Wednesday, January 04, 2017

The First Temporary Insanity Defense

Dan Sickles

Daniel Sickles, New York Assemblyman, well known lady’s man, and rising star in the Democratic political machine, married Teresa Bagioli in 1852.  He was thirty three, she was fifteen.  Teresa’s family refused to give their consent to the marriage, so the couple married in a civil ceremony.  Seven months later a daughter was born.

In 1856, Sickles was elected to the U.S. Congress.  Teresa was bored and lonely in Washington.  Teresa struck up an innocent friendship with Philip Barton Key, Washington D. C. District Attorney and son of Francis Scott Key.  What began as innocent meetings soon blossomed into a romantic affair.

Precautions to elude detection were taken.  Key rented a house in a poor section of town so they could meet in private.  Despite the precautions the affair became the stuff of tittle tattle in Washington social circles.  Finally, an anonymous letter was sent to Sickles informing him that, “I do assure you he (Keys) has as much use of your wife as you do.”  Sickles confronted Teresa and after a heated, emotional, and tearful scene, forced her to sign a full confession.
The next day, Sunday February 27, 1859, Sickles spotted Key (unaware of the events of the previous night) standing in Lafayette Park across the street from the Sickles' home waving a handkerchief to get Teresa's attention. Dan Sickles saw the signal and went into a rage. He rushed across the street armed with several pistols and said, “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home; you must die.”

Sickles fired at close range but only slightly wounded Key's hand. Key grabbed Sickles and the two men wrestled. Sickles drew another pistol and fired again. Key fell to the ground and Sickles fired a third shot into Key’s chest.  Horrified onlookers took Key to a nearby house where he soon died.

Sickles was arrested for murder. In an unprecedented legal strategy, Sickles pled innocent by reason of insanity.  This was the first use of a temporary insanity defense in the United States.  The attorney for the defense argued that Sickles had been driven insane by his wife's infidelity.  The jury agreed and acquitted Sickles.  Sickles publicly forgave Teresa, and “withdrew” briefly from public life, although he did not resign from Congress.

Sickles weathered the public outrage over his forgiveness of the adulteress Teresa and went on to become a Major General in the Union army during the Civil War. 

We think we know the Victorians, but do we? The same passions, strengths and weaknesses that exist now, existed then, but people organized themselves very differently.

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