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The Art of Cross-Examination

by Francis H. Wellman


The trial of Charles J. Guiteau for the assassination of President Garfield was in many respects one of the most remarkable trials in the history of our American courts.  Guiteau’s claim was that he shot the President acting upon what he believed to be an inspiration, --- a divine command, which controlled his conscience, overpowered his will, and which it was impossible for him to resist.  Guiteau openly avowed the act of killing, but imputed the blame to the Almighty.  The defence, therefore, was moral insanity. 

The trial was conducted in the June term of the Supreme Court of the District of Columbia, in the year 1881.  It lasted two months.  The court room was daily filled with the scum of Washington, --- negroes, prostitutes, and curiosity seekers of all kinds.  On account of the crowds, the doors of the court were kept shut, and many of the expert physicians became ill in consequence of the excessively foul air.  One doctor died from the effects of the long infection. 

The prisoner, although represented by counsel, was permitted to address the jury in his own behalf.  He was also allowed to interrupt the proceedings practically at will.  Each day’s session was opened with a tirade from the prisoner, in which he heaped upon the counsel representing the Government, abuse, calumny, and vituperation unequalled in the proceedings of any court of justice in the history of the country.  The evidence of the different witnesses was given amid clamor, objections, interruptions, and blasphemy upon the part of the prisoner. 

Guiteau’s attitude in court and in the jail prior to the trial were very different.  In the latter, while being examined by the experts, all his replies were intelligent and he talked freely upon every subject but the murder, concerning which his set reply was, “I beg your pardon, gentlemen, but you will have to excuse me from talking about a subject which involves my legal rights.” 

Only eighty copies of the Record of the Guiteau Trial were preserved by the Government for distribution.  Every capital in Europe applied for a copy, only to be told that there were not any supplied by the Government for general distribution.  A resolution in Congress providing for the printing of a large number of copies was opposed and defeated in the Senate by Senator Sherman, upon the ground that he did not believe in perpetuating the history of Guiteau’s act in documentary form. 

The cross-examination of Guiteau by Mr. John K.  Porter is often spoken of as one of the great masterpieces of forensic skill.  It would be impracticable to give more than a few extracts from the examination.  The record of the trial covers over twenty-five hundred closely printed pages in Government print, equal to about five thousand pages of ordinary print.  All together, the report of the trial constitutes probably the most complete contribution on the subject of the legal responsibility of persons having diseased minds or insane habits. 

Mr. Porter’s cross-examination showed Guiteau to be a beggar, a hypocrite, a swindler; cunning and crafty, remorseless, utterly selfish from his youth up, low and brutal in his instincts, inordinate in his love of notoriety, eaten up by a love of money; a lawyer who, after many years of practice in two large cities, had never won a case; a man who left in every state through which he passed a trail of knavery, fraud, and imposition.  His cross-examination made apparent to everybody that Guiteau’s vanity was inordinate, his spirit of selfishness, jealousy, and hatred absolutely unbounded.  He was cleverly led to picture himself to the civilized world as a moral monstrosity. 

Mr. Porter.  “Did you say, as Mr. John R. Scott swears, on leaving the depot on the day of the murder of the President, ‘General Arthur is now the President of the United States’?” 

Guiteau.  “I decline to say whether I did or not.’

Mr. Porter.  “You thought so, did you not?  You are a man of truth?’

Guiteau.  “I think I made a statement to that effect.”

Mr. Porter.  “You thought you had killed President Garfield?”

Guiteau.  “I supposed so at the time.” 

Mr. Porter.  “You intended to kill him?”

Guiteau.  “I thought the Deity and I had done it, sir.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Who bought the pistol, the Deity or you?”

Guiteau (excitedly).  “I say the Deity inspired the act, and the Deity will take care of it.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Who bought the pistol, the Deity or you?”

Guiteau.  “The Deity furnished the money by which I bought it, as the agent of the Deity.” 

Mr. Porter.  “I thought it was somebody else who furnished the money?’

Guiteau.  “I say the Deity furnished the money.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did Mr. Maynard lend you the money?”

Guiteau.  “He loaned me $15, --- yes, sir; and I used $10 of it to buy the pistol.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Were you inspired to borrow the $ 15 of Mr. Maynard?”

Guiteau.  “It was of no consequence whether I got it from him or somebody else.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Were you inspired to buy that British bull-dog pistol?”  

