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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
College Board Wants to Erase Thousands of Years From AP World History, and Teachers Aren't Happy
iStock
iStock

One would be forgiven for thinking that the Ides of March are upon us, because Julius Caesar is being taken out once again—this time from the Advanced Placement World History exam. The College Board in charge of the AP program is planning to remove the Roman leader, and every other historical figure who lived and died prior to 1450, from high school students’ tests, The New York Times reports.

The nonprofit board recently announced that it would revise the test, beginning in 2019, to make it more manageable for teachers and students alike. The current exam covers over 10,000 years of world history, and according to the board, “no other AP course requires such an expanse of content to be covered over a single school year.”

As an alternative, the board suggested that schools offer two separate year-long courses to cover the entirety of world history, including a Pre-AP World History and Geography class focusing on the Ancient Period (before 600 BCE) up through the Postclassical Period (ending around 1450). However, as Politico points out, a pre-course for which the College Board would charge a fee "isn’t likely to be picked up by cash-strapped public schools," and high school students wouldn't be as inclined to take the pre-AP course since there would be no exam or college credit for it.

Many teachers and historians are pushing back against the proposed changes and asking the board to leave the course untouched. Much of the controversy surrounds the 1450 start date and the fact that no pre-colonial history would be tested.

“They couldn’t have picked a more Eurocentric date,” Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks, who previously helped develop AP History exams and courses, told The New York Times. “If you start in 1450, the first thing you’ll talk about in terms of Africa is the slave trade. The first thing you’ll talk about in terms of the Americas is people dying from smallpox and other things. It’s not a start date that encourages looking at the agency and creativity of people outside Europe.”

A group of teachers who attended an AP open forum in Salt Lake City also protested the changes. One Michigan educator, Tyler George, told Politico, “Students need to understand that there was a beautiful, vast, and engaging world before Europeans ‘discovered’ it.”

The board is now reportedly reconsidering its decision and may push the start date of the course back some several hundred years. Their decision will be announced in July.

[h/t The New York Times]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Sylvia Plath's Pulitzer Prize in Poetry Is Up for Auction
Nate D. Sanders Auctions
Nate D. Sanders Auctions

A Pulitzer Prize in Poetry that was awarded posthumously to Sylvia Plath in 1982 for her book The Collected Poems will be auctioned on June 28. The Los Angeles-based Nate D. Sanders Auctions says bidding for the literary document will start at $40,000.

The complete book of Plath’s poetry was published in 1981—18 years after her death—and was edited by her husband, fellow poet Ted Hughes. The Pulitzer Prize was presented to Hughes on Plath’s behalf, and one of two telegrams sent by Pulitzer President Michael Sovern to Hughes read, “We’ve just heard that the Collected Plath has won the Pulitzer Prize. Congratulations to you for making it possible.” The telegrams will also be included in the lot, in addition to an official congratulatory letter from Sovern.

The Pultizer’s jury report from 1982 called The Collected Poems an “extraordinary literary event.” It went on to write, “Plath won no major prizes in her lifetime, and most of her work has been posthumously published … The combination of metaphorical brilliance with an effortless formal structure makes this a striking volume.”

Ted Hughes penned an introduction to the poetry collection describing how Plath had “never scrapped any of her poetic efforts,” even if they weren’t all masterpieces. He wrote:

“Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy. The end product for her was not so much a successful poem, as something that had temporarily exhausted her ingenuity. So this book contains not merely what verse she saved, but—after 1956—all she wrote.”

Also up for auction is Plath’s Massachusetts driver’s license from 1958, at which time she went by the name Sylvia P. Hughes. Bidding for the license will begin at $8000.

Plath's driver's license
Nate D. Sanders Auctions

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios