Black Sheep of Oneida

For all their grand, benevolent statement and intentions utopian societies are rarely looked upon with favor by the wider populace. The Oneida Community of the mid and latter 19th century New York State was hardly an exception. The Community was founded on John H. Noyes’ theology of Perfectionism, a form of Christianity with two basic values; self-perfection and communalism. These ideals were translated into everyday life through shared property and work. Oneida was a society where the interest of one member became the interest of all – the enlargement of the family. They called themselves Perfectionists and, being logical and literal, they proceeded to substitute for the small unit of home and family and individual possessions, the larger unit of group-family and group-family life.

The residents of Oneida pursued a practice known as ‘Complex Marriage’ involving multiple sexual partners for the devout. Postmenopausal women were encouraged to introduce teenage males to sex, providing both with legitimate partners that rarely resulted in pregnancies. Furthermore, these women became religious role models for the young men. Likewise, older men often introduced young women to sex. Noyes often used his own judgment in determining the partnerships which would form and would often encourage relationships between the non-devout and the devout in the community, in the hopes that the attitudes and behaviors of the devout would influence the non-devout.

Furthermore the community involved themselves in program of eugenics, known as stirpiculture, selective breeding designed to create even more perfect children. Communitarians who wished to be parents would go before a committee to be matched based on their spiritual and moral qualities. Once children were weaned (usually at around the age of one) they were raised communally in the Children’s Wing, or South Wing. Their parents were allowed to visit, but if those in charge of the Children’s Wing suspected a parent and child were bonding too closely to one another, the Community would enforce a period of separation.

Needless to say, Oneida was looked upon with heavy suspicion by their Victorian era neighbors. They were not however chased from their homes by pitchfork and flame as others before them. Nor did the followers of Noyes achieve their aim of breeding themselves into Eden. Instead Oneida’s lasting legacy resides with one Charles Guiteau…the man who assassinated President James A. Garlfield.

Guiteau did not spend his childhood within the Oneida Community proper; he instead was raised by his single father Luther a devotee of Noyes. Said to have received many whippings and streams of verbal abuse throughout his childhood, Guiteau coped with his father’s abuse and his own resulting feelings of worthlessness — by developing an inflated sense of self-importance that would later irritate everyone he came into contact with. When people refused to see him as a luminary, Charles would be confused, but he would grow to deny anything that contradicted his own grandiose vision of himself and would refuse to see the reality of his few and pitiful accomplishments.

As a young man in 1860 Guiteau relocated to the New York commune, though his inflated ego and abrasive personality won him no friends within Oneida. When it came to enjoying the community’s loose sexual morality, Guiteau repelled more women than he attracted.  Indeed, in the several years he was living at Oneida, Guiteau would later testify that he had remained strictly virtuous, aside from three distinct women in a very short time.

Nor did communal living agree with young Charles: a letter from an Oneida elder to Luther Guiteau claimed that Charles had “...a decided repugnance to labor with his hands, and indeed to business of all kinds. He wrote Noyes a long communication, in which he was very insolent, charging him with tyranny and oppression.” The letter concluded with the opinion that Guiteau had an unsound insane mind.

It would not be the last time that someone in authority reached that conclusion.

Guiteau left Oneida in 1865 and, regardless of believing him to be an oppressive tyrant, attempted to set up a newspaper in New Jersey that would, spread Noyess teachings. The newspaper never got off the ground, and, only 14 weeks after leaving, Guiteau rejoined Oneida.  He immediately resumed his feelings of superiority over the other commune members, and tensions quickly escalated to a point where Guiteau left Oneida for good on November 1, 1866.

Out on his own, Guiteau began a long history of shady business practices, sneaking out of his lodgings in the dead of night without paying his bills, short stays in jail, and moving around to keep a step ahead of his growing number of creditors.

After Oneida, Guiteau attempted to sue Noyes and the community for what he felt was owed him for all the work he had done during his residency.  Pointing out that work done in a communal living environment is done, by definition, for no payment, Noyes refused to make any monetary settlement.  Guiteau then considered blackmailing Noyes by going public with lurid stories of rampant sex in Oneida. When Oneida countered by threatening to have him prosecuted for attempted extortion, Guiteau gave up and moved to Chicago.

