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Dan Sickles Part Three: “The Whole Country Turned Jury”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I am taking a break for a while to read and reflect and as such I 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+

HD_TrialofDanielSickles1859.preview

The Sickles Trial

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.” [1] 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.” [2]

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.” [3] 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.” [4]

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.” [5] 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,” [6] 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” [7] 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.” [8]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.

rerl_02_img0122

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,” [9] 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.” [10] 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.”[11]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.” [12] 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,” [13] 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.” [14]

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,” [15] 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….” [16] 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.

HarpersMagazineTeresaConfession

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.” [17] 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.” [18] 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.” [19]

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…”[20]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.” [21] 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.” [22]

Ould opened his case, “ponderously, powerfully, in the blackest of terms,” [23] 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.” [24] 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.”[25]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.” [26]

sickles in the box

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.” [27]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.” [28] 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’” [29] 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.” [30] 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,” [31] 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.” [32] 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.” [33] 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!” [34] 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….” [35]

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…” [36] 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.” [37]As he did “Pandemonium and cheers broke out in the courtroom.” [38]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.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.142

[2] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.63

[3] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.146

[4] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.147

[5] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.117

[6] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.117

[7] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible pp.62-63

[8] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.116

[9] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.12

[10] Marvel, William Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 2015 p.103

[11] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg pp.12-13

[12] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.63

[13] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.151

[14] Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.103

[15] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.121

[16] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.64

[17] Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.104

[18] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.118

[19] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles pp.118-119

[20] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.162

[21] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.120

[22] Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.105

[23] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.122

[24] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.14

[25] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.122

[26] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.65

[27] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.173

[28] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.173

[29] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.124

[30] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.175

[31] Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.107

[32] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.15

[33] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.127

[34] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.128

[35] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.129

[36] Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.110

[37] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.66

[38] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.17

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Dan Sickles Part Three: Trial of the Century

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+

HD_TrialofDanielSickles1859.preview

The Sickles Trial

 

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.” [1] 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.” [2]

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.” [3] 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.” [4]

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.” [5] 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,” [6] 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” [7] 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.” [8]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.

rerl_02_img0122

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,” [9] 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.” [10] 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.” [11]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.” [12] 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,” [13] 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.” [14]

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,” [15] 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….” [16] 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.

HarpersMagazineTeresaConfession

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.” [17] 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.” [18] 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.” [19]

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…”[20] 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.” [21] 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.” [22]

Ould opened his case, “ponderously, powerfully, in the blackest of terms,” [23] 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.” [24] 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.”[25] 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.” [26]

sickles in the box

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.” [27]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.” [28] 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’” [29] 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.” [30] 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,” [31] 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.” [32] 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.” [33] 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!” [34] 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….” [35]

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…” [36] 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.” [37] As he did “Pandemonium and cheers broke out in the courtroom.” [38]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.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.142

[2] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.63

[3] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.146

[4] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.147

[5] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.117

[6] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.117

[7] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible pp.62-63

[8] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.116

[9] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.12

[10] Marvel, William Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 2015 p.103

[11] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg pp.12-13

[12] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.63

[13] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.151

[14] Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.103

[15] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.121

[16] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.64

[17] Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.104

[18] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.118

[19] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles pp.118-119

[20] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.162

[21] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.120

[22] Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.105

[23] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.122

[24] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.14

[25] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.122

[26] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.65

[27] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.173

[28] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.173

[29] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.124

[30] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.175

[31] Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.107

[32] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.15

[33] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.127

[34] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.128

[35] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.129

[36] Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.110

[37] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.66

[38] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.17

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When Political Parties Implode: “A Gross Violation of a Sacred Pledge”

whig-split

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I have been writing about the coming collapse of the Republican Party and have decided to republish some of my writings dealing with what happened to the Whig and Democratic Parties between 1854 and 1860. Today an article about how that process started from my draft text “Mine Eyes have seen the Glory” Race, Religion, Ideology and Politics in the Civil War Era.

Peace

Padre Steve+

The Compromise of 1850 was followed by another congressional act dealing with the status of the Kansas, Nebraska Territory. Both territories lay north of the line barring slavery set by the Missouri Compromise. While that act had been gutted and for all practical sense made meaningless by the Compromise of 1850, it still remained on the books and applied to the establishment of new territories.

