Crazy Talk: A Jealous Congressman and America's First Insanity Defense

Image credit: National Archives

On a Sunday afternoon in Washington, D.C., in 1859, Philip Barton Key, son of the man who wrote “The Star Spangled Banner,” stood in the park and waved his handkerchief in the air. He was attempting to signal his girlfriend, Teresa Sickles, who lived across the street, so that they could sneak out for a date.

Someone parted the curtains in a window of Sickles’ home and watched Key for a few minutes, but it was not Teresa. It was her husband Daniel, a well-known politician (at left in photo above). He continued to watch as Key attempted to call up to Teresa’s window. He had known for several weeks that Key was sleeping with his wife. Worse, his friends and neighbors had known, too.

Watching his wife’s lover calling upon her in full view of everyone on the street right in front of him, Sickles lost it. Consumed by rage, he grabbed two handguns from his bedroom and stormed out of the house, across the street and into the park. He ran up to Key, screaming, “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home. You must die. You must die! You must die!”

Sickles fired several times at Key, striking him in the leg and in the hand. Key grabbed Sickles’ lapels and the two men grappled on the ground, in full view of the homes of Washington’s elite. Sickles pulled away, stood and drew his second pistol. Key drew the only weapon he had, a pair of opera glasses, and threw them at his assailant. Sickles fired and hit Key near the groin. Falling back against a fence, Key pleaded for his life.

Sickles pointed the gun at the center of Key’s chest and fired. Key staggered away, dying a few minutes later. Sickles stepped back and looked around. At least a dozen people had witnessed the entire thing. Sickles fled and surrendered to the police a few hours later at a friend’s house, where he was charged with murder and taken to jail.

As a former Congressman, Sickles enjoyed certain perks during pre-trial detention. So many people came to wish him well that he was given use of the jailer's apartment to entertain his guests, among them Congressmen and other high-level members of the federal government. President James Buchanan did not make a visit, but did send Sickles a personal note. During this time, Sickles secured several renowned politicians as his defense attorneys, including Edwin M. Stanton, who would later become Lincoln’s Secretary of War. And the whole time he was detained, Sickles was also allowed to keep a weapon on his person.

Even though the proceedings were outrageous even by today’s standards of prime-time-ready crime and celebrity defendants, it is not Key’s murder or the unorthodox confinement for which we remember Daniel Sickles. It is for what he did next: told the court that he should be found innocent of the crime due to reasons of insanity, something that no one in America had ever done before.

Slipping Into Insanity

Insane people have been doing insane things and getting in trouble for it since the dawn of mankind. For most of that time, it’s also been possible that being insane could get you off the hook. Leniency toward a criminal who exhibited a mental illness was common in ancient Greece and Rome, and later spread throughout Europe. In the Middle Ages in England and Western Europe, the courts often either spared the insane the ordeal of a trial and simply committed them to an asylum, or found them guilty and then immediately referred the case to the king for a royal pardon.

In early America, the law often made no distinction between criminal insanity and other criminal behavior, but the courts sometimes acquitted the mentally ill because of their condition anyway. One notable case was Richard Lawrence, the unemployed house painter who was the first person charged with the attempted assassination of a U.S. president. (Lawrence believed that he was heir to the British throne and fired two pistols at Andrew Jackson because he thought the president was conspiring to keep him from claiming his kingdom.)

The M’Naghten Rules

The modern insanity defense, at least in the Western world, can be traced back to the case of Daniel M'Naghten, who believed he was the target of a conspiracy headed by the pope and the British prime minister. In 1843, M'Naghten attempted to ambush Prime Minister Robert Peel at 10 Downing Street, but attacked and killed Peel’s secretary instead.

During his trial, several psychiatrists examined M'Naghten and testified that he was delusional; the jury acquitted him by reason of insanity. Public outrage followed the verdict and prompted the House of Lords to convene a special session where they posed a series of hypothetical questions about insanity and the law to a panel of judges. The standards and principles discussed by the panel found their way into common law and became known as the M’Naghten Rules.

According to the rules, the defendant can use the insanity defense and may 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 acts.” This standard is also known as the "right-wrong" test.

Twenty-five U.S. states still use a variation of the M’Naghten Rules for insanity defenses. Twenty states and the District of Columbia use the newer and less restrictive Model Penal Code Standard established by the American Law Institute in 1962. Under this rule, the defendant is not held criminally 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.” The remaining states have banned the use of the insanity defense.

