Shrink Rap News

Political Violence: A Challenge for Forensic Psychiatrists


In 1880, a former debt-collection lawyer by the name of Charles Guiteau gave a brief speech at a political rally. He also gave disconnected and rambling lectures at other venues in which he claimed to belong to “the firm of Jesus Christ and Company.” He believed he was well-connected within the Republican Party and that he was worthy of a high government office. He pressed President James A. Garfield to appoint him consulate to Paris, a position for which he was not qualified. Eventually, he came to believe that the president was dividing the Republican Party and that this would lead to another Civil War. He thought that by killing the president he would save the country and be considered a patriot equal to Washington and Grant.

His assassination plan was organized and business-like. He bought a new ivory-mounted pistol for the killing, because he believed the gun would eventually be placed on display as a patriot’s relic. He made arrangements to go to jail afterward.

On July 2, 1881, Guiteau approached Garfield at the Baltimore and Ohio train station in Washington. He shot Garfield several times in front of many horrified onlookers and was arrested immediately. As he was being transported to the police station, he offered to appoint the arresting officer to the position of chief of police. When he was interviewed by police, he hinted that he might some day become president and likened himself to the Apostle Paul. While in jail awaiting trial, he believed his acquittal was inevitable, and he made plans to go on a speaking tour. He also advertised for a bride.

While Guiteau did not believe he was insane, he acquiesced to the need for an insanity defense. At trial, his defense attorney highlighted Guiteau’s family history of mental illness, including that of his mother who died in an insane asylum. Guiteau himself frequently interrupted the trial to object and to put on his own defense. He argued that the killing was a “political necessity.” An onlooker later described his behavior as “... an exhibition in all ways so extraordinary... it would be a disgrace to American jurisprudence were it not explainable on the ground of insanity.” Defense experts testified that Guiteau suffered from chronic mania characterized by “intact intellect and superficial normality but actions based on an insane premise.” The prosecution expert was Dr. John P. Gray, an editor of the American Journal of Insanity. Gray opined that Guiteau was sane, as evidenced by his careful and deliberate planning of the crime. After an hour of deliberation, Guiteau was convicted and he was hung a few weeks later. Some spectators conceded Guiteau was mentally ill; as one put it: “He was crazy perhaps, but not so crazy he should not be hung.”1

Politically motivated violence is a common theme in today’s news: in the Unabomber’s manifesto, in alleged terrorist plots, in the Oklahoma City bombing and most recently in the acts of Norwegian spree killer Anders Breivik. These cases pose many challenges for forensic psychiatrists because of issues similar to those raised by the Guiteau case: how can someone be insane if a killing is planned and carefully organized? Should political beliefs be considered a sign of mental illness? At what point does an extreme opinion cross the line to delusion? Psychiatrists themselves may be divided on these issues. Some people may think that these crimes are so horrific that they could only be committed by a “crazy” person.

Another complicating factor is that these cases target large numbers of people or popular elected officials. Public opinion is inflamed and passionate, and people react with revulsion to both the act and the defendant. It’s important to remember that the magnitude of the crime should not undermine a careful evaluation of the defendant and a thorough legal review of the offense.

1. Walter Channing, M.D. The Mental Status of Guiteau, the assassin of President Garfield (Cambridge, Mass.: Riverside Press, 1882).

-- Annette Hanson, M.D.

Dr. Hanson is a forensic psychiatrist and co-author of Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work. The opinions expressed are those of the author only, and do not represent those of any of Dr. Hanson’s employers or consultees, including the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene or the Maryland Division of Correction.

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