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'Star Spangled Scandal': How An 1859 Sensationalized Crime Set A Modern Day Precedent

There may be no two more addicting topics to people right now than politics and true crime. A Star Spangled Scandal delves into both of these — with a heavy dose of sex added in — to show not only how this obsession is certainly nothing new in American history, but also its long-lasting effects throughout the decades.

Author Chris DeRose's book goes back more than a century and a half to detail what was essentially the first sensationalized murder trial in 1859 — one that became a footnote of history with widespread implications. Philip Barton Key, the son of revered "Star Spangled Banner" author Francis Scott Key, was the victim, dead at the hand of New York congressman Daniel Sickles, who had discovered the U.S. attorney for the District of Columbia was having an affair with his wife Teresa, a young Italian beauty.

The entire web of lies that predicated the tragedy would seem ripped from the headlines today, and it certainly was back then — the son of the man who wrote the National Anthem versus one of the most promising young politicians in the country. The Sickles couple was among the top hosts in tony Washington society; the New York Democrat was a close ally of then-President James Buchanan and had carefully selected a home just a block away from the White House. Key was a frequent guest at their lavish events but, unbeknownst to Sickles, Key was there even more often escorting Sickles' wife about town (and inside his own home) when he was back in New York. It seemed everyone in town knew about their dalliance, except for Sickles himself, until he received an anonymous letter about a nearby house Key had rented for their frequent rendezvous.

The question here isn't whodunit — Sickles shot the 40-year-old Key dead in the middle of the street in broad daylight, mere steps away from the executive mansion as Key wailed "Murder! Murder!" amidst myriad onlookers. Sickles even turned himself in shortly after, so there was little doubt about who pulled the trigger and administered the fatal shots.

Instead, Sickles' team of high powered attorneys — which included Edwin Stanton, the soon-to-be secretary of war to President Lincoln and a controversial figure in his own right — tried an untested legal defense strategy of a temporary insanity in an effort to sway the jury to acquit their client. The defense was coupled with the insinuation that it was a justifiable homicide due to the code of honor Key had broken by defiling his marriage bed. Ultimately, the trial set a precedent for centuries to come.

A Star Spangled Scandal leaves you with larger questions and observations about more than America's long-running obsession with crime. It's clear that the justice system tilts more in favor of those with a high social standing and the means to hire the best lawyers. And public opinion clearly held a major sway in this case, with most seeming sympathetic toward Sickles as ridding them of a man who could have preyed upon their own wives one day. In fact, Key (though deceased) was himself put up on trial in a way, cast as a handsome playboy whose nefarious wiles simply led Mrs. Sickles astray. Key, who was a widower, allegedly often bragged "I only need thirty-six hours with any woman to make her do what I please."

It also shows how women back then (and even sometimes now) are seen as something to be owned or possessed. Sickles' outrage over Teresa's tryst with Key seems to be driven more by the humiliation that her infidelity caused him — and the fact that he seemed to be the last person in the small Washington D.C. social circles to find out — than it does for any deep affection for her or a desire to keep his family intact. He's distraught for sure, but it's never fully clear where that emotion is coming from.

In fact, Sickles forced his wife to write out the sordid details of her year-long affair with Key once he presented her with the proof he'd found out, and had witnesses sign her confession, writing that "I did what is usual for a wicked woman to do," and demanded her wedding ring returned.

Though Sickles didn't want the letter made public to protect his daughter, much to the chagrin of his lawyers, the torrid details were eventually leaked to the press during his trial causing a gawking not unlike that of the "Reynolds Pamphlet."

This crime also coincided with the growth of mass media — not just penny newspapers that relied on the most salacious stories to sell papers but also the widespread use of the telegraph to more rapidly relay information across the country that in the past had relied on rail or horse. (A titillating detail DeRose notes is that people would even connect and find dates over the telegraph. So if you thought online dating apps were bad, imagine a "Hey, u up?" in Morse code).

The trial was fodder for gossip and conversation, not just in Washington salons but across the country, and it was front page news in major dailies. That makes it not hard to imagine how such an affair would play out today — because it already has many times over. The Sickles prosecution was the O.J. Simpson trial of its day — and while not televised, newspaper scribes were quick to push out any tidbit as fast as they could. If this event had happened in present day, Twitter would be abuzz, major networks would carry the proceedings live — and his guilt or innocence would be all cable news pundits would talk about. DeRose outlines the trial in great detail, with testimony, objections and both sides' main arguments laid out in vivid writing. It's not hard to imagine how Law & Order would dramatize the crime or the made-for-TV movie that would follow. In fact, one reporter who covered the trial did fashion it into a play.

Here's a 160-year spoiler alert, if you don't want to know the ending: Sickles goes free and is celebrated across the country, along with the "Unwritten Law" precedent that his murder of his wife's lover set. In fact, what outrages many people the most is that he reconciles with his wife, or at least appears to, though she dies shortly thereafter from tuberculosis.

All this happens just months before the entire country explodes into the Civil War, so perhaps the rancor that led to a sitting member of Congress killing a federal prosecutor shouldn't have been that shocking, along with the acceptance of such a crime. Philip Barton Key himself had very leniently prosecuted South Carolina Rep. Preston Brooks after he bashed in the skull of Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner following an argument over slavery and slave states.

And if such a scene ever happened today, take a minute to imagine what the coverage of such a crime — and the political divides emanating out of such a tragedy — would be like. Would they really be that different? Perhaps not.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jessica Taylor is a political reporter with NPR based in Washington, DC, covering elections and breaking news out of the White House and Congress. Her reporting can be heard and seen on a variety of NPR platforms, from on air to online. For more than a decade, she has reported on and analyzed House and Senate elections and is a contributing author to the 2020 edition of The Almanac of American Politics and is a senior contributor to The Cook Political Report.
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