'Key, you scoundrel, you have dishonored my home; you must die!'
This city has seen its share of angry public figures, nasty scandals, and the occasional homicide. Rarely has Washington, DC been treated to the packaged trifecta. But it happened on February 27, 1859.
Daniel Edgar Sickles was a congressman from New York. He was a rising star in politics, had a pretty wife, and was a likeable man about town. Philip Barton Key was a tall and handsome DC district attorney, and also the son of the Key who penned The Star Spangled Banner. Sickles was a workaholic and frequent traveler; his wife and the Key fellow were soon engaged in an affair.
They kept it secret for some time; but Washington, alas, is a gossipy town. Sickles was not stupid. The moment of truth had arrived...
He spied Philip Key in front of his house on Lafayette Square, a short stroll from the White House, (home, at the time, of James Buchanan.) He was waving a handkerchief flirtatiously at the window and Mrs. Sickles smiled back. Bingo. Sickles marched over to Key in broad daylight and pulled out his piece. Key pulled out his opera glasses and threw them at Sickles. Sickles fired three times. Philip Barton Key was dead.
Surely, Sickles was swiftly tried, sentenced and executed? Not so fast. Having connections, including the brilliant Edwin Stanton, he plead Not Guilty by temporary insanity. How insane! - nobody in history had ever won using that argument. The trial was in April, 1859; the drama dominated the news daily. Ultimately, the man who shot and killed his wife's lover, was found Not Guilty by temporary insanity. Here was a new precedent in crime and justice.
During the Civil War, Sickles lost a leg at Gettysburg; he would soldier on until 1914, hobbling around until age 94. His legacy has little to do with fighting Confederates, but rather with fighting and killing a man in cold blood. In front of the White House. At 2 pm. And found not guilty.