- Historic Sites
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
“ ‘Mr. Key has kissed me in this house [ i.e. , the Sickles house on Lafayette Square] a number of times. I do not deny that we have had a connection in this house last spring, a year ago, in the parlor on the sofa. Mr. Sickles was sometimes out of town and sometimes in the Capitol. I think the intimacy commenced in April or May, 1858. I did not think it safe to meet him in this house, because there are servants who might suspect something. As a general thing, have worn a black and white woollen plaid dress and beaver hat trimmed with black velvet. Have worn a black silk dress there also, also a plaid silk dress, black velvet cloak trimmed with lace, and black velvet shawl trimmed with fringe. On Wednesday I either had on my brown dress or black and white woollen dress, beaver hat and velvet shawl. I arranged with Mr. Key to go in the back way after leaving Laura at Mrs. Hoover’s. He met me at Mr. Douglas’s. The arrangement to go in the back way was either made in the street or at Mr. Douglas’s as we would be less likely to be seen. The house is in 15th Street between K and L Streets on the left-hand side of the way; arranged the interview for Wednesday in the street, I think, on Monday. I went in the front door, it was open, occupied the same room, undressed myself and he also; went to bed together. Mr. Key has ridden in Mr. Sickles’ carriage and has called at his house without Mr. Sickles’ knowledge and after my being told not to invite him to do so, and against Mr. Sickles’ repeated request. “ ‘Teresa Bagioli
“ ‘This is a true statement written by myself without any inducement held out by Mr. Sickles of forgiveness or reward, and without any menace from him. This I have written with my bedroom door open and my maid and child in adjoining room, at half past eight o’clock in the evening. Miss Ridgeley is in the house, within call. “ ‘Teresa Bagioli’ ”
District Attorney Ould excitedly declared that this document could not possibly be included as evidence. It was a communication between husband and wife—parties who were excluded by law from testifying for or against each other. Brady replied with equal vigor that the statement was indeed admissible because it accounted for Sickles’ state of mind at the time of the homicide. Back and forth wrangled Brady and Ould, each citing cases to support his contention, until the court adjourned for the day.
If Judge Crawford had his doubts about the relevance of Teresa Bagioli Sickles’ confession, the Congressman and his attorneys did not. They proceeded to release it to the press, where it promptly made front pages around the world. Family, friends, and acquaintances of the lovely Teresa must have shuddered with disbelief, not only at the content of the confession but at the husband who could use it so ruthlessly. Sickles had been an intimate friend of Teresa’s father, a noted New York opera impresario, and of her grandfather as well. He had known her from infancy, and had persuaded her, over considerable protests from her family, to abandon her convent education and marry him when she was only sixteen.
J. M. Carlisle opened the proceedings on the next day of the trial with a long, passionate speech against admitting the confession. Did the paper tend to show that the act committed the day after it was written was either justifiable homicide or manslaughter? he cried. It did not, unless His Honor held to the doctrine laid down by the other side—that no amount of time was sufficient to cool down the mind of a man under such provocation, and render him observant of the law of God and man. Was it evidence to show the prisoner’s insanity? He would like to see what expert would declare “that such a declaration as this would tend to produce insanity in all or in a majority of cases. It would depend upon the moral and intellectual condition of the person.”
Now Carlisle revealed for the first time his real role in the trial. If Ould, who held his job at the pleasure of the President, was afraid to strike at Buchanan’s friend, Carlisle had no such inhibitions. There were, he said, two classes of men who could resist the insanity such a confession might cause. One was the convinced Christian, who would on his knees “pour out his supplication to Him who alone can bind up the broken heart.” Then there was the second, “safe, quite safe from insanity, from such a blow as that—the confirmed adulterer, the open, shameless profligate—the man nurtured in brothels, the man breathing all his life the atmosphere of adultery and seduction … Now, to offer evidence of the fact of the adultery with the prisoner’s wife as the ground to impute to him insanity, necessarily opens inquiry of the sort I have indicated.…”
This threat to explore the less than sanctified bypaths of Sickles’ love life might have made some attorneys blanch. But it only seemed to make Sickles’ triumvirate, especially Edwin Stanton, press on with even fiercer determination to get every last ugly fact of Key’s adultery into the record. Perhaps they were influenced by Carlisle’s inability to reach the jury’s emotions, for all his rhetoric. “Nervous of manner yet cold of heart,” as one eyewitness described him, Carlisle was a little too smooth for the role he had assigned himself.