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

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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.

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This Newspaper Article Was Hyping the 2017 Eclipse All the Way Back in 1932
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If you’ve turned on a news station or browsed the internet recently, you’ve likely learned of the total solar eclipse set to pass over the U.S. on Monday, August 21. Many outlets (Mental Floss included) have been talking up the event for months, but the earliest instance of hype surrounding the 2017 eclipse may have come from The New York Times.

Meteorologist Joe Rao presented this news clip at a recent panel on the solar eclipse at the American Museum of Natural History, and fuel analyst Patrick DeHaan shared the image on Twitter earlier this year. It shows a New York Times article from August 1932, selling that year’s eclipse by saying it will be the "best until Aug. 21, 2017."

The total solar eclipse on August 21 won’t be the first to fall over U.S. soil in 85 years. The next one to follow the 1932 eclipse came in 1970, but an author at the time apparently predicted that "poor skies" would be likely for that date. That early forecast turned out to be correct: There were clouds over much of the path of totality in the southeastern U.S. The next total eclipse visible from America, which the article doesn’t mention, happened in 1979. Overcast skies were a problem for at least some of the people trying to view it that time around as well.

The upcoming total eclipse will hopefully be worth the decades of hype. Unlike the previous three, which only skimmed small sections of the lower 48 states, this next eclipse will be visible throughout day as it travels from coast to coast. Check out our field guide for preparing for the once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon.

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Getty Images/Hulton Archive
10 of the Worst Jobs in the Victorian Era
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Getty Images/Hulton Archive

Next time you complain about your boring desk job, think back to Victorian times—an era before the concept of occupational health and safety rules—and count yourself lucky. Back then, people were forced to think of some imaginative ways to earn a living, from seeking out treasure in the sewers to literally selling excrement.


Leeches were once a useful commodity, with both doctors and quacks using the blood-sucking creatures to treat a number of ailments, ranging from headaches to "hysteria." But pity the poor leech collector who had to use themselves as a human trap. The job usually fell to poor country women, who would wade into dirty ponds in the hope of attracting a host of leeches. Once the critters attached to the leech collectors’ legs, the individual would prise them off and collect them in a box or pot. Leeches can survive for up to a year with no food, so they could be stored at the pharmacy to be dished out as required. Unsurprisingly, leech collectors were in danger of suffering from excess blood loss and infectious diseases.


Despite the clean-sounding name, this job actually involved collecting dog feces from the streets of London to sell to tanners, who used it in the leather-making process. Dog poop was known as "pure" because it was used to purify the leather and make it more flexible [PDF]. Leather was in great demand in Victorian times, as it was used not only as tack for horses but for shoes, boots, bags, and in bookbinding. Pure collectors haunted the streets where stray dogs amassed, scooping up the poop and keeping it in a covered bucket before selling it on to the tanners. Some collectors wore a black glove to protect their scooping hand, but others considered it harder to keep a glove clean than a hand and eschewed the protection altogether.


A Victorian illustration of a tosher, or sewer collector
An 1851 illustration of a sewer-hunter or "tosher."
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Victorian London had a huge network of over-worked sewers under the city, washing away the effluence of the crowded metropolis. Toshers made their living down in the dark sewers, sifting through raw sewage to find any valuables that had fallen down the drain. It was extremely dangerous work: noxious fumes formed deadly pockets, the tunnels frequently crumbled, there were swarms of rats, and at any moment the sluices might be opened and a tide of filthy water might wash the toshers away. As a result of these dangers, toshers generally worked in groups, instantly recognizable in their canvas trousers, aprons with many large pockets (in which to stash their booty), and lanterns strapped to their chests. Most toshers also carried a long pole with a hoe at the end to investigate piles of human waste for dropped treasures, or with which to steady themselves if they stumbled in the gloom. After 1840 it became illegal to enter the sewers without permission and so toshers began working late at night or early in the morning to avoid detection. Despite the stinking and dangerous conditions, it was a lucrative business for the working classes, with many a coin or silver spoon sloshing about in the quagmire.


Matchsticks are made by cutting wood into thin sticks and then dipping the ends into white phosphorus—a highly toxic chemical. In the Victorian era, this work was mainly performed by teenage girls who worked in terrible conditions, often for between 12 and 16 hours a day with few breaks. The girls were forced to eat at their work stations, meaning the toxic phosphorus got into their food, leading to some developing the dreadful condition known as “phossy jaw”—whereby the jawbone becomes infected, leading to severe disfigurement.


