Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Tragedy in Kentucky

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November 7, 1825.

A Monday.

Two hours past midnight.

A dark, moonless night, lit only by a wash of stars overhead.

A masked figure stands in the shadows on Madison Street, his eyes fixed on a nearby home. The house sits cloaked in the gloom of deepest night. The street is quiet. Two men sidle past on their way home from the taverns. One of them laughs and the sound seems small in the overbearing silence of the night.

A dog barks somewhere in the distance.

Earlier, lights had burned inside the windows of the home on Madison Street while the family entertained guests for the evening. Sometime after midnight, another visitor had arrived, but he stayed only a few minutes before leaving with a companion. Shortly thereafter, the family and their remaining guests had retired to their bed chambers, the lights inside the house extinguished.

Now, in the hour when man’s spirit is in its lowest ebb, the masked figure moves forward, creeping around the house to a rear door. He extends a fisted hand and raps three times against the wood. The noise seems deafening in the midnight silence.

Within moments, the shuffle of footsteps sounds from within the house, then a muffled voice.

Who’s there?

The reply is simple: Covington.

This is a familiar name to the man on the other side of the door. There is the sound of a lock being drawn back. The door swings cautiously open.

The masked figure sees that no candles have been lit inside. The interior of the house is bathed in darkness.

What Covington is this? the homeowner asks, not recognizing the figure in his doorway.

John A. Covington, comes the reply.

I know a John W. Covington. I do not know you.

The masked figure takes a step back so that his countenance is awash in starlight. In one motion he removes the hat and scarf obscuring his face.

The homeowner peers at the man on his doorstep, his face going pale with recognition. He takes an involuntary step backward.

Great God! It’s him!

SOLOMON SHARP

Solomon P. Sharp [was] one of the ablest and most eloquent men Kentucky ever knew.
~ Former U.S. Congressman and Kentucky Secretary of State Ben Hardin, 1849



The son of a Revolutionary War veteran, Solomon Sharp must have shown promise from an early age. Born in 1787 in rural Virginia, in a time when everything outside Boston and Philadelphia was rural, Solomon’s family moved west to Kentucky around 1798, settling in the burgeoning town of Russellville.

Kentucky was, at the time, the western frontier of the new nation, and Russellville was an infant town, founded not long before the Sharps of Virginia arrived. Educational pursuits there must have been difficult indeed.

Despite that, young Solomon seems to have excelled in self-education. He learned Latin and Greek. He studied history, philosophy, rhetoric, and law. By the age of twenty-two he was a practicing attorney in Russellville. That same year, he ran and was elected to the Kentucky House of Representatives.

Sharp very quickly became a rising star in Kentucky politics. He served three 1-year terms in the General Assembly before putting his political career on hold to join the state militia in the War of 1812. Enlisting as a private, he attained the rank of colonel within just a few months. That same year he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and went on to serve two terms in Washington before returning to the Kentucky legislature in 1817.

Regarding Sharp’s time in Washington, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina – who would later serve as vice-president under both John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson – asserted that Sharp was the “greatest mind…from beyond the [Appalachian] mountains” to serve in the U.S. Congress. President James Madison, who served during Sharp’s tenure, made similar remarks, stating that Sharp was “the ablest man of his age who has represented the west.”

In 1820, Sharp moved his now booming law practice to Kentucky’s capital in Frankfort. The following year, he was named the state’s attorney general, an appointment that was reconfirmed when a new governor took office in 1825.

Later that same year, Sharp won a seat in Kentucky’s legislature again, and on the evening of November 6, 1825, the day before the opening of the General Assembly, Sharp’s supporters agreed to nominate him for Speaker of the House.

Now in his mid-30’s, Sharp must have felt that good things were on his horizon. Already a former U.S. congressman and state attorney general, now nominated for Kentucky Speaker of the House – Sharp must have believed that his star would continue to rise. Perhaps the future might hold a gubernatorial run. Maybe another term in Washington. He must have foreseen that his colleague and fellow Kentuckian Henry Clay would run for president again – perhaps Sharp could be his running mate.

