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Tragedy in High Life.


March/April 1859

From The Missouri Democrat, Thursday, March 3, 1859.
Sickles Headline

Tragedy in High Life.

Murder of P. B. Key by D. E. Sickles.

Sad Story of Domestic Ruin and
Bloody Revenge.


At 2½ o’clock to-day, Mr. Philip Barton Key, the United States Attorney for the District of Columbia, was talking with Mr. Butterworth of New York, at the corner of Pennsylvania avenue and Sixteenth street, near the south entrance to the Executive Mansion, and some twenty yards from the Club-house on President square, when he was accosted by the Hon. D. E. Sickles, of New York. Mr. Sickles charged Mr. Key with destroying the honor of his wife and his own happiness; and, drawing a revolver, instantly shot him down. One ball, entering in at the left side, passed completely through the body of Mr. Key; a second was lodged in his thigh, and a third, glancing, inflicted a slight bruise. Mr. Key fell, imploring Mr. Sickles not to kill him, and died in a very few minutes.

For months past in the social world of Washington, always quick to relish the details of private scandal as it is lax in its judgments of those by whom such scandal may be caused, has been busy with the names of Mrs. Sickles and of Mr. Key. Their intimacy was of that marked and peculiar kind which may perfectly well consist in the innocence of any absolute guilt-since while it was open to public observation, it was hardly concealed from Mr. Sickles himself, who having married his wife, Miss Bagioli, of New York, in early youth, had always treated her with extreme kindness and tenderness, and doubtless looked upon her relations with Mr. Key as the mere expression of girlish love of admiration, and of a vanity delighting in the sense of power over a man of fine presence, graceful address, and a certain local renown in the District for high spirit, resolution and gallantry.

During the whole of the last session of Congress the tall figure of Mr. Key was constantly to be seen in the President’s Square, opposite Mr. Sickles’ Washington residence; and Mrs. Sickles was as constantly in his company at all places of public entertainment. In the interval of the Congressional recess, Mr. Key made a short visit to New York, still without exciting any absolute suspicion of positive impropriety in the mind of Mr. Sickles, although other friends of the unhappy lady and among them her mother, repeatedly warned her of the fatal precipice on the brink of which she was permitting herself to trifle. It was hoped that the affair would come to an end of itself, and that one or both of parties most nearly implicated, would perceive the real drift of their conduct in time to avoid its almost inevitable consequences.

But on the reassembling of Congress, and the return of Mrs. Sickles to Washington, Mr. Key’s intentions, and the scandal consequent upon them, were revived with greater ardor than before. Mr. Key was particularly noticeable then in point of personal appearances, tall, well-formed, a more athletic man than Mr. Sickles, and especially fond of exercise on horse back. He rode an iron-grey horse and scarcely a day has passed since the return of Mrs. Sickles to the capital, on which his tall figure, his white riding cap, well trimmed moustache, and iron-grey horse might not have been seen two or three times in the course of the morning on the circuit of President’s square, or at the door of Mr. Sickles’ house, which stands quite alone on the north side of the square, and is a very conspicuous building of white stucco. It was but on Tuesday last, (so swift and fearful a dream does the whole party seem,) that, on visiting Mrs. Sickles, Tuesday being her day of reception, I found Mr. Key there, his horse waiting for him at the door. The rooms were filled with a pleasant company; the soft spring sun-light poured in at the open window, and Mrs. Sickles herself in her almost girlish beauty, wearing a bouquet of crocuses, the firstlings of the year, seemed the very incarnation of spring and youth, and the beautiful promise of life.

