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candice millardThe 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. As Conkling’s war with Garfield had escalated, Guiteau wrote to the president repeatedly, advising him that the best way to respond to the senator’s demands was to give in to them. “It seems to me that the only way out of this difficulty is to withdraw Mr. R.,” he wrote, referring to Garfield’s appointment of Judge Robertson to run the New York Customs House. “I am on friendly terms with Senator Conkling and the rest of our Senators, but I write this on my own account and in the spirit of a peacemaker.”

Guiteau also felt that he had done all he could to warn Garfield about Blaine. After the secretary of state had snapped at him outside of the State Department, he bitterly recounted the exchange in a letter to Garfield. “Until Saturday I supposed Mr. Blaine was my friend in the matter of the Paris consulship,” he wrote, still wounded by the memory. “ ‘Never speak to me again,’ said Mr. Blaine, Saturday, ‘on the Paris consulship as long as you live.’ Heretofore he has been my friend.”

Even after his divine inspiration, Guiteau continued to appeal to Garfield. 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.”

Guiteau did not see Garfield the next morning, or any day after that. Unknown to him, he had been barred from the president’s office. Even among the strange and strikingly persistent office seekers that filled Garfield’s anteroom every day, Guiteau had stood out. Joseph Stanley Brown, Garfield’s private secretary, had long before relegated Guiteau’s letters to what was known as “the eccentric file,” but he continued to welcome him to the White House with the same courtesy he extended to every other caller. That did not change until Guiteau’s eccentricity and doggedness turned into belligerence. Finally, after a heated argument with one of the president’s ushers that ended with Guiteau sitting in a corner of the waiting room, glowering, Brown issued orders that “he should be quietly kept away.”

Soon after, Guiteau stopped going to the White House altogether. He gave up trying to secure an appointment, and he no longer fought the press of divine inspiration. For two weeks, he had prayed to God to show him that he had misunderstood the message he had received that night. “That is the way I test the Deity,” he would later explain. “When I feel the pressure upon me to do a certain thing and I have any doubt about it I keep praying that the Deity may stay it in some way if I am wrong.” Despite his prayers and constant vigilance, he had received no such sign.

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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1 reply to this post
  1. Hi Candice, looking forward to reading your new book. A member of my family bought several copies of The River of Doubt because Rondon is our great-great grandfather on my father’s side. I read it and loved the way you told the story, and so I wrote a review of it a few years ago on Amazon. Best of luck with this one!

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