The Sickles Trial

At trial, the jury was filled in on the soap opera dramatics that led up to Key’s death. The victim was the District Attorney for the capital, the son of the man who wrote the national anthem, a close friend of his killer and, according to local gossip, “the handsomest man in all Washington society.” The defendant was a well-connected Congressman from New York with a reputation as a ladies' man. He’d been censured for bringing a prostitute onto the floor of the New York State Senate, and had married his pregnant 15-year-old wife against her family’s wishes when he was 33. Despite his notoriety, Sickles and his wife had been welcomed into Washington’s most elite social circles after Daniel was elected to Congress. They became fast friends with Key, and Daniel often asked Key to escort his wife to social events whenever the congressman had to work late or was occupied with a girlfriend or one-night stand. Key and Teresa’s friendship quickly became romantic.

They tried to keep the affair secret, and Key even rented a house in a rough Washington neighborhood so they could meet in private, away from their friends and colleagues. Despite the precautions, the romance became common knowledge in Sickles and Key’s social circle. Eventually, Daniel received an anonymous letter detailing his wife’s infidelity. He confronted Teresa and forced her to write a detailed letter of confession, which she did. By the end of the month, Key was dead.

Sickles’ attorney, Edwin Stanton, argued that Sickles had been driven temporarily insane with grief by his wife’s infidelity and the embarrassing way in which he found out about it. Sickles, he argued, was not in his right mind when he attacked Key, and hence could not be held accountable for his actions. In the court of public opinion, Sickles had already been cleared, and he was applauded in coverage of the trial for striking down his deceptive friend and protecting the wives of the rest of Washington’s rich and powerful from a home wrecker. The jury followed suit and acquitted Sickles of the charges.

The Aftermath

Immediately after the trial, Sickles forgave his wife, and undid all the goodwill he had built up among the press and public. Her betrayal had caused the death of a man, the editorials cried, and no honorable man would have taken her back. Sickles’ popularity in Washington and in New York plummeted and he had no hope of winning reelection to Congress. He returned home to New York in 1861, unemployed and disgraced.

The Civil War broke out a few months later, giving Sickles a chance at a fresh start. He took charge of an infantry brigade and fought in several battles. After a cannonball mangled his leg at Gettysburg, he retired from the army with a Medal of Honor and donated the bones from his amputated leg to the Army Medical Museum, reportedly visiting each year on the anniversary of the amputation. (The National Museum of Health and Medicine still has the bones on display today.)

Image credit: Library of Congress

Sickles went on to become the ambassador to Spain (where he earned the nickname the “Yankee King of Spain”), chairman of the New York State Monuments Commission, president of the New York State Board of Civil Service Commissioners, sheriff of New York, and was even re-elected to congress. He died of natural causes on May 3, 1914, and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

The Legacy

Since Sickles' historic plea, many famous criminals have used the insanity defense with mixed results, including Jeffrey Dahmer, John Hinckley, John Wayne Gacy, and John duPont, the multimillionaire heir to a chemical company fortune who murdered an Olympic wrestler he believed was part of an international conspiracy to kill him.

But according to the National Institute of Mental Health, the defense is invoked in less than 1% of felony cases, and is then only successful about a quarter of the time. Even if a defendant is acquitted for reasons of insanity, they are still usually institutionalized for treatment for several years or even decades.

The Origins of 5 International Food Staples

Food is more than fuel. Cuisine and culture are so thoroughly intertwined that many people automatically equate tomatoes with Italy and potatoes with Ireland. Yet a thousand years ago those dietary staples were unheard of in Europe. How did they get to be so ubiquitous there—and beyond?


For years, the wonderful fruit that’s now synonymous with Italy was mostly ignored there. Native to South America and likely cultivated in Central America, tomatoes were introduced to Italy by Spanish explorers during the 1500s. Shortly thereafter, widespread misconceptions about the newcomers took root. In part due to their watery complexion, it was inaccurately thought that eating tomatoes could cause severe digestive problems. Before the 18th century, the plants were mainly cultivated for ornamental purposes. Tomato-based sauce recipes wouldn’t start appearing in present-day Italy until 1692 (although even those recipes were more like a salsa or relish than a sauce). Over the next 150 years, tomato products slowly spread throughout the peninsula, thanks in no small part to the agreeable Mediterranean climate. By 1773, some cooks had taken to stuffing tomatoes with rice or veal. In Naples, the fruits were sometimes chopped up and placed onto flatbread—the beginnings of modern pizza. But what turned the humble tomato into a national icon was the canning industry. Within Italy’s borders, this business took off in a big way during the mid-to-late 19th century. Because tomatoes do well stored inside metal containers, canning companies dramatically drove up the demand. The popularity of canned tomatoes was later solidified by immigrants who came to the United States from Italy during the early 20th century: Longing for Mediterranean ingredients, transplanted families created a huge market for Italian-grown tomatoes in the US.


