Legally Insane: Murder & Daniel Sickles

Published July 30, 2021
Legally Insane: Murder & Daniel Sickles

Murder & Daniel Sickles

On this date, February 19, 1859, one of the most colorful and eccentric politicians and Civil War generals in American history, Daniel Sickles, was cleared of murder charges. But his defense was a novel one – and like nothing that American courts had ever heard before. It seems that the respected politician murdered his wife’s young lover because he was insane at the time. It was the first time that such a defense had ever been attempted in the United States and bizarrely, it worked.

By 1959, murder had already become sadly commonplace in Washington, D.C. so it was rare when a single homicide attracted much attention -- unless that homicide involved a well-known congressman, a famous composer’s son and an attempted cover-up by the president of the United States. With those elements combined, it’s no wonder that Washington society was stunned in February 1859 when they heard of a murder that occurred in wealthy Lafayette Square.

The scandalous event involved Representative Daniel Sickles of New York and his friend, Phillip Barton Key, the son of “Star-Spangled Banner” composer Francis Scott Key. Sickles murdered Key in broad daylight, practically in front of the White House, with a number of witnesses present. But thanks to some help from President James Buchanan and the new legal defense of “temporary insanity”, he got away with it.

Daniel Sickles – Legally Insane
Sickles was well-known in Washington. He was married to the beautiful daughter of an Italian music teacher and his wife, Theresa, was described as being charming and well-educated, along with being very attractive. After his marriage, Sickles worked in London for the Foreign Service for a short time and then was involved in the election campaign of President James Buchanan. He and his wife moved into their home on Lafayette Square and became a major part of Washington’s elite society. Twice weekly they entertained the influential of Washington and the house became the center of both social and political circles.

Sickles later succeeded in winning back his congressional seat in New York and this caused him to start spending a lot of time away from home, leaving his wife, who had been just 17 when they married, to fend for herself. While Sickles was away, Theresa began being spotted in the company of handsome widower Phillip Barton Key.

Theresa Sickles
Everyone in Washington was soon talking about the affair, which was not carried out very discreetly. Key even rented his own house in Lafayette Square, just a block away from the Sickles home, so that they could get together as often as they liked. Rumor had it that they met at least three times each day. Key would stand in the park in front of Theresa’s home and wave his handkerchief at her whenever he wanted to meet.

Sickles missed all of the signs of the affair, which had started on a sofa in his own parlor. Meanwhile, Key grew even bolder, ignoring warnings of violence that could result if the affair was found out. He boasted that he carried a weapon in his pocket, just in case.

Phillip Barton Key

Gossip about an improper relationship between Theresa and Key eventually made its way to Sickle but it was an anonymous note that convinced him of the affair. The note, which had been slipped under his door read, in part:
 “I do assure you, [Key] has as much use of your wife as you have.”

Sickles investigated and found that the allegations were true. According to House clerk George Woodridge, the revelation “unmanned him completely.” The congressman’s “exhibitions of grief” were so violent that Woodridge assisted him in retreating to a private room near the House chamber to avoid a public scene. Ironically, Sickles himself was not above scandalous accusations. He was censured by the New York State Assembly for escorting a known prostitute, Fanny White, into its chambers. He also reportedly took her to England, leaving his pregnant wife at home, and presented White to Queen Victoria, using as her alias the surname of a New York political opponent.

But his wife’s affair unhinged him. He was enraged and distraught over the affair. He went home and confronted Theresa with what he knew. That same evening, she wrote a long and detailed confession, which was very explicit for those prudish times. She implored her husband to “spare her,” which Sickles did, but only after she signed the confession in front of two witnesses. That night, Theresa slept on the floor of her friend Octavia’s room, while Sickles stayed in the bedroom. Servants later told of hearing sobbing coming from both bedrooms that night.  Sickles told a friend the next day: “I am a dishonored and ruined man”.

The next morning, Phillip Key, not realizing that the affair had been found out, walked past the Sickles house and waved his handkerchief at the window. When Theresa failed to respond to his signal, he left, but came back and tried again later on in the day. On his third trip to the park, Key was met by the Sickles’ dog, which ran out of the house when he saw him. Key made a show of playing with the dog, waving his handkerchief the entire time.

Sickles, however, had seen the less than subtle signals and shouted at George Woolridge and another visitor, Samuel Butterworth: “That villain has just passed my house!” Butterworth tried to placate his friend, arguing that a public scene would only provide more gossip about the affair. Sickles brushed him off, stating that the whole town knew of it anyway. By now, the congressman was well past reason and hardly concerned about appearances.

