Skip to main content

A Husband’s Revenge

July 2024
27min read

Verdicts of History: II -- Is it all right to shoot your wife’s lover? Do you have to catch him flagrante delicto? What if your victim is district attorney? And if you are a member of Congress? Now come with us to Washington, D.C., in 1859.
Is it all right to shoot your wife’s lover? Do you have to catch him flagrante delicto? What if your victim is district attorney? And if you are a member of Congress? Now come with us to Washington, D.C., in 1859.

“District of Columbia, County of Washington, to wit: The jurors of the United States for the county aforesaid upon their oaths present, that Daniel E. Sickles late of the county of Washington aforesaid, gentleman, not having the fear of God before his eyes but being moved and seduced by the instigation of the devil, on the 27th day of February in the year of our Lord 1859, with force and arms at the county aforesaid, in and upon the body of one Philip Barton Key, in the peace of God and of the said United States then and there being, feloniously and wilfully and of his malicious aforethought, did make an assault; and that the said Daniel E. Sickles, a certain pistol of the value of two dollars, then and there charged with gunpowder and one leaden bullet, which said pistol he, the said Daniel E. Sickles, in his right hand, then and there had and held, then and there feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, did discharge and shoot off, to, against and upon the said Philip Barton Key … and wound him, the said Philip Barton Key, in and upon the left side of him… a little below the tenth rib of him, the said Philip Barton Key, giving to him, the said Philip Barton Key, then and there, with the leaden bullet aforesaid… a little below the tenth rib of him, one mortal wound of the depth of ten inches and of the breadth of half an inch; of which said mortal wound, he, the said Philip Barton Key, then and there instantly died.”


On Monday morning, April 4, 1859, this sonorous legal jargon was read before the packed benches of a dingy courtroom in Washington’s City Hall. Outside, police battled a mob of frustrated citizens who were burning to join the lucky few as spectators at the legal circus of the decade. The victim, forty-two-year-old Philip Barton Key, was none other than the district attorney of Washington, D. C., and the son of the man who had written “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Philip Key was a handsome, mustachioed widower who stood at the very top of the capital city’s social register. The assailant was the Honorable Daniel E. Sickles, second-term congressman from New York City, Tammany Hall figure, confidant of President James Buchanan. But the motive—Sickles’ reason for shooting Key down in Lafayette Square, just a block away from the White House—was at least as sensational as the crime. “You villain, you have defiled my bed and you must die!” That, according to an eyewitness, was what the stocky congressman had roared as he blasted the tall, unarmed aristocrat with bullets from a derringer. Adultery! In an era when sex was rarely mentioned in public, official Washington—and the nation—reeled.

A few minutes after Key had breathed his last on the floor of the nearby Cosmos Club, Sickles had surrendered to his friend, silver-haired United States Attorney General Jeremiah Sullivan Black. After a brief stop at his own home, where he picked up some personal belongings, Sickles and a crew of prominent friends, including the mayor of Washington, James Berret, rode to the city jail. There he stoutly declined bail, declaring that his only wish was a swift trial. If the Congressman suspected his incarceration would not hurt his cause, he was right. His transfer to the warden’s quarters after four days of fighting bedbugs in the jail was ignored by the public, who seized upon Sickles as a heroic defender of family honor. (The prisoner did himself no harm by asking for, and getting, a visit with his five-year-old daughter, Laura, and later calling for the company of his pet greyhound, Dandy.) Few if any stopped to consider the weight of official power and wealth on Sickles’ side. His strong friendship with the President dated from his service as secretary of legation during Buchanan’s ambassadorship to the Court of St. James’s. In addition, Sickles had in his three years in Washington won a significant niche in the upper reaches of capital society. His ample house, known as the Stockton mansion, shared Lafayette Park with the handsome residences of the Adamses, the Taylors, the Blairs, the Slidells. This elite, plus scores of other Cabinet and congressional notables, had flocked to Sickles’ Thursday night “at-homes,” where the food and drink, served by the incomparable Gautier, king of the capital’s caterers, were invariably first class. Presiding over these occasions, bedecked in magnificent jewelry and wearing the latest gowns, was Sickles’ young, darkly beautiful wife, Teresa. It was frequently claimed that the thirty-nine-year-old Sickles, an aristocrat in his own right with the blood of Knickerbockers and Van Sicklens in his veins and a millionaire father in New York, had his eyes on the Presidency. This dream had vanished, of course, in the roar of his pistol on that fatal Sunday afternoon. But not a little of the influence he had hanked in three industrious years was still highly negotiable.

