American Scoundrel Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Novelist Thomas Keneally became fascinated by the lurid life of Dan Sickles while researching the Civil War for a previous book. He uses novelistic techniques to provide a lively portrait of Sickles, his young wife, and New York and Washington society in the mid-nineteenth century.

Daniel Edgar Sickles was born in New York City on October 20, 1819, the son of George Garrett Sickles, a lawyer and sixth generation descendant of Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, who became wealthy by speculating in real estate. Keneally tells the reader that Dan was a wild teenager whose parents arranged for him to receive special tutoring and live in the house of Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart’s librettist, who had immigrated to America in 1805 and now taught Italian at Columbia College. Da Ponte’s granddaughter, Teresa Bagioli, three years old when Sickles arrived, admired their handsome young boarder. In 1852, when she was fifteen and Sickles nearly thirty-three, she accepted his proposal of marriage.

Tammany, Manhattan’s corrupt political machine, also found the young lawyer attractive, despite rumors that he cheated clients and his known fondness for prostitutes and barrooms. Sickles was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1847; in 1853 he was appointed corporation counsel of New York City, leaving that position before the end of the year to become first secretary of the American legation in London. There Sickles assisted James Buchanan, the American minister, in his failed attempt to purchase Cuba from Spain. Sickles demonstrated his wild streak and scandalized New York society by leaving Teresa and his infant daughter at home in America while taking a well- known prostitute with him to London and presenting her at court to Queen Victoria.

Returning to the United States, Sickles was elected to Congress the same year that Buchanan won the presidency. On the floor of the House of Representatives, Sickles strongly supported the efforts of Buchanan to prevent secession by appeasing the South. Teresa’s vivacious, youthful beauty made her a favorite of Washington society. Sickles busied himself with congressional duties and sexual adventures with married women. Teresa began spending her time with Washington district attorney Philip Barton Key, son of the composer of “The Star- Spangled Banner.” The two were soon engaged in a passionate affair that became a matter of gossip known to all Washington society except Sickles.

Informed of the affair in an anonymous letter, Sickles became furious and angrily extorted a detailed, written confession from Teresa. Seeing Key near his house the next day, Sickles confronted him with three pistols, shot him in the leg, and continued shooting his fallen foe until he killed him, then surrendered to the police. The case fascinated the nation’s press, which covered the ensuing trial in detail; it became the 1859 equivalent of the O. J. Simpson murder trial of 1995. Sickles’s friends assembled a team of eight lawyers to defend him, headed by leading New York criminal lawyer James Topham Brady. Acquitting a husband who killed his wife’s lover was not uncommon in the nineteenth century. However, Brady felt the situation was dangerous for Sickles since his actions had all the marks of premeditated murder. He had stalked and shot down an unarmed man, firing three times at a victim who begged Sickles not to kill him. Brady entered a plea of temporary insanity which, Keneally states, was the first use of that defense in the United States. After twenty-two days, during which Sickles’s attorneys acted as though Key and Teresa were on trial for adultery rather than Sickles for murder, the jury acquitted Sickles.

Keneally uses the trial to demonstrate the mid-nineteenth century double standard toward women. Females were not permitted in the courtroom for fear that the case might corrupt them. Yet when the defense leaked Teresa’s raunchy confession to the press, newspapers across the country reprinted it. In contrast, evidence of Sickles’s habitual sexual misconduct was never presented to the jury or the public. One defense attorney even argued that “the personal body of the wife was the property of the husband” and therefore Key’s sexual relations with Teresa...

(The entire section is 1725 words.)