illustration of a white man in a black suit and top hat shooting another white man, who is lying on the ground with one arm raised in defense, while yet another white man in a black suit and top hat watches in the background.

“Ample Justification for the Deed”: Public Interest in the “Sickles Tragedy” as Gender Performance

Congressman Daniel Sickles murdered Philip Barton Key on February 27, 1859, just steps from the White House. The day before, Sickles’s wife, Teresa, had tearfully confessed to an affair with Key, who was then the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia. When Key, oblivious to this new development, appeared in view of the Sickles residence in Lafayette Square brazenly signaling for Teresa to meet him, Dan grabbed his pistol and headed outside. What else was a cuckolded — and, therefore, dishonored — man to do? At least this was how the story played out in the press. Richly detailed articles about the deadly conflict and the subsequent trial filled newspapers around the country, eager to satisfy a voracious public. Readers enjoyed illustrations of the murder, portraits of the involved parties, and diagrams of the scene of the crime, making it easy to visualize the scandal.1 It was a familiar, yet perennially tantalizing story: a man kills his wife’s lover. But the high society setting, the public nature of the crime, and Sickles’s use of the new defense of temporary insanity made this iteration especially interesting. Coverage of the affair, the murder, the trial, and its outcome also reflected the gendered expectations of nineteenth century American men and women.

With Sickles’s honor — and his masculinity — in question, killing Key seemed the only way to restore his reputation. Samuel Buttersworth, who was at the Sickles residence to offer support to the apparently heartbroken husband, recounted that he initially advised his friend not to do anything to attract attention to the situation. Sickles lamented that all of Washington society already knew about the affair, and Buttersworth replied that, if he was certain it was already public knowledge, “there is but one course left for you, as a man of honor–you need no advice.”2 Newspaper articles supported Buttersworth’s advice. “[T]he judgement of the public stands firm as to the depth of the provocation and the justice of the dreadful retribution that followed,” the Richmond Enquirer proclaimed three weeks after the murder.3 When the verdict came in late April after a highly publicized trial, the Wilmington Journal announced, “The Sickles trial has ended as every body supposed it would, in the acquittal of Sickles.”4 He did it, of course, but who could blame him?5

illustration of a courtroom scene, with only men in the pews surrounding a pulpit on which a white man is giving testimony and a white man is in judges robes at the judges...desk?
Harper’s Weekly engraving of the Dan Sickles murder trial in Washington, D.C., 1859. (Harper’s Weekly/Wikimedia Commons)

As far as the press was concerned, Dan Sickles was the true victim. Never mind that the congressman had plenty of fairly overt affairs of his own; it was Teresa Sickles’s affair with Key that destroyed the Sickles’s marital bliss. “What calamity, what misery, what ruin and death, has not her frivolity and crime brought upon her innocent husband, her guilty paramour and her wretched self!” lamented one newspaper reporter, having recounted the couple’s apparent happiness prior to the murder.6 The real tragedy of the situation, Harper’s Weekly insisted, was that Dan had lost his family along with his honor, “‘for there is no shadow of possibility that Mr. Sickles will ever be reunited to his wife.’”7

While the newspapers echoed the public’s sympathy towards Dan Sickles in his role as a wronged husband forced to kill, they also reflected the sentiment that Teresa was a treacherous and wicked woman. Publication of Teresa’s written confession, which documented her affair with Key in great detail, villainized her further. Even an article suggesting that Dan had actually penned the statement due to its overly “gross” nature was not wholly kind to Teresa, stating that “Mrs. Sickles is perhaps depraved, as she is certainly a fallen woman” (just probably not quite that depraved, as “there is not a line in it that is womanly”).8 Teresa’s deeds had been so against expectations of her as a woman and a wife in the 1850s United States that her femininity itself was now in question.9 The Wilmington Journal noted that, despite Daniel Sickles’s place in the prisoner’s box, it was Teresa who had “really been the person tried, condemned, and executed in the public eye,” as “her face has figured in Police Gazettes and lying pictorials along with the lowest malefactors, her name has been made a hissing and a scorn, and if she really have any womanly sensibility her punishment must already have been worse than death.”10

Teresa Bagioli Sickles. Dan Sickles married her when he was 32, and she was 14 or 15, against the wishes of both their families. (Harper’s Weekly/Library of Congress)

