LOCAL LORE: Bill Jones, the Avenger

National Hero or Neighborhood Eccentric?


November 19, 1881, 3pm: The most hated man in America sat uncomfortably in the police wagon as it rattled along the streets of the Capitol grounds. Charles Guiteau, the assassin of President James Garfield, was being returned to his jail cell after a day in court. Often called a “disappointed office seeker,” that term doesn’t paint a full portrait of the man. Guiteau was mentally unstable, a narcissist of the first order who felt he deserved an ambassadorship despite having no qualifications whatsoever. He stalked Garfield for months, then shot him in the back at the Baltimore & Potomac train station near the Capitol. Garfield lingered for almost two months before succumbing to the wound and inept medical treatment. Guiteau was then formally charged with murder. His trial was the kind of media sensation we would recognize today, fueled by Guiteau’s own wild statements in court and interviews he gave the newspapers regularly. Public hostility toward him was increasingly palpable. (Illustration above from Puck Magazine, July 13, 1881. Library of Congress.)

As the police van lumbered across the streetcar tracks at 1st and East Capitol Street, a lone horseman rode up next to the wagon, peered inside, and fired one quick shot. The bullet almost met its mark, nicking Guiteau’s arm, but otherwise caused no harm.

© Robert Malesky 2017