Guiteau was born in Freeport, Illinois, the fourth of six children of Luther Wilson Guiteau and Jane Howe. He moved with his family to Ulao, Wisconsin in 1850 and lived there until 1855, when his mother died. Soon after, Guiteau and his father moved back to Freeport.
Guiteau was routinely beaten by his father as a child and left home at an early age. He inherited $1000 from his grandfather (worth about $100,000 in year-2005 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 so to do, he quit and joined the controversial religious sect known as the Oneida Community, in Oneida, New York, to which Guiteau's father already had close affiliations. Despite the "free love" aspects of that sect, he was generally rejected during his five years there, and he was nicknamed "Charles Gitout". 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, and Noyes maintained that he did not hold any ill-will towards Guiteau, saying "I consider him insane".
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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 ludicrously fraudulent recommendations from virtually every prominent American family of the day. He was not successful. He only argued one case in court, the bulk of his business being in bill collecting in which his annoying persistence was a useful characteristic. Most of his cases, however, resulted in enraged clients and judicial criticism.
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.
The assassination of Garfield
Guiteau's interest turned to politics. He wrote a speech in support of Ulysses S. Grant called "Grant vs. Hancock", which he revised to "Garfield vs. Hancock" after Garfield won the Republican nomination in the 1880 presidential campaign. Alas, he changed little more than the title, hence mixing up Garfield's achievements with those of Grant. The speech was delivered at most two times (and copies were passed out to members of the Republican National Committee at their summer 1880 meeting in New York), but Guiteau believed himself to be largely responsible for Garfield's victory. He insisted he should be awarded an ambassadorship for his vital assistance, first asking for Vienna, then deciding that he would rather be posted in Paris. His personal requests to the President and to cabinet members (as one of many job seekers who lined up every day) were continually rejected; on May 14, 1881, he was finally told personally never to return by Secretary of State James G. Blaine (Guiteau is actually believed to have encountered Blaine on more than one occasion).
He then decided that God had commanded him to kill the ungrateful President. Guiteau borrowed fifteen dollars and went out to purchase a revolver. He knew little about firearms, but did know that he would need a large caliber gun. He had to choose between a .44 Webley British Bulldog revolver with a wooden handle and one with an ivory handle. He wanted the one with the ivory handle because he wanted it to look good as a museum exhibit after the assassination, but he could not afford the extra dollar. (The revolver was recovered and even photographed by the Smithsonian in the early 1900s but has since been lost). He spent the next few weeks in target practice—the kick from the revolver almost knocked him over the first time—and in stalking the President.
On one occasion, he trailed Garfield to the railway station as the President was seeing his wife off to a beach resort in New Jersey, but decided to do it later, as Mrs. Garfield was in poor health and he didn't want to upset her. On July 2, 1881, he lay in wait for the President at the (since demolished) Baltimore and Potomac Railroad Station, getting his shoes shined, pacing, and engaging a cab to take him to the jail later. As President Garfield entered the station, looking forward to a vacation with his wife in Long Branch, New Jersey, Guiteau stepped forward and shot Garfield twice from behind, the second shot piercing the first lumbar vertebra but missing the spinal cord. As he surrendered to authorities, Guiteau fired with the exulting words, repeated everywhere: 'I am a Stalwart of the Stalwarts. .. Arthur is President now!!'" (New York Herald, July 3, 1881). Garfield died on September 19, eleven weeks after being shot, after a long, painful battle with infections brought on by his doctors poking and probing the wound with unwashed hands and unsterilized instruments. Most modern physicians familiar with the case state that Garfield would have easily survived his wounds with the medical care available even 20 years later.
Trial and execution
Guiteau became something of a media darling during his trial for his bizarre behavior, including constantly badmouthing his defense team, 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 thirty. He was blissfully oblivious to the American public's outrage and hatred of him, even after he was almost assassinated twice himself. At one point, he argued that Garfield was killed not by himself but by medical malpractice ("The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him"), which was more than a little true. Throughout the trial and up until his execution, Guiteau was housed at St. Elizabeths Hospital in the southeastern quadrant of Washington, D.C.
To the end, Guiteau was actively making plans to start a lecture tour after his perceived imminent release and to run for President himself in 1884, while at the same time continuing to delight in the media circus surrounding his trial. He was dismayed when the jury was unconvinced of his divine inspiration, convicting him of the murder. He was found guilty on January 23, 1882. He appealed, but his appeal was rejected, and he was hanged on June 30, 1882 in the District of Columbia. On the scaffold, Guiteau recited a poem he had written called "I am Going to the Lordy". He had originally requested an orchestra to play as he sang his poem, but this request was denied.
Guiteau's trial was one of the first high profile cases in the United States where the insanity defense was considered. Guiteau vehemently insisted that while he had been legally insane at the time of the shooting, he was not really medically insane, which was one of the major causes of the rift between him and his defense lawyers and probably also a reason the jury assumed Guiteau was merely trying to deny responsibility.