In the early part of the week before last, Mr. Sickles went on to New York. During his absence the busy spies of society observed that the attendance of Mr. Key at his house was even more unremitting than usual. Mr. Sickles returned to Washington on the morning of the day of the Napier Ball, and from that time up to Friday last nothing occurred to make the matter of his wife’s relations with Mr. Key more than ordinarily prominent in his mind. So far was he from manifesting anything like inordinate or tyrannical suspicion, that he allowed Mr. Key to escort Mrs. Sickles as usual on Pennsylvania avenue, and I saw them, in company with Mr. Henry Wykoff, at the theater on Wednesday night. On Thursday Mr. and Mrs. Sickles entertained a large party at dinner. Over that gay and brilliant company how near and fearful a doom impended!

On the next day (the day before yesterday) Mr. Sickles received from some enemy of mankind an anonymous letter, stating with precision so minute as to make suspicion imperative, that Mr. Key had rented a house on Fifteenth street, above K street, from a negro woman, and that he was in the habit of meeting Mrs. S. there two or three times a week, or oftener. The person and dress of Mrs. Sickles were actually described, and the usual time of the interview specified. Accompanied by a friend, Mr. Sickles went to the house designated and found every statement of the anonymous writer corroborated. Mr. Key had taken the house and he had constantly met there a lady answering very closely in description to Mrs. Sickles.

Mr. Sickles still clung to the hope that the person who had stooped to the baseness of making such charges under the veil of secrecy, might have thoroughly deceived him, and that Mrs. Sickles was not the lady in question. He accordingly requested his friend, Mr. George Wooldridge, of New York, to watch the place, and the woman in charge seems to have stated that none had occurred since Wednesday.

On Saturday evening, Mr. Sickles, resolved no longer to play the spy upon his honor, determined to confront his wife directly with his terrible suspicions. At first Mrs. Sickles strongly denied her guilt; but on her husband’s asking her whether, on the Wednesday previous, she had not entered the house on Fifteenth street, in a certain particular dress, and concealed by a hood, she cried out, “I am betrayed and lost!” and swooned away. On recovering her senses, she admitted her guilt, and besought mercy and pardon. Mr. Sickles calmly said he would not injure her, since he believed her the victim of a scoundrel, but that he had a right to a full confession. Two ladies in the house were sent for as witnesses, and in their presence, Mrs. Sickles made a full confession in writing, stating that her connection with Mr. Key had commenced in April Inst., under Mr. Sickles’ roof, but that Mr. Key had since hired the house in Fifteenth street, in which they had constantly met. Mrs. Sickles’ confession was made in the midst of the bitterest contrition and misery. Her husband simply asked her to give him back her wedding-ring, and desired her to write to her mother to come and take her from his house forever. Mrs. Sickles made no objections, admitting the justice of her punishment in the most affecting language. Her mother will arrive tomorrow to remove her from this fearful scene of guilt, remorse, and blood.

Having quitted the presence of his wife, Mr. Sickles gave way to the most terrible emotion, and passed the night in a state bordering on distraction–a feeling which was worked into madness this morning on seeing the cause of his misery, Mr. Key, with gay audacity, pass opposite the windows of his wife’s room, and wave his handkerchief, the usual signal for assignation. Asking Mr. Butterworth, who was at his house, to follow Key and engage him in conversation, so that he would not get out of sight, he rushed upstairs for his pistols, and, quickly following, found Butterworth and Key together at the corner of Sixteenth street, when the tragedy took place. On coming up, Sickles walked directly to Key and said:

“You have dishonored my bed and family, you scoundrel-prepare to die,” at the same time drawing his pistol; almost simultaneously Key place his hand inside his vest, and drawing what appeared to be a pistol, but was really an opera glass, said: “You had better not shoot.” Sickles at once fired, Key at the same time throwing his glass at him. This shot only grazed Key, slightly raising the skin of his side, and he immediately leaped behind a tree to avoid another shot. Sickles followed, and Key, catching his arm, endeavored to prevent him from firing, but Sickles disengaged himself, and firing again, shot Key in the upper part of the right thigh, close to the main artery. Falling on his hip and supporting himself with his hand, Key cried, “murder-don’t shoot.” Sickles, still following, fired again with his pistol close to Key, the ball passing through his body below the breast. In the meantime, the report of the pistol and Key’s cries, startled those in the neighborhood. Mr. Doyle, Mr. Upshur and Mr. Tidball, who were in the club at the time, proceeded hastily to the spot, where they found Sickles standing over the body of Key, with his pistol presented at his head, and which he tried twice to discharge, but which snapped both times, and Mr. Butterworth standing by composedly. On Mr. Doyle’s touching Sickles on the shoulder, the latter at once desisted, and turning around said:

