On the brains of the assassins of Presidents

This is a wonderfully written summary that tells the story of how two father-and-son doctors were involved post-mortem brain examinations of the assassins of the US Presidents James Garfield and William McKinley.

The article is by neuroanatomist Duane Haines although unfortunately, I haven’t read or even got access to the full paper. Luckily, the abstract is just a joy to read in itself. A curious slice of neurological history in 300 words.

Spitzka and Spitzka on the brains of the assassins of presidents.

J Hist Neurosci. 1995 Sep-Dec;4(3-4):236-66.

Haines DE.

Although four American Presidents have been assassinated (Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Kennedy), only the assassins of Garfield (Charles Julius Guiteau) and McKinley (Leon Franz Czolgosz) were tried, convicted, and executed for their crime. In 1882 Edward Charles Spitzka, a young New York neurologist with a growing reputation as an alienist, testified at the trial of Guiteau.

He was the only expert witness who was asked, based on his personal examination of the prisoner, a direct question concerning the mental state of Guiteau. Spitzka maintained the unpopular view that Guiteau was insane. In spite of aggressive and spirited testimony on Spitzka’s part, Guiteau was convicted and hanged. However, even before the execution it was acknowledged, by some experts, that Spitzka was undoubtedly right.

About 20 years later, in 1901, Edward Anthony Spitzka, the son of Edward Charles Spitzka, was invited to conduct the autopsy on Czologsz, the assassin of McKinley. At the time Spitzka the younger, who had just published a detailed series of papers on the human brain, was in the fourth year of his medical training. It was an unusual series of fortuitous events that presumably led to Edward A. Spitzka conducting the autopsy on the assassin of the President of the United States while still a medical student. This, in light of the fact that other experts were available.

Each Spitzka went on to a career of note and each made a number of contributions in their respective fields. It is however, their participation in the ‘neurology’, as broadly defined, of the assassins of Presidents Garfield and McKinley that remains unique in neuroscience history. Not only were father and son participants in these important events, but these were the only times that assassins of US Presidents were tried and executed.

Edward Spitzka was also known as one of the main proponents of the idea that masturbation caused madness, and wrote an 1887 article outlining 12 cases of ‘masturbatic insanity’.

Link to PubMed entry.

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