Guiteau.  “I had to use my ordinary judgment as to ways and means to accomplish the Deity’s will.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Were you inspired to remove the President by murder?’

Guiteau.  “I was inspired to execute the divine will.” 

Mr. Porter.  “By murder?”

Guiteau.  “Yes, sir, so-called murder.” 

Mr. Porter.  “You intended to do it?”

Guiteau.  “I intended to execute the divine will, sir.” 

Mr. Porter.  “You did not succeed?”

Guiteau.  “I think the doctors did the work.” 

Mr. Porter.  “The Deity tried, and you tried, and both failed, but the doctors succeeded?’

Guiteau.  “The Deity confirmed my act by letting the President down as gently as He did.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Do you think that it was letting him down gently to allow him to suffer with torture, over which you professed to feel so much solicitude, during those long months?”

Guiteau.  “The whole matter was in the hands of the Deity.  I do not wish to discuss it any further.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did you believe it was the will of God that you should murder him?”

Guiteau.  “I believe that it was the will of God that he should be removed, and that I was the appointed agent to do it.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did He give you the commission in writing?”

Guiteau.  “No, sir.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did He give it in an audible tone of voice?”

Guiteau.  “He gave it to me by his pressure upon me.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did He give it to you in a vision of the night?” 

Guiteau.  “I don’t get my inspirations in that way.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did you contemplate the President’s removal otherwise than by murder?”

Guiteau.  “No, sir, I do not like the word murder.  I don’t like that word.  If I had shot the President of the United States on my own personal account, no punishment would be too severe or too quick for me; but acting as the agent of the Deity puts an entirely different construction upon the act, and that is the thing that I want to put into this court and the jury and the opposing Counsel.   I say this was an absolute necessity in view of the political situation, for the good of the American people, and to save the nation from another war.  That is the view I want you to entertain, and not settle down on a cold-blooded idea of murder.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Do you feel under great obligations to the American people?”

Guiteau.  “I think the American people may sometime consider themselves under great obligations to me, sir.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did the Republican party ever give you an office?”

Guiteau.  “I never held any kind of political office in my life, and never drew one cent from the Government.” 

Mr. Porter.  “And never desired an office, did you?”

Guiteau.  “I had some thought about the Paris consulship.  That is the only office that I ever had any serious thought about.” 

Mr. Porter.  “That was the one which resulted in the inspiration, wasn’t it?’

Guiteau.  “No, sir, most decidedly not.  My getting it or not getting it had no relation to my duty to God and to the American people.” 

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Mr. Porter.  “On the 16th of June, in an address to the American people, which you intended to be found on your person after you had shot the President, you said, ‘I conceived the idea of removing the President four weeks ago.’ Was that a lie?’

Guiteau.  “I conceived it, but my mind was not fully settled on it.  There is a difference in the idea of conceiving things and actually fixing your mind on them.  You may conceive the idea that you will go to Europe in a month, and you may not go.  That is no point at all.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Then there was no inspiration in the preceding May, as you have described?’

Guiteau.  “It was a mere flash.” 

Mr. Porter.  “It was an embryo inspiration?”

Guiteau.  “A mere impression that came into my mind that possibly it might have to be done.  I got the thought, and that is all I did get at that time.  “

Mr. Porter.  “Don’t you know when you were inspired to kill the President?” 

Guiteau.  “I have stated all I have got to say on that subject.  If you do not see it, I will not argue it.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Do you think you do not know when you were inspired to do the act?”

Guiteau.  “After I got the conception, my mind was being gradually transformed.  I was finding out whether it was the Lord’s will or not.  Do you understand that?  And in the end I made up my mind that it was His will.  That is the way I test the Lord.” 

Mr. Porter.  “What was your doubt about?” 

Guiteau.  “Because all my natural feelings were opposed to the act, just as any man’s would be.” 

Mr. Porter.  “You regarded it as murder, then?”

Guiteau.  “So called, yes, sir.” 

Mr. Porter.  “You knew it was forbidden by human law?”

Guiteau.  “I expected the Deity would take care of that.  I never had any conception of the matter as a murder.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Why then were you in doubt?”

Guiteau.  “My mind is a perfect blank on that subject, and has been.” 

Mr. Porter.  “The two weeks of doubt I am referring to, your mind is not a blank as to that; for you told us this morning how during those two weeks you walked and prayed.  During that time did you believe that killing the President was forbidden by human law?” 