Bowl of chicken curry with a spoon in it

An international favorite, curry is beloved in both India and the British Isles, not to mention the United States. And it turns out humans may have been enjoying the stuff for a very, very long time. The word “curry” was coined by European colonists and is something of an umbrella term. In Tamil, a language primarily found in India and Sri Lanka, “kari” means “sauce.” When Europeans started traveling to India, the term was eventually modified into “curry,” which came to designate any number of spicy foods with South or Southeast Asian origins. Nonetheless, a great number of curry dishes share two popular components: turmeric and ginger. In 2012, traces of both were discovered inside residue caked onto pots and human teeth at a 4500-year-old archaeological site in northern India. And where there’s curry, there’s usually garlic: A carbonized clove of this plant was also spotted nearby. “We don’t know they were putting all of them together in a dish, but we know that they were eating them at least individually,” Steve Weber, one of the archaeologists who helped make this astonishing find, told The Columbian. He and his colleagues have tentatively described their discovery as "proto-curry."


Several baguettes

A quintessential Gallic food, baguettes are adored throughout France, where residents gobble up an estimated 10 billion every year. The name of the iconic bread ultimately comes from the Latin word for stick, baculum, and references its long, slender form. How the baguette got that signature shape is a mystery. One popular yarn credits Napoleon Bonaparte: Supposedly, the military leader asked French bakers to devise a new type of skinny bread loaf that could be comfortably tucked into his soldiers’ pockets. Another origin story involves the Paris metro, built in the 19th century by a team of around 3500 workers who were apparently sometimes prone to violence during meal times. It’s been theorized that the metro foremen tried to de-escalate the situation by introducing bread that could be broken into pieces by hand—thereby eliminating the need for laborers to carry knives. Alas, neither story is supported by much in the way of historical evidence. Still, it’s clear that lengthy bread is nothing new in France: Six-foot loaves were a common sight in the mid-1800s. The baguette as we know it today, however, didn’t spring into existence until the early 20th century. The modern loaf is noted for its crispy golden crust and white, puffy center—both traits made possible by the advent of steam-based ovens, which first arrived on France’s culinary scene in the 1920s.


Bowl of red, white, and black potatoes on wooden table

Historical records show that potatoes reached Ireland by the year 1600. Nobody knows who first introduced them; the list of potential candidates includes everyone from Sir Walter Raleigh to the Spanish Armada. Regardless, Ireland turned out to be a perfect habitat for the tubers, which hail from the misty slopes of the Andes Mountains in South America. Half a world away, Ireland’s rich soils and rainy climate provided similar conditions—and potatoes thrived there. They also became indispensable. For millennia, the Irish diet had mainly consisted of dairy products, pig meats, and grains, none of which were easy for poor farmers to raise. Potatoes, on the other hand, were inexpensive, easy to grow, required fairly little space, and yielded an abundance of filling carbs. Soon enough, the average Irish peasant was subsisting almost entirely on potatoes, and the magical plant is credited with almost single-handedly triggering an Irish population boom. In 1590, only around 1 million people lived on the island; by 1840, that number had skyrocketed to 8.2 million. Unfortunately, this near-total reliance on potatoes would have dire consequences for the Irish people. In 1845, a disease caused by fungus-like organisms killed off somewhere between one-third and one-half of the country’s potatoes. Roughly a million people died as a result, and almost twice as many left Ireland in a desperate mass exodus. Yet potatoes remained a cornerstone of the Irish diet after the famine ended; in 1899, one magazine reported that citizens were eating an average of four pounds’ worth of them every day. Expatriates also brought their love of potatoes with them to other countries, including the U.S. But by then, the Yanks had already developed a taste for the crop: The oldest record of a permanent potato patch on American soil dates back to 1719. That year, a group of farmers—most likely Scots-Irish immigrants—planted one in the vicinity of modern-day Derry, New Hampshire. From these humble origins, the potato steadily rose in popularity, and by 1796, American cookbooks were praising its “universal use, profit, and easy acquirement.”


