South Carolina, better known as the Crazy State, has historically enjoyed a reputation as the New Jersey of the South. It was the first state to secede from the United States of America, fired the first shots of the American Civil War and prompted one South Carolina congressman to describe the state as "too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum."
He added, "Also, Myrtle Beach is about as exciting as a used condom on the sidewalk."
With that said, it was apparently at one time dangerous business to insult the state from the floor of the Senate. In 1856, Sen. Charles Sumner (R-Mass.) delivered his legendary "Crime Against Kansas" speech in protest of the Kansas-Nebraska Act. One of the authors of that act was none other than Sen. Andrew Butler of South Carolina, whom Sumner had recently -- and hilariously -- made fun of on account of his stroke. Therefore the Senate was packed with spectators when Sumner delivered his scathing rebuke, saying Butler:
"... has chosen a mistress who, though ugly to others, is always lovely to him; though polluted in the sight of the world, is chaste in his sight -- I mean, the harlot, Slavery."
Butler looks like the kind of dude who would shack up with the physical embodiment of human bondage.
Naturally, since just about everyone in South Carolina had Sen. Butler as their uncle, Sumner pissed off more than a few of Butler's nephews in the state's congressional delegation. Among them was congressman Preston Brooks, who approached fellow South Carolinian Rep. Laurence M. Keitt about dueling etiquette in their state. Instead, the gentlemen opted for the tried-and-true beat-the-shit-out-of-an-unarmed-man approach that the Southern economy ran on.
On May 22, Rep. Brooks, Rep. Keitt and a third Southerner who we imagine was Butler's nephew as well, confronted Sen. Sumner as he sat alone at his desk in the Senate. Brooks called Sumner's speech "a libel on South Carolina" and, of course, an insult to his uncle, and proceeded to beat the shit out of the man with a gold-tipped cane while Rep. Keitt nobly used a pistol to keep people from helping him.
The beating ended only after Brooks' cane broke in half, which we think may be on account of Sumner actually being a Terminator.
This actually happened.
Sumner had to spend three years in Pescadero State Hospital to recover from the attack, during which his Southern colleagues mocked him for not being able to take a piece of wood to the face like a man. As for Brooks, his asshole friends rewarded him with the finest canes a slave-owning economy can afford as a sign of support. Seriously, people mailed him canes in the multitudes as a "sign of admiration."
The Massachusetts General Court re-elected Sumner in November 1856, while he was still in traction, just so he could return to the Senate in 1859. Although still suffering from what we now know to be PTSD on account of his caning, he nevertheless felt strong enough to make his first act back in office a speech called "The Barbarism of Slavery," which we imagine he delivered while giving the South Carolina delegation in both chambers of Congress both fingers.
How any cane could break through that helmet of hair is a mystery.
In 1858, Philip Barton Key -- the son of the Star-Spangled Banner guy -- began a not-so-secret affair with the saucy Italian wife of congressman Daniel E. Sickles (D-N.Y.). Sickles received an anonymous tip on Feb. 26, 1859, that his wife was fooling around. After Teresa 'fessed up to the affair, Sickles spotted Key on a bench outside his home in Lafayette Square the next freaking day.
After Key made a gesture to the congressman's wife that in some way conveyed his intentions to have sex with her again -- we're guessing the old in-out with his fingers -- Rep. Sickles drew a pistol. In plain view of the city, in broad daylight and in front of the White House, he unloaded on Francis Scott Key's son until the man was no longer alive.
Note the fence behind them. It will be important later.
Sickles was charged with the public murder of the son of a national hero over a saucy belladonna, which resulted in nothing short of one the most star-studded, entertaining and influential trials in American history. In the end, Sickles managed to pull one of the greatest Hail Marys in legal history by becoming the first person in the United States to plead temporary insanity, and holy shit ... it worked!
Although he murdered the son of a cultural icon, Sickles was eventually heralded as a hero for "saving all the ladies of Washington from this rogue named Key." He eventually forgave his wife, enlisted in the Union Army in the Civil War and famously lost his leg during a maneuver as brilliant as it was crazy at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Beating 350 enemies to death with his own leg was just the beginning.
So where does Congress come in?
Well, after the war, a redeemed Daniel E. Sickles returned to politics and was re-elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Now back in the chamber he'd had to leave after that whole "murder" thing, Sickles petitioned that he be awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism at Gettysburg -- which he got -- and he played a key role in preserving the Gettysburg battlefield as a national military park.
Then, in one of the most brazen and/or ballsiest moves ever attempted on Capitol Hill, Sickles passed a joint resolution on Oct. 12, 1888, donating to Gettysburg the very same fence from Lafayette Park, the one just feet from where he smoked his wife's lover cold. Was it a final "screw you" to Key, in some vain hope that screw yous could be received in the afterlife? We'll never know. But the Sickles Fence can still be found there today.
Dude could have at least rinsed the blood off first.
The closest an airing of C-SPAN could ever come to looking like something we would pay good money to see on pay-per-view would be if it reenacted what occurred in the U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 5, 1858, at 1:30 a.m. During an all-nighter in which several congressmen were "quite visibly drunk," a Rep. Galusha A. Grow of Pennsylvania aimlessly wandered over to the Democratic side of the chamber, perhaps in search of a part of the room that wasn't spinning so much.
There is a reason why Rep. Grow is not shown from the waist down in this picture.
It was around this time that Rep. Grow crossed paths with the same Rep. Laurence Keitt who so embarrassed the nation during the Charles Sumner beating. Keitt woke up to Grow asking him if he could drive him to Sheetz, but instead Keitt got pissed and accused Grow of behaving like a "black Republican puppy." The gentleman from Pennsylvania replied: "No negro-driver shall crack his whip over me," at which point Keitt made a jump for Grow's throat.
A rumble between the abolitionist North and the slave-loving South broke out in a who's who of 50 or more 19th-century U.S. congressmen: Rep. Keitt was floored with one punch, congressman John F. "Bowie Knife" Potter (R-Wis.) leaped into the fray "striking right and left with vigor," brothers Elihu B. Washburne (R-Ill.) and Cadwallader Washburne (R-Wis.) tag-teamed all Southern comers, and congressman John Covode (R-Pa.) seized a nearby spittoon and threatened to "brain" someone with it.
Don't let the bow tie fool you. He's reaching for the spittoon in his shoulder holster.
The speaker was virtually helpless to control the brawl, but perhaps realizing that there was more than one use for his gavel, he dispatched the sergeant-at-arms to the scene wielding the House mace.
The battle ended only when one of the Washburne brothers seized Rep. William Barksdale (D-Miss.) by the hair and failed to fell him with "a roundhouse right." At this moment, the entire country learned the hard way that the gentleman from Mississippi had been wearing a wig for years. The brawl ended like a Saturday morning cartoon with everybody laughing, completely oblivious to the goddamn Civil War that they would soon be shooting each other over.
Want to learn how to fight like a congressman? Then check out The 10-Year-Old's Guide to Fighting and 5 Insane Fighting Manuals (You Probably Shouldn't Listen To).
And stop by Linkstorm to see George Washington boxing Abe Lincoln.
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