19th Century

Daniel Sickles

Have a drink with: Daniel Sickles
Once I was the King of Spain

Ask him about: What’s the name of his other leg?

Daniel Sickles

Daniel Sickles sat weeping in a Washington, D.C. jail in 1859. The young, charismatic New York Congressman was an up-and-coming star in American politics – a favorite of President James Buchanan, in fact – and he was sitting in a dirty jail cell, heartbroken and awaiting trial for murdering his wife’s lover.

But before you feel too sorry for him, consider this: Daniel Sickles was a tool. How much of a tool?

He robbed the mail to take a political adversary’s advertisements out of circulation.

He was indicted for various financial schemes, including selling fake news subscriptions so he could drink the $1,000 profit at an upscale bar.

He took campaign contributions from his favorite prostitute, whom he also brought along as his companion and introduced to Queen Victoria while on assignment as James Buchanan’s secretary in London. While his pregnant wife was at home.

Whom he’d seduced, knocked up and married when she was sixteen.

After sleeping with her mother.

So his jailhouse blubbering is really a matter of the pot calling the kettle slutty, but you can thank Sickles for creating something we still use today: temporary insanity.

I recently wrote at Narratively about Daniel Sickles and Laura Fair, two 19th century individuals whose trials for murder would set the tone for later decades of temporary insanity jurisprudence. Sickles’ trial marked the first significant and successful use of a temporary insanity defense at American law; and a little more than a decade later, Fair’s explored the ways in which women could and could not assert similar protection.Both Sickles and Fair are fascinating, hot-headed individuals whose judicial treatment speaks to how society has historically thought of insanity as a gendered condition (Sickles, temporarily out of his mind, was a righteous protector of the marriage bed; while Fair was simply crazy by reason of menstruation) – but for a moment, let’s pause on Daniel Sickles, because squeaking out of murder charges was apparently no signal to slow things down in the crazy department.

Not to be discouraged by disrepute or the passage of time, Sickles later served as military commander in South Carolina until President Johnson gave him the boot; flattered U.S. Grant into giving him an ambassador’s post in Spain; married a twenty-something Spanish girl; and engaged in an affair with the deposed Queen Isabella II in Paris, leading French papers to chuckle about the horndog “Yankee King of Spain.” Sickles was nearly arrested at 93 years of age when the New York State Monuments Commission, of which he’d long been chairman, discovered that there was some $28,000 in “missing” expenditures.

None of these, however, matched the poetry of his brief Civil War career. As commander of the Third Army Corps at the Battle of Gettysburg, Sickles made the controversial decision to disobey orders and move his unit away from the Union line at the Little Round Top to a more forward position, where it took a thrashing. (Depending on who you ask, Sickles’ insubordination either totally boned the Union forces at Gettysburg, or saved the day by taking the brunt of Confederate attack.) In the fighting at Gettysburg, an errant cannonball took off Sickles’ right leg. The general promptly boxed up his leg in a neat little miniature coffin and shipped it to the Army Medical Museum (today the National Museum of Health and Medicine), where he would later visit it annually.

Which seems incredibly sane.

Daniel Sickles' Leg
Yes, I drove 300 miles to see the disembodied leg of a horndog Civil War general.

Fun Facts:


The unfortunate murder victim Phillip Barton Key was, you guessed it, son of lawyer and unwitting songwriter Francis Scott Key, who penned The Star-Spangled Banner while aboard a British gunship negotiating the release of an American prisoner.

Biographer W.A. Swanberg describes an unfortunate side effect at the Buchanan inauguration, attended by Key and Sickles: members of the crowd who’d stayed at the National Hotel beforehand, including the president-elect, were all suffering from violent diarrhea. Some people said it was due to fact that hotel management had spread arsenic around the hotel too liberally in an effort to get rid of rats; the owner blamed an “unwholesome miasma” in the city sewer. Either way there were some very distracted and unhappy guests hoping for short speeches.

Violence in Congress is nothing new. See, e.g., Charles Sumner getting caned on the Senate floor, Thomas Benton threatened at gunpoint in the Senate, and the Lyon-Griswold tongs fight. And don’t forget the 1858 wig-pulling brawl.

Mark Twain once remarked that Sickles “valued his lost leg away 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.”

Additional Reading:

Betsy Golden Kellem, “In 1859, A Murderous Congressman Pioneered the Insanity Defense,Narratively, September 12, 2017

W.A. Swanberg, Sickles the Incredible (1956)

Opening speech of John Graham, Esq., to the jury, on the part of the defence, on the trial of Daniel E. Sickles, in the Criminal Court of the District of Columbia, Judge Thomas H. Crawford, presiding, April 9th and 11th, 1859

Trial of the Hon. Daniel E. Sickles for shooting Philip Barton Key, Esq., U.S. District Attorney, of Washington, D.C. February 27th, 1859, reported by Felix G. Fontaine.