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Love, Adultery, and Madness

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Harper's Weekly. The Trial of the Hon. Daniel E. Sickles for the murder of P. Barton Key, Esq., at Washington, D.C. Wood engraving. Published April 9, 1859. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,
Harper’s Weekly. The Trial of the Hon. Daniel E. Sickles for the murder of P. Barton Key, Esq., at Washington, D.C. Wood engraving. Published April 9, 1859. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division,

It is often said that love can drive you mad. As further evidence, take the 19th Century case (see page 494) that is said to have introduced the defense of temporary insanity in American jurisprudence. This case resulted from an affair between the wife of a member of Congress and one of Francis Scott Key’s sons. In 1859, Daniel Sickles was a Congressman from New York with a young, beautiful wife named Teresa. As a former secretary of the legation at London, Sickles was frequently absent due to his work, and soon Teresa commenced an affair with Francis Scott Key’s son, Philip Barton Key II. Now, it should be said that Sickles himself was not an angel by reputation, and was frequently seen in the company of a courtesan. It has been said that all of Washington Society knew of his wife’s affair except for Sickles, until one day he received a mysterious note signed “R.P.G.” that revealed the affair and how Key contacted Teresa, concluding, “I do assure you that he as much the use of your wife as you have.”

Sickles confronted Teresa and forced her to make a handwritten confession to the affair in his presence, stating, “I did what is usual for a wicked woman to do.” The confession was later published. Teresa’s confirmation only made Sickles inconsolable with sorrow. As his friends, Samuel Butterworth and George Woolridge, met in Sickles’ library to discuss what to do about the situation, Sickles noticed Key signaling from the street with his handkerchief. Butterworth agreed to venture out and see if Key had rented a room in a club located across from the Sickles’ home in Lafayette Park and quickly encountered Key. They greeted one another, and then an enraged Sickles came upon them. Sickles yelled, “Key, you scoundrel! You have dishonored my house – you must die!”

Armed with two derringers and a five shot revolver, Sickles fired upon Key, but only grazed him. Key reached into his own coat for a means of defense, but found only opera glasses. Key wrestled with Sickles, and Sickles dropped his gun. Freeing himself from Key’s grip, Sickles produced another gun, and Key began to stumble backwards, crying, “Don’t shoot me, don’t murder me!” Sickles fired, striking Key in the groin. Key fell, and Sickles drove a point-blank shot into Key’s chest. Finally, Sickles put a gun to Key’s head and pulled the trigger, but the gun misfired. A group of men arrived on the scene, and Sickles was led away by Butterworth while Key lay dying.

Key quickly died and Sickles confessed to shooting him. It would seem Sickles would almost certainly be convicted of murder, but he was defended by a team of prominent lawyers, including the future Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton. The defense successfully argued that Sickles was in a state of temporary insanity. After his acquittal, Sickles continued to enjoy a prominent place in Washington society and retained the public’s sympathy until he did something that was considered truly unforgivable; he forgave Teresa.

Sickles later rose to the rank of major general during the Civil War. Though his service at the Battle of Gettysburg is controversial, due to the fact that he moved his corps in direct disobedience of his commander’s orders, he managed to endear himself to the public when he responded with stoicism to the loss of his leg in the battle. Over thirty years later, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his gallantry at Gettysburg. Sickles’ amputated leg is occasionally displayed by the National Museum of Health and Medicine, (it was formerly displayed at the Army Medical Museum) and he visited it every year on the anniversary of its loss.

Teresa passed away in 1867 at the age of 31. Daniel Sickles lived nearly a century, later serving as a minister to Spain, where he was rumored to have had an affair with the deposed Queen Isabella II. He passed away in 1914 in New York City.

Philip was not the only one of Francis Scott Key’s sons to meet a tragic end. Daniel Key perished in a duel at the Bladensburg dueling ground after fighting an unsuccessful duel with a fellow midshipman.

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