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Wednesday, February 03, 2010

TOTTALLY INSANE

I do not agree with the jury. Their verdict was that Daniel Sickles was temporarily insane when he murdered his good friend, Phillip Key. But the jury was never told what a whoring booze-hound Daniel really was. They were only told what a whoring booze-hound Phillip was. The truth was both men were (in the words used to describe Phillip by one of Daniel’s defense lawyers), “confirmed and habitual adulterer(s)”, with the emotional maturity of a seven year olds and the sexual proclivity of bunny rabbits.
Before he was even twenty, Daniel Sickles (above) had been indicted for fraud. Still, his crimminal career didn't really get started until he was 26 and passed the New York State bar exam. He served a one year term in the State Assembly and then joined a N.Y. delegation tour of London, where he introduced his mistress, Miss Fanny White (under an assumed name) to the King of England. Back in the United States, in 1852, Daniel met his legal lady fair, his personal Alice Alquist from “Gaslight”, Terresa Da Ponte Bagiolo.
Terresa Sickles (above) was the perfect political wife. She was pretty, sophisticated and charming. She had very wealth parents. She spoke five languages. However, all this merely proves that a smart woman is just as likely to have terrible a taste in men as a dumb woman. Terresa’s only excuse in marrying Daniel (against her parent’s wishes) was that the poor child was just 15, when the 34 year old Daniel seduced and married her. She was three months pregnant when, in 1853, she and Daniel were married a second time, at her parent’s insistence, by the archbishop of New York.
Not that the religious ceremony influenced Daniel’s piggish behavior in the slightest. In 1856 Daniel was elected to the New York State Senate, which shortly thereafter censured him for giving a tour of those august chambers to Miss White, who was at this time identified as the operator of a popular N.Y.C. bordello. And when Daniel was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in November 1857, and he and Terresa  moved to Washington, D.C., he still maintained a suite at a Baltimore Hotel for his assignations with Fanny White, and other "soiled doves" in her employ.
Shortly after the legal couple moved, Daniel was introduced to Phillip Key, and the two struck up a friendship of kindred spirits. Key was living proof of the old adage about fruit never falling very far from the sapling. Phillip’s father, Frances Scott Key, had been so familiar with a certain popular drinking ditty (so difficult to sing that it was used as an 18th century sobriety test), that on the fly he converted it into our national anthem, translating “And swear by old Styx, that we long shall entwine, the myrtle of Venus and Bacchus’ vine” into “Oh, say, does that star spangled banner yet wave, Ore the land of the free and the home of the brave.”
Phillip was forty-two year old widower at the time, with six children, and “the handsomest man in all Washington society”, according to Mrs. Clemet Clay, the biggest gossip in a town that still lives on gossip. At six feet tall, Phillip had “sad eyes and a languid charm” (according to Edward Pinchon who wrote a bio of Dan Sickles), and his “…fine figure, fashionable air, and agreeable address, rendered him extremely popular among the gentler sex”, according to Felix G. Fontaine, who wrote “The Washington Tragedy”. Key was also the Federal District Attorney for Washington, and thus a good man to know for anyone who might anticipate developing legal problems. Daniel had so far made a career out of developing legal problems, so he decided that Phillip Key was the perfect man to escort Terresa to Washington social functions while Daniel was “relaxing” in Baltimore with Fanny White, and others.
Friends tried to warn Daniel about Phillip’s reputation, and in March of 1858 Daniel had a confrontation with Phillip concerning accusations that were already bubbling up about his intentions toward Terresa. But Daniel came away from that meeting convinced that Phillip could be trusted. Evidently, Daniel assumed that Terresa could also be trusted.
Maybe the twenty year old girl was just fed up with Daniel’s philandering, and maybe it was payback. But whatever her motivation, according to Terressa’s own confession, “I did not think it safe to meet (Phillip) in this house, because there are servants who might suspect something….He then told me he had hired (a) house as a place where he and I could meet. I agreed to it.” The assignations took place at 888 Fifteenth Street in Washington, between K and L streets, in a run-down racially mixed neighborhood just around the corner from the Sickles’ rented home. “There was a bed in the second story…. The room is warmed by a wood fire. Mr. Key generally goes first… I went there alone.” And there, confessed Terressa, “I did what is usual for a wicked woman to do” Occasionally they also took carriage rides to various cemeteries, where, according to the coachman, “They would walk down the grounds out of my sight, and be away an hour or an hour-and-a-half.” Whatever they were doing out of sight, it was not enough, evidently, to wake the dead, or Daniel.