The new legislation was sparked by those who in the interest of Manifest Destiny were committed to organizing the territories of the nation to the Pacific, and in some cases to Central America and Cuba. The man at the heart of this legislation was Democratic Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois. Douglas saw the need for the organization of the territories and recognized that he needed Southern support for its passage. In response to pressure from Democrat Senators James Mason and Robert M. T. Hunter of Virginia, Andrew Butler of South Carolina and David Atchison of Missouri, Douglas crafted the measure and included an “explicit repeal of the ban on slavery north of 36° 30’.” [1]

The explicit use of this measure in the legislation to organize these territories created a storm in both in Washington D.C. and throughout the country. Northern opponents, including Salmon Chase condemned the bill as being “an atrocious plot” of slave power to “convert free territory” into a “dreary region of despotism, inhabited by masters and slaves.” [2] Chase and his allies published the “Appeal of the Independent Democrats” who “condemned this “gross violation of a sacred pledge” and promised to “call the people to come to the rescue of the country from the domination of slavery.” [3] Chase closed the appeal by warning that “the dearest interests of freedom and the Union are in imminent peril” and called for religious and political organization to defeat the bill.” [4]

Horace Greeley, the publisher of the New York Tribune, transformed his paper into an instrument that he used to fight against the act. In an editorial Greeley charged that the Southern slave owners and politicians were:

“not content within its own proper limits,…it now proposed to invade and overrun the soil of freedom, and to unroll the pall of its darkness over virgin territory whereon slave has never stood. Freedom is to be elbowed out of its own home to make room for the leprous intruder. The free laborer is to be expelled that the slave may be brought in.” [5]

After months of wrangling the bill was passed. Historian William Freehling described it as “the latest and most notorious pro-southern law.” [6] The last hope of those who opposed the bill was a veto by Democrat President Franklin Pierce, However, Pierce buckled to the pressure put on him by the supporters of the bill, including many Northern Democrats who supported businesses, banks, and industries that benefited from slavery. The bill for the approval of the measure by the Southern delegations of both parties was nearly unanimous. However, the bill only passed the House of Representatives only due to the support of forty-two Northern Democrats who decided to support their Southern colleagues and antagonize their own constituents and did not get the majority support of any Northern delegation other than Douglas’s own state of Illinois.

To further humiliate their Northern colleague’s Southern senators blocked a measure passed in the House that would have provided 160 acres of land from public property to new settles in the territories. The Southerners opposed that measure because they believed that the passage of such a law “would prove a most efficient ally for Abolition by encouraging and stimulating the settlement of free farms with Yankees and foreigners pre-committed to resist the participancy of slave owners in the public domain.” [7] In other words, they wanted every incentive for slaveholders to move to the new territories while making it more difficult for people who might oppose slavery to do so.

Frederick Douglass condemned the legislation and understood that the “shame of slavery was not just the South’s, that the whole nation was complicit in it.” [8]  In his 1852 Independence Day address the powerful voice of Freemen and abolitionists everywhere spoke of the hypocrisy that the new laws for bolstering the support and spread of slavery. To do so he condemned them from the words of the Declaration of Independence itself:

“Fellow citizens: Pardon me, and allow me to ask, why I am called upon to speak here today? What have I or those I represent to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of political freedom and natural justice, embodied in that Declaration of Independence, extended to us? And am I, therefore, called upon to bring our humble offering to the national altar, and to confess the benefits, and express devout gratitude for the blessing resulting from independence to us?…

What to the American slave is your Fourth of July? I answer, a day that reveals him to be more than all the days of the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass-fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are to him mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy – a thin veil to cover up the crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than the people of these United States at this very hour.

Go where you may, search out where you will, roam through all the monarchies and despotisms of the Old World, travel through South America, search out every abuse and when you have found the last, lay your facts by the side of everyday practices of this nation, and you will say with me that, for revolting barbarity and shameless hypocrisy, America reigns without a rival…” [9]

As the pressure mounted, the established political parties began to fray at the as those most committed to perpetuating slavery became more extreme in their views. Thus, the war was preceded by the fracturing of political parties and alliances that had worked for compromise in the previous decades to preserve the Union even at the cost of maintaining slavery. The outrage in the North over the Kansas-Nebraska Act combined with the previous Compromise of 1850 provoked a political and social firestorm.