Corn growing in a field

In the 1930s, geneticist George W. Beadle exposed a vital clue about how corn—also known as maize—came into existence. A future Nobel Prize winner, Beadle demonstrated that the chromosomes found in everyday corn bear a striking resemblance to those of a Mexican grass called teosinte. At first glance, teosinte may not look very corn-like. Although it does have kernels, these are few in number and encased in tough shells that can easily chip a human tooth. Nonetheless, years of work allowed Beadle to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that corn was descended from teosinte. Today, genetic and archaeological data suggests that humans began the slow process of converting this grass into corn around 8700 years ago in southwestern Mexico. If you're wondering why early farmers showed any interest in cultivating teosinte to begin with, while the plant is fairly unappetizing in its natural state, it does have a few key attributes. One of these is the ability to produce popcorn: If held over an open fire, the kernels will “pop” just as our favorite movie theater treat does today. It might have been this very quality that inspired ancient horticulturalists to tinker around with teosinte—and eventually turn it into corn


Person sitting cross-legged holding a cup of green tea

The United Kingdom’s ongoing love affair with this hot drink began somewhat recently. Tea—which is probably of Chinese origin—didn’t appear in Britain until the 1600s. Initially, the beverage was seen as an exotic curiosity with possible health benefits. Shipping costs and tariffs put a hefty price tag on tea, rendering it quite inaccessible to the lower classes. Even within England’s most affluent circles, tea didn’t really catch on until King Charles II married Princess Catherine of Braganza. By the time they tied the knot in 1662, tea-drinking was an established pastime among the elite in her native Portugal. Once Catherine was crowned Queen, tea became all the rage in her husband’s royal court. From there, its popularity slowly grew over several centuries and eventually transcended socioeconomic class. At present, the average Brit drinks an estimated three and a half cups of tea every day.

All photos courtesy of iStock.

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12 Pieces of 100-Year-Old Advice for Dealing With Your In-Laws
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Hulton Archive // Getty Images

The familial friction between in-laws has been a subject for family counselors, folklorists, comedians, and greeting card writers for generations—and getting along with in-laws isn't getting any easier. Here are some pieces of "old tyme" advice—some solid, some dubious, some just plain ridiculous—about making nice with your new family.


It's never too soon to start sowing the seeds for harmony with potential in-laws. An 1896 issue of one Alabama newspaper offered some advice to men who were courting, and alongside tips like “Don’t tell her you’re wealthy. She may wonder why you are not more liberal,” it gave some advice for dealing with prospective in-laws: “Always vote the same ticket her father does,” the paper advised, and “Don’t give your prospective father-in-law any advice unless he asks for it.”


According to an 1886 issue of Switchmen’s Journal, “A greybeard once remarked that it would save half the family squabbles of a generation if young wives would bestow a modicum of the pains they once took to please their lovers in trying to be attractive to their mothers-in-law.”


In 1901, a Wisconsin newspaper published an article criticizing the 19th century trend of criticizing mothers-in-law (a "trend" which continues through to today):

“There has been a foolish fashion in vogue in the century just closed which shuts out all sympathy for mothers-in-law. The world is never weary of listening to the praises of mothers ... Can it be that a person who is capable of so much heroic unselfishness will do nothing worthy of gratitude for those who are dearest and nearest to her own children?”

Still, the piece closed with some advice for the women it was defending: “The wise mother-in-law gives advice sparingly and tries to help without seeming to help. She leaves the daughter to settle her own problems. She is the ever-blessed grandmother of the German fairy tales, ready to knit in the corner and tell folk stories to the grandchildren.”


Have an in-law who can't stop advising you on what to do? According to an 1859 issue of The American Freemason, you'll just have to grin and bear it: “If the daughter-in-law has any right feeling, she will always listen patiently, and be grateful and yielding to the utmost of her power.”

Advice columnist Dorothy Dix seemed to believe that it would be wise to heed an in-law's advice at least some of the time. Near the end of World War II, Dix received a letter from a mother-in-law asking what to do with her daughter-in-law, who had constantly shunned her advice and now wanted to move in with her. Dix wrote back, “Many a daughter-in-law who has ignored her husband’s mother is sending out an SOS call for help in these servantless days,” and advised the mother-in-law against agreeing to the arrangement.


