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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
Despite the fact that more court time already had been devoted to Key’s act of adultery than to Sickles’ act of homicide, Judge Crawford had not yet explicitly conceded that evidence of the adultery had any legal bearing on the trial. For days this point was wrangled over by the lawyers on both sides, while the Judge, obviously harassed and puzzled, pondered the question. Then, on the thirteenth day of the trial—Monday, April 18—he announced his decision. Sickles’ cry about his defiled bed, at the moment of the shooting, intoned His Honor, was reason enough to admit the evidence of adultery as an “explanation.” There was, declared Felix G. Fontaine, who published a transcript of the trial, “a perceptible though silent expression of satisfaction” in the audience when Judge Crawford pronounced this decision.
Jubilation undoubtedly reigned at the defense table. Witness after witness now paraded to the stand, giving vivid details of Key and Teresa Sickles scuttling down 15th Street to their love nest in the Negro slum known as Dark Town, or trysting in the Sickles study when the Congressman was away. Nancy Brown told how Key would hang a string from the upstairs shutters of the 15th Street house to signal to his mistress that the coast was clear. Everyone on the entire block, and every servant in Sickles’ house, seemed to know what was going on, but not Dan Sickles.
By now it was hard to tell whether Sickles was on trial for murder or Key for adultery. But there was still one flaw in the case for the defense. Sickles had rushed into the street, loaded with lethal artillery, and shot down an apparently unarmed man. The next witness was designed to remove this last potential element of sympathy for Key. A contractor named Albert A. Megaffey declared he was “tolerably intimate” with Key, and proceeded to recount a series of conversations he had had with the late district attorney about his attentions to Mrs. Sickles. Megaffey had warned Key that he might get into danger or difficulty about the matter. In reply, he said, Key laid his hand on the left breast of his coat and declared, “I am prepared for any emergency.”
A new uproar ensued. Ould and Carlisle, almost wild with exasperation, cried that these conversations, the last of which took place twelve days before the murder, surely had no bearing on the case. They certainly did not tend to prove that Key was armed on the day of his death, or even that Sickles thought he was armed, since Mr. Megaffey never communicated anything about the conversation to the Congressman. The Judge emphatically agreed with the prosecution, and barred Megaffey’s testimony. But the defense had scored another victory with the jury, who now saw at least the possibility that Key had had a gun in his pocket.
Throughout the long trial, Dan Sickles had sat silent in his prisoner’s pen. It must have been a difficult feat for a man who found it almost impossible to ignore a fight. Equally tormenting must have been the sniggering testimony of his own servants recalling how they had referred to Key and Mrs. Sickles as Disgrace and Disgust and opining that more than once the clandestine couple “wasn’t at no good work.” Yet Sickles lost his composure only once, when Robert Walker, former senator from Mississippi and one-time Secretary of the Treasury, told of rushing to the Sickles house after the shooting and finding the Congressman on the edge of insanity. Walker described “unnatural and unearthly sounds. The most remarkable I ever heard —something like a scream interrupted by violent sobbing.”
At this testimony Dan Sickles collapsed, and his sobs were audible throughout the courtroom. Judge Crawford ordered a recess, and the prisoner’s friends, followed by his weeping father, helped him outside, where he regained his self-control. One reason for this breakdown, unknown at the time, may have been a correspondence that Sickles had opened with his wife while he was in jail awaiting trial. In the early days of the trial she had written him:
“You say that any object you have loved remains dear to you. Do I now stand upon a footing with the other women I know you have loved? I have long felt like asking you what your love affairs have been—love of the heart, or love of their superior qualities such as you have often informed me I did not possess, or attraction of face and form, or an infatuation? If during the first years we were married my good conduct did not keep you true to me, can I suppose for a moment the last year has? Ask your own heart who sinned first, and then tell me, if you will.”
J. M. Carlisle, bitter over his defeat on the adultery issue, no doubt would have given much for a copy of that letter. He was now more than ever determined to examine Sickles’ amatory past. But he held his fire, meanwhile chipping away at the defense contention that Sickles was insane. Here once more District Attorney Ould was undone by the aggressive defense. When Ould asked Francis Doyle, who had been present when the dying Key was carried into the Cosmos Club, to give the court a description of Sickles’ demeanor, Stanton protested, making the remarkable declaration that the burden of proof was on the prosecution to show that Sickles “was a person of sound memory and discretion at the time the act was committed.” This produced more than a few splutterings from Judge Crawford, who hastened to declare that every man “is presumed to be sane till the contrary is proved; that is the normal condition of the human race, I hope.”