Media Watch: The Congressman Acquitted of Murder

Culture Watch

Editor's Note: It has all the elements of a compelling human interest story: power, sex, murder. No wonder the media seized on the case. No, we're not talking about Chandra Levy and Gary Condit. This story's about Congressman Dan Sickles, who in 1859 was implicated in the murder of his wife's paramour. As you can see from the selection that follows, not as much has changed in America as people think. We've always loved a good sensational story.

From R.M. Devens's Our First Century: One Hundred Great and Memorable Events (1876).

Intense excitement filled the public mind, when the tragic news was heralded from the federal capital, that the Hon. Philip Barton Key, district attorney for the District of Columbia, had been shot dead in one of the streets in Washington, by the Hon. Daniel E. Sickles, member of Congress from New York, because of criminal intercourse between Mr. Key and Mrs. Sickles. This terrible homicide took place on Sunday, February 27, 1859, and, notwithstanding its sanguinary and deplorable character, was almost universally viewed as the inevitable sequel to a relationship of guilt between two of the parties, such as, in its bold wantonness, had rarely been equaled even in circles of society far less distinguished. The circumstances of this event, as here reproduced from the journals of the day, will be found to possess an interest equally rare and sad, in the criminal annals of the century.

”I did what is usual for a wicked woman to do.”

It would appear that neither Mr. Key nor Mrs. Sickles acted with ordinary prudence, the frequency of their clandestine meetings, and their mode of signaling to each other, being too obvious to escape the notice of others. Their guilty amours were now approaching a deadly termination. On the 24th of February, Mr. Sickles had a dinner-party at his house. After the dinner, the host and most of the guests went to a hop at Willard's hotel. As he was leaving his house, Mr. Sickles received a letter, which he thrust, unopened, into his pocket. On his return home, he opened this letter, and found it to be anonymous; it stated that a guilty; intrigue existed between Mr. Key and Mrs. Sickles, and added that they were in the habit of meeting at a house leased from a negro, the location of which it specified. Mr. Sickles spent a sleepless: night, and early next morning dispatched: a friend to the locality in question, to watch. The friend saw nothing; but, from the inquiries he made, he ascertained that a lady resembling Mrs. Sickles had, in fact, been in the habit of meeting a gentleman in the house designated. Armed with these presumptions, Mr. Sickles charged his wife with adultery. She exclaimed, "Oh, I see I am discovered!" and confessed her guilt, imploring her husband to spare her. He declared that he did not wish to injure her; but she must put her confession in writing, which she did.

"Oh, I see I am discovered!"

In the confession made by Mrs. Sickles, the most important statements are as follows: I have been in a house in Fifteenth 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 and with Mr. Key; usually staid 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. 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. 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 black and white woolen 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 woolen dress, beaver hat and velvet shawl.

" Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my house--you must die!"

The confession thus made by Mrs. Sickles was written in her own hand, in the evening. All that night, according to the evidence given by inmates of the house, she lay in great mental distress, with her head on a chair. The ensuing Sunday, Mr. Sickles was in great agony, tearing his hair, and calling on God to witness his troubles. In the morning, he set for his friend, Mr. Butterworth, who, on his arrival at the house, found Mr. Sickles almost beyond self-control, and exclaiming continually,"I am a dishonored and ruined man, and cannot look you in the face!"

[Shortly afterwards, Mr. Butterworth went out into the street.]

As I did so, I saw Mr. Sickles, for the first time after leaving his house, coming rapidly down Sixteenth street, on the side next [to] the square, and then near the corner. I had walked about thirty feet on my way to the club, when I heard Mr. Sickles exclaim, in a loud voice, " Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my house--you must die!"

Immediately turning around, Mr. Butterworth states that he saw Mr. Key thrust his hand into his vest or side coat-pocket, to take a step in the direction of Mr. Sickles, and, simultaneously, heard the discharge of a pistol. Mr. Key then rapidly advanced on Mr. Sickles, seized him with his left hand by the collar of the coat, and seemed to make an effort to strike with something in his right hand. This proved to be merely an opera-glass. Mr. Sickles backed into the middle of the street, when he succeeded in extricating himself from Mr. Key's grasp, drew a pistol from his overcoat pocket, presented it at Mr. Key, who retreated backward up Sixteenth street, toward the club, and threw something at Mr. Sickles--the opera-glass. Mr. Sickles followed, and, when within ten feet, fired. Mr. Key was wounded. He staggered toward the side-walk, exclaiming"Don't shoot me!" He leaned for a moment against a tree, when Mr. Sickles advanced upon him, exploded a cap, and then fired a third time. As Mr. Key was falling, Mr. Sickles frequently exclaimed, " You have dishonored my house, and you must die!" After Mr. Key fell, there was no more firing. The wounds were mortal.

If Mr. Sickles were to be convicted, no man's wife or daughter would afterward be safe.

