This week on Horrible History, we’re covering two tales of privileged white men with a ton of bravado and negligence! First, Rachel heads to Washington D.C. to talk about Daniel Sickles, the first person to be acquitted of murder due to temporary insanity. Then, Emily heads to Vernon, New Jersey to share the crazy story of Action Park – America’s most dangerous amusement/water park.
Story 1 – Action Park
Today I’m going to tell you all about … Action Park, also known as Accident Park or Class Action Park, arguably the most dangerous water park in America.
So we’re going to get into the rides, the mayhem, the injuries, but first I want to talk about the man, the myth, the legend – Gene Mulvihill, the founder and CEO of the notorious amusement park. And we’re going to start by talking about Gene because the park 1000% reflected the personality of Gene. If Disneyland reflects Walt Disney’s whimsy and fantasy, Action Park reflects Gene Mulvihill’s bravado and lack of desire to follow any rules.
Gene never followed rules actually. He actually started his career in the finance business. Gene was very much a Gordon Gecko / Donald Trump-style guy. He ran a place called Mayflower Securities and if you’ve ever seen the movie Wolf of Wallstreet you know a little something about Penny Stocks. Essentially, Mayflower sold undervalued stock to people who didn’t know any better – and every time Gene would make a sale he would blast a bugle in the office and pop champagne. It’s seriously Wolf of Wall Street!
Now, Gene also became friends with a man named Bob Brennan – the Penny Stock King – and soon they became fast friends. But, while Bob went on to keep working on Wall Street, Gene got caught by the SEC for selling worthless securities and he got kicked off Wall Street.
So, what does one do when they get kicked out of Wall Street? Well, buy up two ski resorts in Vernon New Jersey of course! With a little help from his buddy Bob, who wrangled investors, and Gene’s big bold personality, he purchased 67ish square miles of land in the idyllic town of Vernon.
Now you might wonder why he would want to invest in something in Vernon, NJ – well, interestingly at that time Vernon was an up and coming town. Hugh Heffner had opened a playboy bunny club in Vernon, celebrities were usually in town (folks like Wayne Newton and Tony Bennett); it was kind of poised to be the next Orlando.
So, when Gene bought the two ski resorts, he put that entrepreneurial hat on and decided to find ways to extend the short snow season – so he could make more money. First he started making fake snow, but then he was like “ok, I need to have some money coming in in the summer, too.” Which is when he decided on an amusement park.
Remember how I said that he was all bravado and negligence? Well, his thought process around the summer amusement park was that it should have a ski resort vibe – at a ski resort you get on your skis and then you can control your destiny from there. You get to decide how fast you go, what route you take, etc. Why not create a “Do It Yourself” water park?
Now this was the Reagan era – and the fact that this was ever allowed to be created was a product of its time. People of this time were of the mindset that American capitalism is at its best when its unregulated. That the government shouldn’t stick their noses in business’ business… (women’s uteruses, yes of course, business regulations, no no no.)
This was the era of latchkey kids and unsupervised fun. And Gene’s vision was essentially Lord of the Flies, the kids – CHILDREN – that were visiting the park should be unbridled, they should have the opportunity to choose their own destiny, they should control the action and control the speed.
Gene went looking for investors to help make this a reality and – get this – even Donald Trump thought that Action Park was too wild an idea and said no. But, Bob – good ole Bob – invested and in 1978 Action Park was born.
So, Gene started building rides and hiring staff – and he obviously made a point to ensure that the park was managed by employees that would gladly turn away and let chaos happen. YOUTHS. The vast, vast majority of the people managing the park were like literally teens. Some as young 14, which is when kids could get their work papers back then. And these kids gave zero fucks.
First of all, think about a 15 year old. Fifteen year old kids think they are invincible. They don’t really understand how dangerous things can be. They are thinking a lot about having fun, hooking up for the first time, drinking with their friends.
