The Washington Tragedy 

 

Background

 

On the eve of the Civil War, Washington was a lively social and political place. Everywhere construction was going on. Like the entire nation itself, Washington was expanding. Most of the public buildings were covered with scaffolding for construction or renovation. Even the capitol dome was being replaced. It seemed that the nation was of two minds: building up and tearing down, construction and destruction.

In one regard the city was still a frontier town. Duels were carried out regularly, and most men--many of them Congressmen-- carried guns. On the other hand, it was a civilized place, as well. Politicians and their wives spent as much time in a whirl-wind of social activities as they did in the business of governing.

In addition, society was on the brink of American Victorianism, a mindset that would be particularly strong after the war between the states. However, many attitudes on sexual behavior were still lingering out of the previous decade in which an "unwritten law" had taken shape. In previous more puritan times all sin was a crime. By the 1840s, however, while open sin was bad and disruptive, secret more discreet sin was tolerated. This probably accounted for the rise of red-light districts, pieces of urban landscape where vice was allowed to grow and flourish as long as it was largely invisible to the wider public. According to prevailing views of social leaders, there were two types of "bad people." There were those good people who upon occasion lapsed and did bad things. They were generally tolerated and forgiven. Then there were those who were sinful regularly, those professional vice providers and other irredeemable scoundrels; they were the unforgiven. As a carry-over from the Common Law, which was generally giving way to statutory law, the "unwritten law" allowed a good man the right to avenge the sexual dishonor of himself, his wife, daughter or sister. Of course, the written law and judicial proceedings did not subscribe to this societal assumption of appropriate revenge. Apparently, such distinctions were important as urban society brought more-and-more people into closer contact. This was especially true in the political and cultural competitiveness of Washington D.C. on the eve of the Civil War.

President James Buchanan, the nations fifteenth president, was an amiable man apparently oblivious to how close the country was coming to splitting apart. The previous administration, that of Franklin Pierce, had been somewhat gloomy because just before his inauguration Pierce's eleven year old son had died in a train accident. President Pierce never fully recovered from that loss. On the other hand, President Buchanan ushered in a happier time. Washington society seemed intoxicated over the spirit. Sandwiched in between the gloom of the Pierce and the crisis of the Lincoln administrations the Buchanan presidency seemed Camelot. Some contemporaries even claimed that this was the gayest administration the nation had ever experienced. At a time when friendships and loyalties were about to be severely tested in the Civil War, Buchanan, and those with whom he surrounded himself, believed that personal attachments--among husband and wives, friends, and colleagues--were sacrosanct. One of those close friends to the president was Daniel Edgar Sickles.

 

Characters

 

Dan Sickles had just recently been elected to Congress from New York's powerful Tammany Hall organization. He had been born in New York City in 1819, an only child. After attending private schools he eventually took up law and established acquaintances with influential people like Benjamin Butler and Martin Van Buren, a former president of the United States. He became involved with Tammany Hall and was elected to the state legislature in 1847. For several years he was a "man-about-town" even being seen with the notorious Fanny White, a bordello madam. Finally, in 1852 at the age of 33, he seemed to settle down when he married Teresa Bagioli, a girl of 16. Very soon she had a baby, suggesting that the marriage might have been as much out of necessity as out of love. In 1853 he was named Corporation Council or the main legal advisor to the city. Due to influence of friends in high places he was appointed to assist James Buchanan, the future president, when that man was named Ambassador to England. Dan and Teresa became very close friends to Buchanan while in London. But Teresa did not like England and soon they were back in New York City where Sickle worked to have constructed Central Park. In fact, all of his life he would think that urban park his greatest accomplishment. He continued to work hard for Tammany Hall and when Buchanan was elected to the presidency Sickles followed as Congressman.

Dan and Teresa set up a house on fashionable Lafayette Square in Washington and became quite prominent in social circles. Harper's Weekly Magazine noted that "Mr. and Mrs. Sickles are universal favorites; nowhere is there a more refined or generous welcome." Mrs. Sickles's receptions, noted the New York Herald, were "always attended by the most presentable people in town." President Buchanan was known to come by for dinner often. So did Philip Barton Key.

Philip Key came from a large and important family. His father, Francis Scott Key, had been a district attorney in Washington from 1833 to 1841. At that time he unsuccessfully tried the man who attempted to kill President Andrew Jackson. In that case, the first successful use of the insanity defense was used in America. Of course, earlier while standing aboard a ship outside of Baltimore harbor watching a British bombardment during the War of 1812 he wrote a song that would become famous as the national anthem. Philip studied law in Annapolis and followed his father's foot steps and became a prominent lawyer in Washington. Key married in 1845 but he and his three children were widowed ten years later. He was an extraordinarily handsome man known for his wit and charm. Soon he was a social lion of Washington society and became known to Dan and Teresa Sickles. In fact, Dan Sickles was important in obtaining a political appointment for Key. Since he was a widower, Key was frequently called upon by busy Congressmen to escort their wives to the endless social events. Apparently everyone understood the "unwritten law" and a class of social eunuchs arose to be escorts for the wives of busy Congressmen. That is how Philip Key and Teresa Sickles became more intimate, first as friends and then as lovers.

 

Event

The relationship between Key and Teresa deepened into a passionate love affair. At first, they were seen together or at the same social events almost every night. Only the most discerning were suspicious and the whisperings were surprisingly light for a gossip-hungary Washingtonian society. Soon, Philip took up residence near the Sickles house in the center of town. They began to "visit" almost everyday. On several of these visits they made love in the parlor sitting room while servants busied themselves elsewhere in the house. Slaves and servants were well aware of what was going on but dared not say a word to the Congressman. Soon the liaison shifted to Philip's apartments. They accomplished this by Philip appearing outside the Sickles home signaling his desires and availability by waving a handkerchief. Then Teresa, on the pretense of shopping or social visits, would leave the house and secretly make her way to Philip. The following was taken from first-hand accounts given at the trial and recorded in the newspapers:

 

It was a dirty room in a rundown house in a squalid section of the city. Its windows were closed tight against the February cold and its shutters barred the feeble winter sunlight. a fire burned in the small hearth. Some pieces of wood for it lay nearby. The furnishings were sparse; a simple bureau, a rumpled bedstead, and a basin with a pitcher. Soiled towels were strewn about the room. Through the connecting door, scattered about an adjoining room, were a comb, a pair of gloves, some cigarettes in a package on the mantel, a man's winter shawl. The bed and bedding there were wrinkled, too, as though no one had bothered to make it up for a week, or so.

She undressed--taking off her black velvet cloak trimmed lace, the black velvet shawl trimmed with fringe, the plaid silk dress, her undergarments--and now lay naked in the bed. Waiting for him to appear. Her dark hair was undone and draped across he pillow.

He entered the room. What was that remark he had made about what he liked? "French intrigue and romance, with a good spice of danger in it!" He started to take off his clothes. And what was that boast of his? "He only asked thirty-six hours with any woman to make her do what he pleased."

He lay down next to her and they embraced. Then they kissed and "did what is usual for a wicked woman to do."

These meetings went on for months. Since the business of Congress, especially the problems growing everyday on the impending split off of the South, Dan Sickles was oblivious to his young wife's various trysts.

One day, in the midst of some very busy and trying work at the capitol, an anonymous letter arrived disclosing the adultery of his wife. It read:

 

Dear sir with 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 Philip Barton Key & I believe the district attorney who rents a house of a negro man by the name of Jno. A Gray situated on 15th Street btw'n K & L streets for no 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 he has as much the use of your wife as you have. With these few hints I leave the rest for you to imagine.

 

Most Respfly

Your friend R. P. G.

 

At first, Dan Sickles went into denial and continued his work in Congress, and, against his wife's objections, sought re-election. For some inexplicable reason Philip and Teresa grew emboldened and took less precautions in their meetings. The circle of those who knew what was going on began to widen. Even President Buchanan became suspicious and cautioned the Congressman to show more attention to his wife and household. However, it was only when his best friend, Samuel Butterworth, confirmed the rumors and suspicions that Dan Sickles finally realized the truth.

Sickles's first reaction was to fall into a deep depression. This soon gave way to fury. He confronted his wife with the facts and was able to extract a written confession of the entire sordid affair in great detail. Dan was particular enraged when it was disclosed that the very parlor in which the confessions came out was the initial and primary place for the illicit sexual meetings. He forced Teresa to leave the house for New York. After Teresa left Dan fell into an even deeper depression and all of his friends feared he was loosing his mind.

In the meantime, Philip was unaware of the disclosures. He had not seen Teresa for nearly a week in spite of his handkerchief signals. Everyone was strangely silent when he casually asked about the Sickles. He continued to try to establish contact. On one such occasion, February 27th 1859, as Philip signaled from across the street, the depressed Daniel caught sight of him out of the window. Congressman Daniel Sickles cracked.

Armed with two pistols, and accompanied by his best friend Samuel Butterworth, Sickles ran outside to confront Philip Key on the mainstreets of Washington D. C. As the cuckold approached seducer with determined steps, Philip's congeniality shifted to trepidation. That turned to panic and pleading as the guns appeared. It was so close to the White House that gunshots could be heard by the President. Dan shot Philip in the chest. Staggering backward the wounded man pleaded for mercy. This was answered with another shot that the cinched the death. A third was merely a coup de grace. The wounded man was carried, gasping out his life, to a nearby men's club where he expired in a short time. A coroner's inquest was carried out immediately with the victim's body still there propped up on an overturned chair. Congressman Daniel Sickles had already turned to his friend and handed over the gun saying "My duty is done, my honor restored."

Amidst nationwide attention Daniel Sickles went to trial for the killing of Philip Barton Key. Everyone across the country referred to it as "The Washington Tragedy."

 

Questions to Ponder

1. What will be Sickles' defence strategy?

2. From a nineteenth century perspective was Sickles justified in his actions?

3. What was the subsequent outcome and history of Sickles and his wife?

4. Was Sickles a "bad man?"

5. Was Teresa Sickles a "bad woman?"

6. Was Key a "bad man?"

 

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Suggested Further Readings

Brandt, Nat. The Congressman Who Got Away With Murder (1991)