LaFayette Square — Scandal and Murder


In creating our tour of LaFayette Square – that neighborhood that sits directly across from the White House – we found many threads that attached themselves to the main stories we included on the tour. This, and the next three blogs, follow just a few of those threads.

The date is February 27th, the year, 1859. New York Congressman Dan Sickles and his wife of seven years Teresa, live on fashionable LaFayette Square in Washington, DC. In this genteel neighborhood, all was not well in the Sickles home: Teresa had been carrying on an affair with an attorney, a widower by the name of Philip Barton Key.

Philip Barton Key (Harper’s Weekly, Matthew Brady photo)
Philip Barton Key
(Harper’s Weekly,
Matthew Brady photo)

Key was not just any attorney, though — he was the United States District Attorney for the District of Columbia and he was the son of another well-known attorney, Francis Scott Key, who also happened to write our National Anthem. To round out his pedigree: Philip Barton Key was the nephew of Roger B Taney. We’ll get back to Taney a little later.

Even though Teresa Sickles and Barton Key were not what you’d call discreet, Dan Sickles remained oblivious to the affair, that is, until someone eventually tipped him off and the Congressman confronted Key on a street across from LaFayette Park. Confronted him with multiple pistols. Key, according to one account, was armed only with a pair of opera glasses that he had been using to watch the Key home for Teresa’s sign that the coast was clear.

The Street today and site of the Washington Club
The Street today and site of the Washington Club

When Sickles approached, in what he would eventually refer to as “an aberration of mind,” Key apparently threw the opera glasses at him, adding a brief air of slapstick to the deadly confrontation. We don’t have an account of Sickles’ reaction to this feeble, sissified, attempt at self-defense but you can imagine that Sickles maintained a look of rage, or disdain, or a combination of those emotions, bringing about his “aberration of mind.” He fired – and fired – and fired some more. Well, actually, the guns mis-fired a couple of times but he was successful enough that he shot Barton Key multiple times, the fatal shot hitting Key close to the heart. Carried into the nearby Washington Club, Key quickly succumbed to the wound. So now we have Dan Sickles, Congressman – and Murderer. Like today, Washington DC Society LOVED a good scandal and here, in the dead of winter, 1859, they had their fill and then some!

Daniel E Sickles (Library of Congress)
Daniel E Sickles
(Library of Congress)

Congressman Daniel E Sickles was a well-connected, cunning, political operative. He was part of the very powerful, very corrupt New York political “system” known as Tammany Hall — The Tammany Society of New York City, founded in the late 18th century. He was equally well-connected in DC and his affiliations would enable him to put together a defense with just the right people who could — and would — defend his actions. His defense team, included Edwin M Stanton, soon to become Secretary of War in the Lincoln Cabinet. Stanton would offer the “insanity defense,” and for the first time in history, a jury would accept that defense – and would acquit Dan Sickles of murder.

Teresa Bagioli Sickles (Harper’s Weekly, Matthew Brady photo)
Teresa Bagioli Sickles
(Harper’s Weekly,
Matthew Brady photo)

And what of young Teresa? There was an even bigger uproar when Sickles, upping the dramatic ante, forgave her but his forgiveness was pretty shallow; the marriage equally shallow. Though Teresa and Dan Sickles remained married, they would no longer live as husband and wife. Teresa, moving to a home in New York, would live only until 1867, dying of tuberculosis in February of that year.

Dan Sickles would maneuver his way into an appointment as General during the Civil War – becoming one of the only generals in that war who was NOT a graduate of West Point, VMI, or some other military school of the era. At Gettysburg, as a Corps commander, Sickles would lose a leg – but not before he made a controversial move (controversial to this day) that unnecessarily and without orders moved his entire Corps (around 9,000 men) into a dangerous position. Known as a salient, the position exposed the Corps to some of the worst fighting of the battle and gave the Peach Orchard and the Wheat Field permanent Capital-Letter status that anyone who fought during the war – and for many years after the war – recognized without further explanation.

Sickles would have his leg packed up and sent to Washington, DC. He lived many years after the war – all the better to defend his actions at Gettysburg since THIS time he could not use the “insanity defense.” After the War he was known to take his lady-friends to see his leg, which, of course, calls into question the type of “lady-friends” he hung out with. And even YOU can still visit his leg today. It’s part of the collection of the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington DC.

We’ll end Part I here. Join me next time for Part II where we’ll focus on Francis Scott Key and Roger Brooke Taney — and one of the most controversial decisions ever handed down by the Supreme Court.

Sources:

  • “Our Neighbors on LaFayette Square”, Benjamin Ogle Tayloe
  • “The President’s Square”, Frances F Donaldson
  • “Francis Scott Key”, Francis Scott Key Smith
  • www.biography.com
  • www.ourdocuments.gov
  • pabook.libraries.psu.edu
  • news.stanford.edu
  • baltimoreauthors.ubalt.edu/writers/fscottkey.htm
  • “The Lost World of Francis Scott Key”, Sina Dubovoy

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