One person who was on the documentary I watched said that the lifeguards would literally stand there and twirl their whistles and just say “next, next, next, next.” Not really even paying attention to the people coming past in the water. And the teens were not just in charge of the rides – but in charge of the infirmary too!
In the documentary I watched they said that people would go to the infirmary with injuries – major scrapes, road burn, etc. And they would put them in this shack and a teen worker would have them stand in the middle of this circle that was on the floor – and then they would say “Hey… yeah… this is going to hurt. But if you can stay in the circle on the floor, you get a prize.” Then they would spray a mix of alcohol and iodine onto the injury to help heal it and the person would scream and screech and dance around in pain – and over the entire time that Action Park was open, rumor has it that only TWO people ever managed to stay in the circle.
So, between the lack of structure and rules… well, that just fed right into the chaos, because the crowd at this park seemed to pretty much be teens. Unattended teens; unattended, drunk teens; unattended, drunk teens with NO RULES. And what do kids like that do? Well, they start trouble. According to one article, the VAST MAJORITY of calls that police attended to in that time period were at Action Park.
And calls to the Vernon police weren’t the only calls being made. They also were regularly calling for ambulances – because the alcohol and iodine mixture could only fix minor injuries, and there were a lot more than minor injuries at Action Park – we’re talking broken bones, dislocated shoulders, cracked collar bones, fractured vertebrae, and worse.
Pretty soon, the two ambulances in Vernon were not able to dedicate so much time to the park, so Gene decided to buy a few of his own. And boy oh boy were they a necessary expense… let’s talk a bit about some of the rides at Action Park.
Because, as one patron of the park from that time said… “Most amusement parks look scary but are safe. This wasn’t that. You really legit could get hurt here. That was the magic and the horror of this place; you went not knowing if you would go home with amazing memories – or on a backboard.”
Action Park was essentially half “water world,” half “motor world” – and they were split in half by a highway – oh, and literally every single ride was pretty much designed IN HOUSE. And by that I mean, by Gene himself. Remember, he is not an engineer. Not a scientist. Just a mediocre white man that thought he could accomplish anything he put his mind to. Essentially, he’d come up with an idea and put it together in the way that made most sense to him… he’d hire local welders from town to help out. Sometimes he’d just draw something out on a napkin and say “make this happen.” And other times, people would come to him with ideas and he’d make it happen, but then he’d get involved with the design and fucking go all Young Frankenstein on it making it bigger or more intense! It was all a massive experiment! So let’s talk about the rides and let’s debrief on Water World first.
First up, the Tarzan Swing. Sounds simple enough, but Action Park liked to take the simple and make it absurd. With this “ride” – and that’s giving it a lot of credit – the “rider” would swing from a rope over a pool toward the line of people waiting for their turn. It was literally just a rope over a pool of water. At least 10% of the people would slip off the swing immediately and nearly land on the rocks below. The other 90%, a mix of terrified kids and drunk adults, would vary between attempting backflips and exposing themselves while they flailed in the sky.
Then there was the Speed Slide – a seven story high slide that kids would go down at a rumored 60 miles per hour. It was literally almost a vertical drop. Riders claimed that they pretty much got their first colonic for free courtesy of this slide because you went so fast that it shot water straight up your asshole. Some people even said that at first when you dropped on the slide you would free fall for a few seconds and then make contact with the slide.
Perhaps one of the most iconic rides was the Cannonball Loop. And… this was an absolutely absurd design that somehow actually got built. It was an enclosed tube waterslide, but it literally had a LOOP in it – a vertical, 360-degree loop. But you aren’t on a track, seat-belted into a car, you’re LOOSE in a tube. The story of how this thing got built is insane.
First, like all the rides, they literally didn’t consult with anyone with an engineering background. Gene Mulvihill seemed to just have said “build me one of these” and then drew a loop with his finger. Once they had it built they threw some weighted test dummies down the tube to see what would happen. All the dummies kept coming out without heads, without arms, etc. so they would tinker with it a bit and they finally decided it was time to test it on a real human. So they turned to the most expendable resources they had … teenage park employees! Gene told them that if they tested it he would give them $100. If they lived, of course.