The torrid affair between Terresa and Phillip was one of the best known secrets in Washington, which has always been, at heart, the provincial Southern village it started out as. And it was only a matter of time before some moralizing busybody felt the need to drop Daniel an anonymous letter telling the whole sordid truth.. The dreaded day came on Thursday, February 24, 1859. Daniel showed the note to a friend, George Wooldridge, and then “put his hands to his head and sobbed in the lobby of the House of Representatives.”
On Saturday night, February 26th, Daniel confronted Terressa in her bedroom (they had separate sleeping arraignments, on different floors), and he forced her to write her confession in her own hand. This would later be reprinted on the front page of Haper's Weekly, a national newspaper. At about two the following afternoon, as Daniel was being comforted by another drinking buddy, Samuel Butterworth, he spotted Phillip Key walking slowly back and forth on the street in front of his house on Madison Place, waving a white handkerchief in the general direction of Terressa’s bedroom.
Daniel took the time to put on an overcoat, dropped a revolver and two derringers in the pockets, and went charging out on the street. He caught up with Phillip at the corner of Madison Place and Pennsylvania Avenue, just across the street from the White House. Daniel bellowed, “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my bed. You must die!” Thereupon Daniel pulled a derringer and fired. Not surprisingly he missed. Phillip, who until that instant was unaware the affair had been discovered, grabbed for the gun, and the two men struggled for a moment while a dozen witnesses gapped in amazement. Phillip finally broke free and ran across the street, throwing a pair of opera classes to cover his retreat, and hid behind a tree.
Daniel followed, and produced a second derringer. This second shot hit Key in the thigh. The playboy dropped to the ground, begging, “Don’t shoot me”, and shouting, “Murder.”
Daniel finally pulled his revolver, and his third shot hit the tree. But the fourth shot, delivered point blank over the prone Phillip, blasted a hole in his chest as big as a silver dollar. The fifth shot misfired, and witnesses managed to restrain Daniel from delivering a ‘coup de grace.’ Not that it mattered; Phillip Key would soon be dead. Explained Daniel, when he was arrested, “He deserved it.”
It was the trial of the century! The prosecutor spoke of the “echoes of the church bells” still lingering in the air” while Daniel pulled the trigger over and over. The eight defense lawyers reminded the jurors that Daniel was “…in a state of white heat, (which) was too great a state of passion for a man to be in, who saw before him the hardened, the unrelenting seducer of his wife”. After a twenty day trial the jury was out for only an hour. A hundred fifty people attended Daniel’s victory celebration. He had been declared, officially, temporarily insane.
The only hiccup occurred when Daniel publicly forgave Terressa. The public, which had supported the heel, now suddenly turned on him. Americans were not offended at the murder, but at the show of marital compassion.Washington and New York society cut him dead.  Daniel would have been condemned to die in obscurity, remembered only as the first defendant to use the temporarily insanity defense in America, but the outbreak of the civil war saved his reputation. Terressa barely survived that war, succumbing to tuberculosis on February 5, 1867, at the age of thirty-one. She was buried with her parents, back in New York; free at last from her insensitive and violent husband.
Meanwhile, Daniel Sickles went on command one third of the Union Army at Gettysburg, a battle in which he lost a leg and almost cost the Union the war. He then proceeded to  to seduce a Spanish Queen, and to pilfer $27,000 from the funds raised to build a battlefield memorial at Gettysburg. There was talk of having the old reprobate arrested, but it would have been a public relations nightmare, and cooler heads prevailed. In March of 1914, there were rumors that Daniel had finally died. A reporter for the New York Times placed a telephone call to his home on Fifth Avenue. Daniel answered the phone himself. He had never felt better, he told the reporter, and denounced the rumors as a “damn lie.” Two months later he suffered a stroke and really died. He was buried with all honors. All past indiscretions were forgotten, if not forgiven.
And I believe that for every second of his 91 years of life , Daniel Sickles was totally and completely insane. There was absolutely nothing temporary about his mental condition, no matter what the jury said.
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