Introducing the Assassins: Charles Guiteau

 “If set to music [this] could be very effective.”

Charles Guiteau. Image courtesy of Biography.com

Charles Guiteau was born in Freeport, Illinois in 1841. With a childhood rooted in religious fundamentalism, as an adolescent, he joined one the many 19th century American utopian communes, the Oneida Community, which was founded on a doctrine of achieving salvation through man’s perfectibility. Guiteau broke with the sect in 1866 to move to New York City, where after a brief return to Oneida he embarked on a series of brief careers in lecturing, publishing, law, and ultimately politics. Following an aborted commitment to the Democrats in 1872, Guiteau was convinced he could secure a victory for the Republican Party in 1880. He forwarded speeches to James A. Garfield, which were summarily ignored and made repeated attempts to ingratiate himself with the candidate, to no avail. Feeling slighted and denied a coveted ambassadorship, Guiteau vowed to kill the president. Using an exorbitantly priced pearl-handled revolver (believing it would become a museum piece), Guiteau assassinated President James Garfield in the waiting room of the Baltimore & Potomac Railroad Station in Washington, DC on July 2, 1881. Garfield died of complications nearly ten weeks after, largely the result of infections acquired during a series of increasingly invasive surgeries intended to save the president’s life. With a talent for flamboyant self-promotion, Guiteau turned his two month trial into a media circus, presiding over events like the most publicity-skilled celebrities of today. Sentenced to death by hanging, he read an original poem created for the occasion, claiming, “if set to music they could be very effective”. Sondheim took the cue, incorporating Guiteau’s own composition into Assassins.

Jeffrey Meanza will be playing Charles Guiteau in PlayMakers’ production of Assassins. When he is not portraying assassins on stage, he is associate artistic director for PlayMakers.


Q: At his sensational, grandstanding trial, Guiteau blamed medical malpractice as the true cause of Garfield’s death, sang hymns, read scripture, and notoriously claimed he was acting on orders from whom, demanding that figure be called as a witness?

A: God. (The judge declined.)