‘Devil Dan’ Sickles ruined his reputation long before his misadventures at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg.
“Devil Dan” Sickles was notorious and controversial long before his ill-advised sorties imperiled the Union army at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg. His sensational murder of his wife’s lover within earshot of the White House not only cemented his rakish reputation in Washington society but also set a legal precedent that is still in force today.
At the beginning of 1859, Sickles was a 39-year-old U.S. representative from New York with a seemingly limitless future. A wealthy and well-connected lawyer, Sickles had prospered in the shady machinations of the Tammany Hall ring, rising to posts as a state legislator, corporation counsel and European diplomat before being re-elected to Congress in 1858. With his patron James Buchanan in the presidency, Sickles was on the fast track in Democratic Party circles.
Unfortunately, Sickles was also on the fast track of life. His dapper good looks, free-spending wealth and overweening fondness for liquor, gambling and pretty women were well-known to Washington insiders. His fashionable home on exclusive Lafayette Square was the scene of glittering parties–but also of frequent absences by Sickles himself. His beautiful young wife, Theresa, languished at home, neglected and betrayed, while Sickles played the part of a dashing roué.
Stepping into the void left by her neglectful husband came family friend Philip Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key of “Star-Spangled Banner” fame. The younger Key, a widower himself, was said to be the handsomest man in Washington. Ironically, Key owed his position as U.S. attorney to Sickles, who had urged his appointment by President Buchanan. Even more ironically, Sickles had introduced Key to Theresa at Buchanan’s inaugural ball in 1857. From that moment, the young people became increasingly close. How close Sickles would not learn for another two years.
Unknown to Sickles, Key had rented a house at 383 15th Street, two blocks away from the Sickles’ mansion on Lafayette Square. There, he regularly met a young woman who carefully wrapped her face in a shawl whenever she entered or left the house. The woman was Theresa Sickles. She and Key had worked out a simple signaling system by which her lover would walk through the square and wave a white handkerchief at her house when he wanted to meet. This transparent ruse continued for two years, while Sickles unsuspectingly entertained himself and his political cronies in Washington and New York.
The situation came to a boil in February 1859, after Sickles received an anonymous note telling him of the house on 15th Street and his wife’s frequent visits there. After a tearful confrontation with Theresa, Sickles–ever the attorney–demanded that she confess in writing, before witnesses, of her affair.
The next morning Sickles, “seized with paroxysms of sobbing,” summoned two friends to his home to tell them the news. Pacing the floor, the distraught congressman suddenly stopped at a downstairs window and stared out in disbelief. Across the street, Key had chosen a distinctly bad time to be waving his white handkerchief at the Sickles house. “That villain,” Sickles shouted, “is out there now, making signals!”
Grabbing a revolver, Sickles dashed out of the house before his friends could stop him. “Key, you scoundrel!” he cried. “You have dishonored my bed–you must die!” With that, Sickles fired at Key and missed.
The terrified paramour dashed behind a tree, crying, “Don’t shoot!” and hurled his opera glasses at Sickles. Sickles fired again, this time hitting Key and dropping him into the gutter. As Key begged for mercy, Sickles coolly walked up to him and fired twice more. By this time, Samuel Butterworth, one of Sickles’ friends, managed to take his arm and lead him away from the mortally wounded Key. “Is the damned scoundrel dead yet?” Sickles wanted to know.
After an electrifying 22-day trial, Sickles was acquitted of the murder by reason of temporary insanity–the first time such a defense had been admitted in a U.S. court of law. Sickles’ eight-man defense team was headed by Washington lawyer Edwin McMasters Stanton, soon to become secretary of war under Abraham Lincoln.
In yet another irony, Sickles’ political career initially was helped by his murder of an unarmed man. The prevailing sentiment of the day was that a wronged husband had every right to revenge himself upon his wife’s despoiler, even if the wife had acquiesced. But public opinion turned against the congressman after he announced, perhaps sincerely, that he had forgiven his wife her transgressions. His star waned, and Sickles returned to New York to escape the whispers of the Washington society he had briefly led. He was still in New York when the coming of the Civil War gave him yet another stage on which to enact his seemingly endless compulsion for controversy and scandal.
Roy Morris, Jr., Editor, America’s Civil War