Dan Sickles Part Two: Murder in Lafayette Square

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am taking a break over this Thanksgiving weekend and am re-posting some articles from my Gettysburg text dealing with a man that I consider one of the most fascinating , salacious, scandalous, heroic, and incredible figures ever to grace and disgrace American history, Congressman, and Civil War General Daniel E. Sickles.

I hope that you enjoy,

Peace

Padre Steve+

philip-barton-key-granger

 

Within a year of his assignment Sickles returned to the United States to help prepare the Democratic nomination for his friend Buchanan who had long desired the office, and return to his lucrative post in New York. In the spring of 1856 Sickles began to work on Buchanan’s nomination for the Presidency and while doing so began his own campaign for New York’s Third District’s Congressional seat. Buchanan won the election of 1856 against an opposition divided between the Know Nothing candidacy of former President Millard Fillmore and the candidate of the new Republican Party, John C. Fremont.

In the election of 1856, Sickles carried the district easily. For Sickles it was a triumph, he was “riding a flood tide of political fortune that might carry him far,” [1] and like any wife Teresa too was delighted with the result. Even so, Teresa must have wondered if her husband would mend his ways now that he was on the national spotlight, or if he would continue his extramarital romps around the nation’s capital. Following the election Dan and Teresa moved to Washington D.C. where they took up a fashionable residence, the Stockton Mansion, on Lafayette Square, not far from the White House and Sickles friend, James Buchanan.

Once he was established in Washington Sickles was in his element, politics at its grandest. It was a different style than of politics than Tammany, where brass knuckled force often ruled, but it suited Sickles, who was “a fixer who knew all the tricks of Tammany at its crookedest but who seems not to have taken graft himself. He had his sights fixed on the presidency, and he was making about as much progress in that direction as a Tammany man can,” [2]   until a strange combination of unrequited love, infidelity, the personal betrayal of a friend, and a murder intervened.

HarpersMagazineMrs.Sickles

Teresa Sickles

While her husband politicked along the Potomac, the new congressman’s wife was adapting to her life in Washington D.C. The wives were expected to entertain and host parties on a regular basis at their residences, but they also knew their share of loneliness and neglect. Since legislators routinely were “busy with night sessions, committee meetings, and plain nocturnal politicking over whiskey punch, that their wives either accepted other escorts or spent lonely evenings at home with fancywork or a book.” thus it was not surprising that Teresa, “should seek the gayety of the capital in her first year there.” [3] In the absence of their husbands it “was not uncommon for available bachelors to act as escorts for married women when their husbands were unavailable.” [4] Since Dan Sickles was frequently unavailable and since Teresa probably still suspected that Dan was still engaged in extramarital affairs, it is not surprising that the young Mediterranean beauty found comfort in another man.

The years of 1857 and 1858 would be a tumultuous time for the nation as well as the Sickles. Buchanan had been elected because of his stability and moderation in an age of pro and anti-slavery radicalism. However, over the next year his presidency, and his would be overwhelmed by events and Buchanan’s decisions supporting the expansion of slavery. While Sickles was neither a slave owner, nor himself fond of the institution, it was part of life, and many of his friends in Washington D.C. and in Congress were slave holders. Buchanan had schemed before his inauguration with Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Roger Taney in the Dred Scott decision, which was handed down in the days following Buchanan’s inauguration, followed by the fiasco over the Lecompton constitution and the attempted admission of Kansas as a Slave State, an event which split the Democratic party in the 1860 election, ensuring Abraham Lincoln’s defeat of Buchanan’s Lecompton foe in the Senate, Senator Stephen A. Douglas who would have been the prohibitive favorite in the election had the split not occurred.

Likewise, Sickles and his beautiful young wife would become part of one of the most sensational trials of American history, rivaling the Lindbergh kidnapping trial, the trial of O.J. Simpson, the Scopes Monkey Trial, and the Impeachment of President Bill Clinton in its captivation of America. As in London, Teresa became popular and she and Dan were much sought after and their home “became the scene of a gradual number of and entertainments,” [5] and even as Sickles continued his robust politicking and philandering Teresa became the object of another’s affection, the District of Attorney for the District of Columbia, Philip Barton Key, the son Francis Scott key, the writer of the Star Spangled Banner. Interestingly enough it was Sickles who had helped Key the troubled man to be reappointed to his office in early 1857 after Key had helped Sickles overcome legal and financial difficulties to secure Sickles in the Stockton Mansion and the two men developed a warm friendship.