The result of this increased tension shattered the Whig and the Democratic parties along sectional lines. The Whigs in the south collapsed into insignificance and in the North had disintegrated by 1856. The election of 1854 had shattered the Whigs precarious unity, and the bitter division destroyed the party as a national party. Senator Truman Smith resigned from the Senate in disgust and noted “The Whig party has been killed off by that miserable Nebraska business.” [10]  As a result many Northern Whigs gravitated to new political parties, including the nascent Republican Party, which gained Abraham Lincoln, who like many others left the Whigs.

The Democrats now were split between Northern and Southern factions but managed to keep their outward unity for a few more years. While the Democrats were still nominally a national party the losses in 64 of 88 Northern districts in the 1854 election ensured that the party was now for most part a regional party, a party dominated by its pro-slavery Southern wing. The 1854 election had cost the Democrats seventy-four of one hundred and fifty seven seats in the House. In New England only one of thirteen Democrats retained their seats, and in many other areas of the North. Many Northern Democrats too would find homes in the new Republican Party, including William Seward, Salmon Chase, Thaddeus Stevens and Schuyler Colfax. [11]

The national Whig and Democratic Parties that had dominated American life for decades were collapsing and as they did so, the fabric of the Union itself began to fray. The Whigs and the Democrats were national parties, and as such they were an important part of the bonds that held the country together, in them leaders of the North and the South mingled, became friends and worked together, but slavery destroyed that bond. When they splinted into sectional parties, with the Whigs collapsing and the Democrats splitting into hostile Northern and Southern factions it boded ill for the country at large.

Notes

[1] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.123

[2] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.124

[3] Ibid. Egnal  Clash of Extremes p.208

[4] Ibid. Foner Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p.94

[5] Ibid. Goldfield America Aflame p.99

[6] Ibid. Freehling The Road to Disunion Volume One p.559

[7] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.126

[8] Zinn, Howard The Other Civil War: Slavery and Struggle in Civil War America Harper Perennial, Harper and Row, New York 2011 p.20

[9] Ibid. Zinn The Other Civil War pp.20-21

[10] Ibid. McPherson The Battle Cry of Freedom p.125

[11] Ibid. Egnal Clash of Extremes p.215

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Trial of the Century: Dan Sickles Pt.3

HD_TrialofDanielSickles1859.preview

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.

Peace

Padre Steve+

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.” [1] 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.” [2]

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.” [3] 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.” [4]

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.” [5] 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,” [6] 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” [7] 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.” [8] 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.

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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,” [9] 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.” [10] 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.” [11] 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.” [12] 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,” [13] 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.” [14]

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,” [15] 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….” [16] 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.

HarpersMagazineTeresaConfession

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.” [17] 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.” [18] 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.” [19]

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…” [20] 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.” [21] 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.” [22]

Ould opened his case, “ponderously, powerfully, in the blackest of terms,” [23] 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.” [24] 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.” [25] 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.” [26]

sickles in the box

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.” [27]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.” [28] 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’” [29] 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.” [30] 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,” [31] 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.” [32] 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.” [33] 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!” [34] 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….” [35]

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…” [36] 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.” [37] As he did “Pandemonium and cheers broke out in the courtroom.” [38] 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.

Notes

[1] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.142

[2] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.63

[3] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.146

[4] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.147

[5] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.117

[6] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.117

[7] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible pp.62-63

[8] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.116

[9] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.12

[10] Marvel, William Lincoln’s Autocrat: The Life of Edwin Stanton University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill 2015 p.103

[11] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg pp.12-13

[12] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.63

[13] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.151

[14] Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.103

[15] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.121

[16] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.64

[17] Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.104

[18] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.118

[19] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles pp.118-119

[20] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.162

[21] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.120

[22] Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.105

[23] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.122

[24] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.14

[25] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.122

[26] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.65

[27] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.173

[28] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.173

[29] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.124

[30] Ibid. Keneally American Scoundrel p.175

[31] Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.107

[32] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.15

[33] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.127

[34] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.128

[35] Ibid. Pinchon Dan Sickles p.129

[36] Ibid. Marvel Lincoln’s Autocrat p.110

[37] Ibid. Swanberg Sickles the Incredible p.66

[38] Ibid. Hessler Sickles at Gettysburg p.17

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Accomplices to Tyranny: The North & Reconstruction

Friends of Padre Steve’s World

Today I look at another aspect of what happened in the post-Civil War United States, that of the responsibility of many leaders and citizens in the North for the failure of Reconstruction and the return of “White Man’s Rule” to the South, with its impact on Southern African Americans that in cases still linger today. Like today, people faced with economic difficulties sought out scapegoats and and it was easy for Northern whites, many of who were willing to concede “freedom” to blacks were still deeply racist, and for many, economic considerations trumped justice as the North tried to move away from Reconstruction and on to new conquests, including joining European powers in attempts to gain overseas colonies and territories.

