Were John Brown or Charles Guiteau crazy?

If so, who was crazier? If not, why not?

To me, they’re both raving lunatics, though very articulate and superficially sane rationalizers of their violent acts. I base this judgment (of their insanity) on their shared core beliefs that they were under instructions from the deity to kill people, and they dont appear to be feigning those instructions. I would also say that Guiteau is crazier if only because Brown acted in a cause that I sympathize with, but honestly once someone says that God literally appeared to him and told him what to do, I don’t much care if God told him to roast some marshmallows–that dude’s out of his skull.

Both insanity defenses were smothered in the crib --Brown told his lawyer to skip it, and the judge in Guiteau’s case wasn’t buying it, but if I were on the jury that’s how I would have voted.

I think they both had a berth in the Crazy Train.


“John Brown” is not a very rare name. Are we referring to the one whose body is a-mouldering in the grave?

Charles Guiteau’s life screams more “entitled” than crazy to me whereas John Brown was the religious zealot wherein he could do no wrong because God was on his side.

The more I’ve read about John Brown, the more I’ve felt his fanaticism seems to lean towards crazy.

Is everyone who acts on God’s instructions crazy?

When it comes to murdering people, yes.

John Brown’s service in a just cause doesn’t justify his extreme bad acts.

I’d characterize him as a mentally unstable fanatic rather than a raving lunatic.

Nitpick: “…in the ground”.

In school, we were taught that John Brown was completely crazy. But what I’ve read since has made me question it. To paraphrase David St. Hubbins of Spinal Tap, it’s such a thin line between crazy and zealously devout.

I admit to not knowing much about Guiteau, but was taught that his condition was best described as ‘just plain nuts’.

I think the fact that Guiteau joined a free love commune and still couldn’t get any was a big red flag.

That’s a pretty broad brush, do you want to qualify it at all? I am not arguing that either of the two you mentioned were or were not insane. I am arguing that merely having a delusion does not make one insane.

Not really. We all draw the line in different places. I draw it at delusions. Of course, I wouldn’t send someone to a mental institution for having delusions unless he committed a crime while being crazy, but I would say that a delusional person needs treatment. Why, do you think someone hearing the voice of God is sane?

I’m happy to be corrected, but as I look at some of the speeches and writings of John Brown I get the impression that he was simply a very devout person who actually took the Bible seriously, and thought the messages of loving your neighbor and doing things for the least of thee obviously applied to slaves. Like, he went to church and thought “I hear the message, and so I should ‘walk the walk’”. People said that was crazy, but it was crazy like a person today who decided to invite refugees to live in their house - it’s an extreme version of Christian charity, but did he really hear voices?

At his trial

Even in private correspondence with his family, I don’t get the impression that Brown was motivated by delusions. Rather, my impression was that he really internalized the message of Christ.

And, by his final letter, my impression is that he is defending his faith, and trying to assure his family that he made the right choice. I don’t get the impression that Brown is claiming some direct connection to a divine voice. The godly commands come simply from the Christian message.


I don’t have much personal experience with people who claim to have heard the voice of God. But if they seemed sane in every other respect, then yes, I would think they were sane. They might be mistaken; God might actually have communicated with them; their own mind might be sending them a message in the “voice” of God—and those last two might not be mutually exclusive. None of those possibilities would make the person insane.

Here’s one person’s take:

They certainly can be. If the rest of the person’s life is integrated with society and they are functional in it, I don’t call that insane. I happen to know someone pretty well in real life who fits that description.

You can use whatever words you want, of course. I don’t think it’s reasonable to define insane as believing in things you don’t believe in, but that’s just my opinion.

His theory that since he made a pro-Garfield speech that (in his mind) got Garfield elected and so Garfield owed him a consulship to Paris seems like half the Karens I see on youTube.

Russell Bank’s great big book on John Brown’s life, Cloudsplitter, is one of the finest and most neglected novels of the 20th century. As a work of fiction, narrated by Brown’s son, it will not answer any questions but it does illume the times and personalities that drove such extremist acts.

As for hearing the voice of god, I will remind posters that god doesn’t exist.

Just chiming in with a +1 for that recommendation, it is a great book.

Unless you’ve got a cite that shows John Brown claiming to directly speak with God, I think you’ve completely misunderstood how religious people think about God.

Believing that God exists and wants you to do certain things isn’t a sign of insanity, it’s a sign of theism (and if you want to say that it’s enough of a delusion to make you crazy, then fine, but so is pretty much everyone else who is alive or has lived in the last few tens of thousands of years - ever since Homo sapiens or an earlier homonid first came up with abstract thoughts like gods and moral codes).

What John Brown means when he says that God wants him to help abolish slavery is NOT that John Brown and God got beers at the pub last Thursday and God told him “you know, it would be totally cool if you killed a bunch of slavers, I hate those fuckers”. Rather, it means that John Brown, based on his studies of Christian theology, made a few conclusions:

  1. God gave people certain rules for how to treat each other
  2. Nowhere in the Bible does it say “Subject to exclusions and limitations. Rules do not protect Africans or their descendants, American Indians, or anyone else you find it convenient to subjugate”.
  3. Given 1 and 2, the rules from step 1 should in fact apply to black slaves
  4. The treatment of black slaves does not conform with the rules laid out in step 1
  5. Given 3 and 4, the Southern planters are violating God’s laws about the treatment of ofher human beings.
  6. Again per the Bible, people who violate rules should be stopped
  7. Given 5 and 6, the Southern Slavers must be stopped.

Frankly, while I am not a Christian and so may disagree with some of the initial assumptions, the logic is completely solid, and I certainly wouldn’t describe someone who followed that logic chain “insane” for doing so.

John Brown should be an American hero, but Lost Cause mythology has horribly stained his legacy.

One of the best (and longest) novels I have ever read.

This is where you go off the tracks, the first part of step one. To find this possible or plausible or conceivable doesn’t make you a nut, just an unpleasant person I would cross the street to avoid talking to, but acting on it certainly makes you suspect, to my mind, and slaughtering people because of this belief of yours does make you into a lunatic, however much I endorse your abolitionist views, which can be fully justified on non-theistic moral grounds.

Brown did walk the walk, and I admire his goals. But it’s a walk to Crazytown. I do find there are millions of undiagnosed crazy people in this country, but almost all of them are harmless because they don’t act on their crazy beliefs, most of them. They just think crazy thoughts, such as God (sometimes directly, sometimes through his written word–no real difference to me) is telling them “Do this or do that,” and sometimes think to inform me of the source of their lunacy, which doesn’t violate the law either, but restrain themselves somehow from committing actual felonies, which Brown could not do.