Like the toshers, these workers made their meagre money from dredging through the gloop looking for items of value to sell, although in this case they were plying their messy trade on the shores of the Thames instead of mostly in the sewers. Seen as a step down from a tosher, the mudlarks were usually children, who collected anything that could be sold, including rags (for making paper), driftwood (dried out for firewood) and any coins or treasure that might find its way into the river. Not only was it a filthy job, but it was also very dangerous, since the tidal nature of the Thames meant it was easy for children to be washed away or become stuck in the soft mud.


A photograph of a very happy chimney sweep

Tiny children as young as four years old were employed as chimney sweeps, their small stature making them the perfect size to scale up the brick chimneys. All the climbing in the claustrophobic space of a chimney meant many sweeps’ elbows and knees were scraped raw, until repeated climbing covered them with calluses. Inhaling the dust and smoke from chimneys meant many chimney sweeps suffered irreversible lung damage. Smaller sweeps were the most sought-after, so many were deliberately underfed to stunt their growth and most had outgrown the profession by the age of 10. Some poor children became stuck in the chimneys or were unwilling to make the climb, and anecdotal evidence suggests their bosses might light a fire underneath to inspire the poor mite to find their way out at the top of the chimney. Fortunately, an 1840 law made it illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to climb and clean a chimney, though some unscrupulous fellows still continued the practice.


Anyone familiar with Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist will remember that one of the orphan’s hated early jobs was as a mute for undertaker Mr. Sowerberry. A component of the extremely complex (and lucrative) Victorian funeral practices, mutes were required to dress all in black with a sash (usually also black, but white for children), while carrying a long cloth-covered stick and standing mournfully and silently at the door of the deceased’s house before leading the coffin on its processional route to the graveyard.


An illustration of a group of Victorian men watching rat-baiting.
Getty Images/Rischgitz

Rat catchers usually employed a small dog or ferret to search out the rats that infested the streets and houses of Victorian Britain. They frequently caught the rats alive, as they could sell the animal to “ratters,” who put the rats into a pit and set a terrier loose upon them while onlookers made bets about how long it would take for the dog to kill them all. Catching rats was a dangerous business—not only did the vermin harbor disease, but their bites could cause terrible infections. One of the most famous Victorian rat catchers was Jack Black, who worked for Queen Victoria herself. Black was interviewed for Henry Mayhew’s seminal tome on Britain’s working classes, London Labour and the London Poor (1851) in which he revealed that he used a cage which could store up to 1000 live rats at a time. The rats could be stored like this for days as long as Black fed them—if he forgot the rats would begin fighting and eating each other, ruining his spoils.


The “job” of crossing sweeper reveals the entrepreneurial spirit of the Victorian poor. These children would claim an area of the street as their patch, and when a rich man or woman wished to exit their carriage and walk across the filth-strewn street, the sweeper would walk before them clearing the detritus from their path, ensuring their patron’s clothes and shoes stayed clean. Crossing sweepers were regarded as just a step up from beggars, and worked in the hopes of receiving a tip. Their services were no doubt sometimes appreciated: The streets during this period were mud-soaked and piled with horse manure. The poor sweepers not only had to endure the dismal conditions whatever the weather, but were also constantly dodging speeding horse-drawn cabs and omnibuses.


An 1840 drawing of a group of resurrectionists at work
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In the early 19th century the only cadavers available to medical schools and anatomists were those of criminals who had been sentenced to death, leading to a severe shortage of bodies to dissect. Medical schools paid a handsome fee to those delivering a body in good condition, and as a result many wily Victorians saw an opportunity to make some money by robbing recently dug graves. The problem became so severe that family members took to guarding the graves of the recently deceased to prevent the resurrectionists sneaking in and unearthing their dearly departed.

The "profession" was taken to an extreme by William Burke and William Hare who were thought to have murdered 16 unfortunates between 1827 and 1828. The pair enticed victims to their boarding house, plied them with alcohol and then suffocated them, ensuring the body stayed in good enough condition to earn the fee paid by Edinburgh University medical school for corpses. After the crimes of Burke and Hare were discovered, the Anatomy Act of 1832 finally helped bring an end to the grisly resurrectionist trade by giving doctors and anatomists greater access to cadavers and allowing people to leave their body to medical science.


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