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–by Clare Whitton, USCHS intern

Philip Barton Key (Harper's Weekly, March 1859, Library of Congress)

Philip Barton Key (Harper’s Weekly, March 1859, Library of Congress)

On a chilly winter evening, U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia, Philip Barton Key II was taking his usual evening walk around Lafayette Park, just behind the White House. Apparently, this was Key’s custom for most evenings, most likely because of the signal he was trying to send to the upper window of the apartment building across the way. Specifically, it was the residence of the young and beautiful Teresa Sickles and her husband Senator Daniel Sickles. Sickles and Key ran in the same social circle, thanks to their jobs and families’ social prominence. At the time, Philip was a well known lawyer and a widower, with four fairly young children under his care. More importantly, he had a prominent family legacy starting with his father, Francis Scott Key, who wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which became the nation’s national anthem. He was the nephew of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, who in 1857 defended the decision of the Dred Scott v. Sanford case, which asserted that slaves, even if freed, could never be made citizens. On top of all this, Key was known to be one of the best-looking men in town, and Key never denied the attention. Unfortunately for Key, his good looks and important position in society could not save him from falling in love with a married woman. The Sickles couple and Key were both invited to James Buchanan’s 1857 Inaugural Ball, presumably where the pair met. Recognizing the danger they were putting themselves in, Philip would signal Teresa by waving his handkerchief in the park; she would in turn place her handkerchief in the window; and the two would meet in their secret spot.

Teresa Sickles (Harper's Weekly, March 1859, Library of Congress)

Teresa Sickles (Harper’s Weekly, March 1859, Library of Congress)

However, on February 27, 1859, something was off. That night, Daniel Sickles had received a “poisoned pen”, or a letter detailing Philip and Teresa’s affair. Senator Sickles was enraged to hear about his wife’s affair. In fact, he was so angry that he forced Teresa to give a written confession to the affair which he would use to get a divorce. Now, his anger would have been completely warranted, if he was not notorious for being unfaithful. For example, he once brought a prostitute with him on his visit to London to meet the Queen of England. To make it worse, Teresa was pregnant with their daughter at the time. Nonetheless, Sickles was still fuming at the “embarrassment” and sent his wife packing to her father’s home in New York.

Two nights later, Philip Key took his walk, gazing up at the windows of his lover’s apartment. Teresa’s handkerchief was there, in its usual place. Key made his way back towards the Gentleman’s Club, on the other side of the park. Little did he know, Sickles himself had placed the handkerchief in the window, catching Philip at his own game. (It seems Sickles had a flare for the dramatic, since he could have simply confronted Philip at the Capitol or the Gentlemen’s Club). Sickles followed Key towards the Gentleman’s Club, pulled a revolver from his pocket and shouted: “Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home; you must die!” He fired three shots, one of which scuffed Key’s hand; the second hit his inner thigh, sending him to the ground. After an attempt to stop Sickles by throwing his opera glasses at him, Key tried to drag himself behind some bushes. Sickles followed him and fired his third bullet, straight into Philip’s chest. A crowd quickly formed, since a famous senator was shooting a famous attorney right behind the White House. In the chaos, Sickles slipped the gun back into his pocket and simply walked away. Philip was brought into the clubhouse he had just left. His death followed soon after.

Sen. Daniel Sickles in prison (Harper's Weekly, March 1859, Library of Congress)

Sen. Daniel Sickles in prison (Harper’s Weekly, March 1859, Library of Congress)

This was no fairy tale romance, although it sounds like something straight out of Hollywood. Teresa would die of tuberculosis eight years later, at her father’s home. Daniel Sickles, ironically, lived a long and somewhat happy life. Edward Stanton, Abraham Lincoln’s future Secretary of War, defended the murderer and had him acquitted, even though he was found guilty for murder. How? Temporary insanity. Stanton would become the very first lawyer to use temporary insanity as a real defense, and, it worked.

The Civil War was only a few years away, and Sickles rose to the position of Union Commander. He was not particularly good at this either, however. He was sent to Gettysburg in July of 1863, where he not only sent hundreds of his own troops to die when he gave up the high ground but also had his leg blown off by a canon. Being as dramatic as he was, Sickles graciously sent his amputated leg and the cannon ball to the Army Medical Museum, where it remains to this day. Sickles was awarded the Medal of Honor for his “bravery,” served as a diplomat in Mexico and Spain, and was reelected to Congress for one term in 1893. On the bright side, he passed a bill through the legislature that provided for the preservation and commemoration of Gettysburg, allowing thousands of people to visit the battlegrounds today. He died in 1914, at the age of 94.

Works Consulted
“The Actors in the Homicide” The Chicago Tribune. March 5, 1859. Accessed June 20, 2016.

Daniel Sickles’s Temporary Insanity.” Murder by Gaslight. Last Modified November 10, 2009. Accessed June 20, 2016.

Representative Daniel Sickles of New York.” House Office of the Historian. Accessed October 20, 2016.

Sickles, Daniel. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress. Accessed October 20, 2016.

Tragedy at Washington.” Farmer’s Cabinet. March 2, 1859: 2. Accessed June 20, 2016.