Philip Key was extraordinarily handsome, especially when outfitted in his green and gold militia uniform of the Montgomery Guards, and was considered one of the most desirable men in Washington. An accomplished horsemen he rode about town on his “horse Lucifer – a nobly bred, dapple gray hunter.”[6] When he gained Sickles’ friendship many of his well to do political and society friends became frequent visitors to the Sickles household. After Sickles had helped Key to be reappointed to his office, Key was instrumental in helping make the arrangements for Sickles to rent the Stockton Mansion.

During his first term in office Key was not known for being a particularly good District Attorney and spent much time away from the office complaining about his allegedly poor health. But his health did not keep him away from Washington’s party scene and “One hostess called him “the handsomest man in all Washington… he was a prominent figure at all the principle functions; a graceful dancer, her was a favorite of every hostess of the day.” [7] When he met Teresa, the dashing bachelor took an intense interest in the wife of the man who had helped him retain his job. The two were soon attending many functions together that Sickles, due to his work schedule could seldom attend.

Within weeks Key became a frequent guest at the Sickles home and few were surprised at this, as most observers knew that Sickles was responsible for Key’s reappointment. With Sickles now fully engaged in the dramatic political battles of late 1857, Teresa and Key began to spend much more time together. The two were seen together at the “theater, at teas, at hops. But most of all they went riding together.” [8] The frequency of these visits was noted and became the source of much gossip but Sickles was unaware of it and entertained no suspicions that his new friend was becoming deeply involved with his wife, and that Key had rented a room where the two could intimate.

That was until a young man equally smitten by Teresa had a few drinks with a colleague and the colleague shared the information with a loyal Sickles ally who then told Sickles. Sickles was shocked and called for a meeting with Key, however, after a brief conversation, Key convinced Sickles that there was nothing to the rumors, and Sickles was satisfied.

Though Sickles had been satisfied by the explanation, “despite his own well-publicized moral lapses, Daniel Sickles was a man of intense personal pride who would not countenance the breath of scandal attaching to his wife.” [9] He took the time to warn her to make sure that she was not involved in any other indiscretions, and left the subject. However, Key and Teresa continued to see each other, and “she and Barton thought that they were taking more care, and being less observed by people than they were.” [10] Yet as they pursued one another their affair became increasingly public, and seen by too many people not to go unnoticed. The two were seen together in at the Congressional Cemetery, and frequently at a house at “385 15th Street where he would enter the by the front door – and she the back.” [11] When a mutual friend expressed his concerns, Key shrugged off the warning, and “with the bravado of a proud weakling, he still held his course. And Teresa, ductile, enamored, blindly followed his lead.” [12] Another friend of Key suggested to him that he could be in danger, but Key “bridled and patted the breast of his coat. “I am prepared for any emergency,” he snapped. Key was a crack pistol shot and his friend believed that Key was preparing for a possible confrontation. [13]

Like so many people young spouses who find their needs unfulfilled at home, and who suspect their spouse of infidelity, , “Teresa did not see this love affair as tragic and dangerous. She lived within it as a secret fantasy, as in a virtual and time-consuming experience that lacked any power to inflict damage on other areas of her life.” [14] She became less discreet, Key would signal to her from across the street to confirm their dalliances and despite their insipidly inept attempt to hide the affair it became clear to Sickles’ coachman and household maids that the two were engaged in sexual encounters in the Sickles carriage and in the Stockton Mansion itself.

The situation finally came to a head in February 1859 following Sickles reelection and return to Washington. “Made more reckless than ever by their recent separation, Barton and Teresa now again were seen everywhere together.” [15] The couple were now making clandestine liaisons on a nearly daily basis, and eventually, one of the observers decided to tell Sickles. The anonymous source, using the initials of R.P.G. sent Sickles a letter detailing the affair. Sickles received the letter from a butler on the night of Thursday February 24th as he was leaving the usual dinner party at his house for the traditional hop that followed at the Willard Hotel.

Sickles did not read the letter until after the couple returned home and Teresa had gone to bed. Sickles was stunned and at first did not believe the contents as he placed little stock in anonymous messages. So he had George Wooldridge, a longtime friend and congressional clerk investigate, and on Saturday February 26th Wooldridge confirmed Sickles worst fears. That evening at their home Sickles confronted Teresa about the letter and as he stormed about angrily in their bedroom she confessed, after which Sickles had her write out her confession detailing everything. He may have been desolate and angry, but he was a lawyer, and he got his written proof.

