Happy Anniversary To Temporary Insanity!

Have a picture of an orange croissant named Mose, courtesy of our pal Cliff Hendroval

Once upon a time, there was a fella named Daniel Sickles. He was born in New York City in 1819, though he frequently lied and said he was born in 1825. His family was wealthy and well-connected — so well-connected that his parents were able to get Benjamin Franklin Butler, the former US attorney general under Andrew Jackson, to help him study law so he could pass the bar. Which he did.

Sickles did well for himself, getting in with the Tammany Hall Democratic machine, getting elected to the New York state Assembly and then the New York Senate and then, ultimately, the actual Senate.

Oh! Sorry — let’s rewind a bit there, shall we? Because before all of this, he went to go stay at the home of Lorenzo de Ponte, who of course wrote the librettos for Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così Fan Tutte (as well as several for Salieri, because he was messy like that) and somehow lived an even more ridiculous life than the man I am about to tell you about (I forget which of the biographies about him I read because they all have very similar titles and this was a decade ago, but it was riveting).

Anyway! Sickles was friends with his son and for some reason moved into a house with a bunch of musicians to study languages. Sure, why not!

Also living in that house was Antonio Bagioli, da Ponte’s protegé who had married de Ponte’s “adopted” daughter (actually his real daughter, whom he fathered at the age of 70) — whom he had started “courting” when she was an adolescent and married when she was 17 and he was significantly older. They had an infant daughter named Teresa.

Some years later … 32-year-old Daniel Sickles follows in the footsteps of his mentor and marries the then-15-or-16-year-old Teresa, whom he has known since she was an infant … which creeped out both sides of the family pretty equally (supposedly why he started lying about his age). It is after that that he goes into politics.

So, Sickles is in politics, he’s got his child bride, but he’s screwing around on her left and right. In one very famous incident, he brought Fanny White, the famous New York courtesan, with him to London, to an event for Queen Victoria. Now, some people say he tried to introduce her to Queen Victoria and was stopped, others say he actually did it and got to curtsey at her and everything. Fanny White actually seems like she was cool as hell, and I hope she did get to curtsey at Queen Victoria. (Here! You can read The Life and Death of Fanny White, Being A Complete and Interesting History of the Career of That Notorious Lady for free!)

While he’s running around and out and about, Teresa starts hanging out with his lawyer buddy Philip Barton Key II — the son of “Star Spangled Banner” author Francis Scott Key. Romantically. At a time when he was known as the handsomest man in all of Washington DC.

I don’t see it, but okay.

Phillip Barton Key II

Someone, reportedly a woman who was jealous of Teresa, sends a letter to Sickles about the affair — and he is told that Key signals that he wants to see Teresa by hanging a string out of a window, which actually does not seem like a very good system.

 Courtesan Fanny White   Hon. Daniel Sickles  Dear Sir with deep regret I enclose to your address the few lines but an indispensible duty compels me so to do seeing that you are greatly imposed upon. There is a fellow, I may say, for he is not a gentleman by any means by the name of Phillip Barton Key. I believe the district attorney who rents a house of a negro man by the name of A Gray situated on 15th street between K and K streets for no other purpose than to meet your wife Mrs. Sickles. He hangs a string out of the window as a signal to her that he is in and leaves the door unfastened and she walks in and Sir I do assure you with these few hints I leave the rest for you to imagine.

The letter, as reprinted in Harper’s Weekly, April 1859 (transcript in ALT text)

So, one day, Sickles sees Key hanging out and signaling for Teresa to come out, and he goes out there with two single-barrel Derringers and a revolver, and yells at him, “You have dishonored my home and family!” Key reaches into his pocket and throws a pair of opera glasses at Sickles, which was surprisingly ineffective, and Sickles pulls out one of the guns and shoots him dead.

image: Daniel Sickles kills Phillip Barton Key II

Murder really does look classier with a top hat.

Sickles is arrested, but he gets this full-on OJ dream team of lawyers, and they come up with the idea that he was driven temporarily insane by finding out that his wife, whom he cheated on constantly, was getting it on with the star-spangled son. Meanwhile, the media at the time was very much on his side, portraying him as a poor, put-upon cuckold, wasting away in jail because he loved his slutty wife too much. President James Buchanan, whom Sickles had once worked under, even stopped by the courtroom to shake his hand before the trial started.

And it worked! The jury acquitted Sickles on April 20, 1859, making him the first person to be found not guilty by reason of temporary insanity. He did, however, lose some goodwill when he and Teresa briefly reconciled, because people were like “What she did was so bad that you went temporarily insane, but now you’re back together? Really?” but they were soon estranged again.

Sickles continued serving as a congressman and then later went and served the Union in the Civil War and either totally screwed Gettysburg up or did a purposely brilliant thing that helped them win it, depending on whom you ask. Sickles, of course, was in the latter camp and pestered anyone who would listen for a Medal of Honor for years until they finally just gave him one (to shut him up, probably). I recommend reading about this from someone who knows more about war history and tactics than I do, because none of it actually makes any sense to me. We all have our limits!

Sickles, the notorious womanizer, in his Union uniform.

He also got his leg blown off by a cannonball during the fight and later donated both the leg and the cannonball to a museum now known as the National Museum of Health and Medicine — and even though he was disappointed that they didn’t include his foot in the display, he still went to go visit it every year on the anniversary of losing it. It’s still there, so you can go visit it too, if you like.

Teresa later died of tuberculosis and Sickles got remarried and ended up living and doing some pretty weird shit up until the ripe old age of 94, including maybe screwing the recently deposed Queen Isabella II of Spain.

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