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. Every indication was that come Monday morning, he would easily be elected Speaker of the Kentucky House. It even 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 the same region and culture that produced Mary Todd, Abraham Lincoln's wife, and Jefferson Davis, future President of the Confederacy. Anna was never described as a great beauty. But Anna was "a freethinker, reader of romantic fiction, and a libertine." You could also say she had a passion for men and for gambling and for gambling on men. Like all gamblers, the more Anna gambled the more she lost. Few suitable men of "good families" (i.e. wealthy,) wanted to be responsible for her debts. In 1820, at the age of 35 and still single , Anna had gambled heavily on Solomon P. Sharp. But when she became pregnant, Sharp refused to marry her. The lady was now officially socially ruined. She retreated to her late father's tobacco plantation outside of Bowling Green. After the child was still born, the lady had nothing left to lose. In May of 1820, determined to return the pain she had endured, Anna publicly charged Sharp with being the father. His political allies responded 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 misogynous nation such as America in 1820, in a land "of the fiddle and whiskey, sweat and prayer, pride and depravity" it was a truly vicious attack. With no living male relatives willing to challenge Sharp to a duel, (three of her brothers had recently died) Anna had no way to respond. In fact, her reputation was left in tatters no matter which side was believed. And two hundred years later it is impossible to comprehend the depth of her social failure. But we are certain about what happened next.
By 1824 Anna Cook was a spinster approaching forty, and her rose had withered. 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. And just at this opportune moment 22 year old Jereboam Beauchamp had sought her out and sought her hand in marriage. He had been a neighbor to her father's 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 him...or so he said. In response to his proposal, Ann agreed with one stipulation. She would marry Jereboam if he promised to murder Solomon Sharp. Thus, to call their marriage an affair of the heart seems somehow to have missed the point. And as soon as it was convenient after the 1824 ceremony, 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 moral outrage. 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 of the times nor Mr. Beauchamp nor Ms. Cook nor Mr. Sharp, 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 the legislature was currently renting a Methodist Church for its use.
Directly across Madison Street from this temporary cathedral of democracy was the rented abode of Solomon Sharp and his wife and their 3 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.” As he 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 in his home. The cops never 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 Patrick Darby, another of her husband’s many political enemies. 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. The court even delayed his execution so he could finish his diatribe. According to Jereboam, Solomon had repeatedly admitted his crime against Anna, and 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 3 small children (above his grave 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, the entire affair now “went from tragedy to romantic melodrama.”
While he awaited execution, Anna was allowed to share her husband’s cell each night, coming and going during the day. Into his 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 yet 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 (above), filled with noble words and maudlin sentiment. So the real cost of Anna Cook’s revenge and Solomon Sharp's ego was three lives; hers 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".