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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.

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13 Fascinating Facts About Nina Simone
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Nina Simone, who would’ve celebrated her 85th birthday today, was known for using her musical platform to speak out. “I think women play a major part in opening the doors for better understanding around the world,” the “Strange Fruit” songstress once said. Though she chose to keep her personal life shrouded in secrecy, these facts grant VIP access into a life well-lived and the music that still lives on.

1. NINA SIMONE WAS HER STAGE NAME.

The singer was born as Eunice Waymon on February 21, 1933. But by age 21, the North Carolina native was going by a different name at her nightly Atlantic City gig: Nina Simone. She hoped that adopting a different name would keep her mother from finding out about her performances. “Nina” was her boyfriend’s nickname for her at the time. “Simone” was inspired by Simone Signoret, an actress that the singer admired.

2. SHE HAD HUMBLE BEGINNINGS.


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There's a reason that much of the singer's music had gospel-like sounds. Simone—the daughter of a Methodist minister and a handyman—was raised in the church and started playing the piano by ear at age 3. She got her start in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina, where she played gospel hymns and classical music at Old St. Luke’s CME, the church where her mother ministered. After Simone died on April 21, 2003, she was memorialized at the same sanctuary.

3. SHE WAS BOOK SMART...

Simone, who graduated valedictorian of her high school class, studied at the prestigious Julliard School of Music for a brief period of time before applying to Philadelphia’s Curtis Institute of Music. Unfortunately, Simone was denied admission. For years, she maintained that her race was the reason behind the rejection. But a Curtis faculty member, Vladimir Sokoloff, has gone on record to say that her skin color wasn’t a factor. “It had nothing to do with her…background,” he said in 1992. But Simone ended up getting the last laugh: Two days before her death, the school awarded her an honorary degree.

4. ... WITH DEGREES TO PROVE IT.

Simone—who preferred to be called “doctor Nina Simone”—was also awarded two other honorary degrees, from the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Malcolm X College.

5. HER CAREER WAS ROOTED IN ACTIVISM.

A photo of Nina Simone circa 1969

Gerrit de Bruin

At the age of 12, Simone refused to play at a church revival because her parents had to sit at the back of the hall. From then on, Simone used her art to take a stand. Many of her songs in the '60s, including “Mississippi Goddamn,” “Why (The King of Love Is Dead),” and “Young, Gifted and Black,” addressed the rampant racial injustices of that era.

Unfortunately, her activism wasn't always welcome. Her popularity diminished; venues didn’t invite her to perform, and radio stations didn’t play her songs. But she pressed on—even after the Civil Rights Movement. In 1997, Simone told Interview Magazine that she addressed her songs to the third world. In her own words: “I’m a real rebel with a cause.”

6. ONE OF HER MOST FAMOUS SONGS WAS BANNED.

Mississippi Goddam,” her 1964 anthem, only took her 20 minutes to an hour to write, according to legend—but it made an impact that still stands the test of time. When she wrote it, Simone had been fed up with the country’s racial unrest. Medger Evers, a Mississippi-born civil rights activist, was assassinated in his home state in 1963. That same year, the Ku Klux Klan bombed a Birmingham Baptist church and as a result, four young black girls were killed. Simone took to her notebook and piano to express her sentiments.

“Alabama's gotten me so upset/Tennessee made me lose my rest/And everybody knows about Mississippi Goddam,” she sang.

Some say that the song was banned in Southern radio stations because “goddam” was in the title. But others argue that the subject matter is what caused the stations to return the records cracked in half.

7. SHE NEVER HAD A NUMBER ONE HIT.

Nina Simone released over 40 albums during her decades-spanning career including studio albums, live versions, and compilations, and scored 15 Grammy nominations. But her highest-charting (and her first) hit, “I Loves You, Porgy,” peaked at #2 on the U.S. R&B charts in 1959. Still, her music would go on to influence legendary singers like Roberta Flack and Aretha Franklin.

8. SHE USED HER STYLE TO MAKE A STATEMENT.

Head wraps, bold jewelry, and floor-skimming sheaths were all part of Simone’s stylish rotation. In 1967, she wore the same black crochet fishnet jumpsuit with flesh-colored lining for the entire year. Not only did it give off the illusion of her being naked, but “I wanted people to remember me looking a certain way,” she said. “It made it easier for me.”

9. SHE HAD MANY HOMES.

New York City, Liberia, Barbados, England, Belgium, France, Switzerland, and the Netherlands were all places that Simone called home. She died at her home in Southern France, and her ashes were scattered in several African countries.

10. SHE HAD A FAMOUS INNER CIRCLE.

During the late '60s, Simone and her second husband Andrew Stroud lived next to Malcolm X and his family in Mount Vernon, New York. He wasn't her only famous pal. Simone was very close with playwright Lorraine Hansberry. After Hansberry’s death, Simone penned “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” in her honor, a tribute to Hansberry's play of the same title. Simone even struck up a brief friendship with David Bowie in the mid-1970s, who called her every night for a month to offer his advice and support.