So these teens get to the top of the slide – and they look down it and it’s pitch black. It’s not like today’s water slides that have those little windows to give you light. It’s just darkness. There’s a water hose at the top lubing up the tube and they would spray down the rider with a hose too. Then they would sit down at the top, cross their arms across their chest and go. The rider said that they would be hurtling down the slide, no clue how fast they were going or where they were in the slide and then all of a sudden your feet would go up and then you’d lose contact with the loop and finally you would flop onto the bottom of the tube and get spit out at the bottom into a tiny pool of water.
In the testing process they first sent some people down and they keep coming out with bloody mouths – because they were smashing their faces onto the top of the loop. So they tinkered with it more and they added some padding to the top of the tube. No more bloody mouths, but now people are coming out with lacerations on their bodies, and they can’t figure out what is causing these cuts…. Well, they open it up and there are TEETH stuck in it from the first few people.
So, they finally get it figured out so that people aren’t coming out bleeding, but they are still coming out all woozy and unable to stand, right… so Gene decides NOW is the time to bring in an expert and he brings in this navy physician to figure out why that was happening… What they essentially found out was that going down the cannonball tube ride you reached NINE Gs. Like as if you were in the back of an F15 fighter jet. Again. LOSE IN A TUBE. They did finally put some rules in place, but the only rules were basically that you couldn’t be too small or too big – because too small you can’t make the loop and too big you get stuck in the bottom.
They had something called the Cannon Ball Slide that looked a little unassuming but because it was Gene he had to spice it up somehow. Instead of the tube exiting into the water, the tube stopped and spit riders out when it was still 10-12 feet in the air above the water. So one second you’re on a slide and the next second you’re in the SKY. Falling. And then you hit the water and it is 17 feet deep and ice cold because it’s a natural spring full of dead fish, so I’m sure the person in the water is in complete shock!
One of the more dangerous rides was the Colorado River Ride. It was literally built to mimic white water rafting. Except minus helmets, oars, expert training, lifejackets… It actually STARTED as a lazy river ride and then Gene decided to that instead he wanted it to mimic Class 4 rapids. Apparently on the first test run, the testers came out at the end UNCONSCIOUS.
The final piece of the Water World that I wanted to talk about was the wave pool. We’ve all seen these before, it’s mimicking ocean waves. Here’s the thing… with ocean water you are more buoyant, so when the waves go up you go up, etc. That doesn’t happen with freshwater, so the waves just smash into you and go “through” you pretty much. And this place was always shoulder to shoulder packed with people. And the deepest part was DEEP. One thing I read said 12 feet, but that seems really absurd… But they definitely had a section that was well over people’s heads and they called that the death zone. They would actually haze new lifeguards by putting them in the “death chair” and make them monitor the death zone. It is said that lifeguards would save 3, 4, 5 people in just 30 minutes. I have to say that is way too much pressure to put on a teenage lifeguard.
AND, sometimes it was hard for the lifeguards to see if someone was drowning. Partially because of the waves, partially because of all the people, and partially because of the murky water, which apparently was super murky from a mixture of muddy run off, mud from people’s feet, sunscreen and body fluids/ gore from open wounds. So, they would pretty regularly stop the pool – every few minutes actually – to check to see if there were any bodies at the bottom. And sadly, bodies on the bottom occurred – but I’ll get to that in a few minutes.
First, I want to talk about the other side of the park – Motor World.
