Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Kentucky Tragedy.

Jereboam Beauchamp stabbed Col. Solomon Sharp to avenge the honor of his wife, Anna Cooke Beauchamp. The story of the murder—known from the start as the Kentucky Tragedy—was viewed by the Beauchamps as one of love, treachery, vengeance, and tragic heroism; all the elements of the romantic novels they both so dearly loved. But in reality, Jereboam and Anna were enacting another familiar American narrative: two troubled misfits lashing out at a world they both disdained.

Date:  November 6, 1825

Location:   Frankfort, Kentucky

Victim:  Col. Solomon Porcius Sharp

Cause of Death:  Stabbing

Accused:  Jereboam Orville Beauchamp


Miss Anna Cooke (artist's conception, 1851)
The central figure in the Kentucky Tragedy, Anna Cooke Beauchamp, is also its most mysterious. Most of what is known about her comes from two often conflicting documents, The Confession of Jereboam O. Beauchamp, and Vindication of the Character of the Late Col Soloman P. Sharp, written by his brother, Dr. Leander Sharp. Both documents agree (though making different points) that Anna Cooke Beauchamp was well-read, unconventional, and disdainful of society and its rules. Though later authors would portray her as a great beauty, to Leander Sharp she was “in no way a handsome or desirable woman." Her husband, though deeply in love with her, had little to say about Anna’s appearance.

The Cookes were a family of Virginia aristocrats whose declining fortune after the death of Ann’s father led them to Kentucky for a fresh start. Anna with her mother and at least five brothers set up a new estate, called Retirement, outside of Bowling Green, and among them they owned at least two dozen slaves. As the oldest daughter in a respectable family, Anna would have had many suitors. Even if she was not a beauty, as her later detractors would say, she was vivacious and popular as a young woman, but, in her most obvious defiance of social norms, Anna Cooke remained unmarried by choice. As she grew older, Anna’s uncommon beliefs and behaviors became unsettling to Bowling Green society and she was shunned by her peers. She withdrew from society and found solace in reading, particularly the popular romance novels of the day.

But Anna had not completely withdrawn from society, she was still seen in the company of men. Her failure to marry prompted rumors of sexual misbehavior— rumors that proved true in 1820 when thirty-five year old Anna Cooke became pregnant. The baby was delivered stillborn that June. She declared that she had been seduced and abandoned by Colonel Solomon Sharp, and she even revealed the date of the conception—Sunday, September 18, 1819, while Sharp’s wife Eliza was in church.

Col. Solomon P. Sharp
The Sharp family lived near the Cookes and Anna Cooke had known the Solomon Sharp for at least twelve years. Though he had come from humble beginnings, Solomon Sharp rose quickly to a position of wealth and power. He was the most successful attorney in Bowling Green, held the rank of Colonel in the state militia, owned 3,600 acres of land and at age twenty-four became a United States Congressman. Sharp was a rising star in Kentucky politics. John C. Calhoun said of Solomon Sharp, “He has few superiors of his age in any part of our country" John Quincy Adams called him "The brainiest man that ever came over the Allegheny Mountains.”

Solomon Sharp also had bitter enemies in the arena of Kentucky politics and in 1821, they used Anna Cooke’s accusations to try to derail his bid for State Attorney General, producing a broadside that charged Sharp with seducing Anna Cooke. The State Senate formed a committee to investigate the matter which found the charge to be “wholly groundless" and confirmed Sharp as Attorney General.

It can never be known for certain whether Solomon Sharp had sexual relations with Anna Cooke, but he gave the appearance of a man who was happily married and whose wife Eliza was expecting their first child in 1819. What can be disputed is the charge of seduction which, in traditional parlance, meant taking a young woman’s virtue with the false promise of marriage. No one believed that thirty-five year old Anna’s virtue was still intact and Anna was well aware that Sharp was already married. Contrary to what would be later asserted in Beauchamp’s Confession, Anna Cooke was not alone with no family at the time of her pregnancy, at least two of her brothers were still alive. Had it been a true case of seduction, they would have been honor bound to seek retribution from Sharp. While her brothers did nothing to defend her honor, Anna found someone who would: Jereboam Beauchamp.

As a boy Jereboam Orville Beauchamp was precociously intelligent, though he probably exaggerated when he claimed that he “early shewed some indications of genius.” He was given a solid education and at age sixteen set off on his own, trying his hand at shopkeeping and teaching before settling on a career in law. Like Anna Cooke, Beauchamp was strong-willed and eccentric, viewing himself as above the petty dictates of society. He was violent, unruly and vindictive. One acquaintance asserted that he “…never knew him do an act of any kind which indicated magnanimity of soul or real dignity of sentiment.” Leander Sharp denounced Beauchamp’s “wild, lascivious, revengeful, unprincipled and shameless conduct.” By age eighteen he had been formally charged with fathering a bastard child and was rumored to have fathered others.

