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The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau – Book Review
Rosenberg, C. E. (1968). The trial of the assassin Guiteau: Psychiatry and law in the gilded age. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
In such a brilliant study undertaken by Charles Rosenberg, the author introduces the celebrated trial of Charles Guiteau, the assassinator of President Garfiled in 1881. The aim of the author was to explore the insanity and criminal responsibility in the Age of Gilded. Throughout the study, the author reconstructs the courtroom battle waged by many expert witnesses. The witnesses were representations two major school of thought in the generation that immediately preceded Freud: psychiatry and law. Even though during the trail, the role played by genetics in the behaviour was widely accepted, the psychiatrists debated the issues fiercely arguing on the whether the hereditary had predisposed the suspect, Guiteau, to commit the assignation on the president. Based on the analysis of the book, the author’s account allow the readers to consider one of the opening rounds within the controversy over the criminal role played by insanity. Such debate continues to rage even today among the psychologists. “Doctor Smith Townsend was the first physician to assume the death of the president.” It seems the author based the decision on such assumption, which is contrary to what the history has.
Despite the personal challenges and obstacles that Guiteau faced, he is described as “ a moral and enterprising young man.” Such point raises moral questions considering that the man in question just shot the President.  Guiteau’s trial for murder case that occurred in 1881 was almost forgotten. However, the author revisits the case and writes on crime trial with focus on the American psychiatry at the same, which seem to contradict the current ideas. The murder stems from the slip of the Republican Party in which the president, considered stout and bearded nonentity of the average probity, failed to heal. As a result, the fanatical Republican, the assassin, who in the case is Guiteau, believed that he had a call from God that it was his responsibility of reuniting the Republicans through killing the president. “…The President’s tragic death was a sad necessity, but it will unite the Republican Party and save the republic. Life is a flimsy dream and it matters little when one goes. A human life is of small value. During the war thousands of brave boys went down without a tear. I presume the President was a Christian and that he will be happier in Paradise than here. It will be no worse for Mrs. Garfield, dear soul, to part with her husband this way than by natural death.‎” After shooting the president in the back at the Washington Railway Station, Guiteau surrendered at once declaring that no crime had been committed as it was dictation from God. “I did it. I will go to jail for it; Arthur is the President, and I am a Stalwart.” Based on such sentence, it is clear that were issues associated with mental illness, which needed psychoanalysis. Termed as the monster of the vice, Guiteau would be considered the paranoid schizophrenic and was never tried.
The presentations of analysis by Rosenberg in the case are sober and thoughtful. Through careful concern for the details and accuracy, the author managed to provide the picture of the assassin, the national atmosphere, response of the public, assassination, trial, and aftermath which are important in answering the certain questions. In addition, the author also managed to offer one of the reliable expositions that reflected the state of psychiatry at the time. However, during the case, the profession was torn by the internal conflicts and vicious attacks that originated from neurologists. However, the sober and thoughtful analysis as presented by Rosenberg requires careful consideration. While the writing style presented by the author could be entertaining and exciting to read, the book has a lot of factual information that should change the perspective of the reader on many issues that that trouble modern organized psychiatry and forensic psychiatry.
In the modern, the issues that influence mental health activities are diagnostic entities, the controversy associated with the existence of “moral insanity” has been able to find counterpart in the “myth of mental illness” of people. The common moral insanity includes dipsomania, pyromania, and kleptomania. In addition, the issues on sociopathy as a disease or freely chosen way of life associated with controversy on depravity versus insanity lives also affect the current psychological study. In case, another issue that arose was the role of hereditary in the etiology of insanity, which has counterparts in the contemporary studies on the inheritance of depression and schizophrenia. From such perspective, the author plays significant role in bringing out the roles played these factors in the 19th century controversy in the trial of Guiteau. Moreover, the controversy associated with insanity defence remains highly debated across the different areas of profession.
While the book seem to be interesting in terms of mental health, Rosenberg organizes the book in a manner that it allows the readers to get a pre-trial of Charles Guiteau  for much long before getting to the trial on assassination. Waiting for such long might make the readers to decide that Charles Guiteau had some manic-depressive cycle or schizophrenia. To some extent, the organization of the book was not the required standards. Concerning the insanity defence, the case could be bizarre considering that Guiteau had planned of using it as an out; however, when the counsel, Dr. Edward Charles Spitzka, representing him pleaded “not guilty by reasons of insanity” Guiteau had no chance of dealing with the situation. Based on book analysis, it seems that he had issues with being considered insane in the public by others but not himself. Irrespective of the mental situation, insanity, the President died through assassination and the law had to take its course.
Within the American society, the issues of legal disposition especially for the assassins have recently become the grim of reality. In fact, assassination is an ancient part of the political life when it seemed a normal practice. Nonetheless, what have been able to change in the modern society is legal arguments associated with assassinations and currently apt to be couched within the psychodynamic categories. Such paradigm shifts leave legal professionals and public bewildered regarding the actions to take with such sort of psychological evidence. Unlike the other assassination patterns in other countries, this case draws attention as it occurs at presidential level.
