Lying, tweeting, fondling, fibbing, and firing-oh my. Those are a few words you might use to describe the White House administration right now. Craziness abounds in our current political climate. But it’s really nothing new.
We’ve always had our “deviants” to say the least: people whose actions fall outside the realm of civil discourse. Many of them have held and continue to hold public office, much to the chagrin of our American morals. You may or may not remember the speech where Donald Trump said, in so many words, that he could walk in the street, shoot somebody and not lose votes.
Well, the truth is that actually happened once. Not to him obviously but another politician, way back in the 1800s. He really did shoot somebody, in a fit of rage. The man’s name was Daniel E. Sickles.
Even his birth date remains in dispute: some say he was born October 29, 1819 in New York City, though the date may possibly be October 20, 1825, six years later. Sickles, raised in a wealthy family, started his career as a lawyer and politician in New York during the infamous Tammany Hall era. No doubt as crooked as Tweed, Sickles used his connections to gain several prominent offices, including corporation counsel of New York City when he was 28 (Krajicek, NY Daily News).
His cronyism also won him a seat on the New York State Senate in 1855, for two consecutive terms. In 1857 he was elected to the House of Representatives.
Five years earlier he had married his wife, Teresa Bagioli, in 1852. She would come to be a key player in the shooting scandal involving Sickles. It wasn’t exactly ideal: he was 33 and she was 15. Statutory rape laws weren’t exactly in full force then. Even creepier is the fact that Bagioli was the daughter of his music teacher, so Sickles had probably known her since infancy.
Her family, rightly so, wouldn’t consent to the marriage, prompting the two to conduct one in a civil ceremony. After tying the knot (and winning a congressional seat) the couple moved to D.C. where they spent most of their marriage. They lived large and lavish, acquainting themselves with the upper crust of society.
The Sickles were quite an attraction. Especially the missus. Teresa Bagioli was well known for her “superior” beauty. To boot, she was also skilled at horseback riding, as well as fluent in Italian and French (Krajicek, NY Daily News).
But their lavish marriage was marked with infidelity. Sickles, like any “respectable” politician, kept many mistresses. His affairs were pretty extensive, and included Fanny White, the owner of a New York brothel.
When they moved to Washington the couple leased a mansion at Lafayette Square, just across from the White House. There they held dinners for the rich and famous in D.C. As a result the Sickles became very popular in social circles. But the public was still aware of their private lives.
They had a reputation for being unfaithful. And it wasn’t just Daniel; his political lifestyle kept him constantly occupied, leaving his wife Teresa “lonely”. Their social connections put them in contact with a whole range of prominent figures including D.C. District Attorney Phillip Barton Key, who Teresa began to casually meet with. (Fun fact: he was the son of Francis Scott key, the author of the Star Spangled Banner). Eventually the two started a romantic affair.
Teresa took advantage of her husband’s away time. During Sickles’s absences she and Key would consort in the parlor. They would meet in quiet places around the city, even bedding down in cemeteries. Eventually Key rented a house in a poor section of D.C. where the two could meet undetected.
The affair soon became the talk of the town, especially among Washington elites. The scandalous news struck home, inevitably, when Sickles received an anonymous letter detailing the whole affair.
The result: Sickles forced his wife to sign a confession, which she felt only her duty as a “woman of shame”.
But the troubles didn’t end there. On February 27, 1859, a fatal event occurred. It was morning and Key was waiting across the street from the Sickles’ residence at Lafayette Park. His damning mistake: waving a handkerchief to get Teresa’s attention while her husband just happened to be watching.
And shit got real. After Daniel saw this he grabbed several (not one) pistols and stormed out of the house enraged. He ran into the square and confronted his rival in broad daylight. Sickles infamously screamed out “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home; you must die!” before drawing his gun and firing, in the presence of dozens of people (Soniak, Mental Floss).
He shot Key first in the hand. The two men grappled and Sickles drew another weapon and shot him twice: once in the groin and once in the chest. The wounded Key was hauled off afterwards but later died of his injuries. Supposedly he had pleaded for his life.
Sickles fled at first then turned himself in to police several hours later. He was charged with murder and thrown in jail. The murder didn’t wound his reputation so much; while awaiting trial many people came to visit Sickles, wishing him luck. He hosted many guests, such as Congressmen and high-ranking federal officials. He even received a personal note from President James Buchanan. Sounds like high praise for a lunatic.
But the shooting Senator did have his detractors as well. The case became a scandal, putting a bitter taste in many people’s mouths. It became a symbol of America’s declining values. Sickles had already been no stranger to controversy: he had once been reprimanded by the New York State Senate for bringing a prostitute into the chamber.
How could such a licentious man as Sickles be such a prominent public figure? And now, was he really above the law? One court case would tell so.
On trial Sickles was represented by Future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. His argument: that Sickles was obliged by “unwritten law” to protect his marriage from infidelity (Krajicek, NY Daily News). But then again, killing someone seems a little drastic, right? Now if you apply the right judgment: or rather in Sickles’s case, the lack of proper judgment.