So Motor World is the chaos of Water World but with planes trains and automobiles – and tanks. So, let’s start with the Grand Prix Cars. Little race cars that people could race around a track. Sounds fun right, not super crazy. But, the Grand Prix track was riiiiight by the Beer Tent, so often you were getting some major misbehavior out of patrons of this ride. People would sometimes drive off the track and drive down the actual highway. Or go off track and chase people. One person figured out how to get the governor on the car removed so that they could go FAST – like 60 mph. Gene’s answer? If someone came in under 55 seconds they would have girls in bikinis run out and pop champagne
Another ride at Motor World were TANKS. Think bumper cars but they are little fake tanks – and they shoot tennis balls at each other so you can battle with your friends. Here’s the thing, one time one of the guests got ahold of a gas can and poured gas onto the tennis balls he was shooting. SO, flaming balls of fire shooting at his friends.
Now, the most notorious ride at Motor World was the 2,700 foot-long Alpine Slide. Per usual it was NOT designed by an engineer. The Alpine Slide was kind of like a bobsled track with a few key differences. First, instead of ice and guard rails it was made of concrete and surrounded by concrete. Second, instead of trained Olympic bobsledders it was populated by kids amped up on sugar and adrenaline, and without any common sense. Third, instead of finely tuned bobsleds the kids were piloting cafeteria trays on wheels without brakes, padding, or shock absorption. People were constantly getting sent to the infirmary after riding the slide, they would topple off of their sleds, or fly up in the air and then SLIDE down the concrete structure. They averages 50-100 people injured a DAY and on the weekends that doubled. People had broken bones, concussions… and unfortunately, there was one tragedy that happened on the slide in 1980.
On July 8 that year, a young man named George Larson met up with his friends at Action Park. He was an athletic, handsome young man – he had many brother’s and sisters including his younger brother Brian that was just 11 months younger – so they were often treated like twins.
On that day, George was supposed to be working with his dad, but it was summer and the family decided to let him just go have some fun. He was still a kid but old enough that he was about to enter the real world. So off he went to Action Park.
George and his friends got on their carts at Action Park and headed down the steep hill. Horrifically, George’s handbreak wasn’t working and he flew off the track and flipped down the hillside. On that hillside were dozens and dozens of big rocks. You see, the park was supposed to get rid of the rocks in advance of opening that year, but they wanted to have a big 4th of July Party and so instead of dealing with the rocks they just opened up instead. Negligence beyond negligence.
George’s mom said that she got a call at home and the person on the line said that she needed to find someone to bring her to the hospital because George had been hurt. She assumed that meant broken bones, he was so athletic after-all, but when she arrived at the hospital she found out that it was much worse.
She got to his room where he was being worked on and they had already had to move George to another hospital with more abilities – so she missed seeing him there, but she did get a chance to see all the blood on the bed and the pillow. That’s when she knew it was bad.
They had neurologist after neurologist come in to see if there was any brain activity, but there was no sign that he would wake up; so on July 16, 1980 he was removed from life support and he died.
George’s mother was interviewed on the documentary that I watched and she said that they were all devastated – and so they went to the rectory as a family and then on the way back to the hospital she deliberately stepped out in front of a truck. Luckily, her husband pulled her back but she said that she just didn’t want to live with that kind of pain. And she said that still, 39 years later, she still feels that pain.
There was another devastating issue with the timing of George’s death. George was supposed to be Brian’s best man at his wedding… on July 20. He died on the 16th. So although the family ‘celebrated’ – it wasn’t the happy day that everyone was expecting without George there.
Shockingly – or perhaps not so shockingly – Gene Mulvihill never called the family or called the hospital or apologized. And then when the newspaper did an article about the death, the official quote was that “The Alpine Slide didn’t kill him. The rock that hit his head killed him. The ride is safe.” But here’s the thing – the park covered up the death. Newspapers were told that he was an employee at Action Park and that it happened at night when it was raining.
False. Times 3.
And because they said that he was an employee – and not a part of the “General Public” – the Park never reported George’s death to the state. Lawyers told the family it wasn’t worth it to go to court because teens are a liability / always taking risky actions, so it’s not likely that they’d get much money. They did end up suing and settling with the park for $100,000.
George Lawson was the first to die at Action Park… but not the last.