Nothing underscored this more than the powerful battery of legal counsel Sickles now arrayed around him. Heading his staff were two crack New York attorneys, portly James Topham Brady, famed for his rapier wit and deft examination of witnesses, and tall, majestic John Graham, considered to have no peer when it came to swaying a jury with persuasive eloquence. Both were close personal friends of the Congressman. Also a devoted friend was the third man on the team, Edwin McMasters Stanton. Lincoln’s future Secretary of War was famed for his ferocious courtroom demeanor. Witnesses quailed before his violent eyes, which peered from a massive head crowned by black curly hair and adorned with a thick crop of whiskers; Stanton resembled an Old Testament prophet in full cry. Finally, to give his team a local veneer, Sickles added four Washington attorneys: suave Philip Phillips, former congressman from Alabama, and Messrs. Chilton, Magruder, and Ratcliffe. Against this talented team the District sent only one man, plodding, bull-necked Robert Ould, who had been Key’s assistant district attorney. Friends of Key were so mortified by the obvious imbalance that they begged the President to appoint a special counsel to bolster the methodical Ould. (The district attorneys for the District of Columbia were, like the judges, presidential appointees.) Buchanan declined to lower the odds in favor of his good friend Dan, and only at the last moment did Key adherents provide a fund to retain J. M. Carlisle, considered the flower of the District bar.

Still Sickles, sternly sequestered from his attorneys in the large, cratelike prisoner’s dock, remained the underdog in the public eye. Prospective jurymen were excused by the dozen because they admitted their sympathies lay with the indicted congressman. The jurors finally selected were all sturdy middle-class types—grocers, farmers, a tinner, a shoemaker, a cabinetmaker. But Sickles and his attorneys undoubtedly cast a nervous eye on the foreman, Reason Arnold. He was a staunch member of the Know-Nothing party, which was noted for its antagonism to Tammany’s habit of sheltering foreigners and Catholics in its political wigwam. True, honest tradesmen could usually be depended upon to sympathize with any man who defended the chastity of his marriage bed—but Dan Sickles was not just any man. He was decidedly unique, and this was one among several reasons why his attorneys decided that under no circumstances would they permit him to take the witness stand.

Outside the courtroom, meanwhile, some of the very large problems involved in Sickles’ defense began to show in the newspapers. The New York Evening Post declared the Congressman “a person of notorious profligacy of life … a certain disgrace has for years past attended the reputation of being one of his companions … the man who in his own practice regards adultery as a joke and the matrimonial bond as no barrier against the utmost caprice of licentiousness—has little right to complain when the mischief which he carries without scruple into other families enters his own.”

Also in New York, George Templeton Strong confided to his not-yet-famous diary, “Were he [Sickles] not an unmitigated blackguard and profligate, one could pardon any act of violence committed on such provocation. But Sickles is not the man to take the law into his own hands and constitute himself the avenger of sin.”

Others recalled how Sickles in his bachelor days had squired a luscious courtesan named Fanny White around town; she even accompanied him to Albany when he was elected to the state assembly. Less certain was the rumor that after his marriage, when he left his pregnant wife in New York to go to London with Buchanan, Sickles took Fanny White along and insolently introduced her to Queen Victoria. From his earliest days in Tammany, Sickles had had a reputation as a brawler, ready to attack or defend with fists, pistols, or bowie knife. This, and a consistent disdain for paying his debts, had him frequently in court. The more people remembered, the more unlikely became Dan Sickles’ posture as a defender of marital fidelity.

The first and most crucial move was in the hands of the prosecution. Would solemn District Attorney Ould attack in his opening statement only Sickles’ crime—the fact of homicide which the defense could hardly deny—or would he include the character of the defendant? Undoubtedly Messrs. Brady, Graham, and Stanton breathed a subtle sigh of collective relief when Ould proceeded to concentrate his fire on the deed. In vivid terms Ould underscored the armed power of the assailant and the helplessness of the unarmed victim, also noting that Sickles chose Sunday to accomplish his “deed of blood.” The prosecuting attorney called the Congressman “a walking magazine, a temporary armory, a moving battery … like a piece of flying artillery on a field of battle.” He pictured Key as in poor health, and armed with nothing but an opera glass which he vainly flung at Sickles when the assault began. This, Ould solemnly declared, was “murder, no matter what may be the antecedent provocation in the case.” The prosecution now proceeded to summon a parade of witnesses who titillated the courtroom with hair-raising recollections of the murder scene. James H. Reed, a wood and coal dealer, told how Key took cover behind a tree after the first shot (which apparently missed), then crumpled to the ground after the next shot and was hit a second time while lying on the pavement begging, “Don’t shoot.” Except for the flung opera glass, there was no evidence of any resistance by the terrified victim.

