finally, on June 1, thoroughly convinced of “the divinity of the inspiration,” he made up his mind. He would kill the president. —from Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President
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The featured image (detail) is the cover of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, July 23, 1881, depicting James A. Garfield comforted by his wife and child after he was shot by Charles Guiteau. This image is in the public domain and appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.