After Mr. Sickles's arrest and conveyal to jail, he maintained a perfectly calm demeanor, conversing with his friends, and freely stating the particulars of the case. He seemed to feel that he could have pursued no other course toward the deceased--that no satisfaction which the law could give would redress his wrong. Nor did he conceal his continued love for his wife, though depriving her or her wedding ring and other marriage souvenirs.

Naturally enough, the house of assignation on Fifteenth street was, for a time, the object of excited curiosity to multitudes of visitors--a queer building, of substantial brick, standing directly on the street, two stories in height, narrow, with a roof slightly sloping toward the sidewalk, and an L running back to a muddy alley. For this house, Key paid fifty dollars per month, and almost every morning he was seen, at nine or ten o'clock, to enter the front door. He came generally on foot, but sometimes on horseback, hitching his iron-grey to a convenient post.

[Sickles was put on trial for murder April 4.]

Two main propositions constituted the substance of Mr. Sickles's legal defense, namely, that the adulterer may be slain with impunity by the injured husband, and that, at the time of the homicide, Mr. Sickles, goaded to exasperation, was in such a state of mind that he was not accountable for his acts. Nor did the jury fail to be impressed when the pathetic appeal was made to them, in the closing argument, to place an estimate by their verdict on the purity of the marriage bed- for, if Mr. Sickles were to be convicted, no man's wife or daughter would afterward be safe.

On the retiring of the jury to deliberate as to what should be their verdict, many of the audience crowded around the dock to cheer and support Mr. Sickles, in that pregnant moment of his fate. Among them was the Rev. Dr. Sunderland, of the Presbyterian church, who, taking Mr. Sickles by the hand, said, substantially,"Sir, I have come to express to you my heart-felt sympathy, and to say that if the voice of the people of this city could speak at this moment, your acquittal would be instantaneous. In case, however, an ad-verse verdict should be rendered, be assured that you have hearts around you, and mine not the least warm of them, to sustain you in your affliction." Mr. Sickles was much moved by this incident, and expressed his thanks as well as his emotion would permit him.

"I want you, sir, to tell the people of New York, that the citizens of Washington are not behind those of any other part of the country in devotion to the family altar."

Time wore on, each moment seeming an hour. At last the door was opened, and the jury came in, one by one, and proceeded to take their seats in the box. All restraint was forgotten, in the anxiety to see their faces. Benches, and forms, and tables, were mounted by the excited and venturesome. All uproar, however, subsided instantly, when the judge directed the clerk to call the jurors' names. When the twelfth name was called and responded to, a pin might have been heard to drop."Daniel E. Sickles, stand up and look to the jury," cried the clerk, as he broke the deathly stillness of the vast and anxious assembly. Mr. Sickles stood up."How say you, gentlemen; have you agreed to your verdict?" asked the clerk."We have," answered the foreman."How say you; do you find the prisoner at the bar guilty, or not guilty?" inquired the clerk." Not guilty!" was the foreman's prompt reply.

"if we had known that he played the fiddle we might have made our minds early, for no fiddler was ever known to find a conviction of murder."

As these words fell from the foreman's lips, there was one loud, wild, thrilling, tumultuous hurrah sent up by the spectators; cheer after cheer resounded in the courtroom, and it was taken up by the multitude outside and repeated. Hats and handkerchiefs were waved, and there was one general rush for the dock.

Like wildfire, the news ran through every part of the city, and from every; direction crowds were hurrying to the courthouse. The excitement was as intense as it was instantaneous. As Mr. Sickles stepped down the stone stairs of the building, surrounded and supported by his immediate personal friends, he was enthusiastically cheered, and loud calls were made upon him for a speech. With considerable exertion, for he was fast becoming faint; he was got into one of the numerous carriages in waiting.

After all was over, nine or ten of the jurors went to Mr. Brady's parlor, and there, in the freedom of unrestrained conversation, expressed their real sentiments. One of them said,"I want you, sir, to tell the people of New York, that the citizens of Washington are not behind those of any other part of the country in devotion to the family altar;" and yet this juror was spoken of, all through the trial, as one who would probably dissent from the rest.

Another of the jurors, a young man, brought with him his fiddle, with which he had been in the habit of solacing himself and his fellow-jurymen, during the long evenings of their seclusion, and played several airs. He, too, had been regarded with suspicion, because of certain political antecedents."But," remarked Mr. Brady,"if we had known that he played the fiddle we might have made our minds early, for no fiddler was ever known to find a conviction of murder."

Beautiful, ruined, and sorrowing, Mrs. Sickles lived but a few years after the terrible tragedy. The career of Mr. Sickles, as a successful Union officer in the war of the rebellion--rising to the rank of major general, for repeated bravery on the bloodiest battle-fields,--and as minister to the court of Madrid, immediately following the flight of Queen Isabella, is well known to his countrymen.

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