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HOME > ARTICLES > DECEMBER 2003

THE WASHINGTON TRAGEDY- -
Murder and Scandal in D.C.


By M. Jeannine Coup

It was a trial for murder. There was presidential misconduct, a sexual scandal and new legal precedents being set. No, this did not take place in the 1990's; this headline news in 1859. Surprised? In its day this trial was called, "The Washington Tragedy," and was the most famous legal case of its time. The murder and trial were front page news for months. This killing and trial were the "Bronco Chase" and stained blue dress of its day.

New York Congressman, Daniel Sickles murdered in cold blood and in front of many witnesses, District Attorney Philip Barton Key. Mr. Sickles thought he was completely justified in murdering his long time friend and son of Francis Scott Key, author of The Star Spangled Banner, because of the adulteress affair Key was having with his wife, Teresa Sickles.

Barton Key and Teresa Sickles had not been discrete in their year long affair. Many in Washington, D.C. knew of the affair, saw them meet and visit the same rented house repeatedly. As usual, in this type of case the husband was the last to know. In February of 1858 Sickles received an unsigned note claiming, "I do assure you, he (Key) has as much the use of your wife as you have."

Sickles, armed with only this information forced his lovely young wife to write an admission of quilt. She claimed, "an intimacy of an improper kind. I did what is usual for a wicked woman to."

Sickles was shattered, his ego and vanity crushed. He spent the night roaming the house sobbing and crying aloud. In the morning he needed the consolation and advise of his friends, Samuel Butterworth and George Woolridge. In their discussion, Butterworth said, "If this be so there is but one course left you as a man of honor. You need no advise."

As the three men were discussing the details, Sickles saw Barton Key across the street waving his handkerchief at the house to attract Mrs. Sickle's attention. Sickles later said he was, "consumed by rage" at this brazen and public display. After a moment of thought he invited his friends for lunch at the Clubhouse Restaurant which was across Lafayette Square, not far from the Sickle's residence and close to the White House.

Butterworth left first and passed by Barton Key and acknowledged his presence with a greeting. Dan Sickles spent a few moments alone in his home before following Butterworth. In that time Sickles had armed himself with two derringers and a five-shot revolver. As he approached Key he began to shout, "Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my house- -you must die!" Sickles pulled his gun on Key and shot only grazing his target. Reacting instinctively to defend himself Key reached inside his coat pocket but only found his opera glasses. The two men grabbed at each other for a moment. Key, fearing the worst, yelled, "murder!"

Sickles dropped his gun and reached into his coat to locate the second gun. Key backed away throwing his opera glasses harmlessly past Sickles and begged, "Don't shoot me, don't murder me." Sickles did not miss with his second shot. Key collapsed against a tree, shot in the groin, and pleading for his life. No third shot was needed--Key was dying. All during this ambush and death scene Butterworth stood watching, doing nothing until now when he pulled Sickles away and led him to Attorney General Jeremiah Black's house. All of this occurred adjacent to the White House.

All of Washington, D.C. Knew Dan Sickles and President James Buchanan were close friends. In 1853 Buchanan as American Minister to Great Britain appointed Sickles his assistant and later had supported his congressional ambitions. When a White House Page named J.H.W. Bonitz saw the shooting he ran into The White House to inform President Buchanan.

There were numerous types of assistance which the Head of State could have offered. President Buchanan chose an unusual and illegal method to demonstrate his friendship. He gave Bonitz money to give to Sickles and his advise to his friend was to leave the city, to get away. Congressman Sickles chose to surrender, admit his guilt and said he had been, "unfortunate in crossing the street" that day.

Washington, D.C. went mad! As the news spread, the rest of the country did like-wise. Here was murder, sex, a congressman, and a president. The intrigue and scandal caught the public's imagination and held their attention for months. Soon newspapers reported more of the three men's past and present entanglements.

Earlier in 1857, Sickles had persuaded President Buchanan to reappoint Barton Key as U.S. District Attorney for D.C. Now, Dan Sickles was the wronged husband and friend and so received much of the public's support. The dead man received none, but was held in contempt for his roll in the tragedy. Teresa Sickles was ostracized by all of society.

The second phase of the tragedy soon followed. Dan Sickles refused bail in hopes of a speedy trial. In March the grand jury indicted Sickles for murder and by April 4th the trial had begun. Washington friends of Dan Sickles had put together a truly awesome "dream team" from the legal profession. James Brady, Thomas Meagher, John Graham and Philip Phillips headed the list of defense lawyers. At President Buchanan's request Edwin Stanton also joined the team. Later Stanton would become famous as Abraham Lincoln's Secretary of War.

