Sunday, April 26, 2009

This Day in Legal History (Temporary Insanity Defense Gets NYC Congressman Off for Killing Wife’s Lover)

April 26, 1859—In the first successful use of the temporary insanity defense, a jury acquitted a controversial New York congressman and future Civil War general of murdering his wife’s lover, the son of the composer of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

Look, I know what you’re thinking—Congressmen always get away with murder, just as they’re not temporarily insane, but always are.

Well, not always literally. Offhand, aside from the usual duels in the early days of the republic, I can only recall one other instance when a Congressman really got away with a capital (in more senses of the word than one) crime: Last year, I wrote about James Thomas Heflin, a racist Southern congressman who gunned down a black man for heckling him on a DC streetcar 100 years ago.

But the one that occurred in 1859 was something else entirely, involving a legal precedent, a prominent defense lawyer who in a few years would help direct the Union war effort during the Civil War, and three principals, each with a unique fame to contemporary public attention, now each almost totally forgotten.

Dreadful Tragedy,” proclaimed the good, gray New York Times the morning after the shooting, which took place around 2 pm on Feb. 27, 1859.

The paper has gone hot and cold since then in matters related to politicos and sex (hot, in the case of Eliot Spitzer, in a Pulitzer-winning expose that drove the governor from office; cold, in the matter of John Edwards, taking forever to acknowledge that the Presidential candidate had had a relationship with a media consultant attached to his campaign).

At the time, however, the Times had no problem putting this story of “Domestic Ruin and Bloody Revenge” on page 1, though not without a waggish acknowledgement, in the first paragraph, that, though the incident had filled Washington “with horror and consternation, I cannot unfortunately add, with absolute surprise.”

The paper could not, in conscience, ignore the shooting without looking ridiculous. The matter, after all, featured a murder involving a love triangle composed of three of the most prominent people in the political and financial capitals of the antebellum republic. How would you otherwise explain their very visible absence from their social rounds and work?

* Philip Barton Key, the victim, would have had no trouble attracting residual attention as the son of Francis Scott Key, the lawyer who watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British during the War of 1812 and went home to write “The Star-Spangled Banner.” But young Key—actually, 40 years old at his very untimely demise—was also the U.S. Attorney for Washington, D.C., a fellow who had become quite the man-about-town with his sad eyes and charm to spare.

* Teresa Bagioli Sickles, the center of the triangle, became one of the numerous women who fell under his sway. She enjoyed some degree of fame of her own, as the granddaughter of Mozart’s great librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, and daughter of Antonio Baglioli, a successful music teacher, composer, and conductor in his own right. Teresa attracted quite a good deal of attention in Washington because of her youth, charm and beauty. Unfortunately, little of it came from her husband.

* Dan Sickles, the murderer (in the photo accompanying the post), should have known all about the arts of seduction—few had mastered it so well as himself. As a matter of fact, that’s how he had gotten his wife, whom he had impregnated when she was 15 years old. (Years before, as a boarder in the Baglioli household, he had also been rumored to have had a fling with her mom, Maria Cooke Baglioli. Why does he remind me of Warren Beatty’s hairdresser character in Shampoo?)

From the beginning, Sickles attracted attention with his roguish ways. At age 18, he had already been indicted for obtaining money under false pretenses. This only endeared him all the more to Tammany Hall, which probably thought of that as a badge of honor and began pushing him up through the organizational ranks in higher and higher positions.

Even amid politicos with noticeably elastic morals, however, Sickles did things that just could not be abided. His colleagues in the New York State Assembly, for instance, voted to censure him for escorting a notorious brothel owner onto the floor of their august chamber.

Ever since coming to Washington, Sickles had neglected his young wife. His innumerable absences—and pretty reliable reports of his tomcatting around—left her feeling lonely. Key, a friend of her husband’s, had been around to offer tea, sympathy—and a lot more.

