Today in Legal History: President James A. Garfield Dies, Leading to Famous Insanity Defense Trial

President James A. Garfield died on September 19, 1881, after serving less than half a year in office. President Garfield died at a New Jersey seaside location, where he was recovering from two bullet wounds he suffered on July 2, 1881. Garfield’s assassin was Charles Guiteau, an attorney, theologian, and rebuffed office seeker. Guiteau insisted that he was God’s messenger. He also argued that medical malpractice was the actual cause of death because the doctors’ treatments had caused the blood poisoning that eventually killed Garfield. Guiteau’s attorney (who was also his brother-in-law) argued the insanity defense. In the end, the Guiteau jury, deliberating for just over an hour, didn’t buy Guiteau’s defenses and he was hanged on June 30, 1882. Garfield’s spine, which shows the hole created by the bullet, is kept as a historical artifact by the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington, D.C. Guiteau’s autopsy did show evidence of syphilitic paresis as well as chronic degeneration, leading some doctors to change their opinion of his mental state.

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