In the book, the author provided a description of the transient mental disorder concept of moral insanity within the historical context. In addition, the book outlined thorough analysis of the issues associated with clashing doctrines of psychiatry, which personified among the quarrelling professionals and didactic play on the subjectivity of the experts and associated practical consequences. The book presents an excellent study on the disagreement and practical controversy of the experts: lawyers and mental health practitioners. Even in the modern legal and mental health practices, there is public professional questioning of the colleagues’ skills while disputing on the criteria. The test and evidence associated with insanity reveal that there was contested nature of psychiatry at that particular time. However, the reason behind such argument could have been due to inadequate scientific consensus that gave rise to the plethora of contradictory opinions of the experts.
Consequently, the author presented an excellent case on the disagreements between the experts and the scientific controversy. Focusing on Guiteau, it is evident that psychiatric profession experienced predicament situation, which became visible. In spit of the disagreements on scientific and fundamental issues, the experts had to make decisions that had radical consequences on the accused. The heart of the book is formed with the justifications of the assessments of experts on Guiteau and associated attacks on their opponents. From the analysis, it is evident that the academic debates presented in the book are against the backdrop of a compelling pot that features quirky murder, vindictive public, asylum superintendents, ambitious neurologist, and shrewd lawyers. As a result, the major factors constituting the main drawing points presented by the author are balanced combination of the properly researched historical background information, accounts of arguments presented by the experts, and riveting narration of the trial.
The arguments presented within the book still remain relevant in the modern society. Even though the book presents historical analysis that occurred in the 1880s and originally written in 1958, none of the content and major statements has been outmoded. For example, the issues on the moral insanity bring to the attention of the mental practitioners about the earlier concepts of mental disorders. However, the book presents these issues embedded within specified socio-historical contexts. Admittedly, it is difficult to extrapolate the conclusion of the book to the other times and places. Nonetheless, the author presented the account of the uncertainty within the forensic psychiatry as an instructive to understand the persistency in the problem of the discipline, which includes the diagnosis of mental disorder and association with the legal responsibility. With the new panel codes, technologies such as functional magnetic resonance imaging, and psychiatric concepts including psychopathy and antisocial personal disorder coming into the courtroom, it is important to remember the Guiteau’s fate with an aim comprehending the complexities within the psychiatric evaluation associated with human doings.
Unfortunately, the author failed to clarify the fight of Guiteau’s attorney plea of attempting to assert the insanity defence. From the book, the attorney insisted on asserting some of the bizarre legal defences. Writing to the judge that the client never caused the death of the president but that failure of the doctor for failing to treat the bullet wound which makes Guiteau not guilty of the murder  had no legal ground. Citing such statements in the event of death case warrants ordering of psychoanalysis to establish the mental health of the accused which the book failed to consider. In addition, there was need for the book to draw points from the psychological and legal backgrounds rather than focusing much on the legal aspect. With such assertion, the probability to acquit Guiteau depended on the attorney’s efforts in proving is insanity.
There are still debates on the factors constituting legal insanity; however, most legal practitioners agree that basic tests are important in determining the actions of affected. Throughout the years, there have been revolutions of psychiatric practices. Based on the points from the book, the author’s argument could be viewed that the prevailing test of the legal insanity aimed to prove whether Guiteau knew that his actions were illegal. The analysis presented reveal that, even though people like Guiteau might be considered insane because ne never though shooting the president was wrong, the judge could have convicted Guiteau if he understood that the maw made it illegal to shoot others. From the physician’s point of view, the book from Charles Rosenberg present a more complete analysis of the case that other books like Candice Millard’s book. Even though the book presents that Guiteau appeared to be delusional at times, it could be argued that he was seriously mentally ill and most probably suffering from neuro-syphilis.
Guiteau made several attempts of defending himself through showing that he was mentally ill as he felt that he committed the crime for political affiliated reasons “…his death was a political necessity. I am a lawyer, theologian, and politician.” However, if probably the president lived, then Guiteau would have been found guilty based on insanity but since he died, the situation made it difficult at time. There is no doubt Guiteau shot the president; however, the question that remains unclear that the book failed to explore was whether he was guilty of murder or innocent. In the late 19th century, even though few physicians specialized in psychiatry as a profession, those who did had numerous conflicting viewpoints from those of the modern psychiatrists. According to the asylum physicians especially those who were from the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institute for the Insane believed that the mental illness was a physical disease based on the lesion within the brain. Although there was possibility of hereditary predisposition, the psychiatrists denied inheritance and congenital cases.
Based on the analysis of the book, the shooting caused the death of the president. However, the histories have it that the president died from infection produced through the unsterile fingers and probers that the doctors repeatedly inserted into the wound. Before his demise, the injured president complained of the intractable pain within the legs and feet. However, due to little scientific knowledge of the doctors, they failed to realized that the symptom were possibly from the vertebral and spinal cord injury. It could be argued that the book failed to analysis important issues associated with the death of the president and focus on shooting action as the major cause of death. Even after claiming that the he shot the president but he was never responsible for his death but the doctors, there was no psychoanalysis undertaken to determine the justification of his points.