The first temporary insanity case had it all: The killer was a sitting U.S. Congressman; victim the son of The Star-Spangled Banner’s author. The location: across the street from the White House.
We can thank Daniel E. Sickles, NY congressman, for Temporary Insanity Day. His 1859 trial for the murder of Philip Barton Key II was the first time the Temporary Insanity defense was successfully used.
Sickles was a notorious ladies man and serial adulterer. His wife, Theresa Bagioli Sickles, was just fifteen years old – and pregnant – when he married her in 1852.
Philip Barton Key II was United States Attorney for the District of Columbia and the “handsomest man in Washington”. He resembled a sandy-haired Kevin Kline.
Sickles and scandals
Sickles was censured by the New York State Assembly for escorting a known prostitute, Fanny White, into its chambers.
How the other senators knew she was a hooker wasn’t mentioned in the censure!
There were even rumors that some of Sickles’ campaign election costs were covered by White.
He also reportedly took her to England, while leaving his pregnant wife at home.
He cheekily presented White to Queen Victoria, using as her alias the surname of a New York political opponent.
Cloth (handkerchief) waving in the breeze
In the winter of 1858-59, following Sickles’ reelection to the House, Key’s affair with Sickles’ spouse was the best-known secret in the Capital.
After one D.C. costume ball, Teresa, dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, was seen entering a carriage at 2 a.m. with Key, who was clad as an English Huntsman. The coach driver was instructed to drive around Washington.
Sickles was ignorant of the rumors, he later claimed, until February, when he was given an anonymous note saying that Kay
“has as much the use of your wife as you have.”
The next day, Philip Barton Key showed up outside the house waving a white handkerchief. Since texting wasn’t invented yet, this was the signal for Mrs. Sickles to come down for a tryst.
Enraged, Sickles grabbed two derringers and a revolver and chased the Key (in broad daylight) to Lafayette Park, directly across from the White House.
Key, ever the man’s man, threw his opera glasses at Sickles just as he shot him in the groin. He lived long enough to beg Sickles not to shoot him again. Not one to be told what to do, Sickles shot him again, several times in the chest.
Realizing he had just committed murder before dozens of witnesses, Sickles walked to the attorney general’s office and turned himself in.
Before the jury, the defense argued that Sickles had been driven insane by his wife’s infidelity, and thus was out of his mind when he shot Key.
A colorful swath of testimony described Sickle as everything from disturbingly serene to a raging lunatic.
The papers soon trumpeted that Sickles was a hero for “saving all the ladies of Washington from this rogue named Key”.
The verdict—not guilty, of course—was read to thunderous applause in the courtroom. Newspapers around the country proclaimed justice had been done.
Siobhan O’Shea is a freelance writer. She writes about pretty much everything but especially likes to bring readers’ attention to new tech, marketing, human behavior, and other oddities.