But Washington and the press were more astonished by the District Attorney’s failure to call another witness—Samuel F. Butterworth. A Tammany sachem, Butterworth had happened to be in Washington on political business when Sickles discovered the truth about his wife and Key. Butterworth had called on Sickles in response to a note asking his advice on what course the injured husband should take. As they talked, Key appeared in Lafayette Square and began making signals toward the Sickles house with his handkerchief. It was Butterworth who rushed out of the house alone and detained Key long enough for Sickles to go upstairs, find and load both his derringer and a revolver, and rush out to kill him. Butterworth would have been a hostile witness, and Ould knew that if he called him to the stand he would be legally barred from cross-examining him; but a first-class attorney would have taken the risk because the mere fact of Butterworth’s actions cast an aura of calculation over the crime—the very point for which Ould was contending. Instead, Ould let the defense seize the initiative and ask the court to require the prosecution to put Butterworth on the stand, as well as an even closer friend of Sickles’, George Wooldridge, who was in the Congressman’s house when the murder was committed.

A lively argument ensued. Carlisle, Ould’s associate, maintained that the defense was making this demand to win “the pleasant cross-examination of the counsel for the prisoner, and protect [Butterworth and Wooldridge] from what might be the unpleasant cross-examination of the counsel for the prosecution.” Seventy-three-year-old Judge Thomas H. Crawford, described by one lawyer as “a sharp-featured old gentleman with a bald head somewhat shaped like that of a chicken,” ruled it was not necessary for “the United States” to bring Butterworth and Wooldridge to the stand, since more than enough witnesses had already been produced to describe the bloody deed. But Sickles’ lawyers had made their point. By getting the prosecution to back away from Butterworth they had in effect cancelled him out as a threat to their client. They then comfortably ignored him for the rest of the trial, and only later did the prosecutors and the public learn that Mr. Butterworth had left town before the proceedings began.

The defence also showed their coolness under fire when the prosecution placed in evidence the derringer pistol and ball that had killed Key. James T. Brady blithely noted that while the bullet had been positively identified as the one that killed Key, no one on the prosecution side had identified the gun. In a burst of verbal gymnastics Brady implied that the murder weapon might belong to Key, an assertion that brought outraged gasps from the prosecution.

Ould’s performance had been feeble, but he nevertheless rested his case, and the defense opened with a thunderous oration by John Graham. In rolling, ponderous periods, Graham seized on Ould’s sarcasm about Sickles’ profanation of the Sabbath and converted it into a bludgeon of defense. Who had profaned the Sabbath, the injured husband or “a confirmed, habitual adulterer … besieging with most evil intentions that castle where for their security and repose the law had placed the wife and child of his neighbor”? Sickles, Graham contended, was acting in self-defense when he killed Key. No matter that under the law of the District of Columbia a wronged husband could sue an adulterer for damages. The law, he said, was almost ludicrously inconsistent on this point. “If an individual comes into your house and lies upon your bed against your will, he commits a trespass and you can repel him by force. If an individual comes into your house and lies with your wife and robs her and you of that which cannot be restored and for which no recompense can be made, can you not repel this invasion by force? Can your wives be used with impunity when your furniture can not?” There was only one possible answer to this contradiction, thundered Graham. “If society has not protected you in the possession of your wives, it is proof conclusive that society meant that your right to their possession should remain as at nature and that the right to protect the purity of your wives is a natural right which you can assert, even to the extent of killing whoever seeks to deprive you of it, as much as you can kill for the purpose of protecting your own lives.” It is, he declared, a right “given by the law of God.”

