The Garfield Assassination, 4 of 4: Aftermath and Conclusion

By April 28, 2015

In the last post we looked at ways Mormonism appeared in the trial of Charles Guiteau, assassin of President Garfield. Today we?ll look outside and after the trial.

A few of Guiteau?s statements about Mormonism drew comment in print. [1] A doctor included them in a list of behaviors suggesting legal irresponsibility. [2] An Indiana paper thought that since Mormons were ?a congregation of Guiteaus pretending to violate law in obedience to a voice from God,? the outbursts were calculated to ?break the force of an allusion? to Mormonism in Guiteau?s ?inspiration? defense. [3]

OpperFB HowToBecomeAnIdol Puck 1882Jan04 v10n252p277Cover AltScan Crop

The ?inspiration? defense was similar to some aspects of the Mormon freedom-of-religion defense of polygamy. For starters, a great many people didn?t buy either (see images). [4]

NastT ANewYearsCall Guiteau Devil HarpersWeekly 1882Jan07 v26n1307p4 LoRes Crop

Part of the opposition was that ?inspiration? had no theoretical limit. If it could give legal cover to polygamy then why not murder? As an 1881 Tennessee paper argued ad absurdum, ?If, under the Constitution?, polygamy cannot be molested? Guiteau ought never to have been arrested? because he acted on ?religious convictions.? A typical Mormon response was that it was ?a very foolish comparison? to class plural marriage with murder,? as one produced, and the other destroyed, life. [5] At least two congressmen ignored the distinction and used Guiteau?s reliance on ?inspiration? to support anti-polygamy legislation. [6] Twenty years later, an author impeached Mormonism because revelation ?was the plea? of Guiteau.? [7]

Puck?s New Year cartoon for 1882—published during the trial—showed Guiteau and Mormonism as unfinished business spilling into 1882. [8]

KepplerJF PuckToColumbia Puck 1881Dec28 v10n251p268t269 AltScan Crop

Guiteau and Mormonism could be next to each other because they just happened to be ?in the news? at the same time, but Guiteau seems more concerned with the snake than the noose. [9]

KepplerJF PuckToColumbia Puck 1881Dec28 v10n251p268t269 detail Guiteau and Mormon snake

One of the most sustained Mormon/Guiteau comparisons came from the ?Poet of the Sierras,? Joaquin Miller, in 1884. [10] (You might recall Miller as one of the humorists identified by Michael Austin a few weeks ago at BCC.) After describing the Mormon ?masses? as ?very, very ignorant, thick-headed, and mentally almost helpless,? Miller proceeded to the leaders.

Shall I tell you in one word what and who the Mormon bishop, elder and leader is? Guiteau! [¶] The Mormon leader is well read, superficially, like Guiteau. He is religious, insanely religious, like Guiteau. He is simply Guiteau—the many hundred Guiteau?s gathered up from the entire face of the earth. He is not a crank because he is a Mormon leader. But he is a Mormon leader because he is a crank. [11]

After the blizzard of Mormon/Guiteau references in 1881, the conjunction mostly faded, except for Mormons, who remembered the sting for decades. A 1905 history used the ?praying circle? allegation to support the idea that in the 1880s ?the American press teemed with customary falsehoods about all phases of ?Mormon? character and life.? [12] In the 1910s BH Roberts spent about two thousand words on the issue and others spent hundreds. [13]


So? can we draw any conclusions? Maybe.

First, nineteenth-century polemical writing and political cartoons are fun.

Second, pro-Mormons and anti-Mormons did not like each other in the 1880s.

Third, it is hard to overestimate the importance of (alleged) violence to nineteenth-century perceptions of Mormonism. To call someone a ?Guiteau? implied they were past reasoning and could appropriately be executed. Even acknowledging the hyperbole of nineteenth-century discourse, it was a mean thing to say. Part of the kerfuffle about Garfield, Guiteau, and the Mormons can be explained as a ?normal? crisis reaction: in times of stress some emotion may vent as Other-bashing; when the nation ?came together? across party, sectional, religious, and other lines, reports of Mormon celebration made Mormons seem emphatically ?not us.? Another part of the intensity can be attributed to opportunistic criticism by committed anti-Mormons: when all you see is a nail, any stick that comes to hand gets tried as a hammer. Impressionistically adding these two factors together, though, does not seem to account for the volume or vitriol of anti-Mormon sentiment framed as sympathy for Garfield. Of course, my impressions aren?t evidence, but I think there might be something going on here, which brings me back to the perception of Mormon violence. The ideas that Guiteau was a Mormon or that Mormons were plotting to kill the president fit preconceived notions so well that they passed easily around the nation. [14] After years of saying Mormons were murderers, when confronted with an actual murderer, commentators like Talmage reversed the comparison and said the murderer was a Mormon.