11. YOU CAN STILL VISIT SIMONE IN HER HOMETOWN.

Photo of Nina Simone
Amazing Nina Documentary Film, LLC, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

In 2010, an 8-foot sculpture of Eunice Waymon was erected in her hometown of Tryon, North Carolina. Her likeness stands tall in Nina Simone Plaza, where she’s seated and playing an eternal song on a keyboard that floats in midair. Her daughter, Lisa Simone Kelly, gave sculptor Zenos Frudakis some of Simone’s ashes to weld into the sculpture’s bronze heart. "It's not something very often done, but I thought it was part of the idea of bringing her home," Frudakis said.

12. YOU'VE PROBABLY HEARD HER MUSIC IN RECENT HITS.

Rihanna sang a few verses of Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do” on Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. He’s clearly a superfan: “Blood on the Leaves” and his duet with Jay Z, “New Day,” feature Simone samples as well, along with Lil’ Wayne’s “Dontgetit,” Common’s “Misunderstood” and a host of other tracks.

13. HER MUSIC IS STILL BEING PERFORMED.

Nina Revisited… A Tribute to Nina Simone was released along with the Netflix documentary in 2015. On the album, Lauryn Hill, Jazmine Sullivan, Usher, Alice Smith, and more paid tribute to the legend by performing covers of 16 of her most famous tracks.

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13 Secrets From the Guinness Archives
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Leon Neal/AFP/Getty Images

Guinness has been a staple in Irish pubs for nearly 260 years. With so much history, it's no surprise that the Guinness Storehouse Archives—which are open to the public—are stuffed with intriguing artifacts that tell some pretty wild stories. Here are a few.

1. THE LEASE TO THE DUBLIN BREWERY WAS INTENDED TO LAST 9000 YEARS.

In 1759, founder Arthur Guinness signed a lease for a four-acre property at St. James’s Gate in Dublin. The lease required a down payment of £100, an annual rent of £45, and a term of 9000 years (not a typo). Such lengthy leases were relatively common back then: “At the time in Ireland, there was a lot of instability to do with land tenure,” explains Fergus Brady, Archives Manager at Guinness. Centuries earlier, the British had begun confiscating land from native Irish in an effort to build plantations, and extra-long leases were a means of avoiding this fate. As Brady explains, “You see these really long leases: 99-year or 999-year leases. It seemed to be a legal custom at the time that they used the number nine.”

2. ARTHUR GUINNESS WAS NOT AFRAID TO DEFEND HIS PROPERTY WITH A PICKAXE.

In 1775, the Dublin Corporation—that is, the city government—demanded that Arthur Guinness pay for the spring water flowing to his brewery. When Guinness argued that he was already paying for water rights through his 9000-year rental agreement, the Dublin Corporation sent a sheriff and a committee to his brewery to cut off the water supply. Guinness was livid. He seized a pickaxe and unleashed a torrent of obscenities so colorful that the Dublin Corporation’s goons eventually retreated.

3. GUINNESS ONCE DEPLOYED FIELD AGENTS TO CATCH COUNTERFEITERS.

Guinness Apology
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

In the 19th century, there was no such thing as brand consistency. Guinness did not bottle its own beer; instead, it shipped the suds in wooden casks to publicans who supplied their own bottles and applied their own personalized labels. Occasionally, these publicans sold fake or adulterated Guinness. To prevent such sales, the company sent special agents called “travellers” into the field to collect beer samples, which it tested in a laboratory. “If a publican was found to be serving adulterated or counterfeit Guinness, they had to give a public apology in their local newspaper—and even the national newspapers,” archivist Jessica Handy says.

4. FOR 21 YEARS, THE COMPANY HIRED A GUY TO TRAVEL THE WORLD AND DRINK BEER.

In 1899, Guinness hired an American ex-brewer named Arthur T. Shand to be a “Guinness World Traveller.” It was arguably the coolest job in the world. For 21 years, Shand traveled the world taste-testing beer. According to Brady, “His job was to travel the world and taste Guinness, say whether it was good or bad, who our bottlers in the market were, who our major competition was, what kind of people were drinking our product.” Shand traveled to Australia and New Zealand, to Southeast Asia and Egypt. “He was sort of a Guinness sommelier,” Brady says.

5. THE COMPANY'S HARP LOGO CAUSED TROUBLE WITH THE IRISH GOVERNMENT.

The Celtic harp—based on the 14th century “Brian Boru Harp” preserved at Trinity College—became a trademarked Guinness logo in 1876. Forty-five years later, when Ireland gained independence from England, the Irish Free State decided to use the same Celtic harp as its official state emblem. This became awkward. Guinness owned the trademark, and the Irish government was forced to search for a workaround. You can find their solution on an Irish Euro coin. Look at the coin, and you’ll notice that the harp’s straight edge faces the right; meanwhile, the harp on a glass of Guinness shows the straight edge facing left [PDF].

6. GUINNESS REPORTEDLY SAVED LIVES ON THE BATTLEFIELD.

The old slogan “Guinness is good for you” sounds like a marketing gimmick, but it was born out of a genuine belief that the beer was, in fact, a restorative tonic. The health claim dates back to 1815, when an ailing cavalry officer wounded at the Battle of Waterloo reportedly credited Guinness for his recovery. For decades, the medical community widely claimed that the dark beer possessed real health benefits—and they weren’t necessarily wrong. “There was little safe drinking water at the time,” Handy says. “But with brewing, consumers knew they were getting a safe beverage.”

