The Guiteau Experts

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The Guiteau Experts.

[Lysander Spooner, (unsigned)]

The government experts, in Guiteau’s case, seem to be having things very much their own way; and will probably succeed in getting him hanged, provided they succeed in getting the jury to accept their opinions as to his sanity, or insanity. But will they do this? Are we to hang a man simply because a certain number of superintendents of lunatic asylums believe him sane? Are we to hang a man, upon mere opinions, the truth or reason of which cannot be judged of by common men Do the lives of men, in. this country, legally depend upon the mere judgments of any twenty, fifty, or a hundred men, who claim to know more than other men, as to what diseases, delusions, or impulses that strange thing, the human mind, is liable to, but who cannot so communicate the grounds of their opinions, as to enable other men to judge of their truth or error

These men never saw, handled, or examined a human mind. They can only observe its manifestations through the body; and can only guess, like other people, at the causes of its mysterious and erratic operations. Are men to be hanged on the strength of their guesses?

There are, we suppose, in this country, three, or perhaps five, hundred men, physicians, so called, who make a specialty of treating diseases of the human body, where there is but one who makes a specialty of treating diseases of the human mind. But although diseases of the human body are so much more extensively studied, and treated, and so much easier to be ascertained and judged of, than are diseases of the mind, we have very little confidence in the knowledge of these many physicians, to the nature or causes of our bodily diseases. These physicians differ as much among themselves, as to the nature and causes of these diseases of the body, that we would not think of hanging man on the judgments of any number of them, where the grounds of their judgments were so obscure that they could not be communicated to, or comprehended by, the minds of unprofessional men. In other words, we will not hang men, in this country, on any grounds whatever, that cannot be shown, to the common mind, the unprofessional mind, to be true and round, beyond a reasonable doubt. We will not hang a man upon the mere secret, incomprehensible, or incommunicable reasonings of any number, or body of men whatever. Yet this is just what the government is attempting to do in Guiteau's case And it is attempting to do it on the mere opinions, or guesses of a few men only: these few having confessedly very little knowledge, except what is common to mankind in general, of the causes, or the phenomena of mental diseases.

But this is not all. So far as these experts succeed in communicating the grounds of their opinions, the grounds appear not merely fallacious, but preposterous. For example. They have each spent a month’s time, more or less, in the court room, and in the jail, examining Guiteau, to get the data, the facts, the symptoms, by which to judge whether he is, or is not, insane now. They thus impliedly confess that the question is, at least, an obscure and difficult one to themselves. And when they attempt to communicate their reasons to others, they utterly fail to show any valid ones for their conclusions; that is. any reasons that are intelligible and conclusive to common minds. Common minds know almost absolutely nothing as to the validity, or invalidity, of the reasons which these experts give for holding that he is sane now, or that he has been sane at any time since he bas beeu under their own eyes. If, then, Guiteau is to be hanged, on the testimony of these experts, he is to be hanged on faith, and not. on reason; on faith in the simple opinions or conjectures of these experts, and not on reasons brought home to the comprehension and the understandings of the jurors themselves.

But eyen this is not all. These experts not only give their opinions that Guiteau is sane now, but also that he was sane on the second of July; five or six months ago.

Even if he is sane now, what do they know, or what are their opinions worth, as to whether he was, or was not, sane six months ago?

They apparently have no reason for thinking that he was sane in July, except that they think he is sane in January.

Would it not be just as sensible for them to say that, because he has no fever, or delirium tremens, on him to-day, therefore he could have had none on him six months ago?

This kind of reasoning implies that they hold that if a man was insane in July, he would undoubtedly have continued to be insane until January; or, what is substantially the same thing, that if a man is once insane, he will always remain so.

Now, this, we think, is very likely to be the rule in the asylums under their own control; that they seldom or never cure any body that comes under their care. And we ought to be thankful for this information; for it enables us to know where not to send our insane friends; if we wish to have them cured.

On this theory of theirs, that once insane, always insane, the cases, in which they report the patients as "discharged cured," must be presumed to be cases, in which the viCtims never were insane; but were simply sent to them on “the certificate of two physicians," who knew just so much about insanity as it was necessary for them to know, or as they cared to know, in order to earn two or three dollars for certifying their opinions.

If these experts have really any reliable knowledge—beyond that of other men—as to the operations of minds diseased, or not diseased, why do they not give us some reasonable explanation of the conduct of Guiteau, in killing a man in open day. and before a multitude of people, and. making no attempt to escape; and all this, when he had, no personal malice towards his victim, and no rational prospect of gaining anything by his death? Are such acts as this common to human experience? So common as to imply no disorder in the mind of the actor? Do all the experiences of all the Bedlams on earth explain such a phenomenon as this, consistently with the sanity of the agent?

When these experts are confronted with this question, they are confounded. Instead of telling us how a sane man could do such an act, they stammer out “wickedness,” “depravity,” “evil passions.”

But what “evil passion?” Was it the evil passion of avarice, or. jealousy, or revenge, or any other particular “evil passion,” that is known to induce men to commit murder? No. It was evidently none of these. But it was (as these experts would have us believe) simple “wickedness,” “depravlty,” “evil passions." They can give no answer more definite than that.

Such answers as these might perhaps pass in some schools of theology, which hold that a virus of simple “wickedness,” “depravlty,” or “evil passions” was incorporated into the very nature of our first parents, and by them transmitted to all their posterity. But when they are offered in a court of justice, where a man's life is at stake, they are not merely shameful, they are infamous. Men are not to be hanged, in this country, upon any theory that theologians or others may hold as to all ancient transaction between Adam, Eve, and the devil.

These experts have had thousands of insane persons under their care. Many of these persons have committed homicides, or other violent assaults. All of them, or nearly all of them, were supposed to be liable to commit acts dangerous to themselves, or others. The insanity of no two of them showed itself in the same way. But they were all saying and doing things, daily, that were just as absurd and irrational as was the act of Guiteau. And because their acts, whether violent or not, were so absurd and irrational, these experts have no doubt that the actors were insane. But when Guiteau does an absurd and irrational act, they hold that he is not insane, but simply “wicked,” “depraved,” under the control of his “evil passions.” And yet they can give no reasons – that are capable of being comprehended, end judged of, by common minds—why Guiteau's absurd and irrational act is not as good proof of his insanity, as the absurd and irrational acts of others are of theirs.

Even the witches were not hanged on such absurd testimony as this.

The testimony of these experts tends to show how much science and reason are to be found among the keepers of our asylums for the insane. It tends to show that these men are either blockheads outright, and do not know that they are making fools of themselves, or that they are capable of committing, for money, or to advertise themselves as physicians for the insane, almost any possible crime against justice and reason. It tends to show that many of them, at least, are capable of all the crimes, against both the sane and the insane, with which so many of them have been charged, and of which some of them have no doubt been guilty.

  • Lysander Spooner, “The Guiteau Experts,” Liberty 1, no. 12 (January 7, 1882): 2-3.