An 1881 article titled "Concerning the Interference of the Father-in-Law and Mother-in-Law in Domestic Affairs," which appeared in the Rural New Yorker, had a great deal of advice for the father-in-law:

“He will please to keep out of the kitchen just as much as he possibly can. He will not poke his nose into closets or cupboards, parley with the domestics, investigate the condition of the swill barrel, the ash barrel, the coal bin, worry himself about the kerosene or gas bills, or make purchases of provisions for the family under the pretence that he can buy more cheaply than the mistress of the house; let him do none of these things unless especially commissioned so to do by the mistress of the house.”

The article further advises that if a father-in-law "thinks that the daughter-in-law or son-in-law is wasteful, improvident or a bad manager, the best thing for him to do, decidedly, is to keep his thought to himself, for in all probability things are better managed and better taken care of by the second generation than they were by the first. And even if they are not, it is far better to pass the matter over in silence than to comment upon the same, and thereby engender bad feelings.”


While there is frequent discussion about how to achieve happiness with the in-laws in advice columns and magazines, rarely does this advice come from a judge. In 1914, after a young couple was married, they quickly ran into issues. “The wife said she was driven from the house by her mother-in-law,” a newspaper reported, “and the husband said he was afraid to live with his wife’s people because of the threatening attitude of her father on the day of the wedding.” It got so bad that the husband was brought up on charges of desertion. But Judge Strauss gave the couple some advice:

“[Your parents] must exercise no influence over you now except a peaceful influence. You must establish a home of your own. Even two rooms will be a start and lay up a store of happiness for you.”

According to the paper, they agreed to go off and rent a few rooms.

Dix agreed that living with in-laws was asking for trouble. In 1919, she wrote that, “In all good truth there is no other danger to a home greater than having a mother-in-law in it.”


The year 1914 wasn’t the first time a judge handed down advice regarding a mother-in-law from the bench. According to The New York Times, in 1899 Magistrate Olmsted suggested to a husband that “you should have courted your mother-in-law and then you would not have any trouble ... I courted my mother-in-law and my home life is very, very happy.”


Don't think of your in-laws as in-laws; think of them as your family. In 1894, an article in The Ladies’ Home Journal proclaimed, “I will not call her your mother-in-law. I like to think that she is your mother in love. She is your husband’s mother, and therefore yours, for his people have become your people.”

Helen Marshall North, writing in The Home-Maker: An Illustrated Monthly Magazine four years earlier, agreed: “No man, young or old, who smartly and in public, jests about his mother-in-law, can lay the slightest claim to good breeding. In the first place, if he has proper affection for his wife, that affection includes, to some extent at least, the mother who gave her birth ... the man of fine thought and gentle breeding sees his own mother in the new mother, and treats her with the same deference, and, if necessary, with the same forbearance which he gladly yields his own.”


Historical advice columns had two very different views on this: A 1901 Raleigh newspaper proclaimed, “Adam’s [of Adam and Eve] troubles may have been due to the fact that he had no mother-in-law to give advice,” while an earlier Yuma paper declared, “Our own Washington had no mother-in-law, hence America is a free nation.”


By today's standards, the advice from an 1868 article in The Round Table is incredibly sexist and offensive. Claiming that "one wife is, after all, pretty much the same as another," and that "the majority of women are married at an age when their characters are still mobile and plastic, and can be shaped in the mould of their husband's will," the magazine advised, “Don’t waste any time in the selection of the particular victim who is to be shackled to you in your desolate march from the pleasant places of bachelorhood into the hopeless Siberia of matrimony ... In other words ... never mind about choosing a wife; the main thing is to choose a proper mother-in-law,” because "who ever dreamt of moulding a mother-in-law? That terrible, mysterious power behind the throne, the domestic Sphynx, the Gorgon of the household, the awful presence which every husband shudders when he names?"


As an 1894 Good Housekeeping article reminded readers:

“Young man! your wife’s mother, your redoubtable mother-in-law, is as good as your wife is and as good as your mother is; and who is your precious wife's mother-in-law? And you, venerable mother-in-law, may perhaps profitably bear in mind that the husband your daughter has chosen with your sanction is not a worse man naturally than your husband who used to dislike your mother as much as your daughter’s husband dislikes you, or as much as you once disliked your husband’s mother.”


If all else fails, The Round Table noted that “there is one rule which will be found in all cases absolutely certain and satisfactory, and that is to marry an orphan; though even then a grandmother-in-law might turn up sufficiently vigorous to make a formidable substitute.”


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