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April 23, 2024 8 mins

Seemingly strait-laced Washington, D.C. in the 19th century was actually filled with illicit affairs. One of them involved some powerful players (and a very young wife). It also involved the son of Francis Scott Key, who wrote the Star Spangled Banner and it led to a murder that was the talk of pre-Civil War Washington…and beyond.

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
What would it take to drive you to murder? And
how would you or your lawyers effectively offer a defense.
Would it help if you were a pretty powerful guy
and you could afford powerhouse attorneys? When does that not help?
I'm Patty Steele, Murder and the first successful claim of
temporary insanity. That's next on the back story. We're back

with the back story. History and sex scandals actually go
together way more than you'd think. I mean, there's something
so seductive about an illicit interlude, especially when you come
from a time and place where everybody is expected to
totally behave themselves right. Well. A perfect example is the
story of Philip Barton Key, the second. You probably know

his father better. He was Francis Scott Key, who of
course was the guy who wrote the lyrics to the
Star Spangled Banner. But Philip Key was the victim in
this case, so we have to start with the other
key players. Daniel Sickles was an American general during the
Civil War. Despite eventually making it to major general by
eighteen sixty three, he was simply a political appointee from

a prestigious family and had almost no military experience. At
the Battle of Gettysburg, he disobeyed orders and moved his
troops into a position that left them completely defenseless, and
his unit was decimated. Sickles himself had a leg shot
off by cannon fire, But despite disobeying orders and his incompetence,

Daniel Sickles somehow got a Medal of honor. But let's
go back. Long before the war, Daniel was a power
player in Washington, a lawyer and a congressman from New York,
and a socialite, a notorious womanizer. Daniel nevertheless fell helplessly
in love with Teresa Bajoli. It was eighteen fifty one.

He was thirty two years old, Teresa was just fifteen.
They married the following year and had a baby, girl,
seven months later. Imagine you're married at sixteen, you have
a baby at seventeen, and a husband who's twice your age,
who's a very busy guy, both in politics send in
his personal life. As she herself later explained, and these

are her own words, I did what is usual for
a wicked woman to do. At the age of twenty one,
Theresa took a lover. That lover was a close friend
of her husband's, an attorney named Philip Barton. Key the second,
again the son of Francis Scott Key. In fact, he
was a US district attorney. The couple would rendezvous at

an empty house not far from Teresa's home, where she
lived with her husband and daughter on Lafayette Square in Washington. Now, interestingly,
extramarital affairs were really pretty common in the upper echelons
of Washington society. But it seems Teresa's husband, Daniel was
a really jealous guy. Now. The thing is, when somebody's

prone to messing around, they pretty often suspect everybody else
is doing the same thing, including their own spouses. He'd
often accused Teresa of having affairs, and she had always
been able to reassure him that she was faithful and
devoted to him, But eventually the truth came out. On
the evening of February twenty fourth, eighteen fifty nine, Daniel

and Teresa are having a dinner party at their home. Afterward,
they and their guests decide to head over to the
Willard Hotel for a dance. A messenger approaches Daniel and
hands him a sealed envelope, which he stuffed in his
pocket without opening. Later that night, after they got home,
he pulls the letter out and is shocked by what
he reads. The anonymous writer tells him what was going

on between Teresa and u S District Attorney Philip Key,
and gave him details of their trysts. The letter said
Key would hang a string out of the window of
the house, and that meant he was there and she
could slip in because he'd left the door open. The
letter ends with the lines with these few hints, I
leave the rest to your imagination, respectfully, your friend RPG. Well,

Daniel had no idea who RPG was. At first, he
thought the letter might be the work of a political rival,
but then he realized that the dates given in the
letter matched with his wife's frequent disappearances. He asked a
friend to scope out the house and question neighbors, and
it all added up. Daniel confronted his now twenty two
year old wife and she intently denied the story until

she couldn't. She sobbed and shouted, I am betrayed and lost,
finally admitting she was having an affair with Key. Daniel
forced her to write out her confession. In part, she said,
I met with mister Key many times in the house
on Fifteenth Street, I stayed for an hour or more
each time there is a bed in it in the
second story, to do what is usual for a wicked

woman to do. It was an intimacy of an improper kind.
Sickles was crazy with jealousy and anger, but he was
convinced that Key had taken advantage of his very young wife,
so he planned his revenge against Key, his friend. A
few days later, on Sunday, February twenty seventh, eighteen fifty nine, Key,

still totally unaware that Sickles knew about the affair, was
in front of the Sickles house waving his handkerchief and
whistling to try to get Teresa's attention. That's what happened
before cell phones. So Sickles came outside, and Key, thinking
it would be a friendly greeting, put out his hand
and said how are you. But Sickles was furious and

he shouted, you villain, you have dishonored my house and
you must die. He pulled out a pistol and fired it,
missing Key by a long shot, who then tried to
grab him by the coat, but Sickles fired again and
this time hit him. Key yelled out, don't murder me.
He staggered away, but Sickles ran after him and fired
twice at close range, killing him. The murder in broad

daylight and the following trial was all anybody could talk about.
The eye idea of male honor, female virtue, and the
law all processed through the lens of insanity. Sickles turned
himself in and hired a powerful legal team, which included
Edwin Stanton, who just a year or two later went
on to become President Lincoln's Secretary of War. Sickles told

reporters Key had dishonored me, and we too could no
longer live on the same planet. The trial began a
little over a month after the murder. While other lawyers
had used an insanity defense in the past, this was
the first time anybody had pleaded not guilty due to
temporary insanity. The New York Evening Post printed Teresa's confession verbatim,

while The New York Times accused the Post of indecency,
saying the confession was altogether too disgusting to be laid
before our readers. The lawyers loved the upset, and the
destruction of both Key's reputation and of Teresa's made their
case easier. They said Sickles had been blind with rage
and was driven temporarily insane, and it worked. The judge

even told the jury to consider Sickles's state of mind
when he shot key. After deliberating for just one hour,
they came back with a verdict of not guilty. But
here's what shocked people the most. Daniel and Teresa Sickles reconciled.
The public was furious that he would take back what
they called a fallen woman. She actually never really recovered

from the upset and died of tuberculosis in eighteen sixty seven,
when she was just thirty one years old. Daniel led
a long life. Aside from being a general in the
Civil War, he was a diplomat to Spain, where he
married a young Spanish aristocrat. He served in Congress again,
and he was made Sheriff of New York County in
eighteen ninety, among lots of other accomplishments. Daniel Sickles finally

died in nineteen fourteen at the age of ninety four.
His successful use of the temporary insanity plea changed the
criminal judicial system in America. But here's the question, was
it fair? Hope you're enjoying the Backstory with me, Patty Steele.

Please subscribe and if you have a story you'd like
me to dig into and share, feel free to dm
me on Facebook at Patty Steele or on Instagram at
Real Patty Steele. I'm Patty Steele. The Backstories a production
of iHeartMedia, Premiere Networks, the Elvis Durand Group, and Steel
Trap Productions. Our producer is Doug Fraser. Our writer Jake Kushner.

We have new episodes every Tuesday and Friday. Feel free
to reach out to me with comments and even story
suggestions on Instagram at Real Patty Steele and on Facebook
at Patty Steele. Thanks for listening to the Backstory with
Patty Steele, the pieces of history you didn't know you
needed to know.

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