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Daniel Sickles Trial: 1859

Daniel Sickles Trial: 1859

Defendant: Daniel Sickles
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: James T. Brady, John Graham, and Edwin M.Stanton
Chief Prosecutor: Robert Ould
Judge: Crawford (First nameunavailable)
Place: Washington, D.C.
Dates of Trial: April 4-26, 1859
Verdict: Not guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: The first use of a plea of temporary insanity by a criminal defendant and the unabashed appeal to the "unwritten law" to justify homicide made the Daniel Sickles case noteworthy in American legal history. It was equally significant for the irreparable damage done to Sickles' promising career as a leader of the Democratic Party.

Daniel Sickles' murder of Philip Barton Key was the kind of crime that piques the interest of all but the most austere newspaper editors. The lurid trial captivated the nation's press.

The menu for the trial was perfect: glamorous celebrities, political intrigue, spellbinding lawyers, the plot of an Italian opera, and an adulterous affair. The accused, Dan Sickles, was a prominent and well-connected 39-year-old Congressman from New York with a hair-trigger temper and a reputation as a ladies' man; the victim, Barton Key, was not only a close friend of his killer, whose political clout with President James Buchanan had secured Key's appointment as Washington's district attorney, but he also was the son of Francis Scott Key, author of "The Star Spangled Banner". He was described as "the handsomest man in all Washington society" by the city's most prominent hostess and biggest gossip, Mrs. Clement Clay.

The very time and scene of the crime commanded the public's attention and sparked courtroom and editorial fireworks. Not even the most highbrowed Victorian could ignore a killing that occurred in broad daylight on a Sunday afternoon on the sidewalk surrounding Lafayette Park, literally so near the White House it could have been witnessed from its front windows.

But it was the motive that added the most spice to the story. Sickles gunned Key down after discovering that he and the beautiful 22-year-old Mrs. Sickles had been having an affair, at times carrying on in the front library of the Sickles home.

Lafayefte Park Killing

By the time Sickles was tipped off by an anonymous letter, dated February 24, 1859, the relationship between Teresa Sickles and Key was certainly the primary topic of conversation in the family's servant quarters and had started tongues wagging in Washington society. Confronting his wife with the evidence that he and a close friend collected, Dan Sickles extracted a detailed written confession from her and then, in state of near hysteria, called two of his political cronies to his home to ask for their advice.

Meanwhile, upset because he had not heard from Teresa Sickles for several days, Key rented a front room in the Cosmos Club across Lafayette Park from the Sickles home. From there, peering through his opera glasses, he tried to spot a signal from Mrs. Sickles. Impatient and unaware that her husband knew all, Key twice passed in front of the Sickles' home on February 27, brazenly signaling Teresa Sickles with his white pocket handkerchief.

At home and pacing the floor, Dan Sickles abruptly stopped, looked out a front window, and cried out, "That villain is out there now making signs." One of the advisors consoling him, the Tammany politician Samuel F. Butterworth, agreed to go across the park to check whether Key had a room at the club. A few moments later, Butterworth recollected, Sickles stormed out of the house, whereupon he saw Key mingling with the Sunday afternoon strollers promenading around Lafayette Park.

Pounding up to Key, Sickles raged, "Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my houseyou must die!"

Sickles pulled out a pistol and fired. The two men grappled momentarily before Sickles pulled himself away and fired again. Hurling his opera glasses at his attacker, the wounded Key ducked behind a tree where Sickles' next bullet lodged. Ignoring Key's cries for mercy, Sickles shot again and Key staggered and fell into the gutter. Standing over Key, Sickles aimed at his head, but the gun misfired. Finally, a passerby became involved, pinning Sickles' arms and subduing him.

While Key was dying inside the club, Sickles took a carriage to the home of Attorney General Jeremiah S. Black and surrendered.

Mobilizing the Defense

Refusing bail, Sickles awaited trial in Washington's vermin-infested jail as the press, fed juicy tidbits by the defense, rehashed the details of the case daily until the editors, bored with facts, filled their columns with malicious gossip and preposterous speculation, including a rumor that Teresa Sickles was pregnant with Key's child.

Washington and the nation anticipated a hugely entertaining trial. A reinforced police contingent barely contained the mobs demanding admission to the old City Hall where the court convened on April 4, 1859 to select a jury.

Inside the cramped courtroom, eight renowned lawyers assembled to defend Sickles. Led by the suave James T. Brady, a New York criminal lawyer famed for his ability to manipulate witnesses, the team included Edwin M. Stanton, a Constitutional expert and an emotional orator of unsurpassed decibel power, and John Graham, a defense lawyer famed for his ability to draw tears from the most hard-hearted juror. The prosecution was badly out-classed. U.S. District Attorney Robert Ould, Key's meek and untalented former assistant, had little heart for his arduous and unpopular task. Ould inspired so little confidence in Key's relatives that they insisted he take on James Carlisle as assistant counsel, paying his fee out of their own pockets.

If Ould and Carlisle had any illusions about their prospects, these were quickly dispelled during the three days it took to select a jury. Of the first 75 potential jurors called, 72 openly sympathized with Sickles. Some 200 were excused for pro-Sickles bias before a jury of tradesmen and farmers could be impaneled.

Cold-Blooded Murder or Justifiable Homicide?

