The Sickles Trial
Friends of Padre Steve’s World
I am a historian as well as a chaplain and priest. I do a lot of work with the Battle of Gettysburg and much of my work involves biography as I believe that the one constant in history is people. Technology and many other things may change, but people and human nature are constant, for good and for bad, and frankly I find people fascinating.
One of the most fascinating people of the Battle of Gettysburg is Union Major General Daniel E. Sickles, a man who was one of the most fascinating, salacious, scandalous, and incredible figures ever to grace and disgrace American history.
This is the second of a multi-part series taken from my Gettysburg and Civil War text. It deals with one of the most memorable trials in American History. I hope that you enjoy.
The stage was now set for the one of the most unbelievable and storied trials in American history, a trial that would have been much more suited to the era of 24/7 cable news coverage and the Internet than the era of the telegraph and newspaper, but even so it was sensational by any standard and it riveted the attention of the public in every part of the nation, from the largest cities to the smallest towns.
Almost immediately swarms of journalists were camped outside the prison and Sickles’ house where distraught Teresa sought a way to gain Dan’s forgiveness having received his broken wedding band which he sent to her from the jail. Witnesses to her dalliances with Key at the 15th Street house and other venues were brought to the Stockton Mansion to identify her. “She was the meat in the market, the ogre at the carnival. A little way across the square, souvenir hunters were cutting fragments of wood out of the tree by which Key had fallen, and artists from the illustrated papers set up their easels and began sketching every aspect of the area – the railings, the Stockton Mansion, the Clubhouse.”  A Presbyterian pastor who knew the couple found her obsessed by the shame that she had brought upon herself and her daughter, and he “found her in such mental agony that he feared for her sanity and even felt that she might try to take her life.” 
It was a credit to her own emotional strength that Teresa survived the ordeal that she had helped to bring about, and which she found herself blamed for, even by her father, who felt that she had dishonored the Bagioli family name. Antonio Bagioli wrote to Dan in prison, “You have heaped on my child affection, kindness, devotion, generosity. You have been a good son, a true friend, and a devoted, kind, loving husband and father.”  Of all the commentators, it was the eminent historian and diplomat George Bancroft who seemed to have any “sense of Teresa’s pain: “Poor child, what a cruel thing to deprive her of her sole stay and support. Key was the only man she could look to for sympathy and protection.” 
After Barton Key’s lifeless body was borne off in a mahogany casket to the Presbyterian cemetery in Baltimore and buried in the grave of his dead wife, and his children placed in the care of his family, his effects, what they amounted to, including his resplendent Montgomery Guards uniform were “sold off to a morbid, bargain-hunting, souvenir-hounding crowd.”  It was an ignoble end to the scandalous story of the son of Francis Scott Key, a story that soon with all of its salacious detail would be revealed to the public.
Meanwhile, inside the jail her husband, alternating between fits of rage and calm was visited by Washington’s Mayor James Barret, Sam Butterworth, Attorney General Black, Vice President John C. Breckinridge, and Speaker of the House, James Orr. He was comforted by the many expressions of support and sympathy found in scores of letters from people around the country, one of the first “a kindly note from the President,”  and others from total strangers. He was also joined by friends and allies from New York and Washington. “James Topham Brady, John Graham, and Thomas Francis Meagher, able lawyers all, arrived post haste to defend their rash ally”  as well as his father who before offering encouragement to his son offered a sharp chastisement, “You hot-headed fool! That’s no way to settle things! No woman’s worth it! No matter how you come out of this, you’ve killed your career – White House and everything else.”  Undeterred and calm Dan told his father that he understood and that if he had to he would do it again, after which, his father began to discuss the organization of his son’s defense with this legal team.
The case was front page news in all the major newspapers, which provided “extensive coverage of the “Sickles Tragedy.” Sickles’ murder of his friend Key in broad daylight in view of the White House had all of the scandalous elements that have thrilled Americans then and even today: “adultery, politics, celebrity, and a handsome corpse,”  not to mention a beautiful young woman who even more than her husband who had killed a man, stood accused in the eye of the public.