But none of that would ever come to fruition.

A skeleton in Sharp’s closet was about to show up on his back porch.

JEREBOAM O. BEAUCHAMP



Born in southern Kentucky on its border with Tennessee in 1802, Jereboam Beauchamp, like Solomon Sharp, seems to have shown intellectual promise from a young age. Recognizing his son’s abilities, his father – a farmer of humble means – sought to give Jereboam a classical education and sent him to a school near Glasgow, Kentucky. This school was a new institution, established around 1810 with the legislative support of a young congressman and lawyer from nearby Warren County – Solomon Sharp.

Beauchamp studied there for several years and impressed the headmaster enough that he eventually fell into the role of preceptor, teaching and tutoring the younger students.

It is unclear when Beauchamp and Sharp first became acquainted, but it must have been around 1819, about the time Beauchamp was finishing his education.

Considering a career in law, Beauchamp had come to admire the charismatic lawyer and politician and had spoken to friends about studying under him. Word evidently got back to Sharp about this bright young man from Glasgow, and Sharp offered to help him in any way that he could.

But before any of that could happen, Beauchamp’s opinion of Sharp would take a sudden and irrevocable nosedive.

A SORDID SEX SCANDAL

In 1820, the name Anna Cooke became a familiar one in the popular consciousness of Kentuckians.



During the summer, news reports surfaced suggesting that Ms. Cooke – the daughter of a prominent Bowling Green family – had given birth to the illegitimate (and stillborn) child of Solomon Sharp, who was married with children.

Sharp vehemently denied the rumors and his popularity and prominence in the state kept public sentiment on his side. Anna Cooke was castigated and written off as a harlot and publicity hound, and the ruin to her reputation forced her into virtual seclusion at her family estate in Bowling Green.

Jereboam Beauchamp was, evidently, scandalized by these events. He was acquainted with a former companion of Ms. Cooke – a man who apparently unquestioningly believed her story – and he convinced Beauchamp that Sharp was a lying villain.

Beauchamp seems to have become obsessed with the situation. Hearing that Anna Cooke had been forced into seclusion, he traveled to Bowling Green to seek her out. Whether his initial motivation was romantic or professional (he was studying law by this time and might have believed the case ripe for a lawsuit), he very quickly became enamored with Anna Cooke. Despite the fact that she was old enough to be his mother (sixteen years older, to be exact), the feeling was mutual and the two quickly became romantically involved.

The following year, when Beauchamp proposed marriage to her, she accepted on only one condition – that he defend her honor and challenge Solomon Sharp to a duel. Beauchamp seems to have been all too eager to do just that.

It is unclear, however, whether any challenge was ever actually made. Beauchamp later claimed that he met up with Sharp around 1822 and laid down the challenge, but that Sharp refused out of fear, even going down onto his knees to beg for his life.

It seems that very few people ever took this claim very seriously.

Beauchamp also claimed that after realizing that Sharp would never agree to a duel, he decided to simply assassinate him. Realizing that he could not pull the deed off in bustling Frankfort (where Sharp now resided), he contented himself to wait until Sharp came to Bowling Green. However, on two different occasions Sharp visited the town and was gone before Beauchamp could put any plan into action. So he began sending letters to Sharp under a pseudonym, claiming to have a land dispute in Bowling Green for which he needed legal counsel and asking when Sharp would be in the area. Sharp eventually responded to one of these letters, but without giving him any clear indication when he would arrive.

As with Beauchamp’s claim about the proposed duel, it is unclear whether any of this actually took place. Beauchamp later tried to portray the entire plot as a simple honor killing: Sharp had dishonored Beauchamp’s wife, so Beauchamp had to kill him.

Yet others have suggested that Beauchamp simply made these stories up and never seriously considered killing Sharp until just a few months prior to the deed. His reason for inventing these stories of previous attempts on Sharp’s life was simple: he was covering up his involvement in a nefarious assassination conspiracy that descended on Kentucky’s capital in the summer of 1825.

