This historic house is one of only a few remaining structures left over from a forgotten Wisconsin ghost town called Ulao, and it just happens to be the childhood home of Charles Guiteau, the man who shot President James A. Garfield in 1881.
Childhood home of presidential assassin Charles Guiteau. Photo: Wisconsin Historical Society
“The doctors killed Garfield, I just shot him.”
This was Charles J. Guiteau’s defense at his trial for the assassination of James A. Garfield, the 20th president of the United States.
Guiteau had stalked Garfield around Washington for months awaiting the perfect opportunity, before he finally drew a revolver and put two bullets in the president on July 2, 1881 at the Baltimore and Potomac Railroad station. The first bullet grazed Garfield’s elbow. The second entered through his back and lodged somewhere deep inside his body. An officer grabbed Guiteau’s arm and wrenched the gun away from him before he could fire another shot.
Guiteau, a 41-year-old lawyer who mostly defended himself at his trial to his defense team’s objections, was considered by many to be entirely insane by this point. He claimed that God told him to kill the President, thereby stripping him of his free will and absolving him of responsibility. His father Luther, on the other hand, believed his son was possessed by the devil.
“You told me one day, not so long ago, to go do something that would make me famous,” Guiteau told his friend Pauline Smolens on the way to the train depot, just moments before he pulled the trigger. “Just keep that in your mind till you see it accomplished.”
Murdering the President is probably not what Ms. Smolens had in mind, but Guiteau was already convinced this was his surefire path to immortality.
This bizarre chapter of history has a tiny but curious connection to Wisconsin’s long vanished “ghost town” on the shore of Lake Michigan, where Guiteau’s childhood home still stands.
Well, he only lived there for five years, but it’s no more than a half hour drive from Cult of Weird HQ so of course it’s worth exploring.
Ulao (pronounced YOO-LAY-OH) was founded in 1847 by an Elgin, Illinois investor named James T. Gifford. His plan was to sell wood to the Great Lakes steamers passing by.
The website for Ghost Town Tavern and Restaurant explains:
“Along the beach, Gifford built a 1000 foot wooden pier that extended into the lake from the beach. He then constructed a wooden chute that began at the top of the steep bluff and ended on the beach near the pier. Gifford bought wood from the farmers, cut it to the proper length, and slid it down the chute to the beach. The wood was then sold to steamer crews that were able to dock at the pier. A steamer of this day needed 600 cords; the product of ten heavily wooded acres, to return to Buffalo and the East.”
Ulao became a major shipping hub.
Gifford hired Luther Guiteau from Freeport, Illinois to survey the land. Guiteau brought his wife and six children, including 9-year-old Charles, to Ulao in 1850. They moved into a new home built from Milwaukee’s famous cream city brick, where they lived for the next five years.
The Guiteau family would have remained there longer, but tragedy intervened when Luther’s wife died in 1855. He abandoned Ulao and moved his children back to Freeport.
Others soon began to leave Ulao, as well, though for different reasons. Coal was starting to replace wood as the primary fuel for shipping on the Great Lakes, and Port Ulao struggled to compete with nearby Port Washington’s three coal docks. As money and work disappeared, so did the residents.
Ulao quickly faded into obscurity.
Charles Guiteau, however, would see to it that he would not be so easily forgotten.
A political cartoon depicting Charles Guiteau, 1881
“Charles Guiteau, born September 8, 1841, in Freeport, Illinois, was, by all accounts, not a stable person,” writes The Atlantic. “Guiteau bounced around from being a failed lawyer, a charlatan preacher, and a sticky-fingered bill collector. He dodged rent his whole life and subsided mainly from the sympathy of his sister. He abused his wife, and when he wanted to divorce her, he slept with a prostitute to speed up the proceedings.”
Guiteau very nearly even botched his shot at fame as, insane, possessed, or otherwise, Guiteau was not entirely to blame for Garfield’s death.
Guiteau did, in fact, shoot the president, but it was the general attitude American doctors had toward the idea of sterilization and British surgeon Joseph Lister’s Antiseptic Method that led to Garfield’s death two months after the shooting.
An Atmosphere Loaded With Germs
The bullet Guiteau fired into Garfield’s back could not be located. X-rays weren’t discovered until the following decade and the metal detector Alexander Graham Bell constructed and scanned over Garfield’s body was unsuccessful.
Thankfully, one man’s suggestion to turn Garfield upside down to make the bullet fall out was ignored.
Instead, a dozen different doctors dug around inside the President’s abdomen with bare hands and non-sterilized instruments.
In 1878, one doctor’s statement perfectly embodied the paradigm of American medicine: “In order to successfully practice Mr. Lister’s Antiseptic Method, it is necessary that we should believe, or act as if we believed, the atmosphere to be loaded with germs.”
These doctors would have got along great in 2020.
Garfield soon began to swell with pus. His doctors pumped him full of morphine and inserted tubes to drain his face and body. By August his condition had yet to improve. The doctors believed the bullet may have pierced his intestines, so they decided to start feeding him beef bouillon, egg yolks, milk, whiskey, and opium rectally. They starved him, causing him to lose over 100 pounds by the time of his death.
After 80 agonizing days, President Garfield finally succumbed to sepsis on September 19.
Autopsy revealed the bullet had pierced a vertebra, but it missed Garfield’s spinal cord, organs and arteries. It lodged in adipose tissue below his pancreas – a non-lethal wound.
Vertebrae of President James Garfield showing the trajectory of Charles Guiteau’s bullet. Photo: National Museum of Health and Medicine
Guiteau was officially charged with murder in October. When the trial started, he became a media sensation. By all accounts, he loved being the center of attention. He recited his testimony in the form of epic poems, insulted everyone in the courtroom, including the judge, witnesses, and his own lawyers, and passed notes to random spectators asking them for legal advice.
He dictated an autobiography to the New York Herald, which concluded with a personal request for “a nice Christian lady under 30 years of age.”
Probably most perplexing was that Guiteau even decided to run for office himself, and started planning his 1884 presidential campaign.
That wouldn’t happen, of course, because he was found guilty and hanged on June 30, 1882.
His brain was dissected and examined by doctors hoping to discover an anatomical reason for his madness. Pieces now reside in a jar at the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia. The rest of Guiteau’s remains, along with Garfield’s bullet-pierced vertebra, are in the collection of the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
Guiteau’s brief childhood home where his mother died still stands in present day Grafton. It is one of five original structures remaining from the forgotten of Ulao.
Ghost Town Tavern & Restaurant, Ulao’s original tavern, still stands