Despite the notoriety of the case, many people found sympathy with Sickles and believed that no jury would convict him of murder or manslaughter, after all, Teresa was the one who committed adultery with Key. The New York Herald “doubted that a grand jury would indict him. Even if he were indicted, Harper’s Weekly presumed that no jury would convict him of manslaughter if the adultery charge were proven, which it considered a foregone conclusion.”  The New York Times noted well before the trial opened, “there appears to be no second opinion as to the certainty of Mr. Sickles acquittal” but “national interest” arose from “the general desire to see the whole case fairly put, and the million scandals of mystery laid to rest by the plain facts.”  Newspapers like the New York Evening Post, his political arch-enemy found the murder an excellent opportunity to attack Sickles, “That wretched man, Daniel E. Sickles, has in his career reached the stage of assassination, and dipped his hands in human blood… It is certain that a man… who in his own practice, regards adultery as a joke and the matrimonial bond as no barrier against the utmost caprice of licentiousness – has little right to complain when the mischief which he carriers without scruple into other families enters his own.”  But such commentary was the exception, and it came from the organ of a political enemy. It is an interesting comment on the era, that a woman’s adultery, even when committed by the wife of an adulterous male who had killed her lover, was consider more of a social stigma and crime than murder.
Within days Sickles had assembled one of the most formidable defense teams ever to dominate an American court. Brady, who was considered to be the ablest criminal defense lawyer of his day became the lead attorney for the defense team, and was joined by Sickles’ New York friends, Graham and Meagher. Brady was an excellent choice, he “was admired and even loved by society in general, but on top of that, though his legal repertoire was wide, he had been involved successfully in more than fifty murder cases.” And he “had also made a special study of pleas of insanity,”  something that would figure greatly in the trial.
Additionally, President Buchanan helped recruit one of the finest attorneys in the country, the future Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton to the team. They were joined by four lesser known, yet high-powered attorneys; Samuel Chilton a Virginian who later represented John Brown, and his partner Allen Magruder, Daniel Ratcliffe, and Philip Phillips, a former Alabama Congressman and member of Washington’s Jewish community. Additionally, Reverdy Johnson, one of the most respected attorneys of the day served as an occasional advisor. “The Washington Evening Star observed that Sickles was collecting a lot of lawyers for a man whose defenders did not expect to leave their box before acquitting him.” 
Sickles’ defense team was a nineteenth century legal Dream Team against which the government deployed but one attorney, Key’s former assistant District Attorney Robert Ould. Ould, described by one of Sickles’ biographers as “a dull bull of a man, at one time a Baptist parson,”  had been named acting District Attorney by President Buchanan when Key was killed. It was an odd place for Ould, as he was serving to prosecute his former boss’s killer, at the behest of the President, who happened to be one of the defendant’s best friends. Ould, the former parson “was placed by inference in the unhappy position of defending adultery – something that he indignantly denied, insisting that he was merely prosecuting a killer….”  but to many people, the murderer of an adulterer by an aggrieved husband was complete justified. Ould was totally outclassed by the defense team, and Key’s family paid to have John Carlisle a respected Washington attorney to aid Ould in the case, but the trial would prove them appear incompetent and not up to the task of convicting Sickles.
Teresa Sickles Confession on the Front Page of Harper’s Weekly
The defense pushed for a speedy trial and decided, as many lawyers do today, to try the case in the newspapers, which in light of the lurid nature of the story hung on every word coming out of Washington. The defense team pursued the strategy of “entirely reversing the roles of Sickles and Key by putting the dead man on trial for having made a victim of the defendant, and the New York Press prepared the public for just such an emotional appeal.”  The news stories printed by papers that supported Sickles as well as those of his detractors helped inflame the public as the newspapers across the country “wherever wires ran, were front-paging the story under screaming headlines and, in larger cities, rushing out extras every hour or two, as fresh details came to hand.”  The private affairs of Dan and Teresa Sickles became known around the nation, and even though the judge in the case refused to admit the confessions Sickles had forced from Teresa into evidence they found their way into the papers, some like Harper’s not only ran the text but reproduced the confession in enlarged facsimile form. The question in many people’s mind “was Dan Sickles justified in slaying the man who had betrayed his confidence and seduced his wife?… As a consequence the whole country turned jury.” 