THE NEW COURT/OLD COURT CONTROVERSY

The mid-1820’s represent perhaps the most politically unstable era in all of Kentucky history. A nationwide financial panic had occurred in 1819, and it had been felt especially hard in Kentucky, where numerous banks had collapsed and countless debtors found themselves unable to meet their financial obligations.

This situation created two highly polarized political camps in Kentucky – the so-called Relief faction made up of politicians who wanted to suspend debts owed to creditors in an effort to put more money into the pockets of taxpayers, and the so-called Anti-Relief faction that felt such a move would only harm the economy even further. The polarization between these two camps cannot be overestimated. Political infighting was vicious and frequently personal, and the two sides were all but brawling in the streets to gain the upper hand of political power in Frankfort.

In 1820, the Reliefers gained a majority in the legislature and immediately began passing laws viewed as favorable to debtors and unfavorable to creditors. The Anti-Relief faction challenged the constitutionality of these laws and the Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled in their favor in 1823, striking the laws down as unconstitutional.

This, of course, was seen as a major victory for the Anti-Relief faction, but the majority Reliefers were not to be outdone. They first attempted to remove the three justices of the Court of Appeals by passing resolutions against them. This required a two-thirds vote, however, and the Reliefers had only a simple majority in the General Assembly and could not garner the votes required to remove the justices.

Their next step, then, was more dramatic.

Bolstered by the 1824 gubernatorial victory of Reliefer Joseph Desha, the General Assembly voted to abolish the Court of Appeals altogether by repealing the law that had established it. This only required a majority vote. Once they had accomplished this, they merely created a new law establishing a new Court of Appeals, this time with four justices. These four justices were hand-picked by Desha and confirmed, again by simple majority, by the General Assembly. These new justices, sympathetic to the Relief cause, immediately overturned the rulings of the previous Court of Appeals and reinstituted the Relief faction’s legislation.

Needless to say, this unprecedented move set off a major crisis in Kentucky politics. The Old Court, together with its supporters from the Anti-Reliefers, refused to acknowledge the legality of the New Court. When ordered to turn their records over to the New Court, they refused, which prompted the clerk of the New Court to break into the offices of the Old Court and steal the records he was able to find.

The Old Court continued to convene and pass laws throughout 1825. What had been the Relief faction versus the Anti-Relief faction became the Old Court versus the New Court. With two courts claiming legitimacy and the state split into polarized factions, the entire state was on the verge of schism and possibly even descending into a sort of intrastate civil war.

It was in the midst of this firestorm in 1825 that Solomon Sharp resigned as state attorney general and accepted the nomination to the state legislature. He was a New Court man, and his supporters must have known that if he could win a seat, his popularity – both among voters and among his peers – would ensure his appointment as the Speaker of the House.

The Old Court faction, however, understood this as well. They recognized that it was vitally important to keep Sharp out of the 1825 General Assembly, and they acted quickly and remorselessly.

Shortly after Sharp was named as a candidate, rumors of his infidelity with Anna Cooke began to be circulated again. One of Sharp’s most vociferous political enemies – a wealthy lawyer and Old Court supporter named John Waring – began circulating pamphlets that not only reminded people of Sharp’s bastard child with Anna Cooke, but also made the accusation that Sharp had denied the child was his by suggesting that it was a Mulatto – that is, fathered by a black man.

In this day and age, we recognize interracial relationships as normal aspects of a sexually healthy society. But in the 1820’s, especially in a slave-state like Kentucky, accusing a white woman of having a black man’s child was just about the worst insult imaginable.

Like other aspects of this story, it is not at all clear that Solomon Sharp ever actually made any such accusation about the race of the child he was accused of fathering. But Waring’s purpose in publicizing this story was to make Anna Cooke look like the innocent victim of a vicious attack on her character by an ambitious politician willing to go to any lengths to avoid a career-damaging scandal.

