A Husband’s Revenge

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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.”