April 26, 1859 Temporary Insanity

Think your “Representative” in Congress is a piece of work? I feel your pain. With apologies to Mr. A. Lincoln, “It is altogether fitting and proper” that the first use of the insanity defense in an American courtroom, just happened to be 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 Fanny 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 and attacked him, with a riding whip.

dan-sickle-teresa-key

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 along 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, Senior.  Queen Victoria never got wise to the ruse but Bennett was furious, at the use of his name.

Sickles_homicide

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

Following Teresa’s confession of her adultery with the US Attorney for the Washington District, Congressman Sickles shot and killed the man in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House.  The deceased was one Philip Barton Key, none other than the son of Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star-Spangled Banner”.

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

In the first use of the temporary insanity defense in US legal history, Dan Sickles was acquitted on April 26, 1859.  

I’ve long believed that social media has elevated us all to new heights of chicken excrement, but maybe not.  Sickles’ supporters and detractors alike worked themselves into a perfect snit, more exercised over the man’s public reconciliation with his wife than his murder charges.

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

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Sickles III Corp position, Gettysburg, day 2

On the first day of the Battle at Gettysburg, July 1, General Robert E. Lee came at the Union right. On day 2 he advanced against the union left, squarely aimed at General Sickles position, at the base of little Round top. Except, Devil Dan wasn’t there. In defiance of orders, Sickles abandoned a great gap in his lines and moved his 3rd corps a mile out front, taking a position in a peach orchard.

All but alone now, III Corps was hit from left, right and center and shattered, in the Confederate assault.  Sickles himself was hit by a cannon ball that mangled his right leg. With a saddle strap for a tourniquet he was toted off to III Corps hospital, grinning, propped up on an elbow and smoking a cigar.

Following Sickles’ bloodbath at the peach orchard, the frantic footrace to the undefended crest of Little Round Top and the savage hand to hand fighting that followed, was just about all that saved the Union army.

Following amputation, Sickles insisted on being transported to Washington DC where he arrived, on July 4. Gettysburg was by now a great Union victory, one for which Sickles set about immediately crafting the narrative of his own heroic contribution.

Sickles 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.

Sickle, leg

Despite near-disastrous insubordination, Sickles was awarded the medal of honor and continued his service, through the end of the war. To his everlasting disgust he never did receive another battlefield command.

Sickles commanded several military districts during Reconstruction and served as U.S. Minister to Spain where he carried on with none other than the deposed Queen Isabella II. 

Eventually returning to the United States Congress, Sickles made important legislative contributions to the preservation of the Battlefield at Gettysburg.

Virtually every senior Union commander at Gettysburg is remembered, through his own monument. All except Dan Sickles. Once asked where his monument was, Congressman Sickles replied: “The whole park is my monument.”