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In 1859, a Murderous Congressman Pioneered the Insanity Defense

After gunning down his wife's lover in broad daylight, Daniel Sickles tried to escape the gallows by claiming he was out of his mind.


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illustration of white house, portrait of a man, and a smoking gun

Illustrations by Vinnie Neuberg 

“Temporary insanity” is a relatively modern invention. The question of insanity in criminal cases became part of American law in the course of two 19th-century murder trials, each involving a hotheaded protagonist, a lover’s tiff, and a killing in broad daylight. Together, these trials set the tone for temporary insanity jurisprudence and showed that in American law and society, insanity is a gendered condition.

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

Friends assured him that any reasonable jury would understand his motive, but the press – and Sickles’s legal team – thought otherwise. He had, after all, shot the man in Lafayette Square, in full view of the White House and a crowd of horrified onlookers.

A little more than ten years later, Laura Fair was in the San Francisco City Prison awaiting trial, scaring the socks off her medical staff.

The woman’s pupils were immovable pinpricks, she thrashed and wrestled with the attending staff, and when Fair was given a glass of sedative opiates to drink, she responded by biting off a piece of the glass and locking her jaws shut. When she did speak, Fair continued to ask about her daughter – was she all right? – and her boyfriend, seemingly unaware that she had shot him the week before.

Her nurse, Jane Morris, had no doubt that the woman was insane.

In 1857, Daniel Sickles was a promising young New York congressman with a reputation for playing fast and loose with politics, business and women. He threw parties at his mansion, attracting the cream of the D.C. set, and one of the regulars was U.S. Attorney Phillip Barton Key, son of Star-Spangled poet Francis Scott Key. Often spotted around town riding his grey horse, Lucifer, young Key was hard to miss. He was tall, handsome, recently widowed, and he had caught the eye of Sickles’s wife.

Lonely and effectively abandoned by her husband’s devotion to career and prostitution – he was known to travel regularly to Baltimore for assignations in the city’s hotels – Sickles’s young wife Teresa acted on her crush one night after a posh costume ball, when she and Key climbed tipsily into her carriage. She was dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, and he was an English hunter, who told the coachman to take the back roads home.

Before long their relationship was D.C.’s big open secret, known to everyone except Daniel Sickles. Someone finally sent an anonymous letter, warning Sickles that Key kept a rented house “for no other purpose than to meet your wife Mrs. Sickles. He hangs a string out of the window as a signal to her that he is in and leaves the door unfastened and she walks in and sir I do assure you with these few hints I leave the rest for you to imagine.”

Sickles took the letter to his wife, and forced her to confess her adultery in writing. A few days later, he spotted Key strolling by their window, coyly waving a white handkerchief in the direction of the Sickles’s home. Enraged at this seductive semaphore, Sickles went upstairs to fetch his guns, tucking pistols into his overcoat. When he caught up with Key, they were not far from the White House.

“You have dishonored my bed,” shouted Sickles, according to his biographer W.A. Swanberg. “You must die!” The bullets hit the mark. Key, shocked and unarmed, dove behind a tree. When Sickles advanced, Key vainly threw his only weapon in defense: a pair of opera glasses. Bleeding from the groin and chest, Key pleaded for his life, shrieking: “Don’t shoot!”

Witnesses watched in stunned silence as Sickles stepped over his rival and pressed his gun to Key’s face. The gun misfired, and the onlookers stopped him from firing another shot. Bystanders carried Key into a nearby house, hoping to save his life, and Sickles was heard growling: “Is the damned scoundrel dead yet?”

Laura Fair knew how to pick ‘em. Born in 1837 in Mississippi, she married at 16 to a reportedly wealthy older man. He turned out to be neither wealthy nor sober, drinking himself to death within two years and leaving her with nothing. Her second husband was a violent drunk who would occasionally practice pistol shooting on the headboard of their bed. Fair left him to move west, bringing her mother and inventing a new backstory for herself along the way. A natural hustler, she talked her way into business as a music teacher and boarding house operator, and won the hand of Colonel William Fair, who was not a colonel at all. In 1860 the Fairs had a daughter, Lillias Lorraine, who as a child was generally just called “Baby.” William did not improve Laura’s luck in marriage, however, and died destitute of gunshot wounds in San Francisco. It is not known if his death was the result of suicide, or a duel.

In 1863, then, Laura Fair was once divorced and twice widowed, a great beauty, bold in business, and armed with a world more experience than her 26 years of age would suggest.

a sketch of a woman holding a smoking gun

Their on-again, off-again affair, soaked in high passion and dysfunction, went on for seven years. Though Fair considered herself “spiritually married” to her beau, legal marriage continued to hold a certain appeal. She had a young daughter to consider, and longed to re-enter society as a respectable lady and restore both her security and her reputation.

Fair followed Crittenden around the country to shack up, always on his promise that divorce was just around the corner – as soon as he could financially provide for his family’s security through one investment scheme or another. Crittenden once threatened to kill himself should Fair reveal the truth to his wife Clara; and Fair, for her part, allegedly once fired “warning shots” into a stairway after her lover.