Fourth, I don?t want to make too bold a claim, but I think the Guiteau/Mormon connections helped trigger the 1880s anti-polygamy campaigns. The timing and distribution of the Mormon-celebration and Guiteau-is-a-Mormon tropes makes for a pretty good circumstantial case that the Guiteau connection helped push the federal government into vigorous action. Of course, there are many objections to a too-simplistic or too-strong version of the idea. For starters, did the alleged Mormon violation of national unity after Garfield?s shooting arouse public indignation to the point of demanding anti-polygamy action or was it just a symptom, like the Edmonds Act itself, of the rising tide of anti-Mormon sentiment in post-Reconstruction America? And so on. I?m not saying Giuteau was the only piece of straw on the anti-polygamy camel?s back, nor am I denying that straw from other sources was piling up, but the Guiteau connection sure seems like a big piece of metaphoric straw and it sure seems to have hit right before the camel?s back broke.

In future work I?ll try to get a better handle on how Guiteau fits into the story of Mormonism in the 1880s. Among other aspects, I?ll need to deal with Guiteau?s alleged sexual deviance and how that bolstered the Mormon comparison. Until then, I think I can safely conclude that, at least for a few months in 1881 and 1882, Guiteau was a very big deal in the context of Mormonism.



[1] Most of Guiteau?s statements about Mormonism appeared in newspaper reporting on the trial and at least two made sub-headlines in Utah papers. No author listed, Washington DC, 1881 Nov 29, ?Guiteau?s Matinee: The Sneaking Coward Shakes and Quakes on the Stand. He Goes Through the Oneida Business, and Also Slaps the Polygs. There is Method in His Madness and a Rope Should Hang Him,? Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City, UT, 1881 Nov 30 Wed morning, p 1, col 4. Note that the quote in the Tribune—?I?m glad the miserable community is broken up, and I hope the United States Government will break up that miserable Mormon community in Utah.?—differs somewhat from the trial transcript (1:548). No author listed, Washington DC, 1881 Dec 07, by Western Union Telegraph to the Herald, ?Guiteau?s Trial: General Sherman Receives Thanks for Having Ordered out Troops. Guiteau?s Father the Third-Smartest Man in His County. The Prisoner Applauds Arthur?s ?Slap on the Mormons,?? Ogden Standard Examiner, Ogden, UT, 1881 Dec 08 Thu, p 1, col 2. Note, again, that the quote in the Examiner—??I am glad,? said the prisoner, ?President Arthur has given those miserable ?Mormons? such a slap. I hope he keeps at them.??—differs somewhat from the trial transcript (1:852).

[2] Note that Folsom was writing for professional rather than popular audiences and that he had examined Guiteau and observed part of the trial. The quoted language is from Charles F Folsom, ?The Responsibility of Guiteau,? American Law Review 3 [new series] (1882 Feb): 97 (85-100). A similar conclusion in different words is in Charles F Folsom, ?The Case of Guiteau, Assassin of the President of the United States,? Boston Medical and Surgical Journal 106.7 (1882 Feb 16): 151 (145-153).

[3] No author listed, ?Inspiration, Murder And Polygamy,? Evansville Daily Courier, Evansville, IN, 1882 Jan 03.

[4] Note their derisive treatment of the ?Certificate of Divine Inspiration? and the source of such inspiration, respectively. Image above: Frederick Burr Opper, ?How to Become an Idol,? color illustration, Puck 10.252 (1882 Jan 04): 277 (front cover). For examples of the favorable mail Guiteau received, see the trial transcript, 1882 Jan 21 Sat, 3:2219. Image below: Thomas Nast, ?A New-Year?s Call,? illustration, Harper?s Weekly 26.1307 (1882 Jan 07): 4. Caption: ?Mr. Fallen Angel, alias Insane Spirit, alias Etc., Etc. ?I want you to understand one thing, Mr. Guiteau. I won?t have my reputation ruined by you. It was I that inspired you, you whelp, and you know it. Au revoir.?? For another example of opposition to inspiration defenses that invoke Guitea and Mormonism, see ?A writer in the Christian Statesman, in an article on ?Guiteau?s Defense,? as quoted in WJR, ?Notes on the Religious Press,? Index (1882 Jan 12): 328 (328-329).

