THE CONGRESSMAN WHO GOT AWAY WITH MURDER by Nat Brandt

THE CONGRESSMAN WHO GOT AWAY WITH MURDER

By
Email this review

KIRKUS REVIEW

Sex, power, and crime add up to the ultimate tabloid scandal. But the 1990's, with its focus on the alleged misbehavior of the Kennedys, has no monopoly on same, as demonstrated in this entertaining narrative by Brandt, a former editor at American Heritage and Publishers Weekly. As with his two other arrestingly titled works, The Town That Started the Civil War (1990) and The Man Who Tried to Burn New York (1986), Brandt focuses on a sensational incident in the era surrounding the Civil War. In February 1859, disturbed by the revelation of his beautiful wife's adultery, Congressman Daniel Sickles of N.Y.C. fatally shot her lover. The ""Washington Tragedy,"" as it came to be called, gained additional notoriety because of the principals: Victim Philip Barton Key was a notorious philanderer, US District Attorney for the District of Columbia, and son of the composer of ""The Star-Spangled Banner,"" while Sickles was a leading Tammany Hall politician and confidant of President James Buchanan (who, directly and indirectly, sought to influence the trial's outcome). Despite the fact that 12 people witnessed the murder and that Sickles had affairs of his own to account for, Sickles's lawyers (including Abraham Lincoln's future secretary of war, Edwin Stanton) won an acquittal by extensively cataloguing the lovers' indiscreet liaisons and by pleading temporary insanity--the first time such a defense was successfully used. Astonishingly, Washington society lionized the politician following his court victory, only to ostracize him later for forgiving his wife and living with her again. In an all-too-brief postscript, Brandt details Sickles's equally flamboyant postscandal career as a Union general (he made a questionable troop-deployment decision at Gettysburg and lost his leg in the battle). A fascinating case study of the law, capital society, and sexual morality in the mid-Victorian period.

Pub Date: Nov. 25th, 1991
Page count: 296pp
Publisher: Syracuse Univ. Press