In 1869, Guiteau married Annie Bunn, who worked at the Chicago YMCA he attended.  By the time of their wedding, Guiteau had struggled through the Illinois Bar exam and had established a small legal practice, but his pattern of questionable ethics and business failures continued. Once he realized that Chicago held no further hope for his big dreams, and no doubt with many creditors on the hunt, he and Annie left Chicago for New York City.

New York City held no better fortunes for Guiteau than Chicago had. His wife left him in 1874 after he had contracted syphilis from a prostitute, and money troubles continued to dog him. Still dodging creditors and landlords, he moved about frequently, and some of those creditors approached his brother John for the settlement of Guiteau’s many debts.  When John wrote to Guiteau about the urgency to pay back the debts, Guiteau was outraged and wrote John a reply:

Find seven dollars enclosed.  Stick it up your bung hole and wipe your nose on it, and that will remind you of the estimation in which you are held by Charles J. Guiteau.  Sign and return the enclosed receipt and I will send you (the money), but not before.  And that, I hope, will end our acquaintance.

Guiteau didn’t turn his back on his entire family, however.  After a brief stay in jail (which Geary states was due to trying once again to vacate his residence without paying), he went to live with his sister Frances and her family. A few months later he attempted to attack his siter with an ax he was using to chop wood.  There was no apparent reason for the spontaneous attack, and Frances ran to a local doctor who recommended that she have her brother institutionalized. Guiteau fled the area before she could take any action.

Without a home or income, his journalistic and legal careers in the dust, Guiteau began a string of speaking appearances to take advantage of the many religious revival "meetings" that crisscrossed the country in the late 19th century.

If he hoped to become more successful as a traveling preacher than in his earlier occupations, however, he was to be disappointed.  One newspaper article that appeared after one of his nearly-incoherent religious lectures said:

Is There a Hell?  Fifty deceived people (believe) that there ought to be.  Charles J. Guiteau (if such really is his name), has fraud and imbecility plainly stamped upon his (face).  (After) the impudent scoundrel talked only 15 minutes, he suddenly (thanked) the audience for their attention and (bid) them goodnight. Before the astounded 50 had recovered from their amazement…(he had taken their money and) fled from the building and escaped.

As 1880 approached, Guiteau took stock of his life.  Nearing 40, none of his past efforts had led him to the notoriety and fame he felt he was owed. He could not understand it. He was a great man, an exceptional man, but nobody was paying him homage. He wondered if he had just chosen the wrong occupations. Perhaps, Guiteau thought, he was destined to make his mark in politics.

Bitter infighting plagued the Republican Party in the lead up to the 1880 elections. Guiteau took it upon himself to write speeches and letters in support of Ulysses Grant’s bid to return to the White House. However when James Garfield narrowly won the nomination Guiteau easily switched sides, merely substituting Grants name for Garfield in the speeches he had written, without changing any of the biographical information basically giving Garfield credit for Grant’s childhood, decisive battles, and government accomplishments.

Once Garfield won the Presidency in 1880 Guiteau was certain that both he and the whole of the Republican Party would be forever in his debt. Certain now that he was approaching the great heights he was destined for, Guiteau moved to Washington, D.C., to receive what he felt sure would be an endless stream of honors.

Completely ignored by the new administration, Guiteau nevertheless decided to allow himself to be appointed to an international consulate, and he began writing letters to that effect after his arrival in Washington.

To President Garfield he wrote:

Next Spring I expect to marry the daughter of a deceased New York Republican millionaire and I think we can represent the United States government at Vienna with dignity and grace.

Not receiving any response, Guiteau sent Garfield another letter, more overconfident than the previous:

I called to see you this morning, but you were engaged.  (Previously) I sent you a note touching on the Austrian mission.  (The current Austrian Consul), I understand, wishes to remain at Vienna till fall. He is a good fellow (and) I do not wish to disturb him in any event.

What do you think of me for Consul-General at Paris?  I think I prefer Paris to Vienna…and I presume my appointment will be promptly confirmed.

