Uncontrollable frenzy and a unique temporary insanity plea

J Community Health. 2000 Apr;25(2):157-79. doi: 10.1023/a:1005133808459.


On a bright, sunny April 1859 afternoon in Washington, D.C., a brutal murder occurred in Lafayette Park, directly across from the White House. Ironically, a close friend of President James Buchanan shot and killed his wife's lover. Daniel E. Sickles, a cuckolded U.S. Congressman, attacked and killed Philip Barton Key, the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. Key was one of the eleven children of Francis Scott Key, the author of the poem that became The Star Spangled Banner. At the trial, Sickles' seven lawyers presented an insanity plea claiming that an "uncontrollable frenzy" created a 'brainstorm" resulting in temporary insanity. In addition, the defense argued that the "unwritten law" provided immunity to a husband who avenged his honor. Only lay witnesses testified as to Sickles' intense emotional outrage. There was no expert medical witness to support the insanity plea. Prosecutors maintained that the killing was a premeditated murder, or at the very least manslaughter.

Publication types

  • Historical Article
  • Portrait

MeSH terms

  • District of Columbia
  • History, 19th Century
  • Homicide*
  • Insanity Defense / history*