It is all too easy to simply blame Southern whites for what happened during Reconstruction and in the “Redeemed South” of the post-Reconstruction era. However, without the willing cooperation of Northern politicians, businessmen, media with their Southern counterparts, coupled with an ambivalent Northern population Reconstruction might have worked.

This is yet another portion of my ever growing Civil War and Gettysburg text, and it is important too many people today are willing to sacrifice justice for their own prosperity.

Have a thoughtful night

Peace

Padre Steve+

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As Southern extremists turned the Federal effort at Reconstruction into a violent quagmire that seemed to have no end, many Northerners increasingly turned against the effort and against Blacks themselves. Like so many victorious peoples they did not have the political or moral capacity to remain committed to a cause for which so many had sacrificed and they began to abandon the effort after two short years of congressionally mandated Radical Reconstruction.

Likewise, the men who had so nobly began the effort to enfranchise African Americans failed to understand the social and political reality of the South. To the average Southerner of the era “political equality automatically led to social equality, which in turn automatically led to race-mixing. It was inevitable and unthinkable. To a people brought up to believe that Negroes were genetically inferior – after all, that was why they were slaves – the mere hint of “mongrelization” was appalling.” [1] This was something that most Northerners, even those committed to the political equality of African Americans could not comprehend, and the ignorance of this fact would be a major reason for the collapse of Northern political and social support for Reconstruction.

Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, one of the most effective leaders of the Radical Republicans died in 1868 in despair that the rights of blacks were being rolled back even as legislation was passed supporting them. A few weeks before his death Stevens told a friend “My life has been a failure…I see little hope for the republic.” [2] The old firebrand asked “to be buried in a segregated cemetery for African American paupers so that “I might illustrate in death the principles which I advocated through a long life, Equality of man before his creator.” [3] Others including Senator Ben Wade, were not returned to office while others including Edwin Stanton, Salmon Chase and Charles Summer all died during Grant’s administration.

While Grant attempted to smash the Ku Klux Klan by military means, both his administration and Congress were of little help. He faced increased opposition from economic conservative Republicans who had little interest in the rights of African Americans and who gave little support to those fighting for equal rights for blacks. The situation was further complicated by the “financial panic which hit the stock market in 1873 produced an economic downturn that soon worsened into a depression, which continued for the rest of the decade.” [4] The result was that Republicans lost their majorities in the House and in many states, even in the North.

It was clear that “1870 Radical Republicanism as a coherent political movement was rapidly disintegrating” [5] and during the early 1870s many of the antislavery activists had left the Republican party either to death or defection, many “no longer felt at home in a party that catered to big business and lacked the resolve to protect black rights.” [6]

In 1872, some former radical Republicans revolted against Grant and the corruption in the Republican Party. Calling themselves “Liberal Republicans” they supported the candidacy of Horace Greeley uniting with Democrats to call for an end to Reconstruction. For many this was not so much because they no longer supported the rights of African Americans, but because for them, like so many, “economic concerns now trumped race relations…. Henry Adams, who shared the views of his father, Charles Francis Adams, remarked that “the day is at hand when corporations far greater than [the] Erie [Railroad]…will ultimately succeed in directing the government itself.” [7] The numbers of Federal troops in the South continued to be reduced to the point where they could offer little or no support to state militia.

The combination of all of these factors, political, racial, economic, and judicial doomed Grant’s continued efforts at Reconstruction by executive means. Despite the hard fought battle to provide all the rights of citizenship and the vote to African Americans racism remained heavily intrenched in all regions of the country. In the North and the South the economic crisis of 1873 caused people to look for scapegoats, and blacks were an easy target. With economics easily trumping the cause of justice “racism increasingly asserted its hold on northern thought and behavior.” [8] The Northern press and politicians, including former abolitionists increasingly took the side of Southerners, condemning Freedmen as lazy and slothful usurpers of white civilization.

