The Kentucky Tragedy and the Transformation of Politics in the Early American Republic

By Bruce, Dickson D., Jr. | ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly), September 2003 | Go to article overview

The Kentucky Tragedy and the Transformation of Politics in the Early American Republic


Bruce, Dickson D., Jr., ATQ (The American Transcendental Quarterly)


The Kentucky Tragedy represents one of the best-known and most complicated episodes in antebellum American history. Inspiring literary works by such authors as Edgar Allan Poe, William Gilmore Simms, Julia Ward Howe, and, later, Robert Penn Warren, it involved the 1825 murder of Colonel Solomon Sharp, one of Kentucky's most prominent politicians, by Jereboam Beauchamp, a young lawyer. Expertly analyzed by such historians as J. Winston Coleman, J. W. Cooke, and David Brion Davis, the episode has been used to explore significant issues in the social life and culture of the early republic. As historians have often noted, however, the crime was also connected to important political conflicts and divisions in Kentucky at the time. A closer examination of those connections can do much to illuminate important questions about political transformations and changes during the period, questions with implications going beyond the immediate setting in which the crime occurred. (1)

The events leading to the Kentucky Tragedy began in 1821, when Sharp, running for political office, was accused of having, about two years before, seduced Ann (or "Anna") Cooke, who subsequently gave birth to a stillborn baby. Shortly thereafter, she began a relationship with Beauchamp, a young man sixteen years her junior--he was eighteen; she, thirty-four. The two were married in 1824. On 7 November 1825, at about two in the morning, Beauchamp went to Sharp's home and stabbed Sharp to death. Beauchamp was arrested a few days later and, after a lengthy delay, put on trial for murder. Protesting his innocence, he was, nevertheless, convicted, and, on 26 May 1826, sentenced to die. He confessed shortly thereafter.

As Beauchamp's execution approached, his wife Ann remained constant, even deciding to join him in his cell. There, the two formulated a suicide pact. During the night before the scheduled execution, they took laudanum. However, the drug failed to work and the following morning, they stabbed themselves, each imposing a self-inflicted wound. Ann Beauchamp's proved fatal; Jereboam's did not. Shortly after noon on 7 July 1826, after being attended by physicians, he was taken from his cell in great pain and hanged. As the Beauchamps had wished, they were buried in each other's arms in a single grave.

In many ways, as historians have suggested, the Kentucky Tragedy represents a classic case of an honor killing. According to this view, the killing was the act of a young man who, in response to imperatives of honor, reputation, and private justice, took on by marrying Cooke the obligation to revenge her disgrace at Sharp's hands. There is much to support such a view, and it was widely held in Kentucky and elsewhere at the time, reinforced by the circumstances leading up to the crime. During the summer of 1825, Sharp had once again been a candidate for political office, and the rumor of his seduction of Ann Cooke had resurfaced. So had a rumor, of Uncertain origin, that Sharp, denying the seduction, had claimed that the stillborn infant could not have been his because it had been a mulatto. Ideals of honor, as scholars have long understood, placed a great stress on reputation, and the defamation would have compounded the damage already done (Ireland 30; Wyatt-Brown 306-07). Thus, while some initial suspicion was directed toward one John U. Waring, one of Sharp's bitterest and most violent enemies, Waring turned out to have an ironclad alibi--he was recovering from wounds sustained in an altercation with another man. Attention quickly shifted to Beauchamp, and, because additional damning evidence quickly turned up, he was arrested only a few days after the murder (Coleman 18-19).

Given the circumstances, the tendency to treat Sharp's death as an honor killing is not surprising, and has been augmented by the most influential surviving documents from the affair. Most important is a lengthy Confession Beauchamp composed between the time of his conviction and his execution. …

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