Today’s post comes from National Archives Office of Strategy and Communications staff writer Rob Crotty.
The first use of the temporary insanity plea to beat a murder charge happened in 1859 and was employed in the defense of a man named Dan Sickles, who had killed his wife’s lover. A story such as this might be relegated to the footnotes of law review books were it not for the fact that Sickles was a Congressman, that the man he killed was the son of Francis Scott Key, and that one of his defense lawyers was future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton.
While publicly scorned for his defense at the outset, the public was soon enraptured by the sensational trial, and by the equally sensational Sickles. When Sickles was acquitted of the charges, even President Buchanan weighed in, saying he was “delighted.”
As for Sickles himself, when asked if he meant to kill Key, he simply replied, “Of course I intended to kill him. He deserved it.”
Sickles went on to serve as a general in the Union Army, where he lost his leg, an infliction far less temporary than losing one’s mind.