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  • Mike Martinez

Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History—Daniel Sickles and Philip Barton Key II

The Sickles-Key scandal became one of the most salacious episodes of the nineteenth century, one of the few court cases of the era that could be characterized as a cause célèbre. I discuss the episode in my forthcoming book, Scoundrels: Political Scandals in American History.

Occurring as it did in 1859, on the eve of the Civil War, when passions were already inflamed, the case became a national obsession. An ambitious, up-and-coming United States congressman from New York, Daniel Edgar Sickles, brutally shot and killed a United States district attorney, Philip Barton Key II, the son of Francis Scott Key, author of the “Star Spangled Banner.” Sickles had discovered that Key was having an affair with Sickles’ beautiful, much younger wife. As if the facts were not sensational enough, at trial Sickles pleaded temporary insanity, the first use of the plea in American history. Although he was acquitted, Sickles became a pariah. A once-promising political career was derailed. He would go on to greater fame, or perhaps “infamy” would be an apt description, but Sickles had already earned an indelible place in American history.

Born on October 20, 1819, Sickles came of age during the 1830s and 1840s, a time of enormous growth and change in the United States. Although he was not to the manner born, he grew up in comfortable circumstances. His father, George Garrett Sickles, was a lawyer and politician. An only child, young Dan enjoyed opportunities unavailable to many young people of his era. He studied at the University of the City of New York (later known as New York University). Even during his school years, his bold personality and willingness to ignore social conventions were obvious. Charismatic, charming in a roguish way, and irrepressibly cocky, he was willing to ignore the advice and direction of his parents, teachers, and any adult who sought to instruct him on proper modes of behavior. Confident of his own superior abilities, he studied law under the tutelage of well-known lawyer-politician, Benjamin Butler, before winning election to the New York State Assembly in 1847.

On September 27, 1852, when he was 32 years old, Dan Sickles a married a beautiful young woman, Teresa Bagioli, who was half his age. Both families thought the union was a poor one, but the couple could not be dissuaded from defying their wishes. His burning desire to make a name for himself and earn a suitable income to support his vivacious young wife compelled Sickles to strive for bigger and better things in his career. He rose steadily through the ranks, first serving as corporation counsel for New York City before President Franklin Pierce appointed him as secretary to the United States legation in London under James Buchanan.

Sickles returned to the United States in 1855 and again threw himself into elective politics. He won a seat in the New York Senate in 1856. After serving less than a year, he was elected to serve the third congressional district in the United States House of Representatives. He was a Democrat.

By 1858, to all outward appearances, Teresa Sickles and her husband lived a charmed life. They had a six-year-old daughter. They entertained politicians and celebrities in their impressive home near Lafayette Square, not far from the president’s house. Although Sickles was not a leader in Congress, it was not impossible to think that one day the New York politician, an undisputed up-and-comer, might one day move down the block to occupy that great house located at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

Yet Teresa Sickles would not wait for her real life to begin. She fancied a handsome, dashing young man who resembled her husband. As author Nat Brandt described Philip Barton Key II, a prominent United States district attorney, comparing him to Daniel Sickles, “In some ways, the two men were alike—both debonair, ingratiating, wise to the ways of politics, egocentric and rebellious, arrogant and quick to take offense, yet sociable.” They both shared an affinity for beautiful women. They also shared Teresa Sickles.

The affair began innocently enough. Sickles had met the attractive young Key in March 1857 when the two men played an all-night whist game. Not long thereafter, Key met Teresa Sickles. With the congressman frequently absent, Key frequently called upon the comely 23-year-old wife. Soon they appeared inseparable, attending balls and parties, receptions, and plays. It was only a matter of time before they became lovers.

Daniel Sickles knew nothing of his wife’s dalliance, but polite society could talk of little else. It was obvious to almost everyone in the insular world of Washington, D.C. that Teresa Sickles and Philip Barton Key were lovers. Seeing them together, it was apparent that they shared sensibilities and secrets. They were casually playful and affectionate in public, seemingly with little worry about the possible consequences. How could they not be lovers? It later became clear that they met at an unoccupied house not far from the Sickles homestead. As Teresa Sickles eventually confessed to her husband, she and Key engaged in “intimacy of an improper kind.” To put it bluntly, “I did what is usual for a wicked woman to do.”

