Since Halloween is approaching (as well as an election which both parties wish to tell you is the most important and will do their best to frighten you about the other party), I thought I would cover a scary subject: murder. Among the people who have served as our elected officials have been, believe it or not, a few actual murderers! These guys personally committed some form of murder or another after or during their political careers.
Edward Hannegan – Alcohol Kills!
Edward “Ned” Hannegan was a prominent figure in Indiana politics in the 19th century, serving two terms in Congress and one term in the Senate. He was also appointed Minister to Prussia by President Polk, where he and the Queen Consort to Frederick William IV of Prussia developed an attraction, and he was recalled after kissing her hand, a breach of protocol. Hannegan was throughout his adult life an alcoholic, and this was the cause of many ills for him, including his most infamous one. One night in 1852 he was drunk and in an argument with his brother-in-law, Captain John R. Duncan, about his drinking. In a rage, Hannegan stabbed him in the neck with a cane dagger. Duncan died the next day, but not before declaring that Hannegan should not be blamed. Although he was arrested for manslaughter, the case against him was botched by the prosecutor, his personal friend Lew Wallace, and the jury let him off.
Hannegan’s problems only grew worse and by the late 1850s: his wife had died and he had developed a morphine addiction. On February 24, 1859, Hannegan delivered a disastrous speech promoting the presidential candidacy of Senator Stephen A. Douglas. He was both drunk and under the influence of morphine and the crowd booed him. That night, Hannegan overdosed (probably deliberately) on morphine and was found dead the next morning in his hotel room. Hannegan’s grandson, also known as Ned Hannegan, was himself killed in a case in which the perpetrator was tried and acquitted.
Philemon T. Herbert – Just the Worst Customer
Philemon T. Herbert’s political career was short-lived but was marked with infamy. In 1854, he was elected to Congress from California and he had already had a violent incident surrounding his temper: in 1844 he had been expelled from the University of Alabama for stabbing another student in a rage. On May 8, 1856, Herbert arrived at 11:00 for breakfast at Willard’s Hotel in Washington D.C. At first the wait staff told him he was too late for breakfast, but after he protested they served him anyway. Reports of his conduct varied after, with some witnesses to the incident stating that he was drunk and being abusive to wait staff when unsatisfied with service, calling Irish waiter Thomas Keating a “damned Irish son of a bitch” while others stated that he was acting in self-defense (Langeveld). The result was that an argument with waiter Thomas Keating over service turned into a brawl with fists and throwing of dishes and other objects, which wait staff tried to stop by attempting to disarm Herbert, but Herbert ultimately shot Keating dead. After Northern newspapers found out he was from a slave owning family, columnists regarded the treatment and ultimately murder of Keating as an extension of his and his family’s treatment of slaves. Herbert was controversially acquitted, but his political career was over in California due to the incident. Although he had been a politician in California, his sympathies were with the region of his upbringing, the South, and he fought for the Confederacy during the War of the Rebellion. Herbert was wounded at the Battle of Mansfield on April 8, 1864, and succumbed to his wounds over three months later.
Daniel E. Sickles – Turnabout Is NOT FAIR PLAY!
Daniel Sickles lived a controversial life, both politically and personally. In 1852, he married Teresa Bagioli, a woman of 15 or 16 years of age, while he was 32. She was reportedly precocious, but neither family was pleased about the arrangement given the age difference. Sickles prospered in law and he briefly served in the New York State Senate and was censured in the Assembly for escorting a known prostitute into the chamber. In 1856, Sickles was elected to Congress with the help of the Tammany Hall machine, with which he was closely affiliated. Despite his wife’s personal qualities and beauty, he was a womanizer and even introduced his favorite madam to Queen Victoria using the surname of a political opponent. Teresa ultimately decided to get some action on the side of her own. She developed a relationship with D.C. District Attorney Philip Barton Key II, the son of Francis Scott Key. Sickles eventually found out and…he didn’t take it well. After having his wife write a confession of her infidelity, he confronted Key on the streets of Washington D.C. and gunned him down in broad daylight in front of numerous witnesses.
His counsel was none other than Edwin Stanton, who would be Secretary of War during the Lincoln Administration. Stanton devised a way to get Sickles off the murder charge: argue that he was “temporarily insane”. This defense worked for the first time in American history with this case. Ironically, it was his decision to forgive Teresa and take her back that turned the American public of the day against him.
Despite having gunned a man down, he and Teresa were personal friends of the Lincolns…Lincoln had a certain strange liking for rogues. Sickles, a Democrat, was commissioned as one of Lincoln’s political generals for the War of the Rebellion, partly to “reach across the aisle” so to speak. What can be said of him was that he wasn’t the worst of the political picks Lincoln made, and this is rather stunning when we consider that he caused a disaster by disobeying orders from his superior, Major General George Meade, the result being that his forces were overrun by the Confederates and Sickles lost his right leg to a cannonball. Despite this, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery later in life and he donated his amputated leg to the Army Medical Museum in Washington D.C. To this day it is an exhibit at the Walter Reed Army Medical Museum. He subsequently served as U.S. Minister to Spain, in which capacity he reportedly romanced deposed Queen Isabella II.
In 1892, Sickles was once again elected to Congress. During his short comeback he sided with the Bourbon wing of the party, which was favorable to limited government and the gold standard. He also managed to get the fence that was present when he murdered Key donated to the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association, and allegedly said he did so to “show the world how I got away with murder” (Gettysburg Daily). Sickles would never get his comeuppance for his sins, dying in 1914 at the age of 94.
David G. Colson – A Feud Turns Lethal
David G. Colson was a Kentucky Republican who served from 1895 to 1899. He might not have been notable at all in history, but for an incident that occurred after his time in Congress. In 1899, Lieutenant Ethelbert Dudley Scott shot him in the arm in retaliation for Colson bringing court-martial charges against him while the two men were serving in the Spanish-American War. The two encountered each other again in 1900 in a hotel lobby in Frankfort, Kentucky, where they got into a gun fight with Colson the victor. Along with Scott, two bystanders were killed. Colson was indicted but acquitted at trial. He didn’t live that long after his acquittal, dying of natural causes only four years later, age 43.
George K. Favrot – Words Hurt…The Speaker
On Election Night in 1906, Congressman-elect George K. Favrot of Louisiana was celebrating his election to Congress when a distressing story came his way: a lifelong friend of his, Dr. Joseph Aldrich, had insulted the character of his wife at the campaign celebration. This had such an emotional impact on Favrot that he proceeded to shoot him in the lobby of his offices. He turned himself in and ultimately his defense counsel argued to the jury that Favrot was satisfying an “unwritten law” when he murdered (counsel didn’t use that term) Dr. Aldrich. The jury let him off with no charges. Despite being a free man, Favrot didn’t run for reelection and his career was over…or so you might think. In 1920, he made a comeback and was once again elected to Congress, serving two terms. After leaving Congress, he was elected a judge in 1926, and served in this capacity until his death in 1934.
Gettysburg Cemetery Witness Tree, Sickles’ Fence Witness Update. (2009, May 11). Gettysburg Daily.
Langeveld, D. (2009, October 19). Philemon T. Herbert: breakfast brawl. The Downfall Dictionary.