Waring, it might be worth pointing out, also sent several death-threats to Sharp during this time, and was widely known to be a ruthless and violent individual. He was charged with disturbing the peace on more than a dozen occasions, he was known to have shot his own cousin to death in a dispute, and in 1835, he stood trial for murdering a prominent rival lawyer. Though there was no question that he had done the deed, three juries deadlocked over the question of self-defense, and a fourth acquitted him. He was murdered himself a few years later at the hands of one of his many professional, political, and personal enemies.

So it is not outside the realm of possibility – and in fact may be very likely – that Waring invented the story of Sharp accusing Cooke’s child of being fathered by a black man.

In any case, there can be no question that Jereboam Beauchamp believed every word of it. Now, not only had Sharp dishonored Beauchamp’s future wife by giving her a child out of wedlock, but he had also publicly accused her of copulating with a black man.

As far as Beauchamp was concerned, Sharp had to die.

And that, of course, may have been exactly what Old Court supporters were hoping for.

THE ASSASSINATION

On the first weekend of November, 1825, with the new General Assembly set to open on Monday and nominate Solomon Sharp as Speaker of the House, Jereboam Beauchamp traveled from Bowling Green to Frankfort.

The capital was bustling with activity in anticipation of the new legislative session, and Beauchamp was not able to find lodging at any of the local inns or taverns. Ironically enough, he ended up renting a room from the warden of the local prison. Telling the warden and his family that he was ill, he retired to his room early, then slipped out again after the family had gone to bed.

Traipsing through the city, he went first to Sharp’s house, which he found empty. He then went to a local tavern where he knew Sharp had been meeting earlier with colleagues. Sharp was still there when he arrived, but Beauchamp managed to have his back turned when Sharp left, and he missed him. Once he realized Sharp was gone, he went immediately back to the legislator’s house, but Sharp was still not home. Beauchamp decided to wait for him, planning on killing him before he ever made it inside, but while the young assassin was reconnoitering in the rear of the house, Sharp came in through the front door and evaded him again.

At this point, Beauchamp must have been having second thoughts. He knew Sharp was not home alone – his wife, his brother, and several out of town guests were inside with him. Beauchamp could easily enter the house and pull off the deed, but not without being seen and possibly apprehended.

The thought of the vile rumor he believed Sharp had spread about Anna Cooke, however, must have spurred him on. He resolved to wait until long after everyone had gone to bed, then pose as a family friend seeking a place to bunk for the night.

Beauchamp’s account of what took place on Sharp’s doorstep (as depicted in the introduction) is almost certainly an overdramatized and distorted version of what really happened.



In Beauchamp’s account, he is in charge throughout the confrontation, holding Sharp by the wrist until he sinks to his knees, then taking him by the throat and slamming him against the wall before plunging a dagger into the legislator’s heart while he begs for mercy.

No one knows for certain what took place; Mrs. Sharp witnessed the entire thing but she never gave public testimony about it. What is undeniable is that Beauchamp stabbed Sharp a single time, the blade entering (according to the criminal report) “two inches below the breastbone” and causing instant death (likely by severing the aorta).

THE AFTERMATH

Beauchamp and his wife had planned an elaborate escape to Missouri, but they were unable to pull it off. Within four days he had been arrested for Sharp’s murder. Few people, however, seem to have believed that he had acted alone. Popular sentiment suspected that Beauchamp was merely the love-struck hit man for an Old Court conspiracy, and the two prime suspects were the aforementioned John Waring and a man named Patrick Darby – another lawyer who was a prominent Old Court supporter. Darby was known to have made several public statements prior to the assassination implying that if Sharp was elected, he wouldn’t live to take his seat.

In the end, very little admissible evidence was found that could link Waring and Darby to Beauchamp. Darby, in fact, became a key witness for the prosecution, after he personally interviewed a number of people in Beauchamp’s hometown who testified that Beauchamp confessed the killing to them. Despite this, many people suspected Darby of either being the killer himself, or being the mastermind.