The secret began to unravel on Thursday, February 24, 1859. Congressman Sickles and his wife had entertained dinner guests that evening. After dinner, the guests headed for a dance at the Willard Hotel, a famous Washington landmark. Several guests departed in coaches, but Sickles stayed behind, offering to walk to the nearby hotel in a few minutes.

He was preparing to depart when a messenger arrived at his door. Handed a yellow envelope, Sickles tucked the message into his coat pocket and thought no more of it. Instead, he headed off to the hotel to join his guests.

The couple returned home in the wee morning hours of Friday, February 25. Teresa retired upstairs as the congressman slipped into his study to catch up on correspondence. He remembered the note that had been delivered earlier. Reaching into his pocket, he opened the envelope and unfolded the message. In less than a minute, his life changed forever. Sickles was stunned to read the explosive story of his wife’s extracurricular activities:

Dear sir with a deep regret I enclose to your address the few lines but an indispensable duty compels me so to do seeing that you are greatly imposed upon. There is a fellow I may say for he is not a gentleman by any means by the [name] of Phillip Barton Key and I believe the district attorney who rents a house of a negro man by the name of Jno. A Gray situated on 15th street between K & L streets for no other purpose than to meet your wife Mrs. Sickles. He hangs a string out of the window as a signal to her that he is in and leaves the door unfastened and she walks in and sir I do assure you with these few hints. I leave the rest for you to imagine.Most Respectfully Your friend R. P. G.

Sickles did not know R.P.G.’s identity—it remains a mystery to this day—but the note was sickeningly persuasive. He might have thrown the page into the fireplace, dismissing it as unfounded rumor and nothing more, perhaps a political enemy’s twisted effort to sow seeds of discord in his happy household. He certainly was tempted to ignore the allegation, but for one factor. The specificity was troubling. R.P.G. referred to a nearby house and seemed to know details about Key’s (and Teresa’s) comings and goings there. Sickles decided that he could not ignore the note. He had to know whether his wife had betrayed him with another man. It would be a simple matter to investigate.

Later that Friday, he directed a friend, George Wooldridge, to search out the house and make inquiries at adjacent properties. It turned out that the neighbors who lived near the residence at 383 15th Street had seen a great deal, and they were willing to talk. They confirmed that a man and woman matching Philip Barton Key’s and Teresa Sickles’ descriptions had been spotted entering the premises on more than one occasion. The surreptitious comings and goings could only mean one thing. It was common knowledge among local inhabitants that something unseemly had occurred there.

Wooldridge reported back to Sickles that same Friday, but he had conflicting information about the day and time of the most recent rendezvous. It was possible that Teresa Sickles was not the mystery woman at 383 15th Street. Several neighbors thought the couple had entered the house on Thursday. Because Teresa was accounted for all day on Thursday, she could not have met Key. Perhaps the allegation was nothing but a horrible misunderstanding. Wooldridge promised to follow up. On Saturday, he interviewed several eyewitnesses who confirmed that the assignation had occurred on Wednesday, not Thursday.

Dan Sickles was devastated. He had hoped that the mystery woman had met with Key on Thursday. The latest news led to only one reasonable conclusion: Teresa Sickles was having an affair with Philip Barton Key. Daniel Sickles was apoplectic. To be cuckolded by his wife was unforgivable, an affront to a man of his standing. Aside from that fact, he genuinely loved Teresa.

That evening, he marched home to confront his wife. Caught by surprise, Teresa Sickles vehemently denied the affair, but her protests lacked conviction. Sickles knew too much. He knew the address of the house where the assignations took place. He even knew the day and time of her most recent meeting with Key. Realizing that she could no longer deny the undeniable, she broke down. “I am betrayed and lost!” she exclaimed.

