'American Experience' puts'Insanity on Trial' on PBS

October 29, 1990|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Evening Sun Staff

HE IS ALWAYS referred to in the textbooks, as David McCullough notes in his introduction to tonight's edition of PBS' American Experience, as "a disgruntled office seeker."

His name was Charles Guiteau, and he shot President James Garfield not long after he had taken office in 1881. The fact that Guiteau could not get the job that he wanted is seen as sufficient explanation for his act.

Of course, there was more to the story and "Insanity on Trial," the American Experience that will be on Maryland Public Television, Channels 22 and 67, at 9 o'clock, tells Guiteau's oddly twisted tale and how it became intertwined with America's history.

Narrated by Kyle MacLachlan of "Twin Peaks" fame, this hour uses meticulously researched re-creations of the assassination and the trial -- filmed in Carroll County -- as well as interviews with historians and other archival material to put together a portrait of Guiteau and his milieu.

Guiteau's relationship to Garfield comes across as analogous to that between Mark David Chapman and his victim, John Lennon. Guiteau was a camp follower, not of Garfield specifically, but of politics in general and the Republican party in particular.

And this was in a time when politics provided the country with the closest parallel to the rock and other pop culture stars of today.

Guiteau wanted to be a politician, wanted to join this elite crowd that moved so effortlessly through life, so much so that he became a self-styled orator. Indeed, he delivered a speech in support of Garfield at the 1880 Republican convention.

As depicted in this hour, the coming of a new president brought hordes of job-seekers to Washington as every federal position came open. Guiteau joined the lines that waited in front of the White House, requesting that he be made a consul in Paris.

Around this time, an important job in New York did not go the wing of the Republican party that always got it, prompting intense controversy, causing many to call for the president to change his ways. Even the vice president, Chester Arthur, split with Garfield.

Guiteau, whose background included a stint in a utopian religious community -- where even with a "free love" policy he kept striking out -- said that he heard the voice of God telling him to kill the president. Just as Chapman said he thought the world would thank him for killing the man he once idolized, so Guiteau thought he would be seen as savior of the party for killing its divisive leader.

His trial, after Garfield's death following 10 weeks of agony, was a media event. Guiteau and a cousin lawyer pleaded insanity, a claim that was supported by a variety of means, including measurements of the shape of Guiteau's head.

Most difficult to deal with was Guiteau's claim that his orders came from God. In the late 19th century, this was not necessarily seen as evidence of insanity.

Indeed, as narrator MacLachlan notes, John Brown had been virtually canonized for following similar orders in his one-man war against slavery. Was he merely insane? The ultimate conclusion of Guiteau's fate probably changed the way the country regarded insanity pleas.

As with the PBS series "The Civil War," "Insanity on Trial" lets you know that fascinating, illuminating stories can be found beneath the thin veneer that usually passes for American history.

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