Vintage

The Murder At The White House, And The First Case Of "Temporary Insanity"

There have been lots of cases competing for the title "trial of the century" over the years, but the murder of Philip Barton Key probably earned it.

Key was lucky in life, but not in love.FindAGrave

Key, a wealthy and well-respected District Attorney, was gunned down in broad daylight just in front of the White House, but nobody seemed interested in bringing justice to his killer. The man who pulled the trigger was Daniel Sickles, a Senator from New York.

A photo of Sickles from his time as a Civil War general.aPPEL

Every detail of Sickles's life proves he was the definition of a "character." He insisted he was born in 1925 instead 1919, so women would think he was younger. Once, the married man left his pregnant wife at home while he took a prostitute on a trip to England, where the couple met Queen Victoria.

Teresa Sickles put up with a lot of nonsense from her husband.FindAGrave

Maybe it was this kind of mistreatment that lead Sickles's wife Teresa to have a very public affair with Key. The couple were seen at dinners, meeting at a boarding house Key rented near the Sickles' home, and even in a local graveyard.

A newspaper illustration of the murder.J Mark Powell

When Sickles caught wind of his wife's infidelity he chased Key into the street and shot him, killing Key just in front of the White House. After the murder, he walked himself to the Attorney General's home a few blocks away and confessed to the crime.

Sickles's case should have ended then and there, but the hotshot politician recruited a lineup of legal heavyweights that would make O.J. Simpson jealous, and prepared for the most dramatic trial Washington had ever seen.

How could Sickles possibly escape a guilty sentence?

Key was the son of Francis Scott Key, the writer of the "Star-Spangled Banner," which drew even more public attention to the case.

A courtroom sketch of the Sickles trial.JRank

The courtroom was packed the day of the trial, and Sickles had a team of very impressive lawyers sitting on his side of the bench, including future Secretary of War Edward Stanton and New York lawyer James T. Brady, who defended a number of famous murderers.

To drum up public support for Sickles, his lawyers had Teresa write a very detailed account of her affair, then published it in the newspapers. By the time the trial began, many people saw Sickles as a jilted husband and felt sympathy for him.

Teresa's confession was too graphic to be used as evidence.Wikimedia

Then, the lawyers introduced their trump card: a new legal defense called "temporary insanity." Sickles's lawyers claimed that discovering his wife's affair had driven him insane, and the murder was a crime of passion in the heat of the moment.

The plan worked like a charm, and newspapers even called Sickles a hero for "saving all the ladies of Washington from this rogue named Key."

Sickles later in life.Arlington National Cemetary

After the trial, Sickles publicly forgave his wife for her infidelity, which seemed to upset the public more than his murder ever did. Of course, that didn't stop Sickles from cheating on Theresa again, including a rumored fling with Spain's Queen Isabella II.

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