The trial began on April 4th, just over a month after the killing and barely a week after the indictment was handed down. The first three days involved jury selection, a task that the defense turned over to Philip Phillips, who sparred with the prosecutor Ould over the twelve men who would eventually sit in judgment of Dan Sickles. Ould attempted to gain a favorable jury by introducing the property qualifications of jurors, he “ruled out jurors who did not meet the requirement of owning property valued at $800. Since this $800 property limit had not been imposed in similar cases, Ould’s insistence on it would attract much scorn from Dan’s lawyers…”  Sickles’ team fought back embarrassing Ould in the process, but not getting the judge to change his narrow application of the law to help the defense. Over two hundred potential jurors were examined before twelve unbiased jurors could be found, and a “great majority of those dismissed confess strong prejudice in favor of the prisoner.”  When the jury was seated it was composed of twelve men, two farmers, four grocers, a merchant, a tinner, a coach maker, a men’s clothing salesman, a shoemaker, and a cabinetmaker, “but not a single “gentleman” in the occupational sense.” 
Ould opened his case, “ponderously, powerfully, in the blackest of terms,”  he drew a picture of the killing. He delivered an “emotionally charged argument that Sickles, “a walking magazine,” had taken deliberate care in arming himself against Key, who only had “a poor and feeble opera-glass.”  Ould argued “that homicide with a deadly weapon, perpetrated by a party who has all the advantage on his side and with all the deliberate cruelty and vindictiveness, is murder, no matter what the antecedent provocation in the case.”  He then called twenty-eight witnesses, the majority of whom had actually witnessed the shooting, but he did not call upon Butterworth, Teresa, or the young White House page boy who had told President Buchanan and been sent away. Likewise he had not established intent, a key factor in any murder trial, nor had he introduced evidence that he had obtained regarding Sickles’ own affairs with women in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and elsewhere. The presentation of the physical evidence of Barton Key’s clothing and the bullet that supposedly killed Key was botched, the bullet that the prosecution claimed to have killed key did not fit either the Derringer, or the Colt revolver. Thus Ould left open for the defense the chance to explore all the salacious details of the case to put Key on trial, and to establish exculpatory reasons why Sickles had killed Key. Ould’s presentation of his case was brief, and so futile “that it seemed that Key was on trial for seduction, not that Sickles was on trial for murder.” 
Sickles in the Prisoner’s Dock
The defense team made mincemeat of the prosecution. John Graham’s opening statement was a work of oratory genius that “would massively outshine Robert Ould’s more cumbersome opening.” Weaving allusions from Shakespeare and other literary greats into his statement, he painted Sickles as the victim of a adulterous rogue who had on a Sunday, a day when he should have “sent his aspirations heavenward,” had instead besieged “that castle where for security and repose the law had placed the wife and children of his neighbor.”  Casting Sickles as the aggrieved and temporarily insane victim he also asked if it was a “crime for a husband to defend his family altar.” From there he proceeded to use quotes from Shakespeare’s Othello he inveighs against the adulterer as the supreme criminal, piling up quotation upon quotation from the Old Testament and Roman law to show that in wiser days the punishment invariably was death’”  to paint the picture of Sickles’ agony as he saw the man who had defiled his wife prowling outside of his home. Graham then went to provocation and argued that due the circumstance of the crime, a friend and confidant attempting to defile Sickles’ wife on a Sunday that the prosecution “needed to prove Dan’s sanity at the time of the act. And they could not do that, because there was not enough in the case “to melt the heart that is not cut from the unwedgeable gnarled oak.”  It was a masterful performance.
