Thursday, September 4, 2008

American Rogues You've Never Heard Of: Dan Sickles

Until stumbling upon his name in Wikipedia, I'd never heard of Daniel Sickles. I suspect very few people have. But for a time, he was one of the most famous men in America, and today, many lawyers are familiar with his name, for reasons you'll soon discover.

Born in New York City, in 1819, Daniel Sickles was educated as an attorney. He entered politics as a Democrat in the New York Senate, and was elected to Congress in 1857.

A few years earlier, Sickles married a 15 year old girl named Teresa Bagioli, daughter of a prominent Italian vocal coach. The couple became a prominent fixture on the Washington social scene, but Sickles, a notorious womanizer, conducted numerous affairs with prostitutes and courtesans.

Eventually, Mrs. Sickles began her own affair with US District Attorney Phillip Barton Key (son of the author of "The Star Spangled Banner"). When Dan Sickles learned of the situation, he murdered Key in broad daylight near Lafayette Square (firing at least one shot directly into his groin). Almost immediately, public opinion favored Sickles. But he still had to face trial for murder.

Represented by a dream time of notable defense attorneys (including Edwin Stanton, later Secretary of War), Sickles claimed the murder was caused by temporary insanity. This defense had never been attempted before in a United States court, but it worked, and Sickles won acquittal, to the delight of a sympathetic public. But Sickles lost that sympathy when he publicly forgave his wife with these words: “I shall strive to prove to all that an erring wife and mother may be forgiven and redeemed.” They remained married until her death at age 31.

After the trial, Sickles rehabilitated his image as a Union general during the Civil War. At Gettysburg, a cannonball struck his right leg, mangling it so badly that he underwent amputation (the leg bone and cannonball are on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine) within thirty minutes of the injury.

Undaunted, he went on to serve as US Minister to Spain after the war. Rumors swirled of an affair with Queen Isabella II.

He continued to serve in government until his death, at age 94, in 1914.

So, anytime you groan at the prospect of an insanity defense in a scandalous trial, remember Daniel Sickles. He made it a viable option.

I certainly believe his life should become the subject of a major motion picture by Oliver Stone. Can we get Woody Harrelson to star? No? How about Matthew McConaughey?


Steven said...

The life and exploits of Dan Sickles are far from unknown to the public. No less than 3 books have been written about him; the most recent by the author of "Shindler's List" and it was on the NY Times bestseller list. As far as a movie, Norman Mailer wrote a screenplay about Sickles. The last time I talked to his archivist, he told me there were no plans to produce a film, but you never know what might happen!

PS: At the time when Sickles used the temporary insanity defense, it had already been used successfully in Europe. He was just the first to do so in the United States.

Red said...

But did the cannon shot get his penis, too? Or did he continue to exercise his male given right to visit 14 year old prostitutes until his death at 94? Let there be a sense of poetic justice...

Anonymous said...

Forget about Sickles, who in the hell is "steven" and why is he hanging out with Norman Mailer's archivist?

Steven said...

I was public affairs officer at the museum with Sickle's leg bones and I spoke to Mailer's archivist as part of my job to gather more information relating to our famous artifact.

grizzard said...

interesting tidbits, Steven, very much appreciated!