Arming himself with two derringers, Sickles rushed out of the house and into the park. He screamed at Key: “Key, you scoundrel! You have dishonored my house -- you must die!”

As Key thrust his hand into his jacket, Sickles fired but the shot only grazed the other man. Sickles raised his hand to fire again and Key grabbed by him the collar of his coat. As they struggled, the gun fell to the ground. Sickles pulled away from him and drew the second gun. Key pleaded with him: “Don’t murder me!” Then, he threw a pair of opera glasses at Sickles as a desperate attempt to ward off his attacker.

Sickles was undeterred and fired again. This time, the bullet struck Key, penetrating near his groin. Key murmured that he was shot and collapsed against a tree. Sickles stood over him and pulled the trigger again. The gun misfired. As Key cried in desperation, Sickles calmly re-loaded the derringer and pressed it close to his former friend’s chest. He fired again and this time, the shot was fatal. Even so, Sickles was still not finished. He placed the muzzle against Key’s head and again, pulled the trigger. It misfired again and he stepped away.

Thomas Martin, a Treasury Department clerk, had witnessed the murder and he ran to the scene. Sickles turned to him and asked: “Is the scoundrel dead?”

Several men picked up Key’s body and carried him to a nearby house, where he died a short time later. As he watched them go, Sickles stood at the edge of the park and mumbled the same phrase over and over again: “He violated my bed.”

Sickles turned himself into the authorities immediately after the murder. At about the same time, President Buchanan received news about the incident from a young page, J.H.W. Bonitz, who had witnessed it. After hearing the report, Buchanan lied to Bonitz to try and protect his friend. He told the page that he should get out of town right away. Otherwise, he might be jailed and held without bond as a witness to the crime. Apparently, the president was unaware that others had witnessed the murder too, but his tactic worked on Bonitz. The page took some money that was offered to him by Buchanan and left Washington on the first train.

Before he was taken to jail, Sickles was permitted to make a short visit to his home. A large crowd was gathered outside, hoping for a glimpse of the famous killer. He was escorted inside and he found Theresa lying on the bedroom floor, stricken with grief. He uttered only once sentence to her before he left: “I’ve killed him.”

News of the murder spread throughout the city and dominated newspaper headlines for days to come. Editorials were written that inflated the importance of the killing, stating that it reflected the tabiat decay of society in general and more specifically, the increasing lawless conditions of Washington.

Sickles was indicted for murder and his trial was a spectacular one. He hired eight of the nation’s most prestigious lawyers to defend him, including Edwin Stanton, who would later become Lincoln’s Secretary of War. The prosecution was hampered from the beginning. Robert Ould, who was appointed by President Buchanan to replace Phillip Key as Washington’s district attorney, was an inexperienced lawyer and incapable of handling such a complicated case. Despite pleas from the Key family (the president was still trying to help Sickles), Buchanan refused to replace him.

The courtroom was crammed with curious spectators when the trial began and people outside peered in the windows, hoping to catch a look at the proceedings. The case itself should have been simple. Sickles stalked and killed Key in an act of “remorseless revenge” and had done the deed in the open with plenty of people watching. He was obviously guilty of the crime with which he had been charged.

But the defense complicated the case by arguing that Sickles had been temporality insane at the time of the murder, and that Key’s defilement of his wife had made him that way. The insanity defense had been well-established in American courtrooms but, at that time, there was no precedent for what the defense called an “irresistible impulse.” Sickles, his counsel attested, had acted in a “transport of frenzy” that was fleeting in nature. He could not resist this impulse and acted in a manner that could not be stopped. For this reason, they said, he was not guilty of the crime. The jury agreed and after deliberating for less than an hour, Sickles was acquitted.

The verdict was followed by a spontaneous celebration in the streets of Washington, including a parade that was led by the U.S. Marine Band. Sickles was not exactly proclaimed a pendekar but his actions were certainly understood by most. They believed that Sickles had a right to stand up for his honor and one of the jurors in his trial, William Hopkins, even told newspapers: “I would not have been satisfied with a derringer or a revolver, but would have brought a howitzer to bear on the seducer.”

Sickles had been grievously wronged and the public was prepared to welcome him back to his proper place in society. But then Sickles did the unthinkable --- he reconciled with his wife.

All of the goodwill that had followed the trial suddenly vanished and the public was in an uproar. Newspapers turned against him, as did many of his friends. Sickles was not ruined by the murder, but for forgiving his wife. Public reaction was so angry that Sickles was compelled to justify himself in a lengthy newspaper statement that was reprinted all over the country. In the letter, he made no apologies for murdering Key and for taking back Theresa. Instead, he appealed for the right to conduct his personal family life in private. The open letter did little good. Sickles was considered a joke and was ostracized by his fellow members of Congress. Despised and the object of ridicule, Sickles decided not to run for re-election. But his colorful career was far from over.

