• Talia + Emily

The Life and Times of Teresa Bagioli Sickles

By Talia Smith

Wow. A lot has changed since I first recorded this episode on that rainy night in February.

When Lydia and I sat down in her Morgantown, WV apartment, we had no idea what we wanted to talk about. We tossed around the idea of Civil War nurses or Louisa May Alcott’s involvement in the Civil War; I even think we recorded a little bit of both those topics. Eventually we decided to talk about Dan Sickles. We recorded the episode without brushing up on our research and without really knowing how to record a podcast! We just kinda wung it, but it turned into one of my favorite episodes of the season!

It’s funny to listen to it now. Back in February there was no pandemic, the “Confederate statue debate” had been out of the spotlight for a few years, and we were both prepping for adventures of our own. Because of this, I’ve had trouble trying to find a good blog topic. What do I talk about that hasn’t already been said? I could talk about statues, but as I mentioned in the episode, I’m just generally not a fan of statues memorializing people. I could also talk about the intricacies of Dan Sickles’ relationship with his wife and other women in his life, but I’m not in the mood to talk about an old man right now. Instead, I’m going to dedicate this blog post solely to Teresa, the young Italian-American woman who married Dan Sickles.

The Life and Times of Teresa Bagioli Sickles

New York City, 1836: Teresa Bagioli was born to Antonio Bagioli and Maria Cooke. This was before the major wave of Italian immigration which would occur later in the century and into the next. This means that her experience of being Italian-American in New York City would have been very different from what we understand it to be. Typically, when we think of Italians coming to New York City, one might imagine tenement houses, a homogeneous community, or factory work. This is not the New York Teresa experienced.

Teresa’s youth was heavily influenced by her grandfather, Lorenzo da Ponte. Now, I know I said I didn’t want to dwell on old men, but da Ponte’s life and situation is actually important in the greater story of Teresa. You can read more about him here, but in short, he was a librettist for Mozart. Some of his most notable works include, Le nozze di Figaro (1786), Don Giovanni (1787), and Così fan tutte (1790). Most sources claim that Teresa moved in with her grandfather in 1839 when she was three years old. This is all fine and good except that her grandfather died in 1838?? From what I can piece together, she actually ends up living with her uncle/ dad’s friend, who also happens to be named Lorenzo da Ponte. So, Teresa never did live with her grandfather, the librettist, she lived with her uncle, a professor at NYU, who had the same name. Also, according to Wikipedia, Teresa’s mom, Maria, is the adopted lovechild of the elder da Ponte, so that’s why no one in Teresa’s immediate family had the da Ponte last name. Are you confused yet?

Teresa met her future husband, Dan Sickles, as a toddler when he was studying under the professorship of her uncle da Ponte and living with the family. He only lived with them for a short while, but kept in touch with the family. He came back into Teresa’s life when she was 15, in 1851…he was in his 30s.

Now, here’s where things get shady (as if they were not shady already). They got married about a year later, in September 1852. She was seven months pregnant, and apparently, her parents did not originally consent to the marriage. Unfortunately, because she was married so young, there is not much out there about her “pre-Sickles” life. If anyone reading this specifically studies Teresa, please let me know, because I have so many questions! For example, did she write any letters that might better explain her early relationship with Sickles? From the information I have, I can only assume that she was, maybe, persuaded into this relationship with a much older man and possibly convinced him to marry her to save her reputation? Because, as we know, you can not consent to marry when you are 15 (yes, I know, consent laws were different, but by the 1880s the age of consent was 16, so even by their own standards, this was a sketchy situation). ESPECIALLY since her parents were not about the relationship. That’s really saying something.

Regardless of the suspicious circumstances of their marriage, Teresa married Dan and gave birth to their only child, Laura Buchanan Sickles. As you might have suspected based on the episode and generally everything about him, Dan was a dirty dog and openly cheated on Teresa while “traveling for work.” When he was Secretary of the US legation in London, he even brought his mistress, a known “lady of the night,” to meet QUEEN VICTORIA! Teresa seemingly handled it all the best she could while managing life in DC society. She had a lovely reputation and seems to have been rather well liked, if not pitied, in her circles.

Lonely, lovely, and barely in her twenties, Teresa took a lover.

Philip Barton Key was a single dad and the son of famed poet, Francis Scott Key (you may know him for his bop “The Star Spangled Banner”). According to Women’s History Blog, when attending DC society events, “if the husband was unavailable due to political responsibilities and travel, it was customary for the wife to be accompanied by one of the many bachelors in the city.” Philip often accompanied women, but, as you might expect, Sickles was absent a lot. Because of this, Philip and Teresa got very close. Reports suggest that Philip was quite handsome, but here’s a picture so you can make up your own mind on that--

He was also much older than her, about 18 years. To be honest, I feel for Teresa. Here she is, in the prime of her life, in romantic relationships with significantly older men. This is another instance in which I wish I had access to more primary sources on her specifically . Did she have a good relationship with her father? Did she actually like these guys? Did she have a lot of close female friends? Seriously, Teresa Sickles scholars, slide into my DMs (@justthe_italian).

All that being said, Teresa and Philip were definitely dating, and it seemed like everyone about town knew about it… except for dear old Dan Sickles… who was not amused. Philip rented a house near the Sickles’ home for the couple to have their affair, and they even had their own bat signal for when it was time to hook up. Well, when Dan learned about this, he was angry to say the least. He obviously, as they say, “could dish it out but not take it.” He forced Teresa to write a confession letter. Begrudgingly, she does. She writes all about her liaison with Philip, even pointing out places in the Sickles’ house where they carried out their affair and signed with her maiden name. The ultimate burn!

As Lydia eloquently said in the episode, “Dan Sickles… he basically did whatever he wanted.” Out of a fit of rage, upon seeing Philip give Teresa the “signal,” Dan went outside and shot him. He shot the heck out of him. And when asked if he did it, Dan was honest, saying, “he deserved it.”

As we discussed in the episode, Dan didn’t really see any repercussions for his actions. In fact, people as a whole were more opposed to the fact that he took Teresa back. In my own way, I was opposed to that too! Why would Teresa want him to take her back? And then I thought about it. Her lover was dead and her would- be ex husband was a powerful man; she’d be in quite the social pickle and would risk losing custody of her young daughter. I also read reports that she’d “threaten him with scandal” were he to divorce her. For selfish reasons, I wish he did! What could be so bad that it would ruin the reputation of Dan Sickles? I mean, he already publicly brought his mistress to meet the Queen of England and murdered his wife’s lover in broad daylight! How much worse could it get? I want to know!!

Nevertheless, they stayed married, although they lived separately. Teresa had custody of her daughter and was primarily living with her family in New York until her untimely death in 1867, only two years after the Civil War. She was just 31 years old.

The tragedy of this story is Teresa barely had a life of her own. She was a teenager when she got married and had a baby, barely in her twenties when her lover was murdered, and passed before she could start living life by her own terms. Unfortunately, this was a fate not unfamiliar to women of her day, or even our own day. Her daughter's life was even more tragic, but that’s a story for another time...

So what do we take away from this? Well, firstly, use protection to reduce the risk of having a psychopath's baby. But secondly, and more seriously, live your life for yourself and write it down. So much of Teresa’s story is told through the guise of her nasty husband. As we move towards season two of the podcast, the idea of legacy will come up again and again, and it seems even more important to make sure you write your life story in your own words.

Thirdly, finally, and most importantly, steer clear of selfish men like Dan Sickles. You can do better.


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