On July 24, 1982 a 15 year-old from Brooklyn named George Lopez died in the wave pool – drowned.
In August of 1982, just one week after George Lopez’s death in the wave pool, a 27 year-old man from Long Island named Jeffrey A. Nathan died on the Kayak Experience. This was a malfunction of the Kayak Experience ride itself. You see, the ride had fans under the water to help circulate the water and make the ride “more fun” – but one of the fans was shorted out and so when Jeffrey accidentally flipped his kayak over and fell into the water he was close enough to the fan or maybe touched the fan and was electrocuted.
Three more people died at Action Park before it was finally closed down. A second and third person drowned in the Wave Pool – one of them was Gregory Grandchamps, from Queens and one other whose name I didn’t find. Finally, a 20 year old Brooklyn man, Donald DePass, was pronounced dead after drowning in the Roaring Springs area of Action Park.
To me, after one person dies in an amusement park, you should re-evaluate the safety of the park, but that’s not what happened at Action Park. And that is thanks to the horrible Gene Mulvihill.
As I said at the beginning – Gene was a bulldog. How do you say… a dick. Apparently, if you sued him, he would force you to go to trial. He would draw it out purposefully and make it as long and painful as possible. He fought every single case brought against him and take it all the way to trial and WON about 95% of his cases. And if he didn’t win, he just wouldn’t pay the fine. Once they sent the U.S. Marshalls to try to confront the management at the park and they just quietly settled things and moved on, continuing on his merry way. And honestly the town didn’t do all that much to impact the park.
It became a bit untouchable because it was one of the location’s biggest employers. It created a lot of revenue. SO people didn’t want to fuck with it too much. Plus, rumor has it that town officials were on Gene’s payroll. He bought HOMES for some of the town officials or gave others free memberships to the spa.
And if that didn’t work Gene threatened them or extorted them. One claim was that he told one person that if he ever investigated a certain mater he would hire a Russian hit man to kill him and his family. And he got the editor of the town’s newspaper fired. Because she was anti-business and was reporting things that happened there.
Oh, and guess what people found out eventually? One of the reasons that Gene refused to settle was because he didn’t really have insurance on the park. Because what insurance agency would actually dare cover this crazy place? Instead, Gene created a phony insurance company titled London and World Assurance Inc. This allowed him to not only opt out of paying for insurance, but also gave way to money laundering, which according to the documentary led to the state discovering his wrongdoings and conducting a three-day trial on a 110-count indictment, which included fraud, theft and embezzlement. While he did end up pleading guilty to multiple charges and had to give up control of the park, it wasn’t long before he eventually regained his rightful place as the head of the park and expanded it to include three more areas in his world of chaos.
After a series of insurance frauds and friend/investor Robert Brennan being sentenced to prison for ten years, Action Park eventually declared bankruptcy and shut down at the end of the summer of 1996. In addition to the fraud, attendance rates dipped in the 90s. Apparently people just weren’t as unbridled or willing to risk their lives anymore.
In 1998, Action Park was bought out by the owners of Whistler Mountain, revamped it and renamed it Mountain Creek. And now it is owned by someone who actually used to work there back in the days of Gene.
Gene himself died in 2012 and George Larson’s parents celebrated his death with a nice bottle of red wine.
Today, it’s quite obvious that nothing like this would ever happen be allowed to exist today – and maybe if the parents of that time would have really known what happened at Action Park they wouldn’t have let their kids go. But the times were different back then – and oddly enough, the people who went there (and survived) look back on it fondly. One of the people interviewed in the documentary was Shawna Malway Tweep (her real name is Alison Becker) and she said, “Honestly, it was scary but… if you can’t do it, fuckin’ get out of Jersey.”
Basically, from what I can tell, it seemed like the kids of the 80s seemed happy they got to grow up the way they did – and simultaneously furious that they had to.
And that’s the story of Action Park, America’s most dangerous amusement park.
