Published on December 14th, 2022 | by Mitchell Driskell2
The Local Lawyer: Barstool Briefs Part 27: “Short Stories on Legal Affairs”
The Insanity of “Devil Dan” Sickles
Daniel Sickles was a lawyer, a New York state legislator, Civil War General, and member of the United States House of Representatives. He also murdered a man in broad daylight in the middle of Washington, D.C. but never spent a minute in jail.
“Devil Dan,” as he was regularly called in the press, first attacked public scrutiny in 1852 when he married Teresa Bagioli. At the time, Dan was a New York state assemblyman, thirty-two years old and fresh out of law school. Teresa was—a fifteen year old girl. Teresa was the granddaughter of opera star Lorenzo de Ponte who worked with the likes of Mozart. Lorenzo was living in New York when he met the then teenage Dan Sickles, was impressed with the young man, and took him under his wing, including taking him into his house where, since Teresa was a toddler at the time, Dan began an affair with Teresa’s mother. A decade later he came back for Teresa.
In 1847, five years before his seduction of the teenage Teresa, Dan was censured by the New York legislature for breaking the unwritten rules about legislators concealing in-session relationships with Albany prostitutes—Dan took his go-to sex worker, Fanny White, out to restaurants and the opera with never a care. In 1853, after his marriage, Devil Dan was sent to London to work for the Ambassador to Great Briton, future president James Buchanan. Instead of taking his new bride and newborn baby daughter, Dan took Fanny White, where they lived as a couple attending diplomatic functions and events even introducing Fanny to the literal Queen of England under a fake name.
At the same time Sickles was carrying on with Fanny White, the lonely Teresa took a lover herself, Phillip Barton Key, United States Attorney for the District of Columbia and son of Francis Scott Key who penned the “Star-Spangled Banner.”
Back in New York, and over the early years of their marriage, Sickles was suspicious of his wife and repeatedly accused her of stepping out, which Teresa denied.
But in 1859, Dan got an anonymous letter in which the author said he had seen Teresa leave a ribbon hanging from her bedroom mirror as a sign to Key who would be waiting nearby for the signal. Teresa admitted the affair after Dan confronted her with the letter.
Three days later, Dan saw Phillip Barton Key outside his home, sitting on a bench at Lafayette Park—presumably waiting for Teresa’s signal. Dan marched out the front door towards Key, pulled out a pistol, shot twice, then standing over Key’s body said, “Key, you scoundrel! You have dishonored my home! You must die!”
In full view of the White House, Devil Dan Sickles then shot Key in the chest at point blank range on a sunny, Sunday afternoon.
At the murder trial, Sickles was represented by Edwin Stanton who would go on to be Lincoln’s Secretary of War during the Civil War. Stanton orchestrated for Devil Dan Sickles a brand-new defense never tried in the United States—not guilty for reason of temporary insanity.
Stanton proposed that Sickles was so emotionally jostled by the discovery of his wife’s infidelities his sense of reason and morality abandoned him for the three days necessary to conduct the murder, returning in time for Dan to be appropriately penitent and apologetic to the Court. Devil Dan Sickles won.
But wait, Sickles was the kind of guy who took his favorite prostitute to London. Sleeping around was not foreign to him. His nickname was “Devil Dan” for Pete’s sake.
Dan ignored his wife and learning of the affair did not break his heart causing him to become temporarily insane. This was cold-blooded murder by a man with a bruised ego. There is no way a reasonable jury could think that getting a dose of his own medicine excused murder. And you are right.
But the jury did not hear anything about Devil Dan’s devilish ways. The Judge ruled that Sickles’ years of brazen philandering could not be shown to the jury at trial. It was “irrelevant,” the Judge said. For all the jury knew, Dan was a loving, adoring husband completely faithful to his wife.
Now, this ruling would never happen today, and the outcome is more of a lesson in how decisions about what evidence the jury sees and how crafty lawyering determines the result, rather than a lesson in legal precedent. But it was the very first application of the temporary insanity defense, a valid legal theory, just a shame it was applied to a piece of crap like Dan Sickles—with a United States Attorney as the victim no less.
The trial riveted the nation, and historians have identified it as perhaps America’s first true crime obsession.
Mitchell Driskell practices law with the Tannehill Carmean firm and has been an Oxford lawyer for twenty two years. You can call him at 662.236.9996 and email him at email@example.com. He practices criminal law, civil law, and family law.