While those invested in the trial seemed to expect the verdict, they did not expect the twist that came that summer. Against all of the norms of the day, Dan and Teresa reunited. The public was furious. The New York Herald devoted half of its July 19 front page to various takes on the couple’s reunion. One, titled “‘Disgrace and Disgust’–New Moral Revelation,” explained that Sickles had created a far-reaching problem by forgiving his wife. After the murder, Dan’s public image was that of “a sort of representative husband for the Union,” garnering so much empathy that “jurymen took him as their model husband, and being husbands themselves declined to serve on the ground of prejudice in the prisoner’s favor.” So now, with Dan’s absolution of Teresa, a terrible message was being sent to American women. They could betray their womanhood through adultery and depravity and “the husband will still take them back to his bed and embrace, still call them by the honored name of wife, and […] demand for them recognition and acknowledgement in the circle of American matrons.”11 By murdering Key, Sickles preserved and perhaps even elevated his reputation as an honorable man but, by reconciling with Teresa, he was allowing her transgressions against femininity itself to go unpunished.

Early on, some papers referred to the initial murder as the “Sickles Tragedy,” but it turned twice as tragic as readers followed the story to its unexpected conclusion. First, the public lamented (though perhaps with a bit of schadenfreude) a high society lady’s fall from True Womanhood and the inexorable murder resulting from her duplicity. This story had a clear moral that noncompliance with nineteenth century society’s expectations for proper gendered behavior had devastating consequences. It also included a riveting trial that confronted the intersection between established law and the prevailing sentiment that a man had an obligation to exact revenge.12 The second, unforeseen tragedy struck when Dan Sickles pushed back against the prevailing notion that Teresa must suffer indefinitely for her treachery. In the oft-cited 1966 article, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” Barbara Welter wrote, “If anyone, male or female, dared to tamper with the complex virtues which made up True Womanhood, he was damned immediately as an enemy of God, of civilization and of the Republic.”13 And Dan and Teresa had definitely tampered.

Almost 140 years later, the American public had strong opinions about another marriage’s recovery from infidelity. Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky and the subsequent political fallout dominated the news in 1998. On September 18, days after the release of the Starr Report, a Chicago newspaper published reader responses to the “Crisis in the White House.” “I think Hillary should divorce him,” wrote Carol Vincent of Palatine, “I would think a lot more of her if she did[.]” Kathy Sye of Buffalo Grove said, “She should give up her power over her self-respect.” Donna Stohr of Arlington Heights added, “Hillary should take her daughter and get as far away from that lying nymphomaniac as possible. As a mother, I can’t believe she hasn’t done that.”14 A woman living in the twentieth century, Hillary Clinton’s reaction to her spouse’s affair was less governed by issues of honor than a nineteenth-century man’s. Yet, whether in 1859 or 1998, and whether a scorned husband or scorned wife, public discourse surrounding high profile infidelity insisted on only one option for proper resolution: the one that best performed and preserved society’s gender norms.

Notes

  1. “The Sickles Tragedy at Washington,” Harper’s Weekly, March 12, 1859. For further reading on the nineteenth century interest in the spatial aspects of murders, see Karen Halttunen, Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998). Return to text.
  2. “The Sickles Tragedy at Washington,” Harper’s Weekly, March 12, 1859. Return to text.
  3. “The Sickles Tragedy,” Richmond Enquirer, March 22, 1859. Return to text.
  4. “The Wilmington Journal,” Wilmington Journal, April 29, 1859. Return to text.
  5. For further reading on the Sickles case in the broader context of marriage, honor, and the law, see Hendrik Hartog, Man and Wife in America: A History (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002). Return to text.
  6. “The Sickles Tragedy,” Richmond Enquirer, March 22, 1859. Return to text.
  7. “The Sickles Tragedy at Washington,” Harper’s Weekly, March 12, 1859. Return to text.
  8. “The Confession of Mrs. Sickles,” The Prairie News, May 5, 1859. Return to text.
  9. Barbara Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” American Quarterly 18, no. 2 (1966), 151-174. Return to text.
  10. “The Wilmington Journal,” Wilmington Journal, April 29, 1859. Return to text.
  11. “The Sickles Case,” New York Herald, July 19, 1859. Return to text.
  12. Hartog, Man and Wife in America, 218-237. Return to text.
  13. Welter, “The Cult of True Womanhood: 1820-1860,” 152. Return to text.
  14. “What the Public Says,” Daily Herald, September 18, 1998. Return to text.

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One Comment

Alice Langbehn

This was a very interesting article. I’ve heard stories of” fallen women” and had thought about the social norms in relation to it, but not fallen men. I’m also surprised at the public reactions to the reconciliations. Thank you for the interesting topic to think about.

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