Beauchamp’s trial took place in May of 1826. There was very little physical evidence connecting Beauchamp to the scene, but the testimonies about his confessions to friends, and Mrs. Sharp’s identification of him by the sound of his voice, were difficult for the defense team to overcome. Their primary argument was that Darby, and not Beauchamp, had committed the crime, with Darby’s motivation being political.

The jury didn’t buy it. After only an hour of deliberation, they returned a guilty verdict and a recommendation for execution. (One of Beauchamp’s lawyers, incidentally, was the man mentioned previously that John Waring would later stand trial for murdering).

Beauchamp was originally due to face the gallows in June of 1846, but the judge agreed to delay it until July so that Beauchamp could write his own account of the crime. This account was published after his death as “The Confession of Jereboam O. Beauchamp.” By that time, he clearly recognized that there was no sense in denying his involvement in Sharp’s murder.



His confession, however, did not put rumors to rest that Patrick Darby had somehow been involved in the plot to kill Solomon Sharp. Accusations flew back and forth among Old Court and New Court supporters, with the New Court faction steadfastly believing that Patrick Darby (an Old Court stalwart) had masterminded the killing. Solomon Sharp’s wife and brother believed this as well. The issue reached such a fever pitch that one newspaper even suggested that the New Court faction had masterminded the killing so that they could blame it on the Old Court faction!

Patrick Darby eventually brought a series of defamation lawsuits against several legislators of the New Court, as well as Solomon Sharp’s widow and brother. Darby died, however, before any of the suits went to trial.

CONCLUSION

After Beauchamp was sentenced to death, Anna Cooke was granted permission to stay with him in his cell while he awaited his execution. Twice during that time they attempted, like Romeo and Juliet, to commit suicide together by overdosing on laudanum. Both attempts failed.

On the morning of Beauchamp’s execution, July 7, 1826, Cooke smuggled a knife into the cell. After asking the guard to turn his back while Cooke changed clothes, Beauchamp and his wife stabbed themselves. Anna’s wound was more severe than her husband’s, and she died within a few minutes. Beauchamp, however, was hurried out of his cell and rushed to the gallows with a bleeding wound in his abdomen. Too weak to stand on his own, he was held between two men while the noose was placed around his neck and the trapdoor was sprung.

The bodies were turned over to Beauchamp’s father, and the two lovers were buried arm-in-arm inside the same coffin. A poem Cooke had written the night before was etched into the tombstone, which is still in place in the Maple Grove Cemetery in Nelson County, Kentucky.



Jereboam O. Beauchamp was the first person legally executed in the state of Kentucky.

By 1826, Old Court supporters had gained control of the legislature again, but they were initially unable to completely reverse all the changes the New Court supporters had made. One proposal to fix the problem called for the resignation of the entire General Assembly, the governor and lieutenant governor, and all seven justices of the two competing courts. Not surprisingly, this measure was rejected. However, in December of that year, the Old Court-dominated General Assembly finally garnered enough votes to repeal the earlier changes. Governor Desha, a New Court supporter, vetoed the measure, but the General Assembly overrode it. Three new justices were installed on the Old Court, and in a move toward reconciliation, one of these new justices came from the now abolished New Court.

In 1829, the 77 decisions rendered during the New Court’s tenure were declared null and void, and a century after that – in 1935 – those 77 decisions were formally stricken from Kentucky common law.

Solomon Sharp was buried in Frankfort.



His epitaph reads: “Solomon P. Sharp was assassinated while extending the hand of hospitality on the morning of November 7, 1825. What thou knowest not now, thou shalt know hereafter.”

2 comments:

Luna said...

Excellent post! How did you come across this story?

It's made me think about that old book Papaw had about a murder on Peach Tree Road.....or something like that. I can't find anything by Googling. Will have to look into that further.

Scott said...

To be honest, I found it because it the Wikipedia article on Solomon P. Sharp was the featured article of the day a few days ago. Had never heard of it prior to that. Then I did a bunch of online research and found a bunch of old books online that talked about it.

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