Daniel E. Sickles: The Rotten Apple from the Big Apple

Anonymous letter to Sickles informing him of his wife’s infidelity, February 24, 1859. Daniel Sickles Papers, MS 564

Far be it from us to dwell on the negatives of history, but there’s no denying that New York has produced its share of heels. High on anyone’s list should be Daniel Sickles. On a Sunday morning in February of 1859, the New York born and bred Sickles shot the un-armed Philip Barton Key (the son of Francis Scott Key) dead in Washington’s Lafayette Square. The catalyst was  an anonymous letter that presented details of the affair his wife was carrying on with Key.

It was a textbook act of hypocrisy. The then 33-year-old Sickles had wed the 16-year-old Teresa Bagioli in 1852. By 1859, his own marital infidelities were well-known, and the defects of his character did not end there. Despite having been elected to Congress, he had already built a dodgy reputation in New York’s city and state government. The impressions recorded in 1851 by New York lawyer George Templeton Strong leave little doubt as to the low regard many of his contemporaries held him in:

Sickles belonging to the filthy sediment of the profession [lawyer], and lying somewhere in its lower strata. Perhaps better to say that he’s one of the bigger bubbles of the scum of the profession, swollen and windy, and puffed out with fetid gas.

Strong would also correctly predict Sickles’ acquittal. He beat the murder charge by claiming “a brain-storm or temporary aberration of mind” — i.e., temporary insanity. This was the first time such a defense was presented in an American court. One might be forgiven for suspecting that his defense prevailed not because of the power of argument but because of a combination of prevailing feelings about adulterers and the powerful people Sickles had in his corner. Not only did he retain future Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton as his lawyer, but President James Buchanan is also reported to have had “an interest in his welfare.”

Harper’s Weekly depiction of Key’s murder, April 12, 1859.

In any event, Sickles won the day and his life perhaps confirms the old addage, “Only the good die young.” Despite having his leg shot off at Gettysburg (an indirect result of having disregarded orders) he lived to the ripe old age of 94 — though, of course, not without making a nuisance of himself along the way!

Newspaper fragment from The World, April 17, 1898. Daniel Sickles Papers, MS 564


  1. Peter Tsouras says

    Is your Museum Library the repository for Sickles’ papers? I am researching his relationship with Maj. Gen. George Sharpe who had been a regimenatal commander (120th NY Vol.) under Sickles and later the chief intelligence officer for the Army of the Potomac.
    Thank you.
    Peter Tsouras
    (703) 780-1699

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