Still receiving no response from Garfield, Guiteau began writing a stream of letters to various government officials, targeting Secretary of State Blaine in particular:

…in January last I wrote Garfield touching the Austrian Mission, and I think he has filed my application and is favorably inclined.  Since then I have concluded to apply for the Consul-General at Paris instead.

I spoke (with Garfield) about it, and he said your endorsement would help, (so I) will talk with you about it as soon as I can get a chance.  There is nothing against me.  I claim to be a gentleman and a Christian.

Puzzled by the silence from the administration that owed him so much, but certain that he would be rewarded for his outstanding services, he increased his letter-writing campaign.  Secretary of State Blaine received so many letters and messages from Guiteau that when one day a strange man approached him and identified himself as the persistent author of the letters, Blaine reportedly shouted: Never speak to me again on the Paris Consulship as long as you live!

Guiteau was stunned.  How could they deny him a position of honor, after his speech and other works had clinched the election?

On hearing the news that the consulate jobs had gone to others, Guiteau felt infuriated and betrayed. He would not allow himself to be treated so…

On the morning of July 2, 1881, he arose early, ate breakfast, and went out to assassinate the President.

Soon after 9:00 a.m., Garfield and a few of his political entourage, including Secretary of State James Blaine, arrived at the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad station. They walked quickly through the throng of other holiday-makers and headed toward the lines of departing trains. Guiteau stepped from the crowd and fired two shots at the president — one shattering bones and puncturing vessels and arteries before coming to rest somewhere deep inside the internal organs. In the flurry of activity and panic that followed, Garfield was carried out of the station and his assailant hurried off to a local jail, putting up no resistance.

Garfield was brought back to the White House after the shooting as various doctors swarmed around and offered numerous and conflicting advice on methods to save his life. Unwashed and ungloved fingers, as well as various unsterilized instruments explored the wound in the president’s back in an attempt to find and dig out the bullet. Numerous infections and complications arose, and the President lay in agony for weeks before his death in mid-September.

Prison did nothing to dispel Guiteau of the notion that what he had done was noble and would be applauded by everyone:

“To the American People: I conceived the idea of removing the President four weeks ago. Not a soul knew of my purpose. I conceived the idea myself and kept it to myself. I read the newspapers carefully for and against the Administration, and gradually the conviction settled on me that the Presidents removal was a political necessity, because he proved a traitor to the men that made him, and thereby imperiled the life of the Republic. This is not murder. It is a political necessity”

He also wrote to famed General William T. Sherman in a tone one would use to write to a trusted confidante:

“I have just shot the President. I shot him several times as I wished him to go as easily as possible. His death was a political necessity. I am a lawyer, theologian, and politician. I am going to the jail. Please order out your troops and take possession of the jail at once.”

When Garfield died on September 19, Guiteau was charged with murder and his trial began November 14, 1881.  It could charitably be called a circus and would last for more than six months.

Officially, Guiteau’s defense would be headed up by his brother-in-law (Francess husband), George Scoville — but Guiteau was quite vocal in his dissatisfaction with Scoville and argued loudly with many aspects of Scovilles defense strategy, especially when any attempt to use an insanity defense was put into play.  He also chose to speak directly to the judge, witnesses, and spectators whenever he pleased — often loudly contradicting testimony or objecting to lines of questioning:

Get off the case, you consummate ass! I would rather have some ten-year-old boy try this case than you! You have compromised my case in every move you make”

In spite of waves of hate mail flowing into the jail, Guiteau believed his actions had been commanded by God and he would be freed and given the proper praise for his heroic action, once addressing the courtroom spectators:

“I (have) had plenty of visitors, high-toned, middle-toned and low-toned people…everybody was glad to see me…they all expressed the opinion without one dissenting voice that I be acquitted.”

He would call on his mythical supporters to add to the rapidly shrinking funds that were paying for his defense, even having the audacity to place himself on equal footing with the woman he’d recently made a widow:

“(I) desire to invite my friends throughout the nation to send me money.  (People have given) Mrs. Garfield $200,000…a splendid thing, a noble thing. Now I want them to give me some money.”

After months of testimony and countless outbursts from the defendant, the jury adjourned and promptly found him guilty. He enlightened the hangman and crowds around the scaffold with a muddled and peculiar poem he had written for the occasion — a final gift for the people who should have revered him.

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