Story 2 – Daniel Sickles
Today, I’m going to tell you about Daniel Sickles, a Union general, New York Politician, and the first person in American History to be acquitted of murder due to temporary insanity, which is the story I’m focusing on today.
Daniel Edgar Sickles was born on October 20, 1819 in New York City… although apparently he could have been born in 1825 – which he would often claim for reasons I’ll explain shortly. I didn’t read much about his early childhood, except that he was born into a wealthy family. His parents were Susan Marsh Sickles and George Garrett Sickles, and they were a patent lawyer and a politician, respectively. Daniel’s parents saw a need for some special tutoring, and he ended up living with a family who specialized in this, the Da Pontes. The family had a child, Teresa, who 3-years-old at the time Daniel started living and studying there. He stayed for about a year, then moved out. He studied law at the NYU before it was called NYU, passed the bar in 1846, and climbed the political ladder with seeming ease.
In 1851, Daniel ran into Teresa Bagioli – the former 3-year-old that he used to live with, but now he was 32 and she was 15. Daniel already had a reputation for being a philanderer, but Teresa made him want to change all of his ways, and he proposed. If you’re thinking “Ick ick ick…” so were both of their families. But the pair thought themselves to be truly in loveDan I guess, and they said, “permission be damned!” and married in a civil ceremony on September 17, 1852. About a week and a half later, her family was all, “well, we guess this is happening, so we might as well support it,” and the couple was officially married by the Archbishop of New York City… and 7 months later Teresa gave birth to their first born, Laura Bucahanan Sickles.
So she’s a wife and mother at 16, but don’t you worry, because everyone says she was super mature and spoke 5 languages, so obviously it’s not gross. It may, however, have been the reason he pretended he was 6 years younger. Listen, although a 10-year-age gap is not a big deal when people are older, if you’re marrying a teenager it’s icky. Period.
Regardless of his questionable morals, 4 years later Daniel was elected to the New York State Senate. Teresa, at this point living her best 20-year-old life, enjoyed living with Daniel in luxury. They rented a fancy mansion in Lafayette Square, which is right across from the White House. They would host fancy dinner parties for DCs most prestigious. Teresa, although young, was seen as hosting some of the best parties, including gaining the most prestigious guests and making everyone feel at home. It all sounds lovely, but it was an ill-kept secret that Dan and Teresa both enjoyed dalliances outside of their marriage, if you know what I mean.
Sex. I mean sex with other people.
Seriously, they weren’t trying to hide this. Daniel escorted a known sex-worker, Fanny White, into the New York Assembly’s chambers, and also reportedly took her to England to meet Queen Victoria while Teresa stayed back in DC – pregnant. He’s a real peach, no?
In fairness, Teresa Sickles wasn’t faithful either. Remember, Daniel Sickles traveled a lot, and at that time, it was culturally appropriate for women to continue to attend social gatherings when their husbands were out of town. Obviously, they couldn’t go anywhere without a man, so they would be assigned an escort to take them to the fancy places. Enter: Philip Barton Key, a widower and tall drink of water. The pair met at President Buchannan’s inauguration ball in March of 1857. Teresa knew that her husband had engaged in multiple affairs, and Philip was kind and friendly. They bonded at multiple gatherings when Daniel was gone doing whatever, and soon, they were inseparable.
Teresa would later describe her relationship with Philip Barton Key II as engaging in “intimacy of an improper kind.” He was the son of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the lyrics of a little song you might know as the Star-Spangled Banner. He was also a district attorney. Now, I googled a picture of this man, obviously, and he was 1850s hot. He looks like a mix of John Hamm and John Krazinski but with a thick mustache.
Meanwhile, Daniel Sickles looks a little less masculine, with hair like Dwight Schrute’s but slightly curlier and more parted to the side. Everyone is somebody’s orange sock… but Daniel wasn’t Teresa’s because Teresa and Philip would meet at a house Philip rented on 15th street, just a few blocks from where Teresa and Daniel’s lived, but in a less bougie area (and it wasn’t his residence… it was just a house he rented for rendezvous with Teresa) where Teresa would later write “I did what is usual for a wicked woman to do.”