Fed up, Fair married again, hoping to put distance between herself and Crittenden. It didn’t take. She left her new husband in 1870, and Crittenden assured her that his marriage was nearly through, making the promise so convincingly that Fair spent a considerable sum to have her wedding wardrobe made. That’s when Crittenden’s wife came to town.

Fair made an ultimatum to Crittenden, demanding he promise not to kiss anyone but her – to not even smile as he walked around town with the wife he claimed not to love. On November 3, 1870, she put his promise to the test, boarding the San Francisco-Oakland ferry dressed in a black waterproof cloak and hood. She saw Crittenden there with his family, seemingly happy. His promise broken, she drew a pistol and shot him in the chest.

“Yes, I did it, and I meant to kill him,” she told the police when they came to arrest her on the ferry. “He ruined both myself and my child.”

Daniel Sickles’s murder trial began April 4, 1859. Prosecutor Robert Ould presented a plain, methodical case, arguing for clear malice aforethought: Daniel Sickles not only shot an unarmed man in broad daylight, he argued, but did so repeatedly, “attempting to add mutilation to murder.”

Prosecutors rejected the typical “heat of passion” defense, which requires both provocation and the absence of any time to cool off – essentially requiring the guilty parties be caught in the sheets. Ould claimed Sickles had ample time to return to reason after he learned of his wife’s indiscretions, and that having slept on the news, he could hardly claim to have been hijacked by ragged impulse.

On this presentation the prosecution rested – so abruptly, in fact, that “even the defense lawyers were a little surprised.” The prosecution had bizarrely declined to call important witnesses, and failed to bring evidence at trial that Sickles had engaged in more than his fair share of extramarital hotel trysts. Had they chosen blunt simplicity, or had Sickles’s high-octane team simply overwhelmed the state’s attorneys?

John Graham, for the defense, didn’t care. He promptly launched into a grand speech informing the jury of their duty: to “fix the price of the marriage bed; you are here to say in what estimation that sacred couch is held by an honest and intelligent American jury.”

Graham alternately flattered and terrified the male jurors, appealing to their sense of honor, reciting a tortured soliloquy from Othello, and warning that their own wives and daughters were but one flirting gaze away from ruin: “You know not how soon the wife or daughter of some one of you would have been – in fact you know not but she had been – marked by the same eyes that destroyed the marriage relations of the defendant.”

The “unwritten law” of antebellum America reflected a general agreement that men were justified in defending their honor by killing an adulterous spouse’s lover (and possibly also the spouse). Marriage theory at the time considered wives fully subservient to their husbands, and so in defending his wife against another man’s advances, a man was presumed to defend his own rights.

To bolster their claim, Sickles’s all-star legal team embarked on the first significant use of the temporary insanity defense in an American trial, arguing that blind rage and jealousy were the natural impulses of a man who had been deeply wronged.

“Jealousy will be the rage of that man,” thundered Sickles’s attorney in court, “and he will not spare in the day of vengeance…It converts him into a frenzy in which he is wholly irresponsible for what he may do.”

This frenzy did not simply mitigate a crime as passion traditionally might have done, but completely excused the defendant from liability by reason of rage momentarily equivalent to mental illness. This was a sort of “have your cake and eat it too” defense, since jurors were asked to simultaneously believe that Sickles was temporarily out of his mind, and yet engaged in the clear and noble work of defending his household.

It worked: jurors returned a not-guilty verdict on April 26, 1859, after only 70 minutes in conference, and Sickles was summarily discharged. Sickles was celebrated on his release – according to biographer Swanberg, a crowd of 1,500 well wishers congratulated him, and even President Buchanan was thrilled – and the only negative reaction came from speculation that he might make the mistake of forgiving Teresa. In 1859, it was no sin to kill your wife’s lover, but to take back a fallen woman was political suicide. “His warmest personal and political friends,” wrote the New York Dispatch, “bitterly denounce his course.”

Sickles’ defense was not, as is often claimed, the first use of such an insanity defense – even if you don’t consider the handful of similar, smaller murder trials of the era, most of them domestic disputes, people have been arguing that the bastard deserved it as long as there have been bastards to deserve it.

The Sickles trial was, however, notable for the prominence of the case, the fact that it solidified a get-out-of-jail-free card, and the way in which it reflected the gendered nature of insanity claims. Judges and juries throughout the 19th century were extremely inclined (sometimes gymnastically so) to be lenient with an angry man killing for passion’s sake, to attribute his action to “honor” or “right.” With men “insanity” was a byword for an altered state, a channeling of divine justice and social honor. A woman, if acquitted under similar circumstances, was just capital-C Crazy. Usually her act was chalked up to hormonal insanity, inherent female instability or simple moral failure. In response to the 1865 murder trial of Mary Harris, the New York Times lamented an apparent new rule of American law: “if a man is murdered by a member of the opposite sex in any of the cases supposed, or in almost any supposable case whatever, she is almost certain to escape, not only the extreme penalty of the law, but any penalty whatever.”