[5] The Memphis Appeal, as quoted, with editorial comment, in No author listed, ?The Foolish ?Appeal?,? Ogden Daily Herald, Ogden, UT, 1881 Dec 17 Sat evening, p 2, col 1-2.

[6] Representative Richard W Townshend (D-IL), in a debate on anti-polygamy legislation, asserted that Mormons claimed to be guided by inspiration, then followed immediately with ?The assassin Guiteau claims that he performed his devilish deed in obedience to an inspiration.? Richard W Townshend (IL), House of Representatives, 1882 Mar 13 (47th Congress, Session 1), Congressional Record, vol 13, part 2, p 1868. Senator Augustus H Garland of Arkansas, in debate on re-organizing the legislative power in Utah territory, referred to Guiteau, but his meaning was not obvious and he clearly misunderstood the nature of Guiteau?s public and legal defenses, which constantly claimed that he was inspired by God. ?I always thought that Guiteau made a mistake in his pleading; I always thought he should have traversed the indictment, and denied he was moved and instigated by the devil and averred that he was moved and instigated by the Lord. Then, according to the doctrine of sect and the protections of religion, he would have gone free; but the Supreme Court would have told him, as it said in the Reynolds case, we know no such doctrine in this country to protect a man from crime because of his religion.? Augustus Hill Garland (AR), Senate, 1884 Jan 11 (48th Congress, Session 1), Congressional Record, vol 15, part 1, p 365. As summarized by a New York newspaper: ?Mr. Garland made a brief speech, in which he expressed the opinion that the bill under review, together with the Edmunds bill, would solve the Utah problem. He did not believe in the question. He thought Guiteau made a mistake in claiming to have been prompted by the Devil. If he had declared that he was prompted by the Lord, according to the recognized view of the Mormon sect, he would have gone free.? No author listed, Washington, 1884 Jan 11, ?The 48th Congress. Discussing the Mormon Question,? Utica Daily Press, Utica, NY, 1884 Jan 12, p 1, col 7.

[7] According to Folk, the possibility of new revelation was still ?the most dangerous menace to human liberty ever invented by the devil. ? It was the plea? of Guiteau, who killed Garfield, and of Joseph Smith and Brigham Young in their numerous debaucheries and crimes. It takes the blame off their shoulders for all their misdeeds and saddles it on ?the Lord.? Edgar Estes Folk, The Mormon Monster: or, The Story of Mormonism (Chicago: Fleming H Revell, 1900), 198.

[8] Joseph Ferdinand Keppler, ?Puck to Columbia,? Puck 10.251 (1881 Dec 28): 268-269. A gallows with a noose is on the ground next to Guiteau. The gallows has a note, ?For Ch. J. Guiteau.? The snake is poised to strike; it has ?Mormonism? written on its belly and ?Utah? written on its back. The title is ?Puck to Columbia,? with caption, ?These are the Old Year?s Legacies to the New— / A pretty Lot of Work for ?82.? Other scandals and controversies are represented: tariff question, civil service reform, Star Route scandal, pension swindle, monopolies, construction on the Brooklyn Bridge, the poor condition of the US Navy, etc.

[9] The Mormon snake is just as close to two Star Route Swindlers (right) as to Guiteau (left), so we shouldn?t read too much into proximity. The ?Swindlers? are, presumably, Stephen Wallace Dorsey and Thomas Jefferson Brady. It is possible Keppler intended to portray Guiteau?s concern about Mormonism, though I think it equally plausible that Guiteau is just getting up after having fallen out of the bag with all the other elements of the image. His eyes don?t seem to be exactly focused on Mormonism.