7. THE COMPANY CREATED A SPECIAL RECIPE FOR CONVALESCENTS.

A label for Guinness invalid stout
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

From the 1880s to the 1920s, Guinness produced a special “Nourishing Export Stout”—a.k.a. “Invalid Stout”—that contained extra sugars, alcohol, and solids and came in cute one-third pint bottles. “It was very common practice for people to buy a couple bottles and keep them as a tonic, even if it was just a glass or half a glass,” Handy says. In fact, Guinness went as far as asking general practitioners for testimonials attesting to the beer’s medical benefits. According to Brady, “Many of them wrote back and said yes, we prescribe this for various ailments.” One doctor even claimed a pint was “as nourishing as a glass of milk.”

8. DOCTORS REGULARLY PRESCRIBED THE BEER TO NURSING MOTHERS.

From the 1880s to the 1930s, many physicians believed Guinness was an effective galactagogue—that is, a lactation aid. The company sent bottles to hospitals as well as wax cartons of yeast (which supposedly helped skin problems and migraines). Hundreds, possibly thousands, of doctors prescribed the beer for ailments such as influenza, insomnia, and anxiety, David Hughes writes in A Bottle of Guinness Please: The Colourful History of Guinness. According to Brady, the company was sending beer to hospitals as late as the 1970s.

9. THE COMPANY ONCE DROPPED 200,000 MESSAGES-IN-A-BOTTLE INTO THE OCEAN.

A Guinness message in a bottle
The message within every bottle dropped in the Atlantic Ocean in 1959.
Guinness Archive, Diageo Ireland

In 1954, Guinness dumped 50,000 messages-in-a-bottle in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. In 1959, they repeated the stunt again, with 38 ships dropping 150,000 bottles in the Atlantic. The first bottle was discovered in the Azores off Portugal just three months after the initial drop [PDF]. Since then, the bottles have turned up in California, New Zealand, and South Africa. Just last year, a bottle was discovered in Nova Scotia. (If you find one, you just might be offered a trip to the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin.)

10. THE PERSONNEL FILES IN THE GUINNESS ARCHIVES CONTAIN SOME DOOZIES.

The Guinness corporate archives are open to the public. According to Handy, “Some of the stories you get in there are amazing, because you get accident reports and you get crazy stories of people bouncing on bags of hops outside the brewery." This may sound less surprising considering that, back in the day, Guinness employees were given an allowance of two pints of beer every day [PDF].

11. A GUINNESS SCIENTIST MADE A STATISTICALLY SIGNIFICANT MARK IN THE FIELD OF STATISTICS.

If you’ve taken a statistics class, you might be familiar with the Student’s t-test or the t-statistic. (It’s a method of working with a small sample size when the standard deviation is unknown.) The t-test was first described by William S. Gosset, a brewer and statistician at Guinness who was attempting to analyze a small sample of malt extract. Gosset’s discovery not only helped Guinness create a more consistent-tasting beer, it would lay the bedrock for one of the most important concepts in statistics: statistical significance.

12. GUINNESS IS SO BIG IN AFRICA, IT LAUNCHED A SUCCESSFUL FEATURE-LENGTH FILM.

Guinness began exporting beer to Africa in 1827. In the 1960s, it opened a brewery in Nigeria—followed by Cameroon and Ghana. Today, there are reportedly more Guinness drinkers in Nigeria than there are in Ireland. “In Ireland, England, and the United States, everybody thinks that Guinness is synonymous with Ireland,” Brady says. “But in Nigeria, there’s a very very low conception of that.” The beer is such a cultural staple that a fictional character who advertised the product named Michael Power—a James Bond-like, crime-fighting journalist—became the star of a feature film in 2003 called Critical Assignment, which was a box office smash. (Of course, there’s some branding built into the script. As Brady explains, “There are definitely scenes where Michael Power is enjoying a pint of Guinness.”)

13. DISPENSING BEER WITH NITROGEN WAS ORIGINALLY CONSIDERED LAUGHABLE.

In the 1950s, Guinness scientist Michael Ash was tasked with solving the “draft problem.” At the time, dispensing a draft pint of Guinness was ridiculously complicated, and the company was losing market share to draft lagers in Britain that could be easily dispensed with CO2. “The stout was too lively to be dispensed with CO2 only,” Brady says. “Ash worked on the problem for four years, working long hours day or night, and became a bit of a recluse apparently. A lot of doubters at the brewery called the project ‘daft Guinness.’” But then Ash attempted dispensing the beer with plain air. It worked. The secret ingredient, Ash discovered, was nitrogen. The air we breathe is 78 percent nitrogen. Today, a Guinness draft contains 75 percent nitrogen. Not only did the discovery make dispensing the beer easier, it created a creamy mouthfeel that’s been the signature of Irish stouts since.

Full disclosure: Guinness paid for the author to attend an International Stout Day festival in 2017, which provided the opportunity to speak to their archivists.

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