But scandal was the last thing that Sickles wanted, as he had higher aspirations in politics, so he immediately called his friends for counsel and by Sunday morning several, including Wooldridge and Samuel Butterworth were at the Stockton Mansion with Sickles. As always, Sickles’ “first thoughts were for himself, and he melodramatically”[16] exclaimed to Butterworth, “I am a dishonored and ruined man…I cannot look you in the face.” [17]

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Murder

His friends “were profoundly touched by the depth of his feeling, and were convinced that he needed to be saved from a severe derangement of his senses; from lunacy, that is.” [18] his friends attempts to calm him, Sickles was beside himself with anger, and his anger now swirled around his marriage and what he believed was the scandal that would cost hi his career. That afternoon, Key again tempted fate, this time, for the last time. He had been tipped off by an anonymous letter that the affair was public, but he was determined to see Teresa. He made several passes by the house, each time signaling with a handkerchief, until Sickles observed him. Sickles called out to Butterworth “That villain has just passed my house! My God, this is horrible!” [19]

Butterworth left the house first and met Key at the southeast corner of Lafayette Square across from the White House. Allegedly not knowing Sickles intended any harm, Butterworth walked with Key to for a few minutes and then left. The exchange delayed Key and gave Sickles, who had armed himself with a single shot large caliber Derringer, and a muzzle-loading Colt revolver, enough time to catch up with Key near the Club House on Madison on the east side of the square. Sickles was raving but Dan’s fury transcended reality,” [20] as at least a dozen witnesses were nearby as he screamed, “Key, you scoundrel, … you have dishonored my bed – and you must die!” [21] Sickles pulled out the revolver, the first shot from which grazed Key, and the second which misfired. A brief scuffle ensued as Key lunged at his assailant, but Sickles flung him to the ground, and drew the Derringer as Key threw the opera glasses that he viewed Teresa at Dan. A third shot hit Key in the groin and he slumped to the ground screaming “Murder! Murder!… Don’t shoot!” [22]

If there was a chance for Sickles to prove that he acted in self-defense it was now, but he could not control himself. He fired the revolver yet again and it misfired. He placed the weapon in his pocket and drew the Derringer, and fired a shot which hit Key in the Liver. As Key writhed on the ground Sickles tossed the Derringer to the ground and he again drew the Colt. As the stunned witnesses to the attack looked on, Sickles advanced toward the fallen Key and placed the gun at his head and pulled the trigger, but again the weapon misfired. As Sickles attempted to place another cap in the pistol, a number of witnesses began to intervene. One man, “a member of the club, running up, stopped him. Mr. sickles – for God’s sake!” And Butterworth, coming forward, took Dan by the arm. Without a word, they walked away together.” [23] Witnesses took the mortally wounded Key away to the Club, where he expired.

President Buchanan was almost immediately told of the murder by a White House page boy, was aware of the implications of the scandal, Sickles was a friend and political ally with much promise. Buchanan told the boy leave town and gave him a sum of money to facilitate his departure. Soon after Sickles and Butterworth went by carriage “to the home of Attorney General Black, where the Congressman formally surrenders himself to the silver-haired Cabinet member who had regarded him as a protégé.” [24]He declined bail in favor of a speedy trial, was allowed to go home where he told Teresa that he had killed her lover, retrieved some personal items and then went to the District jail, “a foul hole, swarming with vermin, destitute of sewage, bath, water, ventilation, and so inadequate to its purpose that often a dozen or more prisoners were herded into a single narrow cell.” [25] When he arrived he reportedly asked the jailer if they were the best accommodations available, to which the jailer responded “this is the best place you members of Congress have afforded us.” [26] Dejected, but undeterred Sickles sent a message to the public, “In doing what I had to do I have broken the law. Therefore I place myself behind bars. It is for you to set me free.” [27] The stage was now set for the one of the most unbelievable and storied trials in American history.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.4

[2] Ibid. Catton The Army of the Potomac: Glory Road p.151

[3] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.15

[4] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.8

[5] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.16

[6] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.74

[7] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.9

[8] ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.20

[9] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.25

[10] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.92

[11] Ibid. Wilson and Clair They Also Served p.99

[12] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.94

[13] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.44

[14] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.92

[15] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.93

[16] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.10

[17] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.53

[18] Ibid Keneally American Scoundrel p.121

[19] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.10

[20] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.127

[21] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.54

[22] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.11

[23] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.112

[24] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.55

[25] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.114

[26] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.135

[27] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.114

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