A Brief History
On April 26, 1859, Daniel Sickles, Congressman, Army general, and diplomat, became the first person to successfully use the “temporary insanity” defense to beat a murder rap.
While serving as a U.S. Representative from the state of New York, Sickles shot Phillip Barton Key II, District Attorney for Washington, D.C., who also happened to be the son of Francis Scott Key, the author of the lyrics in the American National Anthem. Sickles killed the man for having an affair with his wife. This provocation was considered sufficient by the jury to justify not punishing Sickles for his crime of passion, which of course leaves the door open for a lot of misuse of the temporary insanity defense.
Sickles, supposedly hurt and outraged to the point of insane murder, had not been a model husband himself and had pulled such stunts as taking a prostitute into the New York State Assembly and traveling to England with that prostitute while leaving his pregnant wife behind.
The powerfully-connected Sickles was a cohort of the Tammany Hall crowd of corrupt politicians (corrupt politicians, is that not redundant?), and he relied on these crooks to help him, securing among others, Lincoln’s Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, for the defense. Sickles also publicly chastised his wife and refused to resign from Congress. His supporters managed to have the press declare him a hero for shooting Key and ridding Washington of his malignant presence. Incredibly, the public and the jury bought the story line and Sickles was acquitted.
You may think this scandalous behavior would seriously dampen the political career of Mr. Sickles; but to the contrary, he became an Army General during the Civil War. His blundering at Gettysburg, however, basically ended his combat career and cost him a leg in the process. The only non-West Point graduate to command a Corps, he narrowly avoided court martial for not obeying orders and afterwards was a vitriolic critic of Union General Meade.
After the war, Sickles continued to serve in the Army in various roles and became a diplomat upon his appointment as Minister to Spain. Later he returned to Congress as a representative from New York. His work to preserve the Gettysburg Battlefield was perhaps his greatest accomplishment.
Sickles died in 1914 age 94, a Medal of Honor recipient. The bones of his severed leg are currently on display with a cannon ball at the National Museum of Health and Medicine.
Question for students (and subscribers): We invite you to tell us what you think about the temporary insanity defense. Should it even be allowed? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
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For more information, please see…
Keneally, Thomas. American Scoundrel: The Life of the Notorious Civil War General Dan Sickles. Anchor, 2003.
Kopac, B. Thomas. Defending the Union Left Flank: General Daniel Sickles at the Battle of Gettysburg. PublishAmerica, 2009.