Philip Barton Key II knew nothing of the turmoil in the Sickles household. He knew only that he hoped to see Teresa again, and she had fallen inexplicably silent. He took a room in the Cosmos Club across Lafayette Park from her home. Using his opera glasses, he searched for a signal that she wanted to meet. He soon exhausted his patience.

On Sunday, February 27, 1859, Key could wait no longer. That morning he ambled out of the club and paced in front of the Sickles house, waving his handkerchief, a sign that he wished to arrange a rendezvous. Inside, a despondent Teresa Sickles did not see him. She lay on the floor, writhing in agony at her secret having been discovered. Her attendant, Bridget Duffy, attempted to console her, but Teresa would not respond.

In another part of the house, Congressman Sickles was talking with a political supporter, Samuel F. Butterworth, a Tammany Hall operative visiting from New York. Butterworth had been visiting with a senator when Sickles summoned him to discuss options for handling the scoundrel Key. The man came to the Sickles house at once, finding his friend prostrate on a bed with a pillow over his head. Hysterical, the congressman poured out his thoughts and feelings to Butterworth. He also showed his friend a confession that Teresa had written at Sickles’ direction. Stunned, the New Yorker offered what advice he could, but it did little to calm the wounded husband.

Butterworth excused himself and marched to a nearby bar to find a drink. Returning a few minutes later, he encountered George Wooldridge standing in the library of Sickles’ house. The men discussed the sordid situation briefly, until Sickles abruptly entered the room.

“That villain is out there now making signs,” Sickles exclaimed, or words to that effect. Butterworth and Wooldridge knew that Philip Barton Key II was “the villain.” Wooldridge had already seen Key walking in front of the house.

Butterworth understood that Sickles, in his volatile state, might erupt into violence. He initially sought to sooth the savage beast. “Mr. Sickles, you must be calm and look the matter square in the face,” he said. “If there be a possibility of keeping the certain knowledge of this crime from the public, you must do nothing to destroy that possibility. You may be mistaken in your belief that it is known to the whole city.”

“No, no, my friend, I am not,” Sickles insisted. “It is already the town talk.”

Realizing that the affair could not be hidden from public scrutiny, Butterworth changed his tune. He knew of nothing else he could say to stave off violence. “If that be so,” he said, “there is but one course left for you, and as a man of honor you need no advice.”

The three men considered the gravity of this remark. After a brief interlude, Butterworth offered to venture outside and determine whether Key had rented a room at the Cosmos Club.

Oblivious to the drama playing out inside the Sickles residence, Key continued to signal his absent lover. He eventually saw Butterworth approaching. The two men knew each other. They stood at the southeast corner of Lafayette Square, on Madison Lane and Pennsylvania Avenue.

“Good morning, Mr. Butterworth. What a fine day we have,” Key said.

Butterworth got to the point immediately. “Have you come from the Club?”

“I have.”

Feigning nonchalance, Butterworth asked after a sick friend. Key acknowledged that the man was unwell. As Butterworth turned away, he saw Sickles bearing down on them.

Philip Barton Key saw Sickles, too. “How are you?” he said, offering his hand.

Daniel Sickles was furious. “Key, you scoundrel,” he cried, “you have dishonored my house. You must die.”

“What for?” he asked.

Without another word, Sickles pulled a pistol from his pocket and fired. The shot went wide. Realizing that he was in danger, Key pulled his opera glasses from his pocket and advanced on Sickles, grabbing the man’s coat. He swung the glasses to hit Sickles and prevent him from firing again. Backing away, Sickles pulled free.

He fired again as Key threw the opera glasses. Sickles was not injured, but Key was. He staggered away, imploring his assailant not to shoot him again.

Sickles would not be dissuaded. He lunged at his wife’s lover even as Key cried out, “murder! Don’t murder me! Murder!”

Sickles fired at close range, striking Key once more. Grabbing his groin, the man collapsed. “Don’t kill me,” he pleaded.

“You villain,” Sickles repeated. “You have dishonored my house, and you must die!” He walked toward Key as he pointed his gun.