“Gentlemen, this man has dishonored my bed.” Upon this he took Butterworth’s arm, and walking from the spot with the most perfect self-possession, proceeded to Attorney General Black’s, and delivered himself into custody.

On Mr. Sickles leaving, messrs. Doyle, Tidball, Upshur and Martin conveyed the body, which still held faint gasps of breathing to the parlor of the Club House, when the Assistant Surgeon General was at once in attendance, but Key was beyond all medical skill. He breathed but twice after being laid upon the floor. When Martin and Upshur raised Key from the ground, the former inquired if he had anything to say. Key made no reply, and was evidently unconscious.

In a few minutes the news spread over the city, and the streets became thronged with visitors to the scene of the terrible event, and groups were everywhere noticed engaged in excited discussion about it. The Club House was speedily surrounded by an immense crowd, eager to view the body of the ill-fated Key. Many of the leading gentlemen drove up in their carriages, and in about a quarter of an hour the brother-in-law of the deceased, the Hon. Mr. Pendleton, of Ohio, arrived. At about three, the Coroner’s Inquest was held in the parlor, where the body lay, when sufficient facts was elicited to show that deceased was killed by Daniel E. Sickles, and a verdict was rendered accordingly. While I write, the body of Key is being removed to his late residence on C street, nearly opposite Colonel Benton’s house. The parties involved in this sad story all live within the immediate circle of our daily Washington life; two, at least, of them being also as well known in New York as in the federal metropolis. Key was about 42 years of age, tall in stature, about six feet, with an easy and fashionable air, but by no means prepossessing in appearance.

His face had a sickly hue, and he had been for some time suffering from heart disease, or imagined he was, which gave him a sour and disconted look. Otherwise he was extremely popular, and those who knew him best said his eccentricities of manner covered a very kind and generous heart. His father, Francis S. Key, was the author of the National Song, the “Star-Spangled Banner.” He was a widower with four children. On his marriage he narrowly escaped a duel with Col. May, who conceived that he had unfairly ousted him from the affections of the lady who became his wife, and who was a beautiful and charming woman. Mr. Sickles, the member for the Third District of New York, is a native of this city, and was originally a printer by occupation. He is a man of nearly forty years of age, of good presence and graceful manners. As a member of the State Senate, as well as in the House of Representatives, he had made himself marked by a quite unusual coolness and self-possession, which gave him great advantage in debate, and had acquired for him a well deserved reputation as a rising young leader of the Democratic Party.

In 1853, Mr. Sickles was married to his wife, a daughter of Mr. Bagioli, the celebrated music teacher in New York, now ruined and heart broken, then a young girl fresh from school-life, and remarkable then, as now, for something especially soft, lovely and youthful, in the type of her very peculiar beauty. She is of Italian origin, and possesses all the Italian lustre and depth of eye united with a singular delicacy of feature. Mr. Sickles in jail, volunteered the remark that: “It was unavoidable,” and he “could not have done otherwise.” He added:

“Satisfied as I was of his guilt, we could not live together on the same planet.” The Hon. R. J. Walker and Messr. Carlisle and Ratcliffe have been retained as his counsel. They will bring him before Judge Crawford on a writ of habeas corpus and move his discharge upon bail. Key left no property. His family connections it is understood are able and will provide for his children. Some of Key’s friends intimate threats of summary vengeance against Sickles if he appears in public where they can reach him. A subsequent dispatch states that Mrs. Sickles entirely exonerates her husband.