The Times reporter who observed that the murder was not a surprise spoke the truth. Everyone in Washington seemed to know that Sickles was being cuckolded, up to, and including, President James Buchanan—who, you would think, would have better things to do, what with North and South at each other’s throats, than pay attention to a love triangle.

Everyone knew about this, that is, except Sickles himself. You have to wonder why he didn’t realize what was going on. Here are some possible reasons:

* Assignations took place in a racially mixed area of DC, outside the normal rounds patronized by Dan and Teresa. Perhaps—except that the meetings were taking place at Lafayette Square, right across from the White House. Lots of people would, and did, see the meetings. The wonder is why word didn’t get back to Sickles sooner.

* Sickles was too busy with affairs of his own to notice anything. A strong possibility.

* Sickles’ enormously high self-regard meant that he never suspected his wife could want anyone else. Again, some possibility of truth in this.

* Key was beholden to Sickles for interceding to secure his position as U.S. Attorney with Buchanan. Politicians are supposed to think in this kind of rational form. But, as the case of ex-Gov. Spitzer shows, when in the thrall of things sexual, they often don’t. Or, as Woody Allen put it, when his own scandal came to light: “The heart wants what the heart wants.”

An anonymous note several days before the incident tipped Sickles off to what was happening. He was beside himself. He thought of a duel, which congressmen were still conducting at this point, then decided to take matters into his own hands.

On the Sunday afternoon when the murder occurred, Sickles, from a window looking out on Washington’s Lafayette Square, caught Key using his usual prearranged signal with Teresa: i.e., whirling his handerchief in a circular manner while gazing up at the apartment the two had taken up for themselves. Upon seeing the signal, Sickles grabbed a derringer, caught up with his betrayer, and shouted, "Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my house. You must die."

Sickles’ first bullet gazed his rival. The two men grappled with each other, then Key managed to slip from his grasp and run. I’d have kept on running knowing that a crazy guy was trying to kill me, but Key—who, as we’ve already noted, hadn’t been thinking all this straight to begin with by taking up with Teresa—reached inside his jacket and threw his opera glass at Sickles.

Now the congressman was doubly decided on his mission. He was going to kill him, all right, but if all else failed he was going to put a serious hurt on Key. So he aimed for the U.S. attorney’s groin, the same move that Hollywood producer Walter Wanger had pulled on Jennings Lang when he discovered the agent’s affair with Wanger’s wife, actress Joan Bennett.

Sickles' second shot barely missed its mark, passing through the thigh of Key, who, staggered by the blow, had fallen against a tree, yelling, “Don’t shoot!” Too late: Sickles fired unsuccessfully, then finally found his mark with one through the attorney’s heart.

Sickles surrendered to the highest life-enforcement officer in the land, Attorney-General Jeremiah Black, then got himself some of the top legal talents in the country for his defense, including Edwin Stanton. The Ohio lawyer had made a name for himself by winning a case before the Supreme Court, then had helped Cyrus McCormick won a battle over patent rights to the reaper. (Co-counsel on that case was a lanky Illinois fellow by the name of Abraham Lincoln.)

The defense Stanton devised for his client was novel: temporary insanity. How could you blame the fellow for shooting his rival, jurors were asked—he’d been driven crazy!

In those days, there was no recognition of a double standard that allowed Sickles to fool around but not his wife. The jury came back with a verdict in his favor.

Then, Sickles startled everybody by forgiving his wife. To my mind, the most astounding event in the whole case happened now: the world could absolve him of committing the Fifth Commandment, but not for an act of Christian charity. Society ostracized the couple.
Controversy continued to dog the Congressman, even when he chose not to run for reelection. At Gettysburg, he made a questionable troop-deployment decision and lost a leg in the fighting. He lived for another 50 years after the battle, days as crowded with rumor and scandal as always (bedding the deposed Queen of Spain, removal as chairman of the New York State Monuments Commission for alleged misuse of funds).
And Teresa? The poor, beleaguered woman was taken back by her husband, who continued to have little use for her. She died at age 31 of tuberculosis--nearly 4o years before the husband twice her age and infinitely surpassing her in shamelessness.

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