The attorneys, so adept in bullshitting, argued that Sickles’s wife’s infidelity had driven him to “temporary insanity”. Ergo, a crime of passion. Ergo, the man was completely out of his mind when he acted on impulse.
There was reason to go for an “insanity plea”: historically speaking, courts spared criminals judged to be “mentally ill”, in the Middle Ages either whisking them off to asylum without trial, or referring them to a king for royal pardon.
But those were the Middle Ages. The modern “insanity defense” is said to originate in the case of Daniel M’Naghten, a Scottish woodworker who believed himself to be the target of a conspiracy by the pope and British Prime Minister [at the time] Robert Peel (Soniak, Mental Floss).
In 1843, M’Naghten tried to kill Peel at 10 Downing Street, but failed in his attempt. Instead, the botched assassination resulted in the death of the prime minister’s secretary, Edward Drummond.
During M’Naghten’s trial he was examined closely by psychiatrists who found him delusional. As a result the jury acquitted him.
This started an outcry, prompting the House of Lords to convene a special session. Here they discussed insanity under the law and came up with the M’Naghten Rules.
These basically say that a defendant can be acquitted if “at the time of the commission of the acts constituting the offense, the defendant, as a result of a severe mental disease or defect, was unable to appreciate the nature and quality of the wrongfulness of his actions” (Soniak, Mental Floss).
Its American counterpart was the case of Richard Lawrence who, thus far in the time of Sickles, was the only person in the U.S. acquitted for insanity. His crime: shooting at Andrew Jackson because he believed himself to be heir to the British throne and that the president was trying to keep him from claiming it.
In American law 25 states use a similar version of the M’Naghten Rules, while 20 (and Washington D.C.) go by the Model Penal Code Standard established in 1962 by the American Law Institute. Under this the defendant is not fully responsible if “at the time of his conduct as a result of mental disease or defect the defendant lacked substantial capacity either to appreciate the criminality of his conduct or to conform his conduct to the requirements of law” (Soniak, Mental Floss).
Sickles’s attorneys managed to convince the jury that their client, the shooting senator, was every bit as unhinged as this. His “temporary insanity” rested on the fault of his insubordinate wife, rather than on his own actions and behavior.
And the jury concurred. Sickles, a politician who had committed murder in broad daylight, was shockingly acquitted. This would go down to be the first time a temporary insanity plea was successfully used in the United States.
Even more shocking to the public was the fact that Sickles didn’t divorce his wife. Teresa would later die of tuberculosis in 1867.
Sickles’s popularity took a nosedive. Many people did not associate with him after that, and he subsequently did not win reelection to Congress. He returned to New York in 1861 a dishonored man.
But Sickles’s story was hardly ended there. Duty would call in the form of military service. More specifically, the Civil War. Sickles started out serving as Colonel for the 70th New York Infantry. He was later appointed brigadier general of volunteers and given the command of New York’s Excelsior Brigade (CivilWar.org).
In 1862 he was promoted to major general. Sickles would come to serve in the Peninsula campaign, with Joseph Hooker’s Third Corps, and also the Chancellorsville campaign.
Sickles’s insubordinate ways continued into his military career. In the Chancellorsville campaign he was given orders to survey Confederate lines as word spread of their approach. Joseph Hooker was in command of his fighting force, the Army of the Potomac. He made the fatal error of assuming Sickles had come upon a band of retreating Confederates. Instead of pulling Sickles back to the main Union lines, he left him and his 18,000 man corps almost a mile and a half away from Federal support. This left a huge gap in the lines, which Stonewall Jackson’s army exploited by attacking the right flank. Sickles, unable to reach the main line, secured himself at Hazel Grove. When Hooker asked him to give it up he refused. The Confederates later seized it and dealt a decisive blow to the Union center lines (CivilWar.org).
Another famous screw-up: disobeying orders during Gettysburg. Sickles’s job was to cover Round Tops on the Union’s left flank. Instead he moved his men to a place called Peace Orchard. As a result the Third Corps was overrun and driven from the battlefield.
In this campaign Sickles lost his right leg, via cannonball. After being awarded the Medal of Honor he donated the leg to the Army Medical Museum in Washington D.C. It’s still there now on display.
Sickles was put to other work after the war. He was sent to the South by Lincoln where he reported to him on the vile effects of slavery and offered suggestions for Reconstruction. He also served as a diplomat to Colombia, Military Governor of South Carolina, Minister to Spain, and New York City Sheriff, to name just a few.
Daniel E. Sickles died on May 3, 1914 in New York City of a cerebral brain hemorrhage. He is buried at Arlington.
Soniak, Matt “Crazy Talk: A Jealous Congressman and America’s First Insanity Defense” Mental Floss. May 10, 2012. http://mentalfloss.com/article/30632/crazy-talk-jealous-congressman-and-americas-first-insanity-defense
Krajicek, David J. “New York’s killer congressman” NY Daily News.com. March 25, 2008. http://www.nydailynews.com/news/crime/new-york-killer-congressman-article-1.306086
Biography: Daniel E. Sickles. Civil War Trust. https://www.civilwar.org/learn/biographies/daniel-e-sickles