Insane — but only for a bit
“Mr. and Mrs. Sickles are universal favorites; nowhere is there a more refined or generous welcome.”
— Harper’s Weekly, 1858
“Key, you scoundrel! You have dishonored my home. You must die!”
Congressman Daniel Edgar Sickles has a most remarkable life story. Born in New York City during the presidency of James Monroe, Sickles quickly rose through the ranks of New York society. He attended New York University, studied law and was admitted to the bar. Just a year later, at the age of 28, he was elected to the New York Assembly.
By his mid-30s he was named corporation counsel for the City of New York and soon after became secretary to future President James Buchanan when Buchanan was American ambassador to Great Britain. Returning from Europe he re-entered politics, first being elected to the New York State Senate and then to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he was serving at the outbreak of the Civil War.
He entered his country’s service as a colonel and was promoted to brigadier general and then to major general. He served in the Battle of Gettysburg, where a cannonball took off his right leg. President Lincoln went to his bedside during his recovery. After the war he returned to Congress and served as ambassador to Spain. Upon his death in 1919, at the age of 94, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Those are, of course, the highlights of Daniel Edgar Sickles’ life. If there wasn’t something more beneath the surface then I would not, of course, be writing about him. Sickles’ life was filled with the kinds of activities you wouldn’t want to tell to your grandmother. At the age of 33 he married a girl of 15, over the objections of both her parents and his. He was given a public censure by the New York Assembly because he was cavorting with a known prostitute — at the Statehouse.
While his wife was pregnant, he took that same prostitute to London and presented her to the Queen. During the Civil War he ignored the orders of General George Meade to disastrous results. Following his service in Spain he was forced out of a position on the New York Monuments Commission when a large sum of money went missing.
His mark on the legal world, however, comes not from his political career, but rather the most notable event of his personal life. After Sickles moved his young family to Washington, and despite his own marital infidelities, he became obsessed in the belief that his wife was having an affair. His obsession was well founded — she was, indeed, frequently seen in the company of one Phillip Barton Key. Key was a young widower, United States Attorney for the District of Columbia and the son of “Star Spangled Banner” author Francis Scott Key.
When Sickles learned of the affair in 1859 (by way of an anonymous letter that said that Key “has as much use of your wife as you do”), he grew furious, confronted her and got her to sign a confession. He laid in wait the following day and when Key came to the Sickles house — waving a handkerchief as a sign to lure Mrs. Sickles out, Daniel Sickles rushed him armed with multiple firearms. His first shot hit Key in the hand, his second hit him in the groin and his third hit him in the chest, killing him within feet of the White House. Congressman Sickles was arrested and charged with murder. The New York Times reported that the affair was, “of that marked and peculiar kind which may perfectly well consist in the innocence of any absolute guilt.” The newspaper also reported that Key’s associates had made, “intimate threats of summary vengeance.”
He arranged a defense team that would have made O.J. Simpson proud. Leading the team was Edwin Stanton, who would later serve as Secretary of War. Stanton knew that his client had committed the offense, so he turned to the only defense that could reasonably be claimed: temporary insanity. Stanton told the jury that so enraged was Sickles, by his wife’s affair, that he was temporary driven to a point where he could no longer tell right from wrong — no longer be held responsible for his actions. In a fit of insane passion he charged Key and shot him. The trial lasted 22 days in the spring of 1859.
Sickles was acquitted by the Washington jury (else he would not have served in the Union Army, as Ambassador to Spain, etc.). Harper’s Weekly ran an editorial in May of 1859 in which they assailed the insanity defense as a sham, but the public bought it, Sickles’ career continued and he goes down in history as the first person to ever claim — and ultimately be acquitted as a result of — a temporary insanity plea.
David Hejmanowski is a Magistrate and Court Administrator of the Delaware County Juvenile Court and a former Assistant Prosecuting Attorney.