Quoting Shakespeare, the Bible, and judicial examples ranging all the way back to the Roman Empire, Graham elaborated this defense of the “higher,” or “unwritten,” law. He combined a shrewd use of the Bible and his own wits to plug up the most obvious hole in Sickles’ case—his failure to kill Key for two full days after an anonymous letter had informed him that the District Attorney had made him a cuckold. Pointing out that Absalom waited two full years to kill the violator of his sister, Graham proceeded to argue that if the law permits a husband to kill an adulterer caught in the act, it is equally permissive if the seducer is caught “so near the act as to leave no doubt as to his guilt.” Was this not precisely what had happened between Sickles and Key? The Congressman did not invite the debonair district attorney to stroll past his house on that fatal Sunday afternoon and wave his adulterous handkerchief at Mrs. Sickles’ window. “Is it possible that under these circumstances,” Graham asked the jury, “Mr. Sickles could have acted in cold blood?” Indeed, he went on, Sickles’ provocation was so enormous that he was, from a legal point of view, insane. Graham proceeded to dwell on Key’s professed or avowed friendship with Sickles; he pointed out that Key had retained his job as district attorney largely because Sickles had interceded with President Buchanan for him. With heavy sarcasm he emphasized the hypocrisy of Key’s private conduct when contrasted to his public station. Finally, Graham stressed two cases: in 1843 a New Jersey jury acquitted one Singleton Mercer, charged with killing the man who had raped his sister; more recently in a Washington criminal court trial presided over by the same Judge Crawford and prosecuted, ironically, by the late Philip Barton Key, the jury had acquitted one Jarboe for exacting the same revenge for a similar reason.

Graham talked for almost two full days, a feat even in an era of massive eloquence. His performance drastically altered the trial’s center of gravity. Thereafter the defense was in possession of the initiative, while Ould and Carlisle found themselves playing the unpleasant role of obstructionists.

This became sensationally apparent when Brady attempted to place in evidence the trial’s pièce de résistance—the confession that Congressman Sickles had extracted from his tearful, hysterical wife the night before he killed Key, after detective work by his friend George Wooldridge had convinced him that she was guilty. Bridget Duffy, Mrs. Sickles’ maid, identified the paper, written in her mistress’ hand, and told how the confession was produced after an angry scene punctuated by shouts and cries in Mrs. Sickles’ bedroom. At the Congressman’s request, Bridget had signed it as a witness, and a young woman friend of Mrs. Sickles’, Octavia Ridgeley, had done likewise.

“This paper,” Brady declared, “we propose to read in evidence. It is Mrs. Sickles’ statement to her husband:

“ ‘I have been in a house in 15th Street with Mr. Key. How many times I don’t know. I believe the house belongs to a colored man. The house is unoccupied. Commenced going there the latter part of January. Have been in alone with Mr. Key. Usually stayed an hour or more. There was a bed in the second story. I did what is usual for a wicked woman to do. The intimacy commenced this winter when I came from New York, in that house—an intimacy of an improper kind. Have met half a dozen times or more at different hours of the day. On Monday of this week. And Wednesday also. Would arrange meetings when we met in the street and at parties. Never would speak to him when Mr. Sickles was at home, because I knew he did not like me to speak to him; did not see Mr. Key for some days after I got here. He then told me he had hired the house as a place where he and I could meet. I agreed to it. Had nothing to eat or drink there. The room is warmed by a wood fire. Mr. Key generally goes first. Have walked there together say four times—I do not think more; was there on Wednesday last, between two and three. I went there alone. Laura was at Mrs. Hoover’s. Mr. Key took and left her there at my request. From there I went to 15th Street to meet Mr. Key; from there to the milk woman’s. Immediately after Mr. Key left Laura at Mrs. Hoover’s I met him in 15th Street. Went in by the back gate. Went in the same bedroom, and there an improper interview was had. I undressed myself. Mr. Key undressed also. This occurred on Wednesday, 23rd of February, 1859.

“ ‘Mr. Key has kissed me in this house [ i.e. , the Sickles house on Lafayette Square] a number of times. I do not deny that we have had a connection in this house last spring, a year ago, in the parlor on the sofa. Mr. Sickles was sometimes out of town and sometimes in the Capitol. I think the intimacy commenced in April or May, 1858. I did not think it safe to meet him in this house, because there are servants who might suspect something. As a general thing, have worn a black and white woollen plaid dress and beaver hat trimmed with black velvet. Have worn a black silk dress there also, also a plaid silk dress, black velvet cloak trimmed with lace, and black velvet shawl trimmed with fringe. On Wednesday I either had on my brown dress or black and white woollen dress, beaver hat and velvet shawl. I arranged with Mr. Key to go in the back way after leaving Laura at Mrs. Hoover’s. He met me at Mr. Douglas’s. The arrangement to go in the back way was either made in the street or at Mr. Douglas’s as we would be less likely to be seen. The house is in 15th Street between K and L Streets on the left-hand side of the way; arranged the interview for Wednesday in the street, I think, on Monday. I went in the front door, it was open, occupied the same room, undressed myself and he also; went to bed together. Mr. Key has ridden in Mr. Sickles’ carriage and has called at his house without Mr. Sickles’ knowledge and after my being told not to invite him to do so, and against Mr. Sickles’ repeated request. “ ‘Teresa Bagioli