[10] The piece runs to about 3,500 words. Joaquin Miller, ?Solution of the ?Mormon Problem?,? credited as letter to the Chicago Times, reprinted in Deseret Evening News, Salt Lake City, UT, 1884 Feb 25 Mon, p 1, col 2; reprinted again in Joaquin Miller, ?Solution of the ?Mormon Problem?,? credited as letter to the Chicago Times, reprinted in Deseret News [weekly], Salt Lake City, UT, 1884 Feb 27 Wed, p 85 (84-85), col 1-2. When extracted for the non-US Millennial Star, presumably by Mormons working from the version in the Deseret News, all the references to Guiteau were removed. Joaquin Miller, ?Another Solution,? Latter-day Saints? Millennial Star 46.13 (1884 Mar 31 Mon): 193-196. G. C. L., ?Inconsistency of Writers on the ?Mormon Question?,? Latter-day Saints? Millennial Star 46.17 (1884 Apr 28 Mon): 264-267.

[11] All together the name ?Guiteau? appears thirteen times in the essay, with Miller asserting that Mormon leaders were ?just as earnest in their missions as Guiteau was,? with some ?more insane than he; some? less so.? The Mormon Elder was a ?religious madman,? whose ?madness is there, and will develop on occasions, just as did the dangerous madness of Guiteau.? Furthermore, of Guiteau, Miller notes ?How often I observed during his trial that this man would have made a model Mormon elder.? Eventually Miller gets to his point that taking military action against the Mormons would be unjust to the ignorant but virtuous Mormon people and counter-productive in regards to the leadership, who would die willingly: ?I claim that we must not give these foolish and fanatical Guiteaus that privilege. They should not have the glory of martyrdom at all.? Instead he advocated a massive education effort, possibly costing up to hundred-million dollars: ?The United States can afford to take every male child from the farms in Utah? and make a man and a christian of him?; and after his education let the Guiteau cranks or ?elders? influence him if they can. This would be cheaper than war.?

[12] John Henry Evans, One Hundred Years of Mormonism: A History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1805 to 1905 (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1905), 501; later edition with same sentence published by the Deseret Sunday School Union (Salt Lake City: 1909, p 501).

[13] Brigham H Roberts, ?History of the Mormon Church: Chapter CXVII,? Americana 10.3 (1915 Mar): 240-244 (204-264). The section remained, with minor changes, in Brigham H Roberts, Comprehensive History of Church, vol 6 of 6 (Provo, UT: Brigham Young University Press, 1965 [1930]), 26-32. Robert C Webb, The Real Mormonism: A Candid Analysis of an Interesting but Much Misunderstood Subject in History, Life and Thought (New York: Sturgis & Walton, 1916), 314-315, 324-325. Orson F Whitney, Popular History of Utah (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1916), 341.

[14] To be clear: the Guiteau/Mormon connection was broadly spread, but it was a minor part of the overall Garfield/Guiteau coverage.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Fascinating, Edje. I knew nothing about these connection. You certainly make a case for people at the time using Guiteau’s defense as a means to set the boundaries of religious freedom and applying that to Mormonism. Very interesting.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — April 28, 2015 @ 10:28 am

  2. This morning I was going through some pages of the Deseret News for February 1882 looking for articles relating to George Q. Cannon who had just been booted out of Congress as Utah’s delegate. I was surprised to find pages of detailed coverage of the last days of Guiteau’s trial. I didn’t look at earlier trial coverage, but it was an interesting coincidence.

    The anti-polygamy campaign was going strong long before then, but the timing of the trial and the Mormon connection would have certainly given a boost the the final passage of the Edmunds Act in March 1882. Excellent food for thought, Edje. Thanks for your work on this.

    Comment by Susan W H — April 28, 2015 @ 3:36 pm

  3. This series has been really educational, Edje. You deserve a round of applause!

    Comment by Amy T — April 28, 2015 @ 5:46 pm

  4. Thanks, Steve, Susan, and Amy.

    Susan: sorry to be unclear: by “anti-polygamy campaign” I was thinking of the much more aggressive prosecutions and attempts to enforce anti-polygamy laws in the mid- to late-1880s.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 28, 2015 @ 7:06 pm

  5. Thanks, Edje. Great series.

    Comment by Ryan T. — April 29, 2015 @ 6:11 pm

  6. Thanks, Ryan.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 29, 2015 @ 7:51 pm

  7. I love this. Thanks, Edje.

    Comment by WVS — April 30, 2015 @ 1:37 pm

  8. Thanks, WVS.

    Comment by Edje Jeter — April 30, 2015 @ 4:48 pm


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