Star-Spangled Murder: The Killing of Philip Barton Key

Star-Spangled Murder: The Killing of Philip Barton Key

Why you should care

Because only in America could the son of the national anthem’s author be gunned down in broad daylight across the street from the White House … with impunity.

O say can you see the congressman shooting the district attorney under that tree?

Francis Scott Key, the pro-slavery lawyer and amateur poet who penned “The Star-Spangled Banner” after witnessing the British bombardment of Fort McHenry 200 years ago, was famously inspired by the resilient spirit of a young nation.

Forty-five years later, Key’s other notable creation, his only son Philip Barton Key II, would experience an entirely different side of American life when he was slain in 1859 by a U.S. congressman and disgruntled cuckold named Daniel Sickles.

Barton Key’s fate, like his father’s fame, hinged on a cloth waving in the breeze.

Adultery, murder, politics and power in the nation’s capital — the red glare from Key’s killing and the perilous courtroom fight resulting in Sickles’ acquittal would captivate the entire country just before a civil war would divide it. And, as related in American Scoundrel (2002), the riveting biography of Daniel Sickles by Thomas Keneally, the murder of Barton Key would prove every bit as illuminating about the national character of early America as Francis Scott Key’s rousing national hymn.

Barton Key’s fate, like his father’s fame, hinged on a cloth waving in the breeze. In his case, it was a white handkerchief, which the dashing D.C. district attorney twirled brazenly as he strolled around Lafayette Square, just across the street from the White House, on the unseasonably warm morning of Feb. 27, 1859.

Described as “the handsomest man in all Washington society,” Key resembled a sandy-haired Kevin Kline — a tall, mustachioed lawyer who, like his father before him, was the district’s top prosecutor. By 1859, the 40-year-old widower, who lived across town from his four children, had become a rather lackluster attorney, choosing most afternoons to leave law and order to his staff while he kept the wives of the capital’s finest residents company. Key’s latest love interest was Teresa Sickles, the 22-year-old wife of his friend Daniel Sickles, the Tammany Hall Democrat from New York, which was why Key was waving his banner for Teresa to see over the ramparts of the Sickles’ house on Lafayette Square.

Daniel SIckles

Daniel Sickles

Barton Key had met the beautiful, dark-eyed Teresa, whose precocious, full lips could intone five languages, at an 1857 inaugural ball for the new president, James Buchanan, who was a good friend and regular guest in the Sickles’ home. As Buchanan and his fellow Democrats like Sickles, 39, labored to preserve the Union and prevent a civil war (and Sickles frequented prostitutes and his own married woman in Baltimore), the increasingly unhappy and neglected Mrs. Sickles turned to Key’s long arms for solace.

The torrid affair — conducted in rented apartments, on parlor sofas and in secluded portions of the Georgetown cemetery — raged through 1858. After one D.C. costume ball, Teresa, dressed as Little Red Riding Hood, was seen entering a carriage at 2 a.m. with Key, who was clad as an English Huntsman. The coach driver was instructed to drive around Washington.

When Key’s handkerchief gave proof that the adulterer was still there, you can imagine the fireworks display that followed.

The lovers had gotten reckless, and despite the rumors flying around town, they persisted. But, as Key strolled around Lafayette Square that February morning attempting to catch the eye of his beloved, he could not have known that just the day before her husband had received an anonymous letter informing him that Key “has as much the use of your wife as you have.” Nor did he know that the hot-tempered cuckold had confronted his unfaithful wife in front of her children and staff the previous evening and convinced her to pen a confession.

So when Key’s handkerchief gave proof the following morning that the adulterer was still there, you can imagine the fireworks display that followed when the distraught Sickles caught sight of Washington’s top-ranking piece of man-flesh parading outside his window.

As the prosecution led by Key’s woeful replacement, Robert Ould, would argue at trial that April, Sickles, a “walking magazine” wearing a “convenient overcoat on an inconveniently warm day,” turned Lafayette Square into a “carnival of blood.” There was no dispute that Sickles, armed with multiple firearms, had shot Key three times in the southeast corner of the park in an assault easily visible from a second-story window in the White House. The first blow struck Key in the hand before the second shot — after a scuffle in which the unarmed DA ineffectually threw his opera glasses at his assailant — struck near his groin, sending him to the pavement. The third and final blow Sickles inflicted at point-blank range, a death shot that blasted Key just below the heart.

What Sickles’ eight-member all-star legal team, which included future Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, did dispute was the client’s state of mind and moral justification. The defense’s two-pronged, somewhat contradictory argument boiled down to the claims that the enraged Sickles was a) temporarily insane (the first invocation of that defense in U.S. criminal law), but b) any reputable husband would have done the same thing in his shoes if confronted with a “confirmed and habitual adulterer” like Key.

After a three-week trial, the jury reached its decision in just 70 minutes: Daniel Edgar Sickles was free to go, and remain in Congress. Many in the press and public agreed with the exoneration, and hundreds would join Sickles in a victory party that evening. Teresa would remain largely estranged from her husband until her untimely death from tuberculosis in 1867, while Sickles would court controversy again as a Union commander at Gettysburg four summers later. But the Sickles affair, as Keneally observes, “served as a mirror of the marital, political, and even military morality of the day, at a time when the most notable political experiment in the new world was under its severest test.”

The star-spangled banner did yet wave over all of these affairs, but for the likes of Daniel Sickles, living free in the home of the brave meant something other than the noble sentiments evoked by Francis Scott Key’s poem, which would not become the nation’s official anthem until 1931. It was about pushing the limits of power and self-interest — and it helped to have a gun and a good lawyer.

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