Friday, June 10, 2011

An Antebellum Crime of Passion: Murder and the Insanity Defense of Congressman Daniel Sickles


With recent headlines being dominated by the risque internet activities of certain politicians, I decided that it would be an apt time to explore the case of New York Congressman-- and future Civil War general-- Daniel E. Sickles (and no this is not going to involve some joke about sexting via telegraph).  A controversial and colorful figure, whose actions nearly led to Union disaster at the second day of Gettysburg, Sickles' tumultuous life was captured succinctly by one historian:  "From his mid-30s until his death at age 94, he [Sickles] was continually embroiled in some sort of financial, legislative, sexual or homicidal crisis." 


"HOMICIDE OF F. BARTON KEY BY HON. DANIEL E SICKLES AT WASHINGTON, Harper's Weekly.  Key was the son of Francis Scott Key, author of the Star Spangled Banner, and was also the nephew of US Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision (Courtesy of Library of Congress)
 Sickles was born in New York City in 1819 to a well-to-do family.  As a young man, he was active in New York Democratic politics serving in the state legislature before being elected to Congress in 1856.  Sickles gained national notoriety in 1859 when he discovered that his much younger wife, Teresa Bragioli, was having an affair with Francis Barton Key, the son of the author of our National Anthem.  Enraged, Congressman Sickles confronted Key outside the Sickles' Lafayette Park residence on the afternoon of February 27, 1859.  According to eyewitnesses, Sickles shouted, "Key, you scoundrel.  You have dishonored my wife.  You must die."  Sickles then fired a revolver at Key, killing him within spitting distance of the Executive Mansion. 

Teresa Bragioli Sickles, the younger wife of Congressman Daniel Sickles and the object of Francis Barton Key's affections, Harper's Weekly (Courtesy Library of Congress)


Sickles was charged with murder and his trial captured newspaper headlines throughout the country.  The New York Times' Washington correspondent observed that "the vulgar monotony of partisan passions and political squabbles has been terribly broken in upon today by an outburst of personal revenge, which has filled the city with horror and consternation, -- I cannot unfortunately add with absolute surprise."  The press reported that Key had even maintained a residence along 15th Street in a run-down neighborhood for his liaisons with Mrs. Sickles. 

Sickles was represented by a legal "dream team" including future War Secretary Edwin Stanton.  Sickles' legal team employed the then novel defense of "temporary insanity."  The jury agreed and Sickles became the first defendant in US history to be acquitted by reason of temporary insanity. Sickles, who himself was a known womanizer, remained married to Teresa until her death in 1867 from tuberculosis. 

THE TRIAL OF THE HON. DANIEL E. SICKLES, Harper's Weekly (Courtesy Library of Congress)

A pro-Union War Democrat, Sickles volunteered his services at the outbreak of the war and became one of the most prominent, albeit also controversial, political generals of the war.  At Gettysburg, Sickles disobeyed orders and advanced his Third Corps, leaving the Union lines vulnerable.  In the resulting fight, he was injured by a cannonball and had to have his right leg amputated. Sickles had bones from the amputated leg preserved and donated them to the Army Medical Museum in Washington, D.C.  Throughout his life, he regularly visited the museum to see his leg on the anniversary of its amputation.  (You too will be able to see his leg and other Civil War medical curiosities including the bullet that killed Lincoln at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, when it completes its relocation from Walter Reed Army Medical Center to the Forest Glen Annex later this year). 

Avoiding the court-martial that he deserved for his actions at Gettysburg, Sickles returned to military duty.  After the war, he resumed his political career and served abroad as a US diplomat in Spain and later  was elected to another stint in Congress.  Through his political connections, Sickles was even able to secure himself a Congressional Medal of Honor in 1897 for his actions at Gettysburg.  In his later years, Sickles was a prominent presence at aging veterans' reunions and was responsible for overseeing New York's efforts to erect memorials to its war dead.  In this capacity, Sickles was accused of embezzling funds in the early 1900s.  Sickles lived to a ripe age and died in New York City on May 3, 1914.  He is buried  at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Major General Daniel E. Sickles signing autographs in 1913 at the fiftieth anniversary reunion of the Battle of Gettysburg.  In his later years, Sickles was estranged from his second wife and children who accused him of squandering their inheritance.  Sickles was also suspected of embezzling funds meant for monuments to New York's war dead.

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