In February of 1859, a scandalous event shook Washington D.C., involving two prominent politicians, betrayal and murder most foul. How intriguing!
Hon. Daniel E. Sickles, Congressman from New York, shot and killed Philip Barton Key, U.S. District Attorney (and also, interestingly enough, son of famed composer Francis Scott Key), after discovering an affair between Key and his wife. The murder took place in the middle of the afternoon on Pennsylvania Avenue, in clear view of the White House. Sickles was tried for murder and was found not guilty. Sickles’ trial was the first to successfully use the plea of temporary insanity. Who could convict a man with a broken heart? Apparently not a jury in 1859.
That same year, a carpenter and builder from Worcester, Massachusetts, was briefly transplanted to Washington D.C., and devoted himself to keeping a daily journal of his experience in the city. Lee Pardon Aldrich did just that, recording daily the weather, his health, and the goings on of Washington D.C. religiously from January 1st, 1859 through June 7th, 1859. His diary [link to online record] can be found in AAS’s manuscript collection.
While looking through Aldrich’s diary, his entry for February 28th, 1859, caught my eye-
Monday has been quite a great day for Washington the shooting affair last evening was the most wicked a thing that was now done in Washington for some time. Mr. Key was shot near the Pres. House by a member of the House of Representatives from the State of New York.
My interest piqued, I looked into this shooting affair and found all the details in Felix G. Fontaine’s report, The Trial of Hon. Daniel E. Sickles, for the Murder of Philip Barton Key, for the Seduction of His Wife, Sunday, Feb. 27th, 1859 [link to online record]. This record of the murder and ensuing trial, published the same year as the trial itself, tells us Sickles was found not guilty thanks to the “…defenses of justification of homicide in consequence of provocation, and of insanity.”
While Aldrich’s entries are short and not elaborate, as was the style of many diaries and journals of the day, it is interesting to trace the trial through his entries. We can see how the public was reacting to the trial through his entry of March 7th, 1859:
I have heard about the court met this morning but adjourned until tomorrow at 10 oclock then Mr. Sickles will be tried for shooting Mr. Key on Sunday of last at corner of Pa and 16th Street about two and half oclock it has made a great talk in all kinds of society in Washington.
Apparently the trial was the talk of the town. Aldrich also fills us in on what people were saying in his entry from April 9th, 1859:
Great excitement at the City Hall the case of Mr. Sickles takes up all of every mans time of talking this thing and that thing some think he deserves to be hung for his murder.
Well, Mr. Sickles was not hung, nor found guilty, as Aldrich reports on April 26th, 1859:
Mr. Sickles was discharged this afternoon of not guilty the noises in the court was great when the jury said to the court he was not guilty.
Whether these were noises of pleasure or displeasure, I suppose we’ll never know. Although, according to Fontaine’s report, after being declared not guilty, Sickles was released from custody “amid the cheers of the audience…” But what is the reliability and possible bias of this resource? Again, we may never know. Even though Aldrich’s diary can’t be considered cold hard facts necessarily, it gives us an interesting take on an historic event seen from an ordinary person’s perspective.
I’ll leave you with my favorite entry, from April 10th, 1859, which sheds light on what I like to interpret as Aldrich’s sarcastic sense of humor. It is the sense of a person we can discover through diaries, along with a loose interpretation of history, which makes diaries such fun resources!
I have not been out this day any to speak about I think it best to keep at home then I shall be safe and not get shot before I know it.