When the Civil War began, Sickles raised a contingent of men from New York and organized them for battle. His patriotism so impressed President Lincoln that he assured Sickles a position after the war. He managed to wrangle a commission and rose to the rank of major general. At Gettysburg, Sickles continued his controversial career by gloriously disobeying orders. He decided to move his corps forward from its assigned position in General Meade’s “fish-hook” across the battlefield. This jeopardized the entire Union line at the same time that Longstreet’s Confederates were moving to attack the very place that Sickles had been ordered to hold.

Daniel Sickles’ shattered leg – and the cannonball that took it – at the Army’s National Medical Museum
During the battle, Sickles’ right leg was hit and horribly mangled by a cannonball. On his way to the field hospital, where the leg would be amputated, Sickles calmly sipped wine and smoked a cigar. The wound ended his active service but he displayed the stump of his leg as a sign of his valor and heroism. In fact, he was so proud of his wound that he donated the shattered leg to the Army’s National Medical Museum, where it remains on display today. For years after, he visited the leg on the anniversary of its removal.

Despite his one-legged disability, Sickles remained in the army until the end of the war and was disgusted that Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant would not allow him to return to a combat command. In 1867, he received appointments as brevet brigadier general and major general in the regular army for his services at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, respectively.

A photograph of Sickles and his staff after Gettysburg
When the war ended, President Andrew Johnson kept Lincoln’s promise to find Sickles a position in government and appointed him military governor over the Carolinas during Reconstruction. Sickles described his new position: “I am a sort of Sultan, a sort of Roman consul. I was not only the military commander, I was the Governor of these two states; I was the Court of Chancery of these two states. I was a sort of Poobah.”

Soon after the close of the Civil War, in 1865, he was sent on a confidential mission to Colombia to secure its compliance with a treaty agreement of 1846 permitting the United States to convey troops across the Isthmus of Panama. From 1865 to 1867, he commanded the Department of South Carolina, the Department of the Carolinas, the Department of the South, and the Second Military District. In 1866, he was appointed colonel of the 42nd U.S. Infantry (Veteran Reserve Corps), and in 1869 he was retired with the rank of major general.

Sickles served as U.S. Minister to Spain from 1869 to 1874, after the Senate failed to confirm Henry Shelton Sanford to the post, and took part in a controversial affair that almost had the U.S. in a war with Spain. His inaccurate and emotional messages to Washington promoted war, until he was overruled by Secretary of State Hamilton Fish and the war scare died out.

In 1867, Theresa Sickles died at the age of 31. General Sickles remarried four years later to Carolina Creash, whom he had met while serving as the “Yankee King of Spain,” as he called it. He was forced to resign in 1873, but not before reportedly carrying on a steamy affair with the deposed Queen Isabella II.

Not surprisingly, his second marriage was a disaster and he and his wife were estranged for almost 30 years when she refused to return with him to the United States. Sickles managed to stay busy, though. He was president of the New York State Board of Civil Service Commissioners from 1888 to 1889, sheriff of New York in 1890, and again a representative in the 53rd Congress from 1893 to 1895. For most of his postwar life, he was the chairman of the New York Monuments Commission, but he was forced out when $27,000 was found to have been embezzled.

Daniel Sickles in 1902
He had an important part in efforts to preserve the Gettysburg Battlefield, sponsoring legislation to form the Gettysburg National Military Park, buy up private lands, and erect monuments. One of his contributions was procuring the original fencing used on East Cemetery Hill to mark the park's borders. This fencing came directly from Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. – where he had killed Phillip Barton Key.

Of the principal senior generals who fought at Gettysburg, virtually all, with the conspicuous exception of Sickles, have been memorialized with statues at Gettysburg. When asked why there was no memorial to him, Sickles supposedly said, "The entire battlefield is a memorial to Dan Sickles." However, there was, in fact, a memorial commissioned to include a bust of Sickles, the monument to the New York Excelsior Brigade. It was rumored that the money appropriated for the bust was stolen by Sickles himself; the monument is displayed in the Peach Orchard with a figure of an eagle instead of Sickles' likeness.

Sickles lived out the remainder of his life in New York City and was said to still be a womanizer in his old age. He died on May 3, 1914 at the age of 94. He was buried in Arlington National Cemetery – except for that one leg, of course. It’s still on display at the National Medical Museum.


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