Murder & Madness: The Myth of the Kentucky Tragedy

Murder & Madness: The Myth of the Kentucky Tragedy

Murder & Madness: The Myth of the Kentucky Tragedy

Murder & Madness: The Myth of the Kentucky Tragedy

Synopsis

The "Kentucky Tragedy" was early America's best known true crime story. In 1825, Jereboam O. Beauchamp assassinated Kentucky attorney general Solomon P. Sharp. The murder, trial, conviction, and execution of the killer, as well as the suicide of his wife, Anna Cooke Beauchamp- fascinated Americans. The episode became the basis of dozens of novels and plays composed by some of the country's most esteemed literary talents, among them Edgar Allan Poe and William Gilmore Simms. In Murder and Madness, Matthew G. Schoenbachler peels away two centuries of myth to provide a more accurate account of the murder. Schoenbachler also reveals how Jereboam and Anna Beauchamp shaped the meaning and memory of the event by manipulating romantic ideals at the heart of early American society. Concocting a story in which Solomon Sharp had seduced and abandoned Anna, the couple transformed a sordid murder- committed because the Beauchamps believed Sharp to be spreading a rumor that Anna had had an affair with a family slave- into a maudlin tale of feminine virtue assailed, honor asserted, and a young rebel's revenge. Murder and Madnessreveals the true story behind the murder and demonstrates enduring influence of Romanticism in early America.

Excerpt

November 6, 1825, outside Frankfort, Kentucky. It had been weeks since the last rain, and the woods burned along the road to Frankfort. In the still air of the late afternoon, the smoke hung thick, and it stung the young man’s eyes and made his head throb. To ease the pain, he tied around his forehead a dampened handkerchief, worn so low he had to raise his head to see in front of him. Perhaps he thought it would hide his features; perhaps in his youthful conceit he imagined it made him resemble the intrepid French mariners of whom he had read. His name was Jereboam Orville Beauchamp, and he was on his way to see Solomon Porcius Sharp, the former congressman and state attorney general. Sharp, the heir apparent to the leadership of his party, had just been elected to his sixth term as a Kentucky representative, and it was widely assumed he would be chosen speaker of the house the next morning.

But Sharp did not live so long, for Jereboam Beauchamp called him from his bed that night and stabbed him to death. Although the young man escaped the scene, he was soon apprehended and his trial scheduled six months from then. In the meantime, a political firestorm broke out, as Sharp’s allies claimed the murder was in fact a political assassination and that Beauchamp had not acted alone. During the two-week trial held in May 1826, Beauchamp’s lawyers maintained his innocence and may well have even won acquittal had their client not foolishly attempted to suborn a witness. Found guilty, the twenty-three-year-old Beauchamp was sentenced to hang six weeks later. While he was awaiting execution, his wife and coconspirator, Anna Cooke Beauchamp, joined him in his dungeon where they composed a confession, which not only admitted that Jereboam had killed Solomon Sharp but claimed he had done so because Sharp had seduced and abandoned Anna years earlier. Shortly before Jereboam’s execution, he and Anna stabbed themselves. Her suicide attempt succeeded; his did not, and the dying man lived long enough to be taken to the gallows and hanged. Jereboam and Anna were buried together in a single coffin, over which a tombstone inscription tells a sentimental story of seduction, honor, and revenge...

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