Keep in mind, Daniel and Philip knew one another as well. It would have probably been normal for a husband to be friendly with his wife’s escorts. One evening in March of 1857, Philip and Daniel stayed up all night playing whist, which I googled, and it’s a card game.
I really did try to read the rules, but honestly, I cannot get on board with a game that I have to hear/read rules of for a long period of time. I zone out. Just let me learn by playing.
Anywho, Daniel and Philip seemed to have a lot in common. They were both successful, charming white men, and both notorious womanizers. Problem was, they had a little TOO much in common, because they were both into Teresa Sickles.
For a while, Philip and Teresa’s relationship went unnoticed by Daniel… though not by everyone else. Harper’s Weekly even spilled the tea that they were inseparable stating that, “at balls, parties, in the street, at receptions, at theatres, everywhere, Mrs. Sickles was invariably accompanied by Phil Barton Key, District Attorney”. Apparently, Daniel was too busy taking other women to meet fucking Queen Victoria to notice what was right under his mustachioed nose.
That brings us to February 24, 1859. Daniel and Teresa had done their usual thing: hosting a dinner party and rubbing elbows with DC’s elite. As dinner wound down, most of the guests went out for dancing at the Willard Hotel. While there, Daniel was handed an anonymous letter. I’m speculating he’s drunk and dancing and is all, “thanks bro,” because he put the letter in his pocket and opened it at home later. The letter detailed the way that Teresa and Philip had been sneaking around, stating that Philip would leave a string out the window of the unoccupied home on 15th street to let Teresa know he’s there and DTF. He would leave the door unlocked and, well, you know. Or, in 1850s language, the letter said “With these few hints, I leave the rest for you to imagine.” Who wrote this, Lady Whistledown?!?!
Full of rage after reading this letter and realizing that literally everyone in town knew that his wife and his bro were fucking except for him, Daniel confronted Teresa, who quickly confessed. He forced her to make a written confession, all the while fuming in his male privilege and seemingly forgetting that he too was unfaithful to his wedding vows. The written confession is how we know all the details about Teresa doing what wicked women did. She went into detail about how they would watch each other undress, where they would meet, and even confessed to making out in the home she shared with Daniel on multiple occasions. She signed the letter with her maiden name, “Teresa Bagioli,” which is in my opinion, a big old “fuck you” to her husband.
A few days later, on February 27, 1859, Daniel spied Philip from his house. The DA was walking along Madison Place, seemingly doing the secret signal – walking past Teresa’s bedroom window subtly waiving a white bandana – for Teresa to come join him on 15th Street. I don’t know why, but I’m imagining him just sitting by his window all day with binoculars, waiting to catch Philip red-handed.
Now remember, this is 1859. The telephone wasn’t patented until 1876, and I’m guessing Daniel was keeping a pretty close eye on Teresa. So Philip had no idea that Daniel knew of the affair, and, when he saw Daniel barreling toward him in Lafayette Square, he extended his hand, thinking they were still bros.
But alas, they were not still bros. In broad daylight, in the middle of a well-traveled and bougie part of Washington DC, Daniel dramatically proclaimed “You have dishonored my home and my family!” Philip must have been thinking “Oh shit,” because he reached inside his jacket, trying to find anything to throw at Daniel to keep him from continuing to run at him (he settled on a pair of opera glasses). Unfortunately, Daniel also reached inside his jacket, in which he had placed THREE handguns. Daniel shot Philip three times. The first shot grazed Philip’s hand, stunning him.