This was the legal landscape into which Laura Fair stepped when her trial began in 1871, with Daniel Sickles in recent judicial memory. She clearly thought of herself as similar in right and motive, claiming that since Sickles had “done more for true morality than have all the sermons since preached by the servants of the Most High…shall not a wronged and sacrificed woman be her own defender?”

The Fair trial, as Sickles’s had done, served as a public referendum on family values – not just the aftermath of a lovers’ quarrel, but confirmation on how American justice stood up for honor and the sanctity of marriage.

The prosecution, as the Sickles team had done, went for simplicity: they used Laura’s checkered past to support the idea that she was a temptress who lured unsuspecting men to ruin, and methodically called a series of witnesses – including Alexander Crittenden’s wife and children – to corroborate action and admission on Fair’s part. One after another confirmed that when the police came, she had surrendered quietly, and admitted her guilt.

Prosecutors urged the jury to “remove the romance and poetry that have been thrown over this transaction: rob her of her sex; take away that great shield that protects her, and this is nothing but a question of cold-blooded assassination.”

Fair’s attorneys went for a temporary insanity defense, but one very different in character to Daniel Sickles’s. Where Sickles was styled as a Biblical avenger, momentarily possessed by righteous fury, Fair was put to the jury as an innocent weakling, momentarily possessed by the inherent flaws of her gender: poor Laura Fair was overwhelmed, lovesick and suckered in by a possessive man. Moreover, medical testimony assured jurors that “retarded menstruation” – being even a few days late for a regular menstrual cycle – was “one of the diseases that is recognized universally as insanity of women.”

Because of her irregular menstrual cycles in the year prior to the shooting, the defense claimed that “from that time down to the present day she has not had a menstrual term without becoming a perfect maniac – furious.” Medical professionals, ignorant of what later scholarship has revealed was the strong possibility Fair was addicted to chloral hydrate and had sought an abortion in the year prior, attributed her actions and her unstable behavior in prison to an inherently female backup of blood around the brain. Fair’s defense team told jurors that she could not be credibly accused of murder, her hormones having made her effectively unconscious at the time of the shooting, amnesiac thereafter, and all told, as nutty as a pink fruitcake.

The jury found Laura Fair guilty of murder in the first degree.

Laura Fair and Daniel Sickles both lived long lives after their moment of judicial fame.

Fair was brought to a second trial on procedural technicalities and acquitted: following the lead of the Sickles team, this time lawyers kept Fair off the witness stand. A muzzled Fair was cleared on appeal by reason of temporary insanity, even as the press dismissed the acquittal “on the ground that a jury of men will not hang a handsome woman, if they have the least possible apology for doing otherwise.”

Fair became a political symbol. Traditionalists denounced her as a crazy, radical slut; women’s rights activists supported Fair’s appeal, holding her up as a warning of the dangers of unchecked male power; and anti-suffragists used her as an example of women’s rights ruining society. Mark Twain would build the character of Laura Hawkins, in The Gilded Age, on an impression of Fair, writing: “About nine o’clock a lady deliberately shot a man dead in the public parlor of the Southern Hotel, coolly remarking, as she threw down her revolver and permitted herself to be taken into custody, ‘He brought it on himself.’” Laura Fair later wrote a pamphlet in her own defense, railing against her “revilers and enemies” in the press, and died in San Francisco in 1919, at the age of 82.

Not to be discouraged by disrepute or the passage of time, Daniel Sickles continued to live a bold and outsized public life into his nineties: he served as military governor in South Carolina until President Johnson gave him the boot; flattered Ulysses S. Grant into giving him an ambassador’s post in Spain; married a young Spanish girl; and engaged in an affair with the deposed Queen Isabella II in Paris, leading French papers to chuckle about the “Yankee King of Spain.”

sketch of a cannon ball and leg bones on display

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 Little Round Top to a more forward position, where it took a thrashing. (Depending on who you ask, Sickles’s insubordination either screwed the Union forces, or saved the day by taking the brunt of Confederate attack.) In the fighting at Gettysburg, an errant cannonball shattered Sickles’s lower right leg. The general promptly boxed up his amputated leg in a neat little miniature coffin and shipped it with his handwritten regards to the Army Medical Museum, where he would later visit it annually.

Today the insanity defense won’t get a defendant released but committed, and despite the public perception that insanity is an easy escape valve for those accused of crimes, it only succeeds in less than one percent of cases. After a claim of insanity acquitted John Hinckley of his 1981 attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan, Congress passed the Insanity Defense Reform Act in an effort to limit the circumstances in which the defense might be raised. Even so, after the “irresistible impulse” test was famously used to acquit Lorena Bobbitt of separating her husband from his penis in 1994, a study found that when the insanity defense is successful, it is more often so for women than men – perhaps because, as Laura Fair experienced, the perception of women’s inherent mental weakness and emotional fragility persists.

Betsy Golden Kellem is an attorney and historian. Her work has appeared in The Atlantic, Smithsonian and Atlas Obscura, and on the blog Drinks With Dead People. She is currently at work on a book about P.T. Barnum.

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This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published September 12, 2017. This article is republished here with permission.

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