The prosecution was handicapped from the beginning because the murder victim had been the district attorney. Who would take the dead man's place? President Buchanan still trying to help his friend, appointed Robert Ould to the position. Though Ould had been a lawyer for 17 years he had absolutely no trial experience and did not have a personality that would impress juries. On the defense side, the lead lawyer, James Brady had won 51 of his 52 murder cases.

Prosecutor Robert Ould's opening speech was short, for that time in history, lasting only one hour. What could he say? Congressman Dan Sickles shot and killed Barton Key. Then, with a sarcastic tone he said Sickles had stood bravely over his victim, revolver in hand, seeking to scatter the brains of one who had already been mortally wounded in three vital parts, and whose eyes were being covered with the film of death.

Mr. Ould saw the case in black and white. However, the defense team showed that the case had many shades of grey. The defense began with the story of a broken friendship, a ruined adulteress marriage and a life in its prime destroyed. The defendant had the right to take revenge and regain his honor and reputation, they claimed. And if this motivation did not exonerate Mr. Sickles then the jury surely must understand that he had been driven insane by his wife's actions. Mr. Graham states

Mr. Sickles, at the moment of the occurrence, was laboring under such a state of frenzy as deprived him of accountability for his act. [He] was acting under the influence of moral mania [and his] reason exerted any sway amid such a battle of passions, when it was impossible that the ear of mind could listen to the audience of reason or conscience?

In today's system of jurisprudence we accept insanity as a defense and even temporary insanity can set a murderer free. In 1859 the insanity defence was not unheard of in American court rooms, but was new and seldom used. It was author Richard Sassaman who wrote

ironically, Francis Scott Key, who had also served as Washington's district attorney, once recommended such a tactic to a crazed man who had attempted to assassinate Andrew Jackson in 1835.

However, the plea of temporary insanity had no precedent in all of legal history. Sassaman wrote that

In a landmark victory for the defense, John Graham argued successfully that the prosecution had to prove Sickles was sane at the time of the murder. Previously, everyone had been presumed sane by the law and the defense had to prove insanity.

Former Kansas Governor Robert Walker testified for the defense. He said that moments after the shooting, Sickles told him he killed Key, then collapsed in near hysterics. Walker said, "His condition appeared to me very frightful, appalling me so much that I thought if it lasted much longer he must become insane."

The closing statements from both sides were so emotionally powerful no one noticed 72 year old Judge Thomas Hartley Crawford, described as "a little fogyish" accepted the unorthodox and never before used defense plea of temporary insanity without a question.

When the jury retired a quick verdict was expected. The 12 men soon asked for chairs to sit on and a fire to be lit in the stove. Actually, 11 of the 12 jurors had already decided Sickles's fate. A single juror fell to his knees to pray. One hour later the jury delivered its verdict: "Not guilty."

The court room began celebrating with Edwin Stanton dancing a jig while Brady invited all jurors to a party. Thousands of people filled the streets cheering the verdict, marching while the Marine Band played tunes.

Lost momentarily in the uproar but not lost to legal minds in the future was the defense's successful use of the temporary insanity plea. At the time Congressman Sickles's victory was seen as the "upholding of a man's right to defend his honor and his home, whatever the method used." Defense lawyer Philip Phillips said the jury

had set a legal precedent that held that when a man violated the sanctity of his neighbor's home he must do so at his own peril.

Once the verdict was rendered and newspapers moved to other headlines Dan Sickles's national popularity waned. When he and Teresa reconciled newsmen blasted him asking, "Why Key was killed at all" and "why such extraordinary efforts were made to screen the slayer?"

Sickles was destroyed politically. But later he redeemed himself when he raised a brigade of New York troops for the Civil War and was appointed a brigadier general "to lead them"

His action at the Battle of Gettysburg was highly criticized. However, later he managed to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. After the war he was appointed military governor of the Carolinas.

Later, Sickles was in trouble again when in 1912 he was fired from his post as chairman of the New York State Monuments Commission for mishandling funds. He died in 1914 at the age of 94.

Teresa Sickles had died a social outcast in 1867 at the age of 31.

Notwithstanding, the infamous Washington Tragedy , Congressman Dan Sickles is better known today as General Sickles due to a bazaar memento he donated to a museum. At the Battle of Gettysburg a 12 pound artillery shell smashed Sickles's right leg. When the leg was amputated Sickles "recognized the significance a general's appendage would have for the fledgling United States Army Medical Museum." He sent his leg to Washington, D.C. in a small coffin. After the war General Sickles visited his leg often. The shattered leg still is one of the museum's main attractions. It is now housed at the National Museum of Health and Medicine which is on the grounds of Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

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