Of late one would think, based on the media’s breathless wall to wall coverage of the merest hint of scandal, sound bites, and the sparks of outrage both sides of the political spectrum spit at each other, that politics has only become a nasty, odious business in the last couple of decades—especially when it comes to the private pecadilloes of politicians. I respectfully disagree. Politics has ALWAYS been an ugly business. Throw in a few indiscretions, lies, a burning desire for revenge on the liar, and an overdeveloped sense of chivalry, and politics can lead to murder.
Let me offer as Exhibit A the Kentucky Tragedy of 1825. It’s an ordinary and rather sordid little tale, a melodrama yearning to be opera in the grand romantic tradition.
It begins with a beautiful young woman who loved unwisely, and a politician.Anna Cooke came from a wealthy family—her parents were both from Virginia’s planter aristocracy—but that wealth ran out during a financial panic in the late eighteen-teens. Anna, one of the elder daughters of the family, determined to restore their prestige by making an advantageous marriage, and set her cap for an up-and-coming young politician named Solomon P. Sharp. Things get a bit murky at that point; in 1818 Sharp married a woman named Eliza Scott, and, around the same time, Anna Cooke had a stillborn child that, during the election cycle of 1820, she claimed was fathered by Sharp. Sharp denied the charge, and suffered no political fallout—then.
Anna Cooke, in the meantime, had lost several family members in quick succession, and had moved to a farm that hadn’t been lost in their financial collapse, outside Bowling Green. Her nearest neighbor, Thomas Beauchamp, had a son, just eighteen years old at the time, who became—depending on your perspective—the hero of our melodrama, or perhaps the antihero: Jeroboam Orville Beauchamp.
An ambitious and very bright young man, Jeroboam was friends with Solomon Sharp, and had actually considered studying law under his tutelage, until another friend told him about Anna Cooke’s dead child and Sharp’s denial of his paternity. Jeroboam turned on Sharp, and began a friendship with Anna that would, despite a seventeen year age difference—Anna was in her mid-thirties when they met—blossom into love and then marriage.
She was a vengeful woman, though. She agreed to marry the besotted young Beauchamp on one condition: that he would, at the first opportunity, kill his onetime friend, the man who had sullied her reputation and destroyed her life: Solomon P. Sharp.
Jeroboam tried his level best. He challenged Sharp to a duel; Sharp refused to meet him on the field of honor. He threatened to horsewhip Sharp; Sharp left town. Anna herself tried to arrange a meeting with her former lover to “discuss their differences”; Sharp, quite sensibly, refused to meet with her.
Things came to a head over a nasty political campaign, however. Sharp was, after a four year stint as state attorney general, running for a seat in the state General Assembly. His political opponents trotted out a new and spectacularly ugly charge against him: that not only did he deny his paternity of Anna Cooke Beauchamp’s (she and Jeroboam were married in 1824) stillborn child, but he had claimed that it was a mulatto, for she had been impregnated by one of her late father’s slaves.
Again, the circumstances of the accusation are murky; some sources say that Sharp himself had made this nasty claim in 1820, while others maintain it was invented out of the whole cloth by his political enemies, of whom, like most politicians, he had a number. Whichever way it happened, his deadliest enemy believed Sharp himself was responsible.
And on November 7, 1825, that enemy turned up on Sharp’s Frankfort doorstep and knocked. When Sharp opened the door, Jeroboam Beauchamp, dressed in black from head to foot and masked, stabbed him to death and then ran.
Beauchamp had never been silent about his hatred for Sharp; although momentarily some of Sharp’s more virulent political foes were suspected, the police turned their suspicions on him in very short order, and he was identified by Sharp’s wife and a house servant as the killer. He was arrested within days, tried, convicted and sentenced to hang. Anna was arrested too, but set free when it was proven she had been nowhere near Frankfort at the time of Sharp’s death. Jeroboam finally confessed to the killing in a long written dissertation that consisted of equal parts high-falutin’ poetry, chivalrous self-justification, and boastful self-satisfaction: Solomon Sharp had been a coward and a swine who had deserved what he had gotten, and that was that.
Beauchamp was to hang on July 7, 1826. His beloved Anna asked to be allowed to stay with him in his cell the night before his execution; her request was granted. During the night, in a suicide pact, they swallowed what they hoped would be a fatal dose of a tincture of alcohol and opium called laudanum; unfortunately, they only succeeded in making themselves sick enough that they both vomited up the mixture. The resourceful Anna had also brought along a large knife, and in the early morning hours, they tried again; he stabbed himself in the abdomen, then handed the knife to her, and she followed suit. Anna bled out and was dead within a couple of hours; a doctor patched Jeroboam up, and he lived to hang around noon.
The lovers had requested to be buried in a single coffin, in each other’s arms, and that request, too, was granted. They were buried under a horizontal tombstone, which bore a simple inscription with their names and dates of birth and death, followed by a longish and rather bad poem Anna had composed. Part of that poem reads:
A child of evil fate she lived/A villain’s wile her peace had crossed/The husband of her heart revived/The happiness she long had lost.
He heard her tale of matchless woe/And burning for revenge arose/He laid her base betrayer low/And struck dismay to virtue’s foes. . .
Solomon Sharp has lain quietly in his Frankfort grave for nearly two centuries; so, in a cemetery near Bloomfield, Kentucky, in his coffin with Anna in his arms, has young Jeroboam Beauchamp.
Anna? Not so much. Stories have persisted that she has been seen, at erratic intervals, walking the back roads around the cemetery, ever since her bloody death on a July morning. The most notorious encounter, according to Michael Norman and Beth Scott, in their 2002 book HAUNTED HERITAGE, occurred when a bicyclist, lost in the countryside, met a small, strangely pale, but beautiful middleaged woman on a dirt road near Bloomfield. He first asked her for directions to the town, only to be answered with the non sequiter “I must return to my good husband’s arms”. Thinking the woman must be mentally unhinged, