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"The little-known secrets behind the men & women who shaped America"

An 1859 murder leads to the creation of a new legal maneuver

By Paul Niemann

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[September 11, 2008]  I don't mind if Hallmark invents new holidays to sell more greeting cards, but when pharmaceutical companies start inventing new disorders just to sell more pills, that's when I draw the line.

The man who invented the plea of temporary insanity was a lawyer (of course!) named Edwin Stanton. We hop in the way-back machine to the year 1859 and the city of Washington, D.C. What made this case interesting was the high profile of the people involved.

Stanton's client was Daniel Sickles, who murdered a man named Philip Barton Key. You've probably never heard of either man. Sickles was a U.S. senator at the time, while Key was a U.S. attorney for the Washington, D.C., area.

Sickles and Key knew each other at the time of the murder. Key was a widower who had four young children. So why would anyone want to kill a man who is raising four kids by himself? Surprisingly, the townspeople cheered when the verdict was announced. More surprisingly, that verdict was "not guilty."

Key had met Sickles' wife at the inauguration of President James Buchanan, and the two began an affair. The townspeople considered Sickles' actions justified, and the case marked the first time that someone had successfully used the temporary insanity plea.

What happened to Dan Sickles after that? Was he scorned and treated like a murderer, even though he was acquitted? Quick, what rhymes with SoJay?

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No, not by a long shot. He went on to become an officer at the Battle of Gettysburg, where he lost a leg.

The lawyer who helped get him acquitted, Edwin Stanton, became Abraham Lincoln's secretary of war in 1862. Stanton was later appointed to the Supreme Court, but he died before he could be sworn in.

If the name of Philip Barton Key sounds even slightly familiar to you, it's probably because you've heard of his father, Francis Scott Key, who wrote "The Star-Spangled Banner."

As for Dan Sickles, he donated his leg to the Smithsonian Institution, and for the rest of his life, he would regularly go to Washington, D.C., to visit that leg.


Paul Niemann's column is syndicated to more than 70 newspapers. He is the author of the "Invention Mysteries" series of books. He can be reached at

Copyright Paul Niemann 2008

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