“ ‘This is a true statement written by myself without any inducement held out by Mr. Sickles of forgiveness or reward, and without any menace from him. This I have written with my bedroom door open and my maid and child in adjoining room, at half past eight o’clock in the evening. Miss Ridgeley is in the house, within call. “ ‘Teresa Bagioli’ ”

District Attorney Ould excitedly declared that this document could not possibly be included as evidence. It was a communication between husband and wife—parties who were excluded by law from testifying for or against each other. Brady replied with equal vigor that the statement was indeed admissible because it accounted for Sickles’ state of mind at the time of the homicide. Back and forth wrangled Brady and Ould, each citing cases to support his contention, until the court adjourned for the day.

If Judge Crawford had his doubts about the relevance of Teresa Bagioli Sickles’ confession, the Congressman and his attorneys did not. They proceeded to release it to the press, where it promptly made front pages around the world. Family, friends, and acquaintances of the lovely Teresa must have shuddered with disbelief, not only at the content of the confession but at the husband who could use it so ruthlessly. Sickles had been an intimate friend of Teresa’s father, a noted New York opera impresario, and of her grandfather as well. He had known her from infancy, and had persuaded her, over considerable protests from her family, to abandon her convent education and marry him when she was only sixteen.

J. M. Carlisle opened the proceedings on the next day of the trial with a long, passionate speech against admitting the confession. Did the paper tend to show that the act committed the day after it was written was either justifiable homicide or manslaughter? he cried. It did not, unless His Honor held to the doctrine laid down by the other side—that no amount of time was sufficient to cool down the mind of a man under such provocation, and render him observant of the law of God and man. Was it evidence to show the prisoner’s insanity? He would like to see what expert would declare “that such a declaration as this would tend to produce insanity in all or in a majority of cases. It would depend upon the moral and intellectual condition of the person.”

Now Carlisle revealed for the first time his real role in the trial. If Ould, who held his job at the pleasure of the President, was afraid to strike at Buchanan’s friend, Carlisle had no such inhibitions. There were, he said, two classes of men who could resist the insanity such a confession might cause. One was the convinced Christian, who would on his knees “pour out his supplication to Him who alone can bind up the broken heart.” Then there was the second, “safe, quite safe from insanity, from such a blow as that—the confirmed adulterer, the open, shameless profligate—the man nurtured in brothels, the man breathing all his life the atmosphere of adultery and seduction … Now, to offer evidence of the fact of the adultery with the prisoner’s wife as the ground to impute to him insanity, necessarily opens inquiry of the sort I have indicated.…”

This threat to explore the less than sanctified bypaths of Sickles’ love life might have made some attorneys blanch. But it only seemed to make Sickles’ triumvirate, especially Edwin Stanton, press on with even fiercer determination to get every last ugly fact of Key’s adultery into the record. Perhaps they were influenced by Carlisle’s inability to reach the jury’s emotions, for all his rhetoric. “Nervous of manner yet cold of heart,” as one eyewitness described him, Carlisle was a little too smooth for the role he had assigned himself.

Judge Crawford, after a recess, ruled Teresa’s confession inadmissible because it would destroy before the law the “confidential identity” of the husband and wife. Unruffled by this ruling—a technicality that did nothing to erase the impact of the confession on the emotions of the jury—the defense summoned various witnesses. Bridget Duffy proceeded to describe Sickles’ agitation on Sunday morning: how she saw him “come into the room crying aloud, his hands tearing his hair and in a state of distraction.” More important was her description of Key’s appearance in Lafayette Park, waving his handkerchief in a slow rotary motion. She told how the Sickles greyhound, Dandy, rushed out and fawned on Key, who ignored him. Sickles’ good friend, George B. Wooldridge, confirmed these details. But when Brady attempted to lead Wooldridge into a discussion of what he had discovered about Key and Mrs. Sickles in his detective work the day before the killing, the prosecution once more objected.

This was too much for Stanton, who seized the center of the stage with a scathing attack on the prosecution’s tactics thus far. He condemned Ould and Carlisle for their “thirst for blood” and begged the judge not to exclude evidence “in order that vengeance might obtain the blood of this prisoner.” At this Ould leaped to his feet crying that it was sheer malice on Stanton’s part to accuse a public prosecutor of being actuated by a thirst for blood. He vowed he would let his conduct in the case stand before the court and the world “in contrast with the disreputable rant” that Stanton had exhibited. Obviously, he declared, Stanton had been assigned the role of “the bully and the bruiser.” Ignoring a mutter of protest that rose from the audience, Ould insisted he would stand by his oath and continue to call Sickles’ deed murder, no matter what the defense called it.