Beauchamp was eighteen years old when the news of Anne Cooke’s “seduction” was made public, and when he learned that she was living nearby in Bowling Green he was determined to meet her. The details of their meeting are known only through Beauchamp’s Confession, with skepticism expressed in Leander Sharp’s Vindication. On the pretext of using her extensive library, Beauchamp managed to meet the reclusive Miss Cooke. Dr. Sharp believed Beauchamp had been more attracted by her status as a fallen woman. Over the course of several meetings they found that they had shared interests in romantic novels and the poetry of Byron. Though she was seventeen years older than he, Beauchamp fell madly in love with Anna Cooke.

J. O. Beauchamp (artist's conception, 1851)
Though Anna returned his love, when Beauchamp asked for her hand in marriage she told him “that the hand which should receive hers would have to revenge the injury a villain had done her…her heart could never cease to ache till Col. Sharp should die through her instrumentality.” Beauchamp eagerly took on this task.
He claimed that in 1821 he traveled to Frankfort to challenge Col. Sharp to a duel. Sharp refused to fight but Beauchamp continued to pressure him in a threatening manner until Sharp fell on his knees and begged for his life. It is unlikely that this event actually occurred. There were no eye witnesses, and like the charge of seduction, southern honor would have dictated the outcome. No man could survive in Kentucky politics after declining a duel in such a cowardly fashion. The story was probably made up later to justify Beauchamp’s assassination of Col. Sharp.

In 1824 Anna Cooke agreed to marry Jereboam Beauchamp though Sharp was still alive, but according to Bauchamp’s Confession, they continued to plot his murder. In 1825, after his tenure as Attorney General, Sharp campaigned for General Assembly and his opponents revived the charge that he seduced Anna Cooke. By the time the news reached the Beauchamps, it included the additional charge that Col. Sharp had obtained a certificate from the midwife who delivered the stillborn baby, claiming that the infant was mullato. The charge that his wife had sex with a black man was more than Beauchamp could bear. He set off again or Frankfort, bent on murder.

The night of November 6, 1825, Jereboam Beauchamp disguised himself and, armed with a large butcher knife, sharpened on both edges and dipped in poison paid a call on Col. Sharp. Around 2 a.m. he knocked on the door and when Col. Sharp came outside to see who it was, according to Beauchamp, he plunged the knife into Sharp’s heart saying, “Die you villain.”  The wound was actually to the abdomen, but it was fatal and Col. Sharp died soon after being stabbed.

The first suspects included some of the more vehement of Sharp’s political opponents, but when it was learned that Jereboam Beauchamp, the husband of Anna Cooke, had been in Frankfort that day, he became the sole suspect. Four days later a patrol arrived at Retirement, arrested Beauchamp and took him back to Frankfort.

Trial: May 8, 1826

The trial of Jereboam Beauchamp lasted eleven days and included testimony from dozens of witnesses. Beauchamp pled not guilty, and the evidence against him was almost entirely circumstantial. Neither side mentioned charges of seduction—the defense did not want to raise the possibility that Beauchamp had been seeking revenge; the prosecution did not want the jury to think the murder was justified. Consequently, the prosecution made no attempt to establish a motive for the murder.

It looked like the trial was going Beauchamp’s way until John Lowe, a friend and neighbor of the Beauchamps’ testified that they had tried to persuade him to commit perjury. He brought to the stand a letter the Beauchamps had given him outlining what they wanted, as well as a seven-thousand-word document coaching Lowe on what to say. Among other falsehoods, Lowe was to say that Jeraboam Beauchamp believed that the seduction story was a lie fabricated by Sharp’s enemies, and that he had no quarrel with Sharp, always speaking well of him.

This was the turning point; Beauchamp’s attorney could not undo the damage caused by Lowe’s testimony. The jury deliberated for less than an hour before returning a guilty verdict.

Verdict: Guilty of murder

Jereboam Beauchamp was sentenced to hang on June 16. Anna was so distraught that she refused to leave her husband’s side and joined him in his jail cell—a windowless dungeon accessible only by through a trapdoor. Together in the cell, the Beauchamps wrote The Confession of Jereboam O. Beauchamp, a document which they believed would save Jereboam from the gallows. Working from their shared love of romantic novel’s Jereboam and Anna created a romance of their own, describing their love, recounting how Solomon Sharp had seduced and abandoned the “worthy orphan female,” revealing how the cowardly Sharp had refused to duel. Though now admitting that Jereboam had committed the murder, the Beauchamps believed that the Confession would convince the governor and people of Kentucky that the act was justified and Jereboam should be released.

