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Sunday, February 15, 2015

A WOMAN SCORNED


I don’t know if Solomon Porcius Sharp (above) could have been President. But a man who had the job, John Quincy Adams, described the Kentucky lawyer as, “The brainiest man that ever came over the Allegheny Mountains.” The 38 year old Sharp had already served two terms as a Congressman, four years as Attorney General for Kentucky, and was now starting his second term as a state legislator – so the boy was not lacking for ambition, brains or talent. He spent his last day on earth, Sunday, 5 November, 1825, conferring with political allies as he prepared for his election as Speaker of the Kentucky House. Every indication was that come Monday morning, he would easily be elected. It seemed possible his next stop would be the United States Senate, and then, possibly, the White House; except, an ex-girlfriend of his, had other plans. 
Her name was Anna Cook, and in her youth she had been a real Southern Belle from Bowling Green, the same region and culture that would produce Mary Todd, Abraham Lincoln's wife. Anna was educated, witty,  flirtatious, with a passion for men and for gambling and for gambling on men. But she was never described as a great beauty. And like all gamblers, the more Anna gambled the more she lost. Few men of "good families" (i.e. wealthy) wanted to be responsible for her gambling debts.  By 1825 she was a spinster approaching forty, and her rose had withered a bit.  A critic described her as short, with dark hair and eyes, a few missing teeth, stoop shouldered and  “in no way a handsome or desirable woman.” And yet inside Anna there still burned a passion, which had metamorphosed into a burning fierce hatred of her old boyfriend.  It is impossible to say with certainty why Anna Cook became obsessed on Solomon Sharp. the up and coming politician. But when Anna’s young suitor,  Jereboam Beauchamp, proposed to her, Anna had said yes on the single condition that Jereboam first promise to kill Solomon Sharp.
Some five years earlier  Anna had attempted to derail Sharp’s political career by publicly charging he had fathered her stillborn child.  But Sharp’s allies had responded quickly by claiming the dead child had been born with black skin, and thus could not be the child of a white politician.  In a slave state like Kentucky, in a bigoted nation such as America in 1820,  it was a truly vicious attack. And with no living male relatives to defend her honor and challenge Sharp to a duel,  Anna had no way to respond.  In fact, her reputation was left in tatters no matter which side was believed. Had Sharp fathered the child?  Yes, he could have. And then this becomes a tale of misogyny.  But was there ever a child? If not, this becomes a  very different story, of obsession and growing insanity.  And two hundred years later it is impossible to choose between the two with certainty.  But we are certain about what happened next. 
With the failure of her original revenge, Ann had withdrawn into isolation to her widowed mother’s plantation, where Mr. Beauchamp had sought her out, for reasons left unexplained. He had been a neighbor to her father's Bowling Green plantation, and had been a law student in Sharp’s office. And to hear him tell it, the hypocrisy of the vicious attack against Anna had awakened an almost religious hunger for justice in the twenty-two year old...or so he said.  To call their marriage an affair of the heart seems somehow to have missed the point.  And after their 1824 wedding, as soon as it was convenient, like a misshapen Romeo, Jereboam traveled to Frankfort, looking to fulfill his promise to his new bride.
Of course there might have been another explanation for the timing of Jereboam’s (above) expedition to Frankfort, besides convenience. The week before, on 25 October, 1825,  a warrant for Jereboam’s arrest had been issued by the sheriff in Bowling Green.  It seems a single young woman named Ruth Reed was suing Jereboam for child support.  So the gallant defender of Anna's chaste womanhood might well have been the dead-beat dad of an illegitimate child himself.  Do you get the feeling that the public morality of neither the times nor Mr. Beauchamp nor Ms. Cook, were quite what they claimed to be?  Sort of just like today, yes?
Frankfort was a wooden town of just 1,500 souls when Jereboam arrived in November of 1825. It had been established at a ford across the Kentucky River, and was named for Stephen Frank, an early settler. The village became the state capital because local boosters contributed $3,000 in gold to the state treasury, and property for public buildings. It was not a generous act, as the boosters got rich selling house lots in the new burg. But thanks to their investment, Frankfurt was, in 1825, and remains to this day, one of the smallest state capitals in the Union. There were in 1825, a few brick structures in town, but fire was constantly updating the architecture of all the wooden buildings. Earlier in 1825 Frankfort had burned down its sixth state capital building, and was currently renting a Methodist Church for that purpose. 
Directly across the street from this temporary cathedral of democracy was the rented abode of Solomon Sharp and his wife and children (above).
Jereboam waited in the shadows of the church until Sharp returned to his Madison street home, sometime after midnight on 6 November, 1825. Then, as the clock approached two in the morning, he knocked on a side door. When Sharp responded, Jereboam identified himself as “Covington.”  Having opened the door, Solomon said he did not know any one by that name. Jereboam then cut the conversation short by thrusting a dagger into Solomon’s neck, severing his aorta. Solomon Sharp was dead shortly after he hit the floor. Jereboam then fled into the night. The first political assignation in American had just been committed.
 There were, of course, elaborate conspiracy theories which sprang up around the assignation of Solomon Sharp, spurred on by the victim’s politics and the $4,000 reward offered.  But the police stuck to what they could prove, and four nights after the murder Jereboam was arrested.  They never even found the murder weapon. And although Sharp’s widow eventually identified Jereboam’s voice as the one she heard call out “Covington”,  she had initially identified it as the voice of another one of her husband’s many political opponents. But several witnesses testified that Jereboam had repeatedly threatened to kill Solomon, and after a 13 day long trial, the jury had no doubts. On 19 May, 1826, after just one hour of deliberations, they returned with a verdict of guilty.
In his jail cell Jereboam dropped all pretense of innocence and wrote out a lengthy confession (above), filled with all the drama and heroics he clearly wanted to believe. According to his diatribe, Solomon had repeatedly admitted his crime against Anna, and in the final moments of his life had begged for mercy.  Even if true (and considering his injuries, such a speech was physically not possible), how that justified the cold blooded murder of a father of small children (On his gravestone the word "father" had even been carved in stone),  Jereboam did not attempt to explain.  And in the end it did not matter, because, as one commentator has pointed out,  it was at this point that the entire affair “went from tragedy to romantic melodrama.”
While awaiting the execution, Anna was being allowed to share her husband’s cell each night, coming and going during the day.  Into this place of confinement she slipped in a bottle of laudanum, a potent mixture of 89% grain ethanol, 10% opium and 1% morphine. The lovers intended a joint suicide, but instead produced only a double regurgitation marathon.  The absurdity of that sickening episode was matched only by the ineptitude of the jailers, because, just two days later these pin-headed penitenciariests allowed Anna to carry a knife into the cell for another unregulated visit.  Jereboam stabbed himself in the abdomen. Anna then grabbed the knife and stabbed herself in the stomach. If it was a race, she won. She died an hour later. Jereboam lived long enough that the jailers had to manhandle the wounded thespian up the thirteen steps of the scaffold, where he died, two hours after his wife.
They were buried together in the same grave, under a lengthy poem, composed by Jereboam, filled with noble words and maudlin sentiment. So the real cost of Anna Cook’s revenge was three lives; her own and the lives of two men she professed, at various times, to have loved. And I suspect she thought that was a fair trade. And that is the real tragedy in this so called "Kentucky  Tragedy".
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