Stanton met the District Attorney head on. He insisted that under the law Ould was defending, his client would be led to the gallows “by those who are malignantly seeking for his blood.” He added that he did not have the honor of Ould’s acquaintance “and after his language just uttered, [did] not desire it.” This produced an uproar of approval in the courtroom, with much shouting and stamping of feet. It required considerable effort by the district marshal and his assisting officers to restore order.

These pyrotechnics may have impressed the jury, but they got Stanton nowhere with Judge Crawford, who ruled that Wooldridge’s communication to Sickles about Teresa’s adultery was also inadmissible as evidence. This made little practical difference to the defense counsels, who had plenty of other ways to exploit the juicier aspects of the case. Witnesses testified to seeing Key waving his handkerchief in Lafayette Park for the better part of two hours—suggesting that he was one of the most indiscreet adulterers in history. Other witnesses recounted efforts made by Key’s relatives and friends to padlock the house on 15th Street and remove any damaging evidence. Next came Nancy Brown, wife of President Buchanan’s Negro gardener, who said that she lived on 15th Street and knew Key well by sight: “I saw him on the Wednesday before he was shot.”

“Where did you see him?”

“I saw him going into a house on 15th Street…”

Carlisle leaped to his feet in a vain attempt to suppress the answer. Desperately he cried out that once more “they were sliding along in the direction of giving evidence of adultery.” For once and for all he demanded that Judge Crawford rule on whether any evidence of this past adultery could be rightfully admitted. He declared that Judge Crawford was being given a chance to establish a “new era in the administration of justice in cases of homicide.” In a long résumé of the defense’s intentions as gleaned from the evidence presented thus far, Carlisle decried the tactic of painting the murdered Key and Sickles’ wife in the blackest possible hues in order to justify the Congressman’s crime. The whole concept of civilized law was at stake here, Carlisle insisted. Adultery was a crime under the laws of the District. Sickles had a legal recourse, as Judge Crawford would be the first to admit, since he himself had tried several cases of adultery in this very court.

Carlisle spoke for almost an hour. Brady then coolly rose and exploded his plea with a single question. “Was the case of adultery to which you refer as being tried here an indictment under the statute?”

“Yes, under the statute of Maryland.”

Now Sickles’ use of local attorneys paid off. Mr. Magruder made the point that under the statute of Maryland the punishment for that crime was a fine of a hundred pounds of tobacco.

“Then the only satisfaction an injured husband could have,” snorted Brady, “would be a chew of tobacco.” The courtroom exploded with laughter.

Despite the fact that more court time already had been devoted to Key’s act of adultery than to Sickles’ act of homicide, Judge Crawford had not yet explicitly conceded that evidence of the adultery had any legal bearing on the trial. For days this point was wrangled over by the lawyers on both sides, while the Judge, obviously harassed and puzzled, pondered the question. Then, on the thirteenth day of the trial—Monday, April 18—he announced his decision. Sickles’ cry about his defiled bed, at the moment of the shooting, intoned His Honor, was reason enough to admit the evidence of adultery as an “explanation.” There was, declared Felix G. Fontaine, who published a transcript of the trial, “a perceptible though silent expression of satisfaction” in the audience when Judge Crawford pronounced this decision.

Jubilation undoubtedly reigned at the defense table. Witness after witness now paraded to the stand, giving vivid details of Key and Teresa Sickles scuttling down 15th Street to their love nest in the Negro slum known as Dark Town, or trysting in the Sickles study when the Congressman was away. Nancy Brown told how Key would hang a string from the upstairs shutters of the 15th Street house to signal to his mistress that the coast was clear. Everyone on the entire block, and every servant in Sickles’ house, seemed to know what was going on, but not Dan Sickles.

By now it was hard to tell whether Sickles was on trial for murder or Key for adultery. But there was still one flaw in the case for the defense. Sickles had rushed into the street, loaded with lethal artillery, and shot down an apparently unarmed man. The next witness was designed to remove this last potential element of sympathy for Key. A contractor named Albert A. Megaffey declared he was “tolerably intimate” with Key, and proceeded to recount a series of conversations he had had with the late district attorney about his attentions to Mrs. Sickles. Megaffey had warned Key that he might get into danger or difficulty about the matter. In reply, he said, Key laid his hand on the left breast of his coat and declared, “I am prepared for any emergency.”

