Research Notes · 11/06/2015

Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Bryan Hurt writes about Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France from Starcherone Books.

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Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France: the long title of my book is also a line from the book’s longest story, “Vicissitudes, CA.” In it my three main characters are sitting in a macrobiotic restaurant on the trendy (and getting trendier) La Brea Avenue in Los Angeles, north of the tar pits but within range of the smell, discussing their favorite U.S. presidents and by extension their favorite presidential assassins. The story’s chief antagonist, a personal trainer and small business entrepreneur named Charles, whose list of favorite hobbies begins ends and with golf, says that his favorite presidential assassin is Charles Guiteau, and not just because the two share a first name.

“Guiteau,” says Charles, “killed the president because he was sexually frustrated.” If there was ever a reason to kill someone — , he doesn’t say/sort of implies.


Figure 1: Charles Guiteau, sexually frustrated.

The story’s protagonist, Brandon, is a pedant with a Ph.D. in ethnomusicology, who knows something about sexual frustration and so can’t disagree. His personal drought has been going on longer than California’s and is exacerbated by the fact that Charles is dating Brandon’s best friend and sexual fantasy Kara. Charles and Kara have just moved in together and are soon to buy their first dog, a Pekinese named Chu Chu. Their engagement is imminent. Brandon can’t help pointing out that technically Guiteau killed Garfield because Garfield wouldn’t make him ambassador to France. Kara and Charles dismiss this motive out of hand as being too petty and pedestrian. “Please,” they say. “Everyone wants to be…” etc. etc.

Of course everyone is right. Guiteau killed the president because he wouldn’t make him ambassador to France. After Garfield won the Republican nomination for the 1880 election, Guiteau wrote a speech called “Garfield vs. Hancock” (technically he a revised a speech he’d already written called “Grant vs. Hancock,” although apparently the title and subject were the only things he changed), which he delivered at most twice, but that he nevertheless considered key to Garfield’s victory. As a reward for his support he petitioned Garfield and his cabinet to appoint him first ambassador to Austria and then, having thought about it a while longer, ambassador to France. Guiteau lined up daily alongside other petitioners outside the White House to make his appeal in person to the president. He was so persistent that he was eventually told by James G. Blaine, Garfield’s Secretary of State, that not only would he never become ambassador to France but that he was banned from the White House completely.

The rest, as they say, is history. Guiteau borrowed $15 from a friend which he used to buy a small caliber pistol with ivory grips (he spent a whole extra dollar on an ivory gripped gun over a wooden one because he imagined that the ivory would look better later on when it was preserved in a museum along with the rest of his presidential assassin paraphernalia). He stalked the president for several weeks and eventually shot him twice in the back on July 2, 1881 at the Baltimore and Potomac Railway Station in Washington, D.C. Neither shot was fatal. The bullets missed Garfield’s spinal cord and major organs, but the doctors who operated on Garfield did so with unwashed hands and unsterilized instruments and the president died two months later from infection (later Guiteau would famously argue his innocence by saying, “The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him”).

After the shooting the president, Guiteau turned himself over to authorities and during the trial opted to defend himself. He argued that he was not guilty by reason of insanity and delivered much of his testimony in the form of epic poems, which he penned on nights and weekends in St. Elizabeths psychiatric hospital. He was, of course, found guilty of murdering the president and hanged for his crime. Guiteau’s ivory-handled pistol did make it to the Smithsonian but was lost during processing; a portion of his brain, however, was preserved during autopsy and is still on display at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia.


Figure 2: Charles Guiteau’s brain.

But before any of this, Charles Guiteau spent five years as a member of a sex cult in upstate New York. The Oneida Colony was founded and run by John Humphrey Noyes, a Yale Theological Seminary dropout, who’d made a career of convincing people that the second coming of Jesus had already happened in 70 A.D. and that everyone living on earth was “perfect,” i.e. free from sin. What this meant, basically, was that Noyes and his followers could have sex with whomever they wanted without any moral, religious, or social repercussions. Noyes is believed to have coined the term “free love” and he invented a system of “complex marriage” in which men and women over the age of forty defrocked any number of adolescent boys and girls, serving as their sexual “mentors.” In addition to banning traditional marriage, the Oneida colonists also abolished private property; they were communist in the sense that they shared all property and possessions. The members of the Oneida Colony supported themselves by manufacturing silverware and steel animal traps, rotating jobs so that everyone shared equally in the work. Eventually the silverware manufacturing business became so successful that this became their sole focus; the business still exists today as Oneida Limited, one of the world’s largest tableware and cutlery manufacturers.

But nothing lasts forever, not even Noyes’ utopian sex cult. During the roughly thirty years it was in operation, the Oneida Colony became a popular tourist destination and began to attract the scrutiny of local law enforcement and the FBI. In 1879, Noyes was charged with statutory rape and fled north of the border to Niagara Falls, Canada, where he eventually died. In his absence, the community dissolved. Within a year the Oneida silverware manufacturing business became a joint-stock company, many community members swapped their complex marriages for traditional ones, and a sizable number of them relocated to Orange, California, which coincidently or not, is where Charles from my story is from.

At this point Guiteau had long been exiled from the community. He was generally reviled and ostracized, and had earned the nickname “Charles Gitout” from many of the community members, who deemed him too creepy and strange to have sex with. While Noyes was fleeing to Canada and many of the colonists were trading communism for stock options, Guiteau was wandering the streets of Boston, penniless, hounded by creditors, and under suspicion of theft. Within a year he’d move to Washington, D.C. and shoot the president. He’d be hanged a year after that.

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Of course if you’ve read my story you’ll know that exactly none of this information finds its way into it. All that I have about Charles Guiteau is a few lines of dialogue and the eventual dismissal of his motivations that happens to be the title of my book. For a while I was convinced that I was going to write a novel about the Oneida Colony, unaware that a great novel had already been written. I read most of the books, the firsthand accounts and the serious scholarship, and had a good time doing it. But the novel never really got off the ground. I didn’t understand why I was drawn to the story, besides the sex and as a voyeur to tragedy — I still don’t — and without a real emotional hook couldn’t find a character who held my interest. I tried to find a way to care about Noyes but my research never revealed it. He was never more than a megalomaniac to me, a religious demagogue, a monster.

Still, I don’t consider the research a complete waste. I got those lines of dialogue and the book’s title out of it. I like to think that Guiteau is a kind of mascot for the story collection, even though he’s a scoundrel and a sociopath. A lot of my characters end up causing pain and suffering because of their unchecked ambitions, their solipsism. I also can’t help but feel some kind pity for Guiteau, however unfounded. Perhaps in real life he was as unredeemable as Noyes, but in my imagination he seemed to suffer an excess of loneliness and he pursued all the wrong paths to find human connection.

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Bryan Hurt is the author of Everyone Wants to Be Ambassador to France and editor of Watchlist: 32 Stories by Persons of Interest. His fiction and essays have appeared in The American Reader, Guernica, the Kenyon Review, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Tin House, TriQuarterly, and many other publications. He teaches creative writing at St. Lawrence University.