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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
Judge Crawford, after a recess, ruled Teresa’s confession inadmissible because it would destroy before the law the “confidential identity” of the husband and wife. Unruffled by this ruling—a technicality that did nothing to erase the impact of the confession on the emotions of the jury—the defense summoned various witnesses. Bridget Duffy proceeded to describe Sickles’ agitation on Sunday morning: how she saw him “come into the room crying aloud, his hands tearing his hair and in a state of distraction.” More important was her description of Key’s appearance in Lafayette Park, waving his handkerchief in a slow rotary motion. She told how the Sickles greyhound, Dandy, rushed out and fawned on Key, who ignored him. Sickles’ good friend, George B. Wooldridge, confirmed these details. But when Brady attempted to lead Wooldridge into a discussion of what he had discovered about Key and Mrs. Sickles in his detective work the day before the killing, the prosecution once more objected.
This was too much for Stanton, who seized the center of the stage with a scathing attack on the prosecution’s tactics thus far. He condemned Ould and Carlisle for their “thirst for blood” and begged the judge not to exclude evidence “in order that vengeance might obtain the blood of this prisoner.” At this Ould leaped to his feet crying that it was sheer malice on Stanton’s part to accuse a public prosecutor of being actuated by a thirst for blood. He vowed he would let his conduct in the case stand before the court and the world “in contrast with the disreputable rant” that Stanton had exhibited. Obviously, he declared, Stanton had been assigned the role of “the bully and the bruiser.” Ignoring a mutter of protest that rose from the audience, Ould insisted he would stand by his oath and continue to call Sickles’ deed murder, no matter what the defense called it.
Stanton met the District Attorney head on. He insisted that under the law Ould was defending, his client would be led to the gallows “by those who are malignantly seeking for his blood.” He added that he did not have the honor of Ould’s acquaintance “and after his language just uttered, [did] not desire it.” This produced an uproar of approval in the courtroom, with much shouting and stamping of feet. It required considerable effort by the district marshal and his assisting officers to restore order.
These pyrotechnics may have impressed the jury, but they got Stanton nowhere with Judge Crawford, who ruled that Wooldridge’s communication to Sickles about Teresa’s adultery was also inadmissible as evidence. This made little practical difference to the defense counsels, who had plenty of other ways to exploit the juicier aspects of the case. Witnesses testified to seeing Key waving his handkerchief in Lafayette Park for the better part of two hours—suggesting that he was one of the most indiscreet adulterers in history. Other witnesses recounted efforts made by Key’s relatives and friends to padlock the house on 15th Street and remove any damaging evidence. Next came Nancy Brown, wife of President Buchanan’s Negro gardener, who said that she lived on 15th Street and knew Key well by sight: “I saw him on the Wednesday before he was shot.”
“Where did you see him?”
“I saw him going into a house on 15th Street…”
Carlisle leaped to his feet in a vain attempt to suppress the answer. Desperately he cried out that once more “they were sliding along in the direction of giving evidence of adultery.” For once and for all he demanded that Judge Crawford rule on whether any evidence of this past adultery could be rightfully admitted. He declared that Judge Crawford was being given a chance to establish a “new era in the administration of justice in cases of homicide.” In a long résumé of the defense’s intentions as gleaned from the evidence presented thus far, Carlisle decried the tactic of painting the murdered Key and Sickles’ wife in the blackest possible hues in order to justify the Congressman’s crime. The whole concept of civilized law was at stake here, Carlisle insisted. Adultery was a crime under the laws of the District. Sickles had a legal recourse, as Judge Crawford would be the first to admit, since he himself had tried several cases of adultery in this very court.
Carlisle spoke for almost an hour. Brady then coolly rose and exploded his plea with a single question. “Was the case of adultery to which you refer as being tried here an indictment under the statute?”
“Yes, under the statute of Maryland.”
Now Sickles’ use of local attorneys paid off. Mr. Magruder made the point that under the statute of Maryland the punishment for that crime was a fine of a hundred pounds of tobacco.
“Then the only satisfaction an injured husband could have,” snorted Brady, “would be a chew of tobacco.” The courtroom exploded with laughter.