He Lost It – It Happened Today, February 19, 2017

Should someone be excused a serious crime because they flipped out? I’m not referring here to a "not guilty by reason of insanity" plea, which I think virtually everyone concedes is sometimes legitimate. I mean the kind of mental imbalance that hits you suddenly and then recedes leaving you quite sane but also quite free.

I ask now because February 19 turns out to be the anniversary in 1859 of the first use of the "temporary insanity" plea in the United States. By a Congressman, no less, one Daniel Edgar Sickles, who had killed a son of the composer of "The Star Spangled Banner". You see, Philip Barton Key II was having an affair with Sickles’ wife and Sickles, whose prior conduct was far from blameless (he married a girl half his age, then consorted openly with prostitutes while she was pregnant), got very annoyed and shot him.

It was a different era. The wealthy and privileged Sickles was apparently so popular that visitors streamed to see him in jail where, among other things, he was allowed to keep a gun. But his high-powered lawyers, including Edward M. Stanton who later served as Lincoln’s Secretary of War, convinced the public and the court that he was so angry at his wife’s infidelity that he was not responsible for what he did in his rage.

It may not have helped the prosecution that newspapers subsequently hailed Sickles for saving women from Key. But still, the case troubles me.

In theory I can see that you could take leave of your senses for various reasons including justified anger in ways that diminish or eliminate legal responsibility. But I’m not convinced I understand the difference between being so angry you shoot your wife’s lover and go to jail (or the gallows) and being so angry you shoot him and it’s OK. As a weird footnote, after making his wife’s cheating a huge public issue Sickles publicly forgave her, which evidently upset people a lot more than the original shooting.

Sickles went on to rise to Major General in the Civil War despite his notorious ambition, drinking and womanizing, eventually commanding III Corps, which he so mishandled at Gettysburg that the resulting action cost him his command (as well as his right leg) though not his commission. He spent years after the war arguing that his blunder had actually been a bold and well-advised strategic stroke and in 1897 he received the Congressional Medal of Honor for it, before ultimately dying in 1914 at age 94.

He was, it seems, a man of remarkably poor judgement in his personal and often public life. But the court ruled that his actual insanity was only temporary and absolved him of murder whereas it sounds to me as though in this case at least it was just a singularly spectacular and consequential display of lifelong lack of self-control.