Over the next two weeks, Brady, Stanton, and Graham would continue to hammer the prosecution case. The defense proved that Key’s family had tampered with evidence, including testimony from a locksmith who had changed the locks at the 15th Street house at the direction of Key’s family. Witness after witness was introduced to undermine the prosecution and support the defense’s claim that Sickles’ was indeed in a state of uncontrollable madness, and the defense deftly parried the prosecutor’s rebuttal witnesses. When Ould attempted to keep African American witnesses from testifying Stanton, thundered and “accused the prosecution of a “monstrous” attempt to suppress evidence in its zeal of the defendant’s blood,”  and argued from North Carolina precedent that the prosecution was not willing to grant Sickles the same right as a slave. As his lawyers argued his case and witnesses gave testimony Sickles maintained his composure except for a number of times when he broke down and had to be excused from the proceedings. “Whether the courtroom histrionics were real or an award-winning performance, the jury witnessed firsthand a husband who was mentally unable to bear his wife with another man.”  On the Friday the 22nd of April Judge Crawford declared the testimony closed and the next day began the closing arguments.
Saturday April 23rd dawned with a violent gale, but that did not prevent crowds of people from trying to gain admittance to the courtroom. Edwin Stanton began the defense closing arguments in a manner that was calm and precise. He brought up that justifiable homicide included that which was “committed in defense of family chastity, the sanctity of the marriage bed, the matron’s honor, the virgin’s purity.”  Since the prosecution had never brought into evidence Sickles’ own violation of these covenants his attacks on Key and the prosecution case hit home. As he continued his voice rose to a roar, sounding like a prophet of ancient Israel “Who seeing this thin, would not exclaim to the unhappy husband, “Hasten, hasten, to save the mother of your child! And may the Lord who watches over the home and family guide the bullets and direct the stroke!”  When Stanton finished the court erupted in a frenzy as spectators as well as supporters of Sickles applauded his closing.
Next up was Brady who went on for three hours, captivating the audience which hung on every word. “When Daniel Sickles realized how he had been betrayed, all the emotions of his nature changed into a single impulse; every throb of his heart brought before him the sense of his great injuries; every drop of his blood was burdened with a sense of shame; he was crushed by inexorable agony in the loss of his wife, in the dishonor that he had come upon his child, in the knowledge that the future – which had opened to him so full of brilliancy – had now been enshrouded in eternal gloom by one who, contrawise, should have invoked form the eternal God his greatest effulgence on the path of his friend….” 
The closing had been masterful, emotional, and dramatic. In response Ould attempted to recover, but his arguments were weak, he agreed with the defense about the crime of adultery, and attempted to redirect the jury’s attention that it was Sickles who was on trial for murder and not Key for adultery, but he had already lost that argument. He called the defense of temporary insanity a ploy and “mentioned how easily, and readily a man on trial for his life might pretend to be deranged if he were on trial for his life.” But it was too little, too late. Since there was no psychiatric profession to weigh in on the matter, the argument of temporary insanity fell back on the “tradition of male marital dominance” and “that argument played well among men who rarely wore collars on their shirts…”  the very kind of men seated in the jury booth. When the jury recessed to deliberate Sickles’ fate on the 26th it took them less than an hour to return their verdict, and few were surprised when it came back “not guilty.” Stanton “was so excited that he did a jig in the courtroom, the hoarsely called for three cheers.”  As he did “Pandemonium and cheers broke out in the courtroom.”  People crowded around to congratulate Sickles and the crush was so great that Sickles had to be escorted for the courtroom. President Buchanan on hearing the verdict was delighted, later in the evening, though he sought rest, Sickles was taken by Brady to a gala in his honor attended by nearly 1500 supporters and well-wishers. The trial was over but the trials of Dan Sickles were not.
 Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.142
 Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.63
 Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.146
 Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.147
 Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.117
 Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.117
 Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible pp.62-63
 Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.116
 Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.12
 Marvel, William Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 2015 p.103
 Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg pp.12-13
 Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.63
 Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.151
 Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.103
 Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.121
 Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.64
 Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.104
 Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.118
 Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles pp.118-119
 Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.162
 Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.120
 Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.105
 Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.122
 Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.14
 Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.122
 Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.65
 Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.173
 Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.173
 Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.124
 Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.175
 Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.107
 Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.15
 Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.127
 Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.128
 Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.129
 Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.110
 Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.66
 Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.17