A new uproar ensued. Ould and Carlisle, almost wild with exasperation, cried that these conversations, the last of which took place twelve days before the murder, surely had no bearing on the case. They certainly did not tend to prove that Key was armed on the day of his death, or even that Sickles thought he was armed, since Mr. Megaffey never communicated anything about the conversation to the Congressman. The Judge emphatically agreed with the prosecution, and barred Megaffey’s testimony. But the defense had scored another victory with the jury, who now saw at least the possibility that Key had had a gun in his pocket.

Throughout the long trial, Dan Sickles had sat silent in his prisoner’s pen. It must have been a difficult feat for a man who found it almost impossible to ignore a fight. Equally tormenting must have been the sniggering testimony of his own servants recalling how they had referred to Key and Mrs. Sickles as Disgrace and Disgust and opining that more than once the clandestine couple “wasn’t at no good work.” Yet Sickles lost his composure only once, when Robert Walker, former senator from Mississippi and one-time Secretary of the Treasury, told of rushing to the Sickles house after the shooting and finding the Congressman on the edge of insanity. Walker described “unnatural and unearthly sounds. The most remarkable I ever heard —something like a scream interrupted by violent sobbing.”

At this testimony Dan Sickles collapsed, and his sobs were audible throughout the courtroom. Judge Crawford ordered a recess, and the prisoner’s friends, followed by his weeping father, helped him outside, where he regained his self-control. One reason for this breakdown, unknown at the time, may have been a correspondence that Sickles had opened with his wife while he was in jail awaiting trial. In the early days of the trial she had written him:

“You say that any object you have loved remains dear to you. Do I now stand upon a footing with the other women I know you have loved? I have long felt like asking you what your love affairs have been—love of the heart, or love of their superior qualities such as you have often informed me I did not possess, or attraction of face and form, or an infatuation? If during the first years we were married my good conduct did not keep you true to me, can I suppose for a moment the last year has? Ask your own heart who sinned first, and then tell me, if you will.”

J. M. Carlisle, bitter over his defeat on the adultery issue, no doubt would have given much for a copy of that letter. He was now more than ever determined to examine Sickles’ amatory past. But he held his fire, meanwhile chipping away at the defense contention that Sickles was insane. Here once more District Attorney Ould was undone by the aggressive defense. When Ould asked Francis Doyle, who had been present when the dying Key was carried into the Cosmos Club, to give the court a description of Sickles’ demeanor, Stanton protested, making the remarkable declaration that the burden of proof was on the prosecution to show that Sickles “was a person of sound memory and discretion at the time the act was committed.” This produced more than a few splutterings from Judge Crawford, who hastened to declare that every man “is presumed to be sane till the contrary is proved; that is the normal condition of the human race, I hope.”

Now, though his gentlemanly soul no doubt recoiled from it, Carlisle resolved to use his last weapon. In court was the proprietor of a Baltimore hotel with its register under his arm. He was prepared to show that on a date not too long before the day of the murder, Sickles had visited that hotel with a lady who signed herself as Mrs. Sickles, though her handwriting clearly proved she was not.

But chunky Robert Ould, though he lacked fire, was a solid, well-trained lawyer; he knew that such evidence could not be introduced by the prosecution with the same reckless effrontery displayed by the defense. If Messrs. Graham, Brady, and Stanton objected to it as irrelevant and the judge sustained them, they would immediately move for a mistrial on the grounds that the jury’s mind had been fatally prejudiced against the prisoner.

Thus Ould did the only thing a sensible prosecutor could do in such a situation. He submitted the incriminating ledger to the attorneys for the defense, before airing it publicly. Inevitably they objected, and the matter was referred to Judge Crawford for decision. Sotto voce, both sides argued before His Honor for several minutes. Then, wizened cheeks twitching, Crawford proceeded to declare: “For very obvious reasons the court will do no more than merely state his opinion on this point, and that opinion is that the evidence is not admissible.”

There was nothing left now but the summation. In a long, passionate speech for the defense, Stanton covered much of the ground Graham had discussed in his opening oration. But his sarcasm was more biting, his denunciation of Key more intense. Again and again the courtroom burst into applause as he scored another sulphurous point against the adulterer whose deeds surpassed “all that has ever been written of cold, villainous, remorseless lust.” Beside this Old Testament fury, the District Attorney seemed pale indeed, citing the New Testament example of Christ, who forgave the adulteress. Didn’t the same argument, he pleaded, apply to Philip Barton Key? Then Ould touched, at the very last moment, on a theme that he might well have used effectively earlier: If Philip Barton Key were alive, he, and he alone, might be able to produce evidence that might show that he was more seduced than seducer; that he had yielded to “temptations repeated and continued until those higher moral bulwarks that should have supported his character gave way beneath repeated shocks.”

