On a peaceful Sunday in 1859 in the nation’s capital, Congressman Daniel E. Sickles shot and killed U.S. District Attorney Philip Barton Key in broad daylight in Lafayette Square. The murder and subsequent trial captivated antebellum America and sparked nationwide debates about male honor, female virtue, insanity, and the rule of law.
In the spring of 1858, Teresa Sickles, the young pretty wife of first-term New York congressman Daniel Sickles, had begun an affair with the district attorney for Washington, Philip Barton Key II, who was the dashing son of Francis Scott Key, author of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The lovers would rendezvous at an unoccupied house on 15th Street, not far from the Sickles’ home on Lafayette Square. Extramarital affairs were not uncommon among Washington’s social circles at the time, but because the dalliance led to violence on February 27, 1859, it made headlines around the world.
By all appearances, the Sickles’ seemed like many ambitious couples who arrived in Washington. They often held receptions and dinners in their impressive home situated just steps from the White House (what is now Jackson Place to the west). By 1859, they were among the most popular party hosts in DC.
Two years prior, Congressman Sickles met Philip Barton Key at a late-night card game and the two became fast friends. Both men were said to have similar qualities of character: sociable, egocentric, debonair, and known womanizers (Brandt, 1991). Key, a widower, also became acquainted with Teresa. He often accompanied her around town, to parties, and to the theater. Rumor of the affair was the talk of Washington’s polite society, but the congressman remained oblivious.
The secret began to unravel on February 24, 1859. That evening, the Sickles’ had entertained dinner guests at their home. Afterward, most of the party, including Teresa, headed to a dance at the Willard Hotel when the congressman received a sealed note from a messenger that he stuffed in his pocket, unopened. It wasn’t until after returning home from the Willard that he opened it and was stunned to read about his wife’s extracurricular activities. The anonymous note provided details about where and how Teresa and Key were meeting, including that Key “hangs a string out of the window, as a signal to her that he is in and leaves the door unfastened, and she walks in…” Initially, the congressman considered that this was perhaps an unfounded rumor by a political rival, yet the specifics about the surreptitious comings and goings of his wife and Key persuaded him to investigate further.
The congressman asked his friend George Wooldridge to scope out the house and make inquiries with the neighbors, several of which confirmed seeing a couple matching the lovers’ descriptions spotted at the house on several occasions. When Wooldridge reported what he learned, the congressman was devastated. He confronted Teresa who at first vehemently denied the affair, but after her husband laid out all he had learned, she broke down and exclaimed, “I am betrayed and lost!” She confessed that she and Key engaged in an “intimacy of an improper kind,” stating, “I did what is usual for a wicked woman to do.” The congressman demanded her confession in writing.
After hearing her confession, Congressman Sickles decided that the affair was the result of Key taking advantage of his young wife and he began to contemplate revenge. Two days later, the opportunity presented itself when Key, who was unaware of the confrontation between the congressman and his wife, paced in front of the Sickles’ home waving his handkerchief as an attempt to signal to Teresa.
At that moment, the congressman was in the house having discussions with Wooldridge and another political supporter, Samuel F. Butterworth, about options on how to handle Key when he spotted the district attorney out front of his home signaling. At first, Wooldridge and Butterworth attempted to dissuade the congressmen of violence, warning of potential political repercussions. But the congressman argued that the scandal was out as the affair was already the talk of the town. “If that be so,” Butterworth said, “there is but one course left for you as a man of honor. You need no advice.” [Butterworth would later receive criticism in the press for this comment and lack of action.]
Oblivious to the drama playing out inside the Sickles’ home, Key continued to signal. Eventually he saw Butterworth approaching. The two men knew each other and exchanged pleasantries. As Butterworth turned away, Key saw Congressman Sickles advancing towards him. Thinking the exchange would be friendly, Key extended his hand asking, “How are you?” but the congressman was enraged. “You villain,” he cried, “you have dishonored my house and you must die!” The congressman pulled a pistol from his pocket and fired. The shot went wide and missed Key, who then realized the danger he was in. He grabbed Sickles by the coat in an attempt to stop him from firing again, but the congressman broke free and fired a second time hitting Key. “Don’t murder me! Murder!” Key yelled as he staggered back, imploring his assailant not to kill him. But the congressman was undeterred and lunged at his wife’s lover and shot him two more times at close range. Key lay dead on the sidewalk.
