Adultery, Bloodshed and “The Trial of the Century”

By John E. Carey

Betrayal. Revenge. Murder. Defending one’s honor. The “Dream Team.”
The “Trial of the Century.”

A Famous athlete’s trial? A President impeached? No.

It’s the story of Congressman Daniel Sickles in 1859.

In February 1859, the 39 year old New York Congressman Daniel Sickles learned from a note signed “R.P.G.” that his wife Teresa had, in her own words, “an intimacy of an improper kind” with Washington, D.C. District Attorney Philip Barton Key. Sickles, a competent lawyer, extracted a written confession from his wife on February 26, 1859. “I did what is usual for a wicked woman to do,” she wrote. She confirmed to her husband what the note writer had alleged: that the son of the composer of “The Star Spangled Banner” signaled readiness for these liaisons by tying a white string to a shutter on his house near Lafayette Park – and just a block from the Sickles home. Key also occasionally signaled his amorous intentions by waving a handkerchief outside the Sickles home.

After Teresa’s confession, Sickles spent the night commiserating with his good friend, lawyer Thomas Francis Meagher. Meagher later described Sickles as in “a state of nearly constant sobbing and shaking.” Apparently, though historical records of this are incomplete, a fair amount of alcohol was consumed by Sickles and Meagher during the night of February 26 and the morning of the 27th. When Sickles made preparations to depart his home at about 2 p.m. on February 27 to walk to the Clubhouse, a popular drinking establishment and boarding house across Lafayette Square, he either encountered Key handkerchief in hand or noticed the white string on the shutter.

Sickles accosted Key with the words, “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my house. You must die.” Sickles fired a shot from one of his three sidearms, hitting Key a grazing wound. “Murderer,” screamed Key. “Don’t shoot me, don’t murder me!” Sickles fired a second shot, hitting Key in the groin. Key collapsed into the gutter.

Sickles third round struck Key in the chest. Sickles, according to several accounts from passers-by on the busy Square, approached Key, put a gun to his head, and pulled the trigger. The gun mis-fired; and friends grabbed Sickles to end the assault. Key soon died from his wounds.

Sickles walked the two blocks to U. S. Attorney General Jeremiah Black’s house to turn himself in. Sickles told Black there was “one less wretch in the world.”

Thomas Francis Meagher was summoned to immediately begin to prepare the defense of his friend and client. He volunteered his service to Sickles and visited President Buchanan in the White House. Sickles was a dear friend of the president. The two lived together in London while Buchanan was Ambassador to the court of Saint James. Sickles had been Buchanan’s most trusted advisor and confidant.

When Meagher informed the president that his friend Sickles had just gunned down the Federal Prosecutor, the president informed Meagher that he was already aware of the crime. A White House servant had witnessed the murder, and rushed to inform the president. The president gave the servant $200 and told him to flee Washington – thus, arguably, committing obstruction of justice.

During Meagher’s conversation with Buchanan, Meagher urged the president to swiftly appoint Key’s deputy, Robert Ould, as the new federal prosecutor. Ould, who had been a lawyer for 17 years but had almost no trial experience, became the President’s choice in an apparent second attempt by the president to help his friend.

Meagher began to assemble his own “dream team” of talented lawyers to assist in Sickles’ defense. He recruited the legal giants of the day, including James Brady, who had already won 51 of 52 murder cases. Edwin M. Stanton joined the defense team. Stanton, the future Secretary of War in President Lincoln’s Civil War cabinet, was a friend of President Buchanan’s and Sickles’ and he may have joined the defense team at Buchanan’s request. Attorneys John Graham, Daniel Ratcliffe, Allan Magruder, Samuel Chilton, and Phillip Phillips also joined in the defense.

Edwin M. Stanton
Edwin M. Stanton

America’s newspapers, including the already well regarded New York Times, screamed out the news. As the trial commenced, headlines about the Sickles case frequently were sprawled across all columns of America’s daily papers. Leslie’s Illustrated printed 200,000 copies of it’s magazine as the trial opened, but demand prompted editors to print 300,000 more. Adultery, and an aggrieved husband’s right to take the law into his own hands, became the topic of discussion throughout the nation.

For twenty-two days, the Sickles trial dominated America’s newspapers. And the trial made for interesting, even salacious, reading.

“Whenever [Key] met her, the whole object of his acquaintance was the gratification of his lust,” defense attorney John Graham told the jury.

Sickles became something of a media darling, certainly a celebrity. He retained his seat in Congress. Cabinet members visited him in jail and his meals were catered from home. Hundreds of spectators packed the court room each day. The Washington,
D. C. police chief added extra officers to the courtroom detail.

Sickles’ defense lawyers argued that Key, a widower, should have understood better his marriage vows. Their case is nearly one of justifiable homicide – but using eyewitness accounts of friends that saw Sickles’ state of torment after learning of his wife’s infidelity, a strong case for temporary insanity was presented. No American jury had ever acquitted an accused on the grounds of temporary insanity.

The “Dream Team” won. Sickles was acquitted – a verdict that was largely supported in the land. But Sickles’ notoriety would fade quickly when he announced to the newspapers his intention of forgiving Teresa her indiscretions. Said Sickles, “I shall strive to prove to all that an erring wife and mother may be forgiven and redeemed.”

Sickles became a pariah – other Congressmen refused even to speak to him.

Some said the Sickles verdict was a shock: that a man who obviously killed his wife’s lover might be acquitted. But the late Chief Justice of the United States, William Rehnquist, wrote that the outcome was nothing special. “[A]n article in the March 12, 1859, edition of Harper’s Weekly concluded that Sickles would have been justified in killing the man who seduced his wife,” wrote Rehnquist, “and predicted that no jury in the United States would convict him even of manslaughter.”

For Sickles, the attack on Fort Sumter came none too soon. He volunteered his services to his home state of New York and was made a brigadier general. He rose to command the III Corps of the Army of the Potomac. But controversy always followed him, at Chancellorsville, Gettysburg, and even into the post Civil War years where his frequent philandering caused rumors to abound.

In Sickles’ later life, he dedicated himself to the preservation of the battlefield at Gettysburg. Generations owe him a debt of gratitude.

Sickles remains today one of the most controversial leaders of the American Civil War.

Meagher went on to found the Irish Brigade – and drowned after the Civil War while, most probably, intoxicated. Stanton became Lincoln’s right hand man as Secretary of War. Both played important roles in a most unusual trial, arguably, the “Trial of the Century.”

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