During the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump infamously asserted that he could stand in the middle of the street and shoot somebody, and he wouldn’t lose any voters. Well, about 160 years ago, one politician did just that.
In broad daylight on February 27, 1859, New York Rep. Daniel Sickles stepped out onto the street in Washington D.C., mere blocks from the White House in Lafayette Square, and pulled a pistol on the bypassing U.S. attorney, Philip Barton Key – son of Francis Scott Key, author of America’s national anthem (a fact contemporary newspapers never tired of repeating). Key had been carrying on a sordid affair with Sickles’ wife, Teresa.
“Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my house. You must die,” he declared to his bewildered victim. A shot was fired, missed its intended target, and hit a nearby tree. “Murder!” cried Key, as he attempted to defend himself. A second shot hit Key in the groin, knocking him down. “Don’t kill me!” Key pleaded. But it was no use. Sickles fired again, and this time it was fatal.
This was hardly the first major violent confrontation between two major public figures. Most notably, just three years earlier, pro-slavery Rep. Preston Brooks beat abolitionist Sen. Charles Sumner over the head with his cane on the Senate floor in retribution for the latter’s “Crimes Against Kansas” speech in which he supposedly libeled Brooks’ uncle.
Brooks probably would have killed Sumner had his cane not broken. Sectional disputes over slavery routinely ended in violence, and it became commonplace for members of Congress to carry firearms and knives into the capitol.
But even in this age of political firestorm, what transpired between Daniel Sickles and Philip Barton Key was distinctly personal. As Chris DeRose chronicles in his new and exciting book, Star Spangled Scandal: Sex, Murder, and the Trial that Changed America, the conflict between the two men was a tale as old as time. Weaving together the threads of their stimulating (and tragically intersecting) lives, DeRose inventively treats this narrative of adultery and murder as a kind of real-life play.
A Grand Story
The book is divided into two acts and an “intermezzo.” “Act I: A Washington Tragedy” provides the background information to the big event. But rather than recount the lives of our three protagonists separately as stale biographical “subjects,” DeRose treats them as flesh-and-blood people – characters in a grand story.
We learn first of Sickles’ rise to political stardom in the cutthroat world of Tammany Hall-controlled New York City. Elected to the New York state assembly in 1846, young Sickles was hailed as a great “debater and parliamentary leader” by Gov. William Marcy.
At the time, Sickles was romantically involved with a woman named Fanny White, the proprietor of a swanky New York City public house. Although they obviously enjoyed each other’s company, Fanny’s wild side made her unpopular among the upper-class elite (she once dressed up as a man to join Sickles in male-only bars). Sickles would have to find someone more lady-like to take as a wife.
He thought he had found the perfect woman in Teresa Bagioli, a sophisticated and intelligent girl of just 16. Following their marriage in autumn 1852, she quickly proved herself adept at navigating the strictures of mid-19th century politics. When she met Queen Victoria in 1854, for example, the still teenage Teresa conducted herself with perfect poise. Doubtless, Sickles believed he had a faithful and reliable companion to accompany his climb up the political ladder.
In 1854, he was called upon by the Pierce administration to serve as the secretary of legation under James Buchanan, then minister to London. There Sickles and Buchanan formed a lasting friendship. The future president lauded Sickles as a man of “force and originality.” Little did Buchanan realize just how forceful his friend could be.
It was Sickles’ close relationship with Buchanan that brought him into contact with Philip Barton Key. Just like Sickles and Buchanan, Key was a loyal Democrat. In 1848, he was appointed by President Polk as U.S. attorney. Throughout his tenure, he worked hard to maintain the support of the pro-slavery Democratic Party. He vigorously prosecuted Daniel Drayton, a white man who assisted runaway slaves, while giving a virtual free-pass to Brooks after his assault on Sumner.
Following the 1856 election, Key was worried about keeping his position, so approached now-Congressman Sickles and asked him to lobby the new president on his behalf. Sickles agreed, and Key remained U.S. attorney. Thus began a sincere friendship (well, at least on Sickles’ end). The two often met at social events, giving the dashing Key ample opportunity to become acquainted with Mrs. Sickles.
Despite later accusations that Key had “seduced” Teresa, there is no evidence that she hesitated or was in any way passive about their relationship. She met her lover on a fairly regular basis and seemed to enjoy the excitement elicited by the clandestine affair. Indeed, their excitement often lead to reckless behavior.
Although Key leased a house right across the street from the Sickles’ so the two could meet in private (signaling the time for a rendezvous with the wave of a handkerchief), they often went for horseback rides together, inviting gossip. In time, Key became arrogant and convinced himself that even if Sickles discovered his wife’s infidelity, he would do nothing about it. “Sickles’ wife is my whore!” he openly told his friends.
Daniel Sickles, however, ignored the gossip. “I have always liked Mr. Key and thought him a man of honor,” Sickles declared. His attitude only changed after he received a mysterious note from a person known only as R.P.G. To this day, the identity of the informant is unclear, but the contents of the note are not. Naming Philip Barton Key as his wife’s lover, R.P.G. wrote, “I do assure you he has as much the use of your wife as you have.” Sickles was incensed. He confronted Teresa, who folded and confessed her sins.
Key received his comeuppance the very next day. After seeing the villain swaggering through the neighborhood, Sickles could hardly contain himself. Seemingly egged on by friends, he sallied out to avenge his defiled marriage.
For the nation’s newspapers, the murder was a financial boon. The attack and subsequent trial were covered obsessively and in great detail. Sales were astronomical. DeRose notes that an illustrated edition of Harper’s, after an initial printing of 75,000 copies, eventually sold 120,000. People rushed to get their hands on anything related to the incident. “With most persistent and indefatigable industry, people are hunting up items about this Sickles affair as if the fate of the nation depended on it,” one journalist wrote.
Sickles, meanwhile, was having no fun at all. Arrested and jailed without bail, he found himself in a precarious situation. There was no denying that he had committed the crime. Several witnesses had seen and heard him (minus one witness, a White House clerk whom President Buchanan bribed into leaving town). Sickles’ four-man legal team ultimately decided on a two-pronged defense, both novel and historically unsuccessful. They argued that (1) Sickles was temporarily insane at the moment of the murder, and (2) that Sickles was justified in killing Key because Key had seduced his wife.
The trial chapters brim with DeRose’s narrative talent, and there are more than a few chuckles to be had while reading about some of the proceeding’s humorous moments. For instance, a man called to testify was asked if he had ever been to an insane asylum. The embarrassed witness meekly asked the judge to intervene and halt the questioning. “He does not mean as an inmate, but as a visitor,” the judge responded as the courtroom erupted into laughter.
DeRose is clearly a gifted storyteller. Indeed, much of the book feels like a novel. While still relying on primary source material, he manages to weave the information into a cohesive, yet fluid whole. Reading Star Spangled Scandal, one cannot help getting just as caught up in the drama as those who followed the events in real time.