A Husband’s Revenge

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Quoting Shakespeare, the Bible, and judicial examples ranging all the way back to the Roman Empire, Graham elaborated this defense of the “higher,” or “unwritten,” law. He combined a shrewd use of the Bible and his own wits to plug up the most obvious hole in Sickles’ case—his failure to kill Key for two full days after an anonymous letter had informed him that the District Attorney had made him a cuckold. Pointing out that Absalom waited two full years to kill the violator of his sister, Graham proceeded to argue that if the law permits a husband to kill an adulterer caught in the act, it is equally permissive if the seducer is caught “so near the act as to leave no doubt as to his guilt.” Was this not precisely what had happened between Sickles and Key? The Congressman did not invite the debonair district attorney to stroll past his house on that fatal Sunday afternoon and wave his adulterous handkerchief at Mrs. Sickles’ window. “Is it possible that under these circumstances,” Graham asked the jury, “Mr. Sickles could have acted in cold blood?” Indeed, he went on, Sickles’ provocation was so enormous that he was, from a legal point of view, insane. Graham proceeded to dwell on Key’s professed or avowed friendship with Sickles; he pointed out that Key had retained his job as district attorney largely because Sickles had interceded with President Buchanan for him. With heavy sarcasm he emphasized the hypocrisy of Key’s private conduct when contrasted to his public station. Finally, Graham stressed two cases: in 1843 a New Jersey jury acquitted one Singleton Mercer, charged with killing the man who had raped his sister; more recently in a Washington criminal court trial presided over by the same Judge Crawford and prosecuted, ironically, by the late Philip Barton Key, the jury had acquitted one Jarboe for exacting the same revenge for a similar reason.

Graham talked for almost two full days, a feat even in an era of massive eloquence. His performance drastically altered the trial’s center of gravity. Thereafter the defense was in possession of the initiative, while Ould and Carlisle found themselves playing the unpleasant role of obstructionists.

This became sensationally apparent when Brady attempted to place in evidence the trial’s pièce de résistance—the confession that Congressman Sickles had extracted from his tearful, hysterical wife the night before he killed Key, after detective work by his friend George Wooldridge had convinced him that she was guilty. Bridget Duffy, Mrs. Sickles’ maid, identified the paper, written in her mistress’ hand, and told how the confession was produced after an angry scene punctuated by shouts and cries in Mrs. Sickles’ bedroom. At the Congressman’s request, Bridget had signed it as a witness, and a young woman friend of Mrs. Sickles’, Octavia Ridgeley, had done likewise.

“This paper,” Brady declared, “we propose to read in evidence. It is Mrs. Sickles’ statement to her husband:

“ ‘I have been in a house in 15th Street with Mr. Key. How many times I don’t know. I believe the house belongs to a colored man. The house is unoccupied. Commenced going there the latter part of January. Have been in alone with Mr. Key. Usually stayed an hour or more. There was a bed in the second story. I did what is usual for a wicked woman to do. The intimacy commenced this winter when I came from New York, in that house—an intimacy of an improper kind. Have met half a dozen times or more at different hours of the day. On Monday of this week. And Wednesday also. Would arrange meetings when we met in the street and at parties. Never would speak to him when Mr. Sickles was at home, because I knew he did not like me to speak to him; did not see Mr. Key for some days after I got here. He then told me he had hired the house as a place where he and I could meet. I agreed to it. Had nothing to eat or drink there. The room is warmed by a wood fire. Mr. Key generally goes first. Have walked there together say four times—I do not think more; was there on Wednesday last, between two and three. I went there alone. Laura was at Mrs. Hoover’s. Mr. Key took and left her there at my request. From there I went to 15th Street to meet Mr. Key; from there to the milk woman’s. Immediately after Mr. Key left Laura at Mrs. Hoover’s I met him in 15th Street. Went in by the back gate. Went in the same bedroom, and there an improper interview was had. I undressed myself. Mr. Key undressed also. This occurred on Wednesday, 23rd of February, 1859.