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July 29, 1968

The Trial of the Assassin Guiteau: Psychiatry and Law in the Gilded Age

JAMA. 1968;205(5):315. doi:10.1001/jama.1968.03140310073029

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Charles Guiteau shot President Garfield on July 2, 1881, and Garfield died Sept 19, 1881. No one doubted these facts. Was Guiteau guilty of murder? After a lengthy trial, he was found guilty and subsequently executed, but there still remained controversy as to whether the decision was correct. Perhaps he should have been found "not guilty by reason of insanity." Rosenberg presents a story of the crime, a biography of Guiteau, a detailed account of the trial, and a discussion of its significance.

During the late 19th century, although few physicians specialized in psychiatry, those who did had possibly even more conflicting viewpoints than today's psychiatrists. Asylum physicians, especially members of the Association of Medical Superintendents of American Institutions for the Insane, believed that mental illness was essentially a physical disease, due to a lesion in the brain, neither inherited nor congenital, although hereditary predisposition was possible. They denied the