|An artist's rendering of the murder from Harper's Weekly|
in March of 1859.
Read by Traber Burns.
Duration: 8 hours, 36 minutes.
In February of 1859, Daniel Sickles, a sitting U.S. Congressman, shot and killed a man in Washington, D.C. across the street from the White House.
Why is this not just a weird moment in American history?
#1) Daniel Sickles went on to become the highest-ranking Union officer in the Civil War that did not graduate from West Point. He performed very well at the disastrous Battle of Chancellorsville and performed bravely, but with great controversy at Gettysburg, where he lost a leg.
#2) The victim was Phillip Barton Key, the son of Francis Scott Key, the author of the Star Spangled Banner. Phillip Barton Key was also the U.S. Attorney for Washington, D.C.
#3) Key and Sickles' wife had been carrying on a long-term adulterous affair and Sickles had just discovered this fact.
#4) The new technology of the telegraph spread this story to newspapers across the country and it became THE scandal story of its era. Some newspapers sold literally tens of thousands of copies when this story was on the front page. Record numbers of telegraph messages were sent out across the country - totals only eclipsed by the Civil War just a few months later.
#5) It was the first time the temporary insanity defense was used successfully in the United States and kicked off a wave of similar defenses in adultery cases for most of the next century.
For me, an enthusiastic student of the Civil War, this should have been an amazing book. A future Civil War general is defended in a murder trial by the future Secretary of War during the Civil War (Edwin Stanton). A few days before the murder Sickles, his wife and her lover had all been at a party hosted by Rose O'Neal Greenhow - the future famed Confederate spy who used her parties during the war to gather information. Abraham Lincoln was fascinated by the case and discussed it back home in Springfield, Illinois. Later, he and his wife became friends with Mr. and Mrs. Sickles.
But, this book gets bogged down with long passages from the trial. He literally quotes the opening and closing statements from the trial at great length with no analysis - just copies and pastes it into the book. That might have been all right, unless you have read anything from the 1850's. Verbose and flowery speech abounds. Everyone comes off as a self-important, pompous windbag. It is tedious to listen to. If it could be said in 10 words, they were sure to use 50 or 60.
Here is a great example. This single sentence with more than 90 words was written to the New York Herald by Daniel Sickles to complain that they were writing about his personal life, but they didn't know any of the details and they should just butt out:
"The editorial comments of the Herald of yesterday, although censorious, (of which I do not complain whilst I read them with regret) differ so widely in tone and temper from the mass of nonsense and calumny which has lately been written concerning a recent event in my domestic relations, that I cannot allow a mistake, into which you have been held by inaccurate information, to pass without such a correction as will relieve others from any share of the reproaches which is the pleasure of the multitude at this moment to heap upon me and mine."
If you enjoyed that sentence, you would love the extended quotes from the trial transcript threaded together with an occasional comment for page after page.
I did not enjoy the narration in this book. I only have a couple of readers I will not listen to. Before this book, I only had one reader. Traber Burns has made it two. The reader has the perfect voice for pompous, self-important commentary. He is perfectly suited for this style of writing.
So, I rate this audiobook 2 stars out of 5. Just too many quotes. I get the value of letting the people actually speak for themselves, but this was too much.
This book can be found on Amazon.com here: STAR SPANGLED SCANDAL: SEX, MURDER, and the TRIAL THAT CHANGED AMERICA by Chris DeRose.