April 26, 1859 “Devil Dan” Sickles

Just in case you thought your own member of congress was a piece of work…

With apologies to A. Lincoln, “It is altogether fitting and proper” that the first use of the insanity defense in an American courtroom, was for the murder of a District Attorney, by a member of the United States Congress.

In case you think your own member of congress is a piece of work, he or she probably has nothing on Tammany Hall’s own, Daniel “Devil Dan” Edgar Sickles.  Sickles carried on an “indiscreet affair” for years, with well-known prostitute Fanny White.  No fan of Victorian era propriety, Sickles loved nothing more than to introduce her to scandalized breakfast guests.  As a member of the New York assembly in 1847, Sickles earned a censure from the opposition Whig party, for bringing White into the assembly chamber.

He almost certainly arranged the mortgage on White’s brothel, using the name of his friend and future father-in-law Antonio Bagioli.  Sickles married Teresa Bagioli in 1852 when he was 33 and she 15 and pregnant, much to the chagrin of both families.  Fanny White was so angry she followed him to a hotel room, where she attacked him with a riding whip.


As personal secretary for the Ambassador to the Court of St. James and future US President James Buchanan, Sickles left his pregnant wife behind, bringing Fanny White instead.  Meeting Queen Victoria herself at Buckingham palace, Sickles introduced the prostitute as “Miss Bennett”, using the name of the hated editor of the New York Herald, James Gordon Bennett, Sr.  Queen Victoria never got wise to the ruse, but Bennett was furious at the use of his name.

Sickles_homicideCarrying on with a known prostitute was one thing, but the Mrs. having an affair with a United States District Attorney, was quite another.

After Teresa’s confession of her adultery with the US Attorney for the Washington District, Congressman Sickles shot and killed him in Lafayette Park, across from the White House.  He was Philip Barton Key, son of Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

Sickles immediately surrendered and went on trial for premeditated murder.  He obtained the services of future Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton.  By the time the defense was at rest, Washington newspapers were praising Sickles for “saving all the ladies of Washington from this rogue named Key”.

He was acquitted on April 26, 1859, in the first use of the temporary insanity defense in US legal history.  I’d always thought that stuff like this only happened in the age of social media, but apparently not.  Supporters and detractors alike seemed more upset with Sickles’public reconciliation with his wife, than with the original charges.

As a “War Democrat”, a Democrat in favor of the civil war, Sickles became an important political ally to Republican President Lincoln, receiving a commission as Brigadier General despite having no previous military experience.

Sickles III Corp position, Gettysburg, day 2

At the Battle of Gettysburg, Sickles defied orders on the second day.  Ordered to anchor the Union left at the base of Little Round Top, Sickles insubordinately moved his 3rd corps a mile out front, taking a position in a peach orchard.

Virtually alone, III Corps was shattered in the Confederate assault.  Sickles himself lost a leg to a cannon ball, watching the destruction from the sidelines, while propped up on one elbow and smoking a cigar.

The footrace to the undefended crest of Little Round Top and the savage hand to hand fighting which followed, were very possibly all that saved the Union army that day.

Sickles legSickles donated his leg to the newly founded Army Medical Museum in Washington, DC, along with a visiting card marked, “With the compliments of Major General D.E.S.” He visited his leg for several years thereafter, on the anniversary of the amputation.

Sickles was awarded the medal of honor despite his insubordination, and continued his service through the end of the war, though he was disgusted that he never received another battlefield command.Sickle, leg

Sickles commanded several military districts during Reconstruction, and served as U.S. Minister to Spain, reputedly carrying on with none other than the deposed Queen Isabella II.  Eventually returning to the US Congress, Sickles made important legislative contributions to the preservation of the Battlefield at Gettysburg.

Dan Sickles is one of only two Union Corps commanders not represented by his own statue at Gettysburg.  One had been planned for him, but Sickles himself “reappropriated” the funds. He was once asked where his monument was.  Devil Dan Sickles replied, “The whole park is my monument.”

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