“This dreadful affair is the theme of conversation in every social community in the country. No event of a similar kind in our remembrance has excited so much comment.” — March 4, 1859 Louisville Daily Courier
After surrendering to authorities, the congressman hired a crack legal team to defend him that included James T. Brady, a prominent criminal lawyer from New York and a long-time friend of the congressman; renowned trial lawyer Edwin M. Stanton who later became Secretary of War under President Lincoln; and John Graham, a lawyer known for theatrical pleas to jurors’ emotions. At first, the case seemed fairly straightforward. The congressman had admitted to the shooting and expressed no remorse for killing Key who had cuckolded him. The congressman told reporters, “He had dishonored me, and we two could no longer live on the same planet,” New York Daily Tribune.
“The trial of Daniel E. Sickles for the killing of Philip Barton Key has been set down by the criminal court…it will be one of the most celebrated causes of the world.” — April 2, 1859 The New York Herald
The trial began on April 4, 1859. The defense presented their client as a man wronged, arguing that the congressman was temporarily insane at the time of the murder. While the insanity defense had long been used as a legal argument, the notion of someone being only temporarily insane had not been raised before.
Newspapers published extensive coverage of the trial. Teresa’s reputation was destroyed as her lengthy affair with Key was documented in detail throughout the trial and in the press. Although the court ruled that Teresa’s written confession would not be admitted into evidence, some papers printed Teresa’s confession, which created an entirely separate debate among the press about the morality and ethics of newspapers publishing such “salacious” and “disgusting” content. The Cincinnati Daily Gazette refused to print the confession. The London Morning Post, which did not publish coverage of the trial verbatim, did print the confession word for word. The Daily Evening Bulletin was prosecuted by the state of California for obscenity for publishing the confession; the owners were fined one hundred dollars each (DeRose, 2019).
John Graham’s opening statement for the defense focused on putting the victim on trial. He argued that Key was a known philanderer of the first order who had seduced the congressman’s young wife while painting Congressman Sickles as a sympathetic and wholesome husband and father who only desired justice for his family. The defense drove home the idea that blind rage and jealousy had driven the congressman briefly mad when he shot Key. The strategy proved effective. On April 26, the judge instructed the jury to consider the congressman’s state of mind at the time of the shooting. After deliberating for little more than an hour, the jury returned with a not-guilty verdict. The New York Herald reported how the courtroom erupted into cheers with enthusiasm. Others were appalled by the acquittal.
Within a week, a play depicting the murder entitled “Sickles, or the Washington Tragedy,” opened in Boston to rave reviews. Newspapers reported that it was dramatized close to the facts and “offers with it a good moral.”
After the trial, reports surfaced that Congressman Sickles and his wife had reconciled, a fact that shocked and angered the Washington elite who had justified his actions. It was not a sin to kill your wife’s lover, but to take back a fallen woman was unconscionable. Teresa was shunned by society and only her husband came to her defense. The congressman is quoted in the July 19, 1859 New York Herald, pleading to the public to be kind to Teresa and leave her alone.
Teresa never fully recovered from the scandal. She died of tuberculosis in 1867 at the age of thirty-one. Daniel Sickles went on to become a brigadier general during the American Civil War. He partially redeemed his reputation in 1863 when he lost a leg at the Battle of Gettysburg. After the war, he held a variety of positions including, diplomat to Colombia, Minister to Spain, and New York City Sheriff, to name but a few. He was also instrumental in the establishment of the Gettysburg Battlefield as a national park. He died in 1914 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
- Search Chronicling America* to find more newspaper coverage of the murder, trial, and more.
- Star Spangled Scandal: Sex, Murder, and the Trial that Changed America by Chris DeRose (2019).
- The Congressman Who Got Away with Murder by Nat Brandt (1991).
- De Witts’s “Special Report”: Trial of the Hon. Daniel E. Sickles for Shooting Philip Barton Key Esq., U.S. District Attorney, of Washington, D.C., February 27, 1859 accessible via HathiTrust
*The Chronicling America historic newspapers online collection is a product of the National Digital Newspaper Program and jointly sponsored by the Library and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
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Standards of “obscenity” certainly have changed since 1859.
“ The Daily Evening Bulletin was prosecuted by the state of California for obscenity for publishing the confession;”