Guiteau.  “I cannot make myself understood any more than I have.  If that is not satisfactory, I cannot do it any better.” 

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Mr. Porter.  “You mentioned the other day that you never struck a man in your life.  Was that true?”

Guiteau.  “I do not recall ever striking a man, sir.  I have always been a peace man, naturally very cowardly, and always kept away from any physical danger.” 

Mr. Porter.  “But morally brave and determined?”

Guiteau.  “I presume so, especially when I am sure the Deity is back of me.” 

Mr. Porter.  “When did you become sure of that?”

Guiteau.  “I became sure of it about the first of June as far as this case is concerned.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Before that you did not think He was back of you?  Who did you think was back of you with a suggestion of murder?”

Guiteau.  “It was the Deity, sir, that made the original suggestion.” 

Mr. Porter.  “I thought you said that the Deity did not make the suggestion until the first of June?”

Guiteau.  “I say that the Deity did make the suggestion about the middle of May, and that I was weighing the proposition for the two weeks succeeding.  I was positive it was the will of the Deity about the first of June.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Whose will did you think it was before that?”

Guiteau.  “It was the Deity’s will.  No doubt about that.” 

Mr. Porter.  “But you were in doubt as to its being His will?”

Guiteau.  “I was not in any doubt.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Not even the first two weeks?” 

Guiteau.  “There was no doubt as to the inception of the act from the Deity; as to the feasibility of the act, I was in doubt.” 

Mr. Porter.  “You differed in opinion, then, from the Deity?”

Guiteau.  “No, sir, I was testing the feasibility of the act, --- whether it would be feasible.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did you suppose that the Supreme Ruler of the Universe would order you to do a thing which was not feasible?”

Guiteau.  “No, sir, in a certain sense I did not suppose it.  He directed me to remove the President for the good of the American people.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did He use the word ‘remove’?” 

Guiteau.  “That is the way it always came to my mind.  If two men quarrel, and one kills the other, that is murder.  This was not even a homicide, for I say the Deity killed the President, and not me.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Passing from that, your friend Thomas North ---“

Guiteau (interrupting).  “He is no friend of mine.” 

Mr. Porter (continuing).  “At page 422 of the evidence, Thomas North says that in 1859 you struck your father from behind his back.  Is that true?”

Guiteau.  “I know nothing about it, sir.” 

Mr. Porter.  “He swears that you clinched your father after he had risen, and that several blows were interchanged.  Is that true?”

Guiteau.  “I have no recollection of any such experience, sir, at any time.  I have no recollection about it.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Your sister swears that in 1876, when you were thirty-five years old, that at her place, while you were an inmate of her family, you raised an axe against her life.  Is that true?”

Guiteau.  “I don’t know anything about it, sir.” 

Mr. Porter.  “You heard the testimony, didn’t you?”

Guiteau.  “I heard it.” 

Mr. Porter.  “You heard your lawyer, in his opening, allude to that evidence, and you shouted out at the time that it was false?”

Guiteau.  “That is what I did say, but you need not look so fierce on me.  I do not care a snap for your fierce look.  Just cool right down.  I am not afraid of you, just understand that.  Go a little slow.  Make your statements in a quiet, genial way.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Well, it comes to this then, you thought God needed your assistance in order to kill President Garfield?” 

Guiteau.  “I decline to discuss this matter with you any further.” 

Mr. Porter.  “You thought that the Supreme Power, which holds the gifts of life and death, wanted to send the President to Paradise for breaking the unity of the Republican party, and for ingratitude to General Grant and Senator Conkling?”

Guiteau.  “I think his Christian character had nothing to do whatever with his political record.  Please put that down.  His political record was in my opinion very poor, but his Christian character was good.  I myself looked upon him as a good Christian man.  But he was President of the United States, and he was in condition to do this republic vast harm, and for this reason the Lord wanted him removed, and asked me to do it.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Have you any communication with the Deity as to your daily acts?”

Guiteau.  “Only on extraordinary actions.  He supervises my private affairs, I hope, to some extent.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Was He with you when you were a lawyer?”

Guiteau.  “Not especially, sir.” 

Mr. Porter.  “When you were an unsuccessful lawyer?” 

Guiteau.  “Not especially, sir.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Was He with you when you were a pamphlet pedler?”

Guiteau.  “I think He was, and took very good care of me.” 

Mr. Porter.  “He left your board bills unpaid?”