The second shot went right below the groin, passing through his thigh (Daniel was 10 feet away, so I have to imagine he was aiming for the penis, though guns back then were pretty unreliable). This may have not been a kill shot, because all the major arteries were avoided. Philip staggered to a tree and yelled “don’t kill me!” and “Murder!” But Daniel was in a trance, pulling out gun after gun, and continued to shoot at the man who made him into a cuckhold. The third shot misfired, but the fourth hit Philp in the chest, killing him slowly. Daniel tried to fire one more shot, right at his head, but this too misfired, and the job was already done. Philip Barton Key II was dead. His body was moved and pronounced so by a doctor.
Daniel Sickles was ushered away by friends and witnesses, because remember, this is in the middle of the day, and taken to Attorney General Jeremiah Black’s house, as he lived only a few blocks from the murder. Daniel instantly confessed, saying, “of course I killed him. He deserved it.”
As you might have guessed, Morbid Curious were crazy for this story. A Senator kills his wife’s lover in broad daylight, confesses, and shows no remorse for doing so. He simply said “He has dishonored me, and we could not live together on the same planet.”
Meanwhile, the sex-worker who met Queen Victoria went on living, as far as I could tell from my research. May we all have the confidence of such a mediocre white man.
While awaiting trial, Daniel Sickles was placed in a cell at the Washington jail, but he was allowed to receive multiple visitors and homecooked meals. He was even allowed to keep one of his guns. Teresa was grief-stricken, I’m guessing for multiple reasons.
Daniel Sickles, although clearly guilty, wasn’t going to jail for murdering someone without a fight. He got all kinds of fancy-pants lawyers together and was all, “BRO SQUAD… ASSEMBLE!” This squad included Edwin M. Stanton, who was a super well-connected lawyer who later ended up working in the Lincoln administration. At this point, he was already rubbing elbows with the president.
This team of lawyers presented Daniel Sickles as the worst thing he could possibly be: a cuckhold. He was a wronged man who had been temporarily insane. Now, people had pled insanity before, but this was the first time someone being temporarily insane had ever been brought up.
In addition, they reframed the cold-blooded murder as Daniel doing his wife a favor. Her reputation would have been destroyed, because her affair had been documented in detail. You know, because of the written confession that Daniel made her write, as well as his choice to murder her lover, making the affair even more publicized. Side note, her written confession was deemed inadmissible in court, but this douche nozzle leaked it to the press. But Edwin Stanton argued that Daniel Sickles was justified in killing Philip, because, and this is a direct quote leading to a fucking round of applause from the courtroom, “the death of Key was a cheap sacrifice to save one mother from a horrible fate.” That fate being, another quote, “prostitution,” which is obviously the road she would have gone down after one affair with a hot, successful attorney.
At this point, I want to note that adultery was also considered a crime, and it was the man who was the adulterer. Philip tricked Teresa with his mustache and his penis and she was the innocent victim, unable to consent.
Anywho, it worked. Stanton was able to argue that Daniel Sickles was both temporarily unhinged AND justified in the murder, and the judge and jury considered Daniel Sickles’ state of mind during the shooting. The jury deliberated for just over an hour and proclaimed Sickles not guilty – also met with applause from the spectators in the courtroom.
Even crazier – after the sensationalized trial was over – Daniel and Teresa sickles got back together. He wrote a letter to the New York Herald, pleading with the public to leave his wife alone and direct anger at him. And they did, particularly Victorian Moralists, who were all, “seriously, you got acquitted for murder because you stated you championed the sanctity of marriage so much that your wife’s infidelity led you to temporary insanity?”
The couple went from elite to social lepers, with one journalist at the time stating that Daniel Sickles was “left alone as if he had the smallpox” after reuniting with Teresa. Teresa was no longer able to be seen publicly with Daniel and her physical health declined after the trial. She left Washington DC and died of TB on February 5, 1867, at only 31 years old.
Daniel Sickles remarried in 1871 and eventually ended up serving as a general in the Union Army during the Civil War. He lost one of his legs during his service, and eventually died of cerebral hemorrhage on May 3, 1914 at 94-years-old. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.