“You have dishonoured my house. You must die!”
A congressman from New York and later a Union general in the American Civil War, Daniel E. Sickles was also a rampant womanizer and his marriage to 17-year-old Teresa Bagioli in 1853 did nothing to deter his philandering ways. In fact, the New York State Assembly censured him for taking a prostitute, Fanny White, into its chambers. On 26 February 1859, Sickles, 39, discovered through a poison pen letter that his wife had been unfaithful, enjoying a year-long affair with “the handsomest man in all Washington society” Philip Barton Key. He was the US attorney for the District of Columbia and the son of Francis Scott Key, the composer of the Star Spangled Banner, the American national anthem.
Sickles made Teresa write a full confession. On 27 February, Key was loitering near the Sickles residence on Lafayette Square in Washington DC when Sickles rushed out to confront him. Shouting, “Key, you scoundrel! You have dishonoured my house. You must die!” Sickles shot Key. Though wounded, Key struggled with Sickles who shot him again, then stood over his victim, reloaded and shot him a third time, at point blank range.
Lafayette Square, Washington DC,USA
Sunday 27 February 1859
At the home of Attorney General Jeremiah Black on Franklin Square, Sickles gave himself up and confessed to the killing. While awaiting his trial Sickles was allowed to receive many visitors, so many that he used the head jailer’s rooms to see them. Oddly, he was also allowed to keep his weapon while in prison. The president James Buchanan even sent Sickles a letter.
Sickles hired several leading politicians to defend him, including Edwin M. Stanton, a future Secretary of War, and Chief Counsel James T. Brady. The trial opened on 4 April 1859. “You are here to fix the price of the marriage bed!” roared Associate Defence Attorney John Graham, in a speech so packed with quotations from Othello, Jewish history and Roman law that it lasted two days and later appeared in book form.
Teresa’s letter admitting her guilt was ruled inadmissible in court but Sickles leaked it to newspapers which printed it in full. Stanton argued that Teresa’s infidelity had left Sickles temporarily insane with grief and therefore not responsible for his actions. For the first time in US history this defence succeeded — Sickles was acquitted and was even considered a public benefactor for rescuing other women from Key’s beastly charms. Some time after the acquittal he admitted, “Of course I intended to kill him. He deserved it.” As his biographer noted, Sickles “was always in some sort of crisis, be it financial, legislative, sexual, or homicidal, and these situations invariably galvanized him into action, not always wise.” Sickles died on 3 May 1914, a few months short of his 95th birthday.