“I am murdered,” Key shrieked as Sickles fired yet another shot and struck him.

Sickles stood over the bleeding man and fired at his head. Nothing happened. The gun misfired.

By this time, several bystanders intervened. One fellow asked that Sickles relinquish the gun or, in any case, not fire again. Someone else checked on Key, who had fallen silent as he lay on the ground.

“He has violated my bed,” Sickles told anyone who would listen. No longer enraged, he felt the need to justify his actions.

As a crowd gathered and several men lifted Key off the ground to carry him off to a doctor, Sickles addressed the group. “Is the damned scoundrel dead?” No one answered, but it seemed clear to everyone that the “damned scoundrel” was dead, or soon would be.

With the dead or dying paramour carted away, the congressman mulled over what he should do next. Having stepped from the line of fire, Butterworth now appeared at his friend’s side. They discussed the options and agreed that Sickles must turn himself in to the authorities. The two men hopped into a carriage and headed over to the home of United States Attorney General Jeremiah S. Black.

Sickles stayed at the attorney general’s home until the police came to escort him to the station. On the way there, he received permission to stop at his own home. He told Teresa what he had done before departing for the Washington, D.C. jail.

Faced with a plethora of criminal charges, Sickles assembled a crackerjack legal team to defend him. A prominent criminal lawyer from New York, James T. Brady, took the lead. Aside from Brady’s professional competence, he and Sickles were long-time friends. Edwin M. Stanton, a renowned trial lawyer who later became secretary of war in the Lincoln administration, and John Graham, a lawyer known for his melodramatic appeals to jurors’ emotions, also signed on to defend what seemed indefensible. Eight lawyers eventually joined the team.

Robert Ould was the lead prosecutor. He had served as Philip Barton Key’s principal assistant and was no stranger to the courtroom. He had a mind for detail and was known for his thorough preparation. Despite his familiarity with trials, he was soft-spoken, even meek. Fearful that Ould was outclassed by the flamboyant defense team, Key’s relatives paid for an assistant, James Carlisle, to join the prosecution.

Sickles had shot a man in cold blood in full view of witnesses. He had made no effort to conceal his crime, or his identity. In most instances, the sole question would have been to decide whether the act amounted to murder or some lesser homicide crime, such as manslaughter. Yet Ould and Carlisle understood that they faced a daunting task. During jury selection on April 4, 1859, 72 of the 75 men initially called for voir dire said they sympathized with the defendant. Two hundred potential jurors had to be excused before a group of 12 could be impaneled.

In his opening statement, Ould insisted that Sickles should be convicted of murder. His actions on February 27 showed a calculating murderer who had planned the crime for several days. He should not be acquitted, Ould told the jury, “no matter what may be the antecedent provocations in the case.” Ould had gotten to the heart of the matter quickly. The outcome depended on whether the jury believed that the “antecedent provocations”—that is, the sexual affair—justified the homicide.

John Graham delivered the opening statement for the defense. As expected, he painted a picture of a loving family man, a devoted husband and father, who confronted a “confirmed and habitual” adulterer. Citing the Bible, Graham argued that Sickles did what any self-respecting man would do under the same circumstances. His act was the fulfillment of “the will of Heaven.”

Recognizing that some jurors might be unimpressed by this manifestation of divine intervention, Graham offered another possible explanation for Sickles’ behavior. The poor man was out of his mind when he shot Philip Barton Key. “If he was in a state of white heat,” Graham asked, “was that too great a state of passion for a man to be in who saw before him the hardened, the unrelenting seducer of his wife?”

Graham’s opening statement lasted for three days. He continually argued that Philip Barton Key’s character and his seduction of Teresa Sickles, not Daniel Sickles’ actions on February 27, 1859, were the appropriate focus. It was a criminal defense lawyer’s tried-and-true strategy of putting the victim on trial rather than the defendant. Sickles appeared to be a sympathetic figure, a wronged husband and father who desired nothing so much as justice for his fractured family.