Ould opened with a sarcastic attack on Sickles' desecration of the Sabbath by a "deed of blood" against an "unarmed and defenseless victim." Noting that Sickles "bravely" and "fully prepared" himself with three guns, Ould portrayed the slaying as deliberate, premeditated, and mercilessa clear case of murder "no matter what may be the antecedent provocations in the case." Of course, it was precisely these "antecedent provocations," or Teresa Sickles' adultery, that everyone, including the jurors, were most interested in and exactly what the defense planned to spotlight in its case.

The defense's version of the slaying was distilled to its essence in John Graham's opening statement: "The injured husband and father rushes upon" the "confirmed and habitual" adulterer "in the moment of his guilt, and under the influence of a frenzy executes upon him a judgment which was as just as it was summary." Generously sprinkling his statement with Biblical quotations, Graham described Sickles' action as no less than the execution of "the will of Heaven."

Just in case the jury didn't accept Dan Sickles as one of the Lord's avenging angels, defense attorney Graham argued with equal fervor that the provocation had so unbalanced the defendant's mind that he could not be held accountable for his actions: "If he was in a state of white heat, was that too great a state of passion for a man to be in who saw before him the hardened, the unrelenting seducer of his wife?"

By the end of Graham's three-day statement, it was obvious Key would be the real defendant in the trial. Sickles' lawyers clearly planned to paint the victim as a lecher who richly deserved his fate at the hands of the accused. Despite this unveiling of the defense strategy, Ould did nothing to expose the hypocrisy of Sickles, who himself was vulnerable as a notorious philanderer. Instead, Ould contented himself with calling a series of eyewitnesses to the slaying who merely repeated the same tale in slightly different words.

The defense called numerous witnesses who attested to Sickles' mental anguish at the time of the slaying. Former Secretary of the Treasury Robert J. Walker declared Sickles was in "an agony of despair, the most terrible thing I ever saw in my life. I feared if it continued he would become permanently insane." Sickles was so racked with sobs during Walker's testimony that he had to be ushered from the courtroom to compose himself. As he left, many in the audience wept.

When the defense attempted to introduce Teresa Sickles' confession into evidence, Ould leapt to his feet objecting that it was inadmissible as both hearsay and a privileged communication between husband and wife. Judge Crawford sustained him on the common law principle that putting such a document into the public record might do irreparable harm to the marriage. Judge Crawford's instruction to the jury to ignore the confession was so much wasted breath. The confession was reproduced in full on the front page of the April 23, 1859 issue of Harper's Weekly.

Time and again as the defense tried to introduce evidence of the adultery, prosecutor Ould furiously objected and Stanton responded with withering sarcasm. Trapped by the precedent of his own ruling in a similar case, Judge Crawford was forced in the end to permit the defense to present some evidence proving the adultery. However, the real damage was done in the uneven exchanges between Ould and Stanton, who skillfully maneuvered the prosecutor into seeming to conceal, if not excuse, infidelity and debauchery.

Assistant prosecutor Carlisle did his best to refute the defense claims of justifiable homicide and/or temporary insanity in his final statement before the jury. But, he couldn't compete with defense attorney Stanton's soaring and thunderous expression of indignation over the sanctity of the American family and the rights of the betrayed American husband. Wrapping himself and his client in the cloak of virtue, Stanton declaimed that a "higher law" than those enacted by human legislators "was written in the heart of man in the Garden of Eden" and that this law and even the laws of self-preservation set death as the penalty for seducing another man's wife. Inevitably, Stanton proclaimed, once a wife has "surrendered to the adulterer, she longs for the death of her husband, whose life is often sacrificed by the cup of the poisoner or the dagger or pistol of the assassin."

Before the case went to the jury April 26, Judge Crawford pointedly instructed the jurors that, in the eyes of earthly law, any delay between becoming aware of an adultery and the slaying of the adulterer by an enraged husband made the killing deliberate murder, or at the very least manslaughter.

When the jury returned in a little over an hour and, to no one's surprise, delivered a verdict of "Not Guilty," it was greeted by three cheers and sparked a spirited celebration among spectators and the defense team. The usually dour Stanton performed a jig on the spot. That evening 1,500 people joined Sickles in a victory party.

Public Opinion Turns Against Sickles

Some segments of society and the legal profession were sickened by the verdict and even more by the way the defense had secured it. The mud thrown at the deceased's name, the public humiliation of Teresa Sickles, the manipulation of the press and, perhaps most of all, the cynical appeal to Old Testament morality in defense of a notorious Don Juan made the trial a farce and a travesty of justice in the eyes of many.

What little social standing and political aspirations Sickles retained were utterly destroyed when he and Teresa effected a public reconciliation only three months after the acquittal. The move flabbergasted his political cronies, scandalized society, and called down upon the couple the wrath and ridicule of the press.

Although Sickles partially redeemed his reputation in 1863 by losing a leg to a Confederate cannonball at the Battle of Gettysburg, public distrust was too deep for his political career to regain its early momentum. When Sickles died in 1914, he was remembered as the first accused murderer to escape punishment by pleading temporary insanity.

Edward W. Knappman

Suggestions for Further Reading

Balderston, Thomas. "The Shattered Life of Teresa Sickles." American History Illustrated (September 1982): 41-45.

Cooney, Charles F. "The General's Badge of Honor." American History Illustrated (April 1985): 16-17.

Morris, Richard B. Fair Trial. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1952.

Pinchon, Edgcumb. Dan Sickles, Hero of Gettysburg and "Yankee King of Spain." Garden City, N.Y.:Doubleday & Co., 1945.

Swanburg, W.A. Sickles the Incredible. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1956.

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