Likewise the growing problem of labor unrest in the North brought about by the economic depression made “many white northerners more sympathetic to white southern complaints about Reconstruction. Racial and class prejudices reinforced one another, as increasing numbers of middle-class northerners identified what they considered the illegitimate demands of workers and farmers in their own society with the alleged misconduct of the former slaves in the South.” [9]

The depression hit Freedmen in the South with a vengeance and unable to pay their bills and mortgages many lost everything and were at the mercy of their former white masters. Those still working for Reconstruction in the South were increasingly marginalized, stigmatized and victimized by a systemized campaign of propaganda which labeled them Carpetbaggers and Scalawags who were had gained power through the votes of blacks and who were profiting by looting Southern Whites. In the end Southern intransigence wore out the political will of Northerners to carry on, even that of strongest supporters of emancipation and equality.

Violence now became a means to further politics in the South and carried out in broad daylight and “intended to demoralize black voters and fatally undermine the Republican Party…. They paraded at regular intervals through African American sections of small towns in the rural black majority areas, intimidating the residents and inciting racial confrontations.” [10] These armed bands were highly successful, if they were successful in provoking a racial incident they would then fan out throughout the area to find blacks in order to beat up and kill, hundreds of blacks were killed by them. During the elections of 1876 the White Liners, Red Shirts, White League and others would be seen in threatening positions near Republican rallies and on Election Day swarmed the polls to keep blacks and Republicans out, even seizing ballot boxes either destroying them or counting the votes for Democrats. The strategy employed was to use “Lawless and utterly undemocratic means…to secure the desired outcome, which was to win a lawful, democratic election.” [11] The pressure was too much for most Republicans in the South, and many who did not leave the South “crossed over to the Democratic fold; only a few stood by the helpless mass of Negroes….” [12]

The elected governor of Mississippi, Republican General Adelbert Ames, who was one of the most able and honest of all the Northerners to hold elected office in the South wrote in 1875 about the power of the paramilitary groups, “The “white liners” have gained their point – they have, by killing and wounding, so intimidated the poor Negroes that they can in all human probability prevail over them at the election. I shall try at once to get troops form the general government. Of course it will be a difficult thing to do.” [13] Ames requested Federal troops “to restore peace and supervise the coming elections” [14] but did not get them. Grant’s Attorney general wrote “The whole public are tired out with these autumnal outbreaks in the South…and the great majority are now ready to condemn any interference on the part of the government….Preserve the peace by the forces in your own state….” [15] Ames, who had been a strong proponent of emancipation and black suffrage understood that he was being abandoned and in order to prevent more bloodshed gave up the fight. Sadly, he like Grant realized that most of the country “had never been for Negro civil rights in the first place. Freedom, yes; but that didn’t mean all the privileges of citizenship.” [16] He negotiated a deal with Democrats which resulted in blacks being forced form the polls and the Democrats returning to power in the state. When he left the state, the discouraged veteran of so many battles including Gettysburg wrote, “A revolution has taken place – by force of arms – and a race disenfranchised – they are to be returned to a condition of serfdom – an era of second slavery.” [17]

Notes

[1] Ibid. Lord The Past the Would Not Die p.11

[2] Ibid. Langguth, A.J. After Lincoln p.233

[3] Ibid. Guelzo Fateful Lightening p.504

[4] Ibid. Perman Illegitimacy and Insurgency in the Reconstructed South p.458

[5] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.170

[6] Ibid. Egnal Clash of Extremes p.337

[7] Ibid. Egnal Clash of Extremes p.337

[8] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.192

[9] Ibid. Foner Forever Free p.191

[10] Ibid. Perman Illegitimacy and Insurgency in the Reconstructed South pp.459-460

[11] Ibid. Perman Illegitimacy and Insurgency in the Reconstructed South p.461

[12] Ibid. Lord The Past the Would Not Die p.15

[13] Ames, Adelbert Governor Adelbert Ames deplores Violence in Mississippi, September 1875 in The Civil War and Reconstruction Documents and Essays Third Edition edited by Michael Perman and Amy Murrell Taylor Wadsworth Cengage Learning Boston MA 2011 p.434

[14] Ibid. Lord The Past the Would Not Die p.17

[15] Ibid. McPherson The War that Forged a Nation p. 190

[16] Ibid. Lord The Past that Wouldn’t Die p.17

[17] Watson, Bruce Freedom Summer: The Savage Summer of 1964 that Made Mississippi Burn and Made America a Democracy Viking Press, the Penguin Group New York and London 2010 p.41

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