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The Sickles murder case

Tijana Radeska
The Sickles murder case

The First person to use temporary insanity as a defense

Daniel Edgar Sickles

Daniel Edgar Sickles. Source

It all started with a guy named Daniel Sickles. Sickles (1819-1914) was a U.S. Senator and later a Congressman, as well as a Union General in the Civil War and a U.S. Minister to Spain.  He was known as a major ladies’ man and was censured by the New York State Assembly for escorting famed prostitute Fanny White into the Assembly’s chambers. He also brought Fanny White with him to England while Secretary of the U.S. delegation in London, leaving his pregnant wife at home. Oh, and of course he murdered the district attorney of the District of Columbia, Phillip Barton Key II, son of Francis Scott Key – the author of “The Star Spangled Banner”.

Teresa Bagioli Sickles

Teresa Bagioli Sickles. Source

Sickles had married his wife, Teresa Bagioli, on September 17, 1852, when he was 33 and she just 15, despite the objections of her family.  He then proceeded to have numerous and frequent affairs during their marriage.  While it (apparently) was OK in his head for him to have affairs, he didn’t feel the same about his neglected wife getting some side action.

Sickles shoots Key in 1859

Sickles shoots Key in 1859. Source

Teresa had been carrying out an affair with his close friend Philip Barton Key II, a prominent district attorney and the son of “The Star-Spangled Banner” author Francis Scott Key. The tryst was one of the worst kept secrets in Washington — Key was even known to wave a handkerchief outside his window when he wanted Teresa’s company — but Sickles remained oblivious until he received an anonymous letter that spelled out all the lurid details. The revelations sent him into a rage. A few days later, as multiple witnesses looked on, he approached Key outside the White House and shot him to death.

The trial of Sickles. Engraving from Harper's.

The trial of Sickles. Engraving from Harper’s. Source

In the aftermath of the shooting, details about the murder and the Key affair were splashed across the front pages of newspapers around the country. The media circus only grew during Sickles’ April 1859 murder trial, when his lawyers claimed their client had been “temporary insane” during his crime. It was the first time that such a defense had been rolled out in an American court, but it proved successful: after just 70 minutes of deliberation, a sympathetic jury acquitted Sickles of all charges. He went on to serve as a Union major general during the Civil War and later lost his right leg to a cannonball at the Battle of Gettysburg.