James T. Brady tartly recalled a passage of previous testimony that had quoted Key himself to the effect that Mrs. Sickles was a mere child, and that he stood in parental relation to her.

Ould let the topic drop without another word.

The Judge’s instructions to the jury caused the defense only mild alarm. He followed the traditional legal rule of thumb which held that the husband who killed an adulterer a day or even a half day after his act, rather than flagrante delicto, committed murder. But Crawford agreed with the main defense contention: “If the jury have any doubt as to the case, either in reference to the homicide or the question of sanity, Mr. Sickles should be acquitted.”

Judge Crawford finished his instructions to the jury early on the twentieth and last day of the trial. Brady now rose for the defense and suggested that the case be submitted to the jury without additional summing up on either side. Robert Ould half rose from his seat and wearily concurred.

Friends crowded around the prisoner in his pen, assuring him it would all be over in five minutes. But the clock crept past the half-hour mark, and then the hour, with no sign of a forgiving jury. At the defense table, James Brady’s face was by now pale and solemn. In the jury room, the wrangling was feverish. Only seven were for acquittal at the first vote; three were in doubt; two were firmly opposed. But the majority first convinced the doubters, and then went to work on the opposition. Both were intensely religious men, who obviously agreed with Ould’s closing arguments. Finally one, a stern Presbyterian, yielded. The last suddenly broke away from the group, knelt in a corner, and prayed silently for guidance. Then he returned and said: “I have my answer. Let the prisoner go free.”

When Foreman Arnold announced the verdict, the courtroom went berserk. Brady burst into tears. Edwin Stanton did a highly uncharacteristic jig and called for three cheers. Other friends rushed up to kiss and embrace Sickles. Outside in the streets an enormous crowd hurrahed wildly and tried to unhorse Sickles’ carriage so they could pull him through the capital like a conquering hero.

Jury verdicts do not constitute precedents, in the American legal system, and no lawyer has ever urged a judge to remind a jury of Dan Sickles’ acquittal. Strictly speaking the jury ruled against the proper interpretation of the law, and the law remained unchanged. Nevertheless, in years to come journalists frequently referred to the case as justifying the “unwritten law.” Actually, as we have seen, Sickles’ lawyers were too shrewd to rest their argument on a single plea, and utilized every possible argument from temporary insanity to justifiable homicide to save their client. The case did illustrate the wisdom of an adage at least as old as the jury system and as new as the latest murder trial in yesterday’s headlines: when you’re on trial for your life, hire the very best legal talent you can afford.

Later that year Sickles, in a gesture of generosity, took Teresa back as his wife—an act for which he was bitterly denounced by the same people who had acclaimed his “defense” of his bed and home. She never appeared with him in society again, however, and died eight years later, a wasted ghost of the young hostess who had charmed Washington. As for Congressman Sickles, another kind of gunfire along the Potomac soon converted him into a national hero of sorts. Wangling himself a major-generalship, he served courageously on a dozen Civil War battlefields. But even here, his genius for personal imbroglios made him a controversial figure. One school of thought, led by Sickles, argued that Dan really won the Battle of Gettysburg by taking a highly exposed position in a wheat field and orchard. Other military thinkers accused him of almost losing it, because his corps was torn to bits by a three-sided Southern assault, leaving a huge hole in the Union line. (Sickles lost a leg to a Confederate cannon ball.) But Dan insisted that the whole battle had gone exactly according to his plan: he had taken the position with clear foreknowledge that he was inviting the Southern onrush, which his brave boys blunted, enabling a reinforced second line to stop the Rebs for good. His powers of persuasion later inspired no less than James Longstreet, the Confederate general who had delivered the assault, to agree with him.

After the war Sickles served as minister to Spain under Grant, won himself a third term in Congress in 1893, and ended his days with another scandal—the New York State Monuments Commission, of which he was chairman, suddenly discovered it was some twenty-eight thousand dollars short of funds. Friends and relatives made up the difference, and Dan died at ninety-five, still one jump ahead of the bailiffs. Well into his eighties he continued to chase the girls, listing among his conquests ex-Queen Isabella of Spain—who, however, was easily his match in promiscuity. His second wife, whom he married in Spain, left him (after bearing two children) because he was habitually unfaithful. Perhaps George Templeton Strong summed up Daniel E. Sickles best when he wrote in his diary, “One might as well try to spoil a rotten egg as to damage Dan’s character.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.