On February 19, 1859, Daniel Sickles became the first person to be acquitted by “reason of temporary insanity”.
It’s quite the love story.
Daniel Sickles was a New York politician, soldier, and diplomat who’s scandal ridden life sold newspaper after newspaper and entertained Washington for quite some time.
On September 27, 1852, Sickles married Teresa Bagioli, of the famous Italian singing family. There was opposition from both families. He was 33, she about 15 or 16. He was Irish-ish, she was Italian. Teresa was sophisticated for her age, he lied about his, things went along well for a while.
Sickles at one time was appointed by President Franklin Pierce as the secretary of the US legation in London, leaving his wife at home.
He returned to America in 1855 and became a Democratic State Senator in New York. He was on his way UP!
He was elected to the US Congress twice, holding office from March of 1857 until March of 1861.
Things couldn’t have been better.
Or so it seemed.
The scandals of Sickles life are right UP there with the news flashes we have to day.
Before there was Weinergate, there was Sicklesgate!
He was censured by the House of Representatives for escorting one Miss Fanny White, a known prostitute, into the Chamber of the House.
I get the irony.
While in England, with Miss White in tow, the couple was presented to Her Majesty, Queen Victoria!
And to top it off, a mere four years after returning to the US, he shot and killed his wife’s lover, Phillip Barton Key II, the son of none other than Francis Scott Key!
Right in the middle of Lafayette Square!
Surrendering at the home of the Attorney General, Jeremiah Black, he confessed to the murder.
After being accompanied to his home by a local DC cop to retrieve a few things, Sickles was lead to jail.
While in the hoosegow, he was able to receive visitors, and so many came that he was granted the use of the head jailer’s apartment to receive them.
He was also allowed to retain his personal weapon!
The DC press continued to report heavy visitor traffic, which included US representatives, senators, and other leading members of Washington society.
The President, James Buchanan, sent a personal note of encouragement.
Charge with murder, he secured several leading politicians as his defense attorneys, including future Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton.
Once in court, Sickles pled insanity—the first use of a temporary insanity defense in the United States.
Stanton argued that Sickles had been driven insane by his wife’s infidelity, and therefore was
batshit crazy out of his mind when he shot Key.
The papers began reporting that Sickles was a hero for “saving all the ladies of Washington from this rogue named Key”, who was apparently a complete and total man-whore!
His discovery of Teresa’s affair with Key was via an anonymous letter.
Teresa provided a guilt ridden confession to her husband. Inadmissible in court, it was leaked to the press, and furthered Stanton’s policy of ensuring the trial was the main topic of conversation in Washington.
Bear in mind, that just as in the Empire State and Europe, Sickles neglected his wife and marriage and continued to have numerous affairs.
Furious at “her betrayal”, he confronted her, and she confessed in excruciating detail: dates, times, places, and when Harry met Sally!
A few days later (no premeditation there), Sickles saw Key signal his wife for an assignation. He gathered several pistols, while a friend detained Key. Sickles confronted Key, shot him twice, once in the groin.
All this across the street from the White House. President Buchanan’s niece, Harriet was “mortified”!
Sickles was acquitted by reason of temporary insanity, changing court rooms for ever!
UPon his release, he publicly forgave Teresa, and “withdrew” briefly from public life.
But, he didn’t resign from Congress.
His forgiveness and reconciliation with his wife, whom he had publicly branded a harlot and adulteress, pissed every body off!
Although the reconciliation was public, the couple was “estranged” for the remainder of their marriage.
Teresa died of tuberculosis in 1867 at about the age of thirty-one.
Sickles went on to become a Union hero in the War of Northern Aggression, receive the US Medal Of Honor, and serve as a US Diplomat in Columbia and the Court of Spain.
He spent the remainder of his life in New York City, living to the age of 94.
He’s buried at Arlington Cemetery.