A Husband’s Revenge

“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.