Temporary Insanity

What’s the connection between “The Star Spangled Banner”; Lincoln’s “Mars” (the Secretary of War); and the New York City Tammany Hall politician who was instrumental in founding New York City’s Central Park? Two words – temporary insanity.

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Daniel E. Sickles; Source: Wikipedia.com

In one of the most sensational crimes on the eve of the Civil War, philandering Tammany Hall politician Daniel Sickles shot Daniel Barton Key (the son of Francis Scott Key, composer of the Star Spangled Banner) in broad daylight, in Lafayette Square just across from the White House, for carrying on an affair with Sickles’ wife Teresa. Edwin Stanton, the preeminent lawyer of his time, who later would serve as Secretary of War under Lincoln, secured Sickles’ acquittal by raising the temporary insanity defense, the first successful assertion of such a defense in the history of American jurisprudence.

After losing a leg at Gettysburg, Sickles became part of First Lady Mary Todd Lincoln’s inner circle of friends. After the war, Sickles made a point of leaving his artificial leg at home whenever sharing reminiscences at gatherings of Union war veterans. Perhaps Mark Twain said it best:

“[T]he general valued his lost leg above the one that is left. I am perfectly sure that if he had to part with either of them he would part with the one that he has got.” Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1, p. 288, edited by Harriet Elinor Smith, Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2010.

This is the first installment in a series of brief historical notes you are unlikely to find in any history textbook. Many Civil War and American history buffs know this story, but most people do not. History is more than presidents and generals, captains of industry and battlefields. Historical drama includes human triumphs and indiscretions. History can be, but does not have to be, dry. Each installment hopefully will induce you to explore the subject further. Do a little research and find out more about Sickles, Key, and Stanton. You won’t be disappointed. Sometimes truth is more interesting than fiction.

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Sickles trial (Harper’s Magazine) Source: Wikipedia.com

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Filed under 1800s, Civil War, history, Lincoln

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