The Washington correspondent of the New York Tribune furnishes the following particulars regarding the affair:

For more than a year there have been floating rumors of improper intimacy between Mr. Key and Mrs. Sickles. They have from time to time attended parties and the Opera, and rode out together. Mr. Sickles had heard of these reports but would never credit them until Thursday evening last. On that evening, just as a party was breaking up at his house, Mr. S. received among his papers an anonymous letter, but without opening his mail or knowing the contents of the letter, he accompanied his wife to a “hop” at Willard’s.

On his return home at midnight, Mr. Sickles opened the anonymous letter, which informed him of the infidelity of his wife, and of her intimacy with Mr. Key; and stating in detail the manner of their meeting, and naming the places of rendezvous. The letter was so plausible in its statements, and gave such precise directions for the detection of the parties in their assignation meetings, that Mr. Sickles decided to investigate the facts. Accordingly, he placed the letter in the hands of two of his most intimate friends, who last evening (Saturday) possessed themselves of the evidence, satisfactory to Mr. Sickles, that Mr. Key had rented a house of a negro, in Fifteenth street, which he used as a place of rendezvous with Mrs. Sickles.

This morning (Sunday,) being in great agony of mind, Mr. Sickles, in presence of two witnesses charged his wife with having had illicit intercourse with Mr. Key. At first Mrs. S. declared her innocence. Mr. Sickles then paraded before her the evidence of her guilt, when she became overwhelmed with the sudden arraignment and fainted, and finally confessed her guilt. Mr. Sickles was not satisfied with this verbal confession, but desired Mrs. S. to make the confession in writing. She complied, and she also informed him how often Mr. Key had been in the habit of seeing her and his mode of telegraphing to her, by a wave of his handkerchief, when he wanted her to come out. Mr. Sickles’ residence is No. 7 President’s Square, in view of the Jackson statue, which is opposite the White House. In full view of Mr. S.’s residence on the other side of the square, 15½ street, is the Washington Club House, which Mr. Key frequented, and from the window of which Mrs. S. says he was in the habit of telegraphing her, with his white handkerchief. If Mr. S. was about she was in the habit of returning the signal. After Mrs. S. confessed her guilt, her husband demanded her to return her wedding ring, and desired her to write for her father to send for her, and take her in charge. Her father is Antonio Bajiola, an Italian music master in New York city, where he has resided about thirty years.

Her mother’s name was Cook, who was born in New York. Mr. S. married his wife when she was sixteen years of age. He took her to England with him when he was Secretary of Legation at London, under Mr. Buchanan, and introduced her to the Queen, carried her to the Continent, and into the most fashionable society. He loved her with great devotion, and lavished all his means upon her. They lived in elegant style here, occupying a house of $3000. Mrs. S. rode in a splendid carriage with “outriders,” wore jewels to the value of $5000, and seemed to want nothing that she did not have.

Immediately after the shooting, the body of Mr. Key was picked up and conveyed into the club house, from which he was in the habit of telegraphing to Mrs. S. Mr. Key is nephew of Judge Taney and brother-in-law to Mr. Pendleton, member of Congress from Ohio. The father of Mr. Key was the author of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” Key and Sickles were both intimate friends of the President, and as Mr. S. has killed the District Attorney, it will be necessary for the President to appoint another.

An attempt will be made to-morrow to issue a writ of habeas corpus, and bring Mr. S. before Judge Crawford, in the hope to release him on bail. Mr. Key’s friends are quite indignant, and talk about shooting Mr. S. at sight. It is stated that Mr. Butterworth, who was in conversation with Mr. Key when Mr. S. came up, was in the house of the latter immediately before the shooting affair happened. Mrs. S. has one daughter, six years old, and Mr. Key leaves four motherless children, one a daughter twelve years of age.