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Murder and Madness

Murder and Madness: The Myth of the Kentucky Tragedy

Matthew G. Schoenbachler
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 392
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt2jcm3r
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  • Book Info
    Murder and Madness
    Book Description:

    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 Madness reveals the true story behind the murder and demonstrates enduring influence of Romanticism in early America.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-7359-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-12)

    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...

  5. CHAPTER 1 The Architect of His Own Fortunes: Solomon Porcius Sharp
    (pp. 13-42)

    Across almost two centuries, to look on the level, self-assured visage of Solomon Porcius Sharp, captured by Matthew Jouett sometime in the early 1820s, is to know that he took great pride in his accomplishments. Sharp’s short life was, among other things, an object lesson in the opportunities of young America, a self-willed demonstration of the ability of ambitious white men through discipline or luck or both to rise from abject poverty to prominence and stature. As one early Kentucky historian wrote, “It was the fortune of this able man to illustrate, by his own career, the noble tendency of...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Diminutive Fury: Anna Cooke
    (pp. 43-70)

    Contemporaries thought her a “tigress,” a “wretched female,” an “evil genius”; historians have labeled her a “diminutive Fury,” a “tawdry paramour”; and a small corps of novelists have portrayed her as a beautiful, cultured woman betrayed by the villainy of a heartless seducer. Whatever the merits of these descriptions—whether we see her as a heroine or villainess or an actual person—the fact remains that Anna Cooke was the pivotal figure of the entire episode, for it was she who set in motion the train of events that ended the lives of three people and gave birth to one...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Romance and Delusion: Jereboam Beauchamp
    (pp. 71-100)

    As Franklin County jailer, John McIntosh would come to know Jereboam Orville Beauchamp well in the nine months the murderer stayed in the dungeon he superintended. Looking back across the debris of the Kentucky Tragedy nearly two centuries later, we must keep front and center one observation of McIntosh’s: “I cannot believe any statement made by J. O. Beauchamp to be true which is not corroborated by other evidence.”¹

    Like Anna Cooke, Jereboam Beauchamp spent much of his life cavalierly disregarding what was deemed proper behavior by the moral guardians of his day. Believing himself a tragic hero who must...

  8. CHAPTER 4 Politics
    (pp. 101-124)

    In May 1822, a special session of the Kentucky General Assembly gathered for the primary and relatively simple purpose of reapportioning the state’s representation according to the fourth census, which entitled Kentucky to two additional legislators. Governor John Adair, in his opening message of May 14, noted that he was “not aware of the existence of any subject to which the public interest invites your protracted deliberations.” Only a few days into the session, however, Judge James Clark of the Bourbon County circuit court provided something for the lawmakers to protractedly deliberate; in the case ofWilliams v. Blair,Clark...

  9. CHAPTER 5 Murder
    (pp. 125-136)

    Situated along a double bend in the Kentucky River, Frankfort, as one visitor indelicately put it, “stands in a hole.” New Yorker Charles Fenno Hoffman was more charitable, in 1833 describing the state’s capital as lying “so deeply buried in a gorge of hills that almost the first view you have of the town is by looking into its chimneys.” The river, Hoffman continued, cuts “its way through precipitous limestone banks, makes a bend here through a complete circus of romantic-looking knolls about three or four hundred feet high: between the base of these and the bank of the river...

  10. CHAPTER 6 The Politics of Murder
    (pp. 137-156)

    The news of the murder of Solomon Sharp spread quickly in the early morning hours of November 7, causing a sensation “deep beyond description,” a gloom among the townspeople “of the deepest cast.” A young Robert J. Breckinridge wrote his wife, “Every thing is hustle and consternation at an act which is unprecedented in our country and almost too horrid to be credited, on the very evidence of our senses.” The assassination of a prominent statesman would have been disturbing in any event, but for a man to “receive the dagger in his bosom” as he was opening “his door...

  11. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  12. CHAPTER 7 The Trial
    (pp. 157-174)

    The trial, to read theConfession,was an utter travesty, and Beauchamp the victim of a “tornado of prejudice.” Beauchamp railed that the prosecution’s case was littered with “the most barefaced falsehoods imaginable,” that “misrepresentation flowing from prejudice or worse motives” tainted the testimony of the state’s witnesses. He was convicted, it seems, only because of massive and flagrant bribery: “The whole treasury of the Commonwealth was thrown open as a reward to villians to swear away my life!” It was “wholy upon circumstances, subsequently raised and fabricated, that I have been convicted.” Alone in his cell, before the trial...

  13. CHAPTER 8 Prison and Execution
    (pp. 175-208)

    Though consigned to a dungeon and sentenced to hang, Beauchamp had by no means resigned himself to die. In the next seven weeks, he and Anna, by both their words and actions, would lay the foundations of the myth of the Kentucky Tragedy in an attempt to avoid execution. From late May to early July, the two conspired to craft a document meant to shape perceptions of themselves and what they had done, even as they tried to excite suspicions that Sharp’s murder was a political conspiracy. The Beauchamps consciously appropriated and reshaped the memes of romantic literature, then synthesized...

  14. CHAPTER 9 Memory and the Invention of a Tragedy
    (pp. 209-232)

    The Beauchamps’ design to evoke sympathy worked—too late to save the couple, as it turned out, but in time to ignite the mass creation of an enduring myth of America’s romantic age. Credulous and voyeuristic, Americans across the country accepted the Beauchamps’ excuses for their sins—honorable, if reckless, vengeance exacted in the defense of an orphan’s honor. And thus Jereboam’s revenge killing—revenge not for seduction but because Sharp’s political enemies told Beauchamp that he was spreading the rumor that Anna’s child was interracial—was replaced by a saccharin tale of innocence defiled and manhood asserted. But Americans...

  15. CHAPTER 10 The Kentucky Tragedy
    (pp. 233-282)

    Over the past 180 years or so, most people have been introduced to the Kentucky Tragedy by literature. Novelists, playwrights, and purveyors of folklore—not historians and not, by and large, the historical record—have shaped the memory of the episode and have given it meaning. If there is indeed, as C. Vann Woodward suggested, an “ancient rivalry” between history and literature for control of the past, then here, at least, literature has surely prevailed and continues to distort and romanticize the episode. A 2001 Valentine’s Day newspaper headline read, “Together Forever: Honor Avenged Led to Death for 19th-Century Bloomfield...

  16. Coda
    (pp. 283-286)

    In 1835, Samuel Q. Richardson, one of Beauchamp’s three lawyers and himself known for his volatility, was shot dead at the age of forty-four by John U. Waring. The motive was unclear—either “family differences” (Richardson was related to Waring’s wife) or resentment over Richardson’s successfully arguing the state’s case inCommonwealth v. John U. Waring.

    Eleven years later, in March 1846, the psychopathic Waring was himself murdered, shot in the head in Versailles, Kentucky. One newspaper cheerfully relayed the gory details: “Upon examination it was found that the ball had entered the skull [of Waring] just above the left...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 287-360)
  18. Index
    (pp. 361-372)