The Confession was finished before the execution, but Beauchamp was unable to find a publisher. In desperation Beauchamp petitioned the governor for a thirty-day respite to complete the publication of his Confession; the governor refused. With all hope gone, Anna and Jereboam decided to commit suicide together. Anna had smuggled a bottle of laudanum into the cell, concealed in her bosom. After leaving instructions for their burial, they drank the laudanum but it failed to kill them. On the morning of the hanging they tried again, with a small knife Anna stabbed herself in the abdomen then Jereboam took the knife and did the same.

Execution of Beauchamp 
Anna’s wound proved fatal but the jailers were able to save Jereboam for the gallows. Five-thousand people were gathered outside Frankfort to witness the execution of Jereboam Beauchamp. As he was taken to the gallows he raised the curtains on the wagon so he could wave at onlookers. At the execution grounds the crowd expected Beauchamp to contritely address them, but he declined to do so. Instead he asked for a glass of water and requested that the band play the lively reel “Bonaparte’s Retreat from Moscow.” When he had heard enough, Beauchamp stood up and at half past one o’clock he was launched into eternity.

The Confessions of Jereboam Beauchamp was published after the execution and laid the foundation or the myth of the Kentucky Tragedy. The story inspired dozens of novels and dramas including Politian, an unfinished play by Edgar Allan Poe, which sets the story in 16th century Rome. None of these adaptations were particularly successful, probably because the story they drew from was already a work of romantic fiction.

Beauchamps' Grave
Jerebboam Beauchamp left behind the following instructions for the couple’s burial:
Directions for Our Burial
We do not wish our faces uncovered after we are shrouded, particularly after we are removed to Bloomfield; we wish to be placed with my wife’s head on my right arm, and that confined round upon her bosom.
J. O. Beauchamp
A month before the execution Anna Beauchamp wrote an epitaph for their tombstone and, to gain sympathy, attempted to have it published in a newspaper. Like the confession, the epitaph was not published until after their deaths.

Epitaph to be engraven on the tombstone of Mr. and Mrs. Beauchamp; written by Mrs. Beauchamp

Untombed below in other’s arms
The husband and the wife repose,
Safe from life’s never ending storms,
And safe from all their cruel foes.

A child of evil fate she lived,
A villain’s wiles her peace had crossed,
The husband of her heart revived
The happiness she long had lost.

He heard her tale of matchless woe,
And burning for revenge he rose
And laid her base seducer low,
And struck dismay to virtue’s foes.

Reader! if honor’s generous blood
Ere warmed thy breast, here drop a tear,
And let the sympathetic flood
Deep in thy mind its treasures bear.

A father or a mother thou,
Thy daughter view in grief’s despair,
Then turn and see the villain low,
And here let fall the grateful tear.

A brother or a sister thou,
Dishonored see this sister dear;
Then turn and see the villain low,
And her let all the grateful tear.

Daughter of virtue, moist thy tear—
This tomb of love and honor claim;
For thy defense the husband here,
Laid down in youth his lie and fame.

His wife distained a life forlorn
Without her heart’s loved honored lord,
Then, reader, here the fortunes mourn,
Who for their live their life-blood poured.
The burial instructions were followed; Jereboam and Anna Beauchamp were buried together in a single coffin in Maple Grove Cemetery, Bloomfield, Kentucky. Anna’s epitaph was engraved on the headstone.

Schoenbachler, Matthew G. Murder & Madness, The Myth of the Kentucky Tragedy. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009

Sharp, L. J. Vindication of the Character of the Late Col. Solomon P. Sharp. Frankfort: Amos Kendall and Co., 1827

The Avennger's Doom. Louisville: E. E. Barclay, A. R. Orton & Co., 1851

The Beauchamp Tragedy in Kentucky. New York: Dinsmore & Co., 1858

Find A Grave: Jereboam O. Beauchamp


merlallen says:
April 10, 2014 at 7:02 PM

Having two brothers doesn't mean that one isn't an orphan. Having two dead parents is what makes an orphan.

merlallen says:
April 10, 2014 at 7:02 PM


Robert Wilhelm says:
April 11, 2014 at 8:17 AM

I believe her mother was still alive. Either way, the "Confessions" implied that she was a poor young girl with no family who was seduced and abandoned. None of that was true.

merlallen says:
April 12, 2014 at 10:31 AM

this is an excellent blog, thanks for writing it

Robert Wilhelm says:
April 13, 2014 at 3:42 PM

Thank you! ; )

Unknown says:
September 27, 2017 at 1:26 AM

Thanks for posting about this! I actually found out from my grandma that I am related to beauchamp but she neglected to tell me the truth so I have sought it out and after and long search I found this blog and I feel at peace for learning my family's history from you, thank you.

Tish says:
December 19, 2021 at 1:09 AM

Fascinating story.

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