The prosecution might have attacked Sickles’ character to undercut the positive portrayal of the congressman as a wholesome family man. It would not have taken much effort to demonstrate that Sickles himself was a well-known womanizer. If Philip Barton Key II was a philanderer of the first order, Daniel Sickles was his match. Instead of pursuing this course, however, Robert Ould presented witnesses to attest to the shooting without commenting on the defendant’s possible motives. This trial strategy proved to be a costly mistake.

Defense witnesses testified that Sickles was a desperate man, filled with anguish about his wife’s affair. Ould repeatedly tried to exclude evidence of the affair, but too much information slipped out from witnesses. Teresa Sickles’ written confession, which the trial judge excluded from the jurors’ consideration, was printed in a story in the prominent magazine Harper’s Weekly, which undoubtedly influenced the verdict.

Edwin Stanton, always an eloquent advocate, was at his best as he delivered the defense summation. In soaring, vivid rhetoric, Stanton pontificated on the sanctity of the American family and the rights of an aggrieved husband. He spoke of a woman who has “surrendered to the adulterer,” and described Daniel Sickles as a man driven temporarily insane when he shot his wife’s paramour. This temporary insanity argument was a winning formula for the defense.

The jury deliberated for a little longer than an hour before returning a “not guilty” verdict. The acquittal surprised no one. It was clear throughout the trial that the defense team had convincingly portrayed the despondent husband and father as temporarily insane. Courtroom spectators heartily cheered when the jury rendered its verdict. Stanton, not known for his gaiety, danced a jig when he heard the news. A jubilant Daniel Sickles hosted a party that evening for 1,500 well-wishers.

Daniel Sickles escaped formal justice, but he nonetheless paid a price for his violent act. His once promising political career was no longer limitless. Before the shooting, Sickles had been a slightly scandalous figure, but even his detractors had acknowledged his wit and charm. After the trial, he remained a congressman, but he temporarily withdrew from public life. Public opinion turned against him when he reconciled with Teresa Sickles only a few months after his acquittal. If he were as despondent as he had claimed, how could he welcome this Jezebel back into his bed? The once lovable rogue with the gleam in his eye had been replaced by a dark, malevolent character who should be shunned at all costs.

The trajectory of his career was momentarily halted, but history had not heard the last of Dan Sickles. He would make his mark again, albeit always with a whiff of scandal about him. Commissioned a major in the Union army during the Civil War, he lost a leg at the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Although he had disobeyed orders, Sickles had helped to save the day. He earned the Medal of Honor for his gallantry in battle, receiving the award 34 years after the fact. He retired from the army with the rank of major general.

It was no small irony that Sickles was involved in another sexual scandal later in his career. While serving as the United States Minister to Spain in the 1870s, he redefined the term “foreign affairs” when he seduced the deposed queen, Isabella II. It seems that Philip Barton Key II was not alone in his propensity for sexual conquest.

Sickles never escaped the taint of his actions in 1859. He still persevered in his career—even returning to the United States House of Representatives during the 1890s—but “Devil Dan” could not overcome the consensus that he was a scoundrel. He lived until 1914, when he died at the ripe old age of 94, outwardly unrepentant for having lived a life of debauchery. A New York Times article observed that “Nobody with warm blood flowing through his veins can read the obituary notices of Gen. Sickles without a certain thrill of admiration. His was truly an adventurous spirit. Under the right inspiration, he might have been an intrepid explorer or a founder of thriving colonies.” Despite the old man’s long list of accomplishments as a lawyer, politician, and diplomat, there was always a roguishness about him. The Times concluded that Sickles “never quite lived down the effects of his mad action in 1859.”

Teresa Sickles was not as fortunate as her husband. She emerged from the scandal as a fallen woman. In an era of double standards, her actions were less forgivable than her husband’s violent reaction. She and Daniel Sickles ostensibly reconciled, but behind closed doors they were estranged. No longer the young, attractive, desirable ingenue, Teresa suffered through her unhappy marriage until she died of tuberculosis in 1867. She was 31 years old.

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