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A Husband’s Revenge
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.
April 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 3
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.