Guiteau.  “Some of them are paid.  If the Lord wanted me to go around preaching the gospel as I was doing as a pamphlet pedler, I had to do my work, and let Him look for the result.  That is the way the Saviour and Paul got in their work.  They did not get any money in their business, and I was doing the same kind of work.” 

Mr. Porter.  “I think you were kind enough to say that the Saviour and Paul were vagabonds on earth?”

Guiteau.  “That is the fact, I suppose, from the record.  They did not have any money or any friends.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Do you think that is irreverent?”

Guiteau.  “Not in this case.  I think it is decidedly proper, because the Saviour Himself said that He had nowhere to lay His head.  Is not that being a vagabond?”

Mr. Porter.  “Did you think it was irreverent when you said you belonged to the firm, or were working for the firm, of ‘Jesus Christ and Company’?” 

Guiteau.  “It is barely possible I may have used that expression in one of my letters years ago.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did you not hear such a letter read on this trial?”

Guiteau.  “If I wrote it, I thought so.” 

Mr. Porter.  “In your letter to the American people, written on the sixteenth of June, more than two weeks before the assassination, did you say, ‘It will make my friend Arthur President’?” 

Guiteau.  “I considered General Arthur my friend at that time, and do now.  He was a Stalwart, and I had more intimate personal relations with him than I did with Garfield.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Had General Arthur, now President, ever done anything for you?”

Guiteau.  “Not especially, but I was with him every day and night during the canvass in New York except Sundays.  We were Christian men there and we did no work on Sundays.” 

Mr. Porter.  “You never had any conversation with him about murder, did you?’

Guiteau.  “No, sir, I did not.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did you, in this letter of the sixteenth of June, say, ‘I have sacrificed only one’?” 

Guiteau.  “I said one life.  The word ‘life ‘should be put in.” 

Mr. Porter.  “That is implied, but not expressed?”

Guiteau.  “Now I object to your picking out sentences here and there in my letter.  You want to read the entire letter.  I said something there about General Arthur and General Grant.  You have left all that out.  You are giving a twist on one word.  I decline to talk with a man of that character.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did you think you had sacrificed one life?”

Guiteau.  “I can remember it.  This is the way [dramatically], --- This is not murder.  It is a political necessity.  It will make my friend Arthur President and save the republic.  Grant, during the war, sacrificed thousands, of lives to save the republic.  I have sacrificed only one.  [Coolly.] Put it in that shape and then you will get sense out of it.” 

Mr. Porter.  “When you sacrificed that one life, it was by shooting him with the bull-dog pistol you bought?”

Guiteau.  “Yes, sir, it was.  That should have been my inspiration.  Those are the words that ought to go in there, meaning the Deity and me, and then you would have got the full and accurate statement.  I did not do this work on my own account, and you cannot persuade this court and the American people ever to believe I did.  The Deity inspired the act.  He has taken care of it so far, and He will take care of it.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did the American people kill General Garfield?”

Guiteau.  “I decline to talk to you on that subject, sir.  You are a very mean man and a very dishonest man to try to make my letters say what they do not say.  That is my opinion of you, Judge Porter.  I know something about you when in New York.  I have seen you shake your bony fingers at the jury and the court, and I repudiate your whole theory on this business.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did it occur to you that there was a commandment, ‘Thou shalt not kill’?” 

Guiteau.  “It did.  The divine authority overcame the written law.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Is there any higher divine authority than the authority that spoke in the commandments?”

Guiteau.  “To me there was, sir.” 

Mr. Porter.  “It spoke to you?”

Guiteau.  “A special divine authority to do that particular act, sir.” 

Mr. Porter.  “And when you pointed that pistol at General Garfield and sent that bullet into his backbone, you believed that it was not you, but God, that pulled that trigger?”

Guiteau.  “He used me as an agent to pull the trigger, put it in that shape, but I had no option in the matter.  If I had, I would not have done it.  Put that down.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did you walk back and forth in front of the door of the ladies’ room, watching for the entrance of the President?”

Guiteau.  “I walked backwards and forwards, working myself up, as I knew the hour had come.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Was it necessary to do that to obey God?”

Guiteau.  “I told you I had all I could possibly do to do the act anyway.  I had to work myself up and rouse myself up.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Why?”

Guiteau.  “Because all my natural feelings were against the act, but I had to obey God Almighty if I died the next second, and God had put the work on to me, and I had to do it.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did you mind about dying the next second?”

Guiteau.  “I knew nothing about what would become of me, sir.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Why did you engage that colored man?  Was it to drive you to a place of safety?”

Guiteau.  “I engaged him to drive me to the jail.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did you think you would be safer there?”

Guiteau.  “I did not know but what I would be torn to pieces before I got there.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Weren’t you a little afraid of it after you got there?”

Guiteau.  “I had no fear about it at all, sir.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Why did you write to General Sherman to send troops?”

Guiteau.  “I wanted protection, sir.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Protection where there was no danger?” 

Guiteau.  “I expected there would be danger, of course.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Why should there be danger?”

Guiteau.  “I knew the people would not understand my view about it, and would not understand my idea of inspiration, that they would look upon me as a horrible wretch for shooting the President of the United States.” 

Mr. Porter.  “As a murderer?”

Guiteau.  “Yes, I suppose that is so.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did you suppose they would hang you for it?”

Guiteau.  “No, sir.  I expected the Deity would take care of me until I could tell the American people that I simply acted as His agent; hence, I wanted protection from General Sherman until the people cooled off and got possession of my views on the matter.  I was not going to put myself in the possession of the wild mob.  I wanted them to have time to tone down so that they could have an opportunity to know that it was not my personal act, but it was the act of the Deity and me associated, and I wanted the protection of these troops, and the Deity has taken care of me from that day to this.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Have you any evidence of that except your own statement?” 

Guiteau.  “I know it as well as I know that I am alive.” 

Mr. Porter.  “It depends upon whether the jury believe that?”

Guiteau.  “That is just what the jury is here for, to take into account my actions for twenty years, my travelling around the country and developing a new system of theology, and the way the Deity has taken care of me since the second of July, and then the jury are to pass upon the question whether I did this thing jointly with the Deity, or whether I did it on my own personal account.  I tell you, sir, that I expect, if it is necessary, that there will be an act of God to protect me from any kind of violence, either by hanging or shooting.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did the Deity tell you that?”

Guiteau.  “That is my impression about it, sir.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Oh, it is your impression.  Have you not had some mistaken impressions in the course of your life?’

Guiteau.  “Never, sir, in this kind of work.  I always test the Deity by prayer.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Why did you think you would go to jail for obeying a command of God?’

Guiteau.  “I wanted to go there for protection.  I did not want a lot of wild men going to jail there.  I would have been shot and hung a hundred times if it had not been for those troops.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Would there have been any wrong in that?”

Guiteau.  “I won’t have any more discussion with you on this sacred subject.  You are making light of a very sacred subject and I won’t talk to you.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did you think to shoot General Garfield without trial “

Guiteau (interrupting).  “I decline to discuss the matter with you, sir.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Had Garfield ever been tried?”

Guiteau.  “I decline to discuss the matter with you, sir.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Did God tell you he had to be murdered?”

Guiteau.  “He told me he had to be removed, sir.”

Mr. Porter.  “Did He tell you General Garfield had to be killed without trial?”

Guiteau.  “He told me he had to be removed, sir.”

 Mr. Porter.  “When did He tell you so?”

Guiteau.  “I decline to discuss the matter with you.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Would it incriminate you if you were to answer the jury that question?”

Guiteau.  “I don’t know whether it would or not.” 

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Mr. Porter.  “What is your theory of your defence?”

Guiteau.  “I have stated it very frequently.  If you have not got comprehension enough to see it by this time, I won’t attempt to enlighten you.” 

Mr. Porter.  “It is that you are legally insane, and not in fact insane, is it?”

Guiteau.  “The defence is, sir, that it was the Deity’s act and not mine, and He will take care of it.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Are you insane at all?”

Guiteau.  “A great many people think I am very badly insane.  My father thought I was.  My relatives think I am badly cranked, and always have thought I was off my base.” 

Mr. Porter.  “You told the jury you were not in fact insane?”

Guiteau.  “I am not an expert.  Let the experts and the jury decide whether I am insane or not.  That is what they are here for.” 

Mr. Porter.  “Do you believe you are insane?’

Guiteau.  “I decline to answer the question, sir.” 

Mr. Porter.  “You did answer before that you were legally insane, did you not?  Did you not so state in open court?’

Guiteau.  “I decline to discuss that with you, sir.  My opinion would not be of any value one way or the other.  I am not an expert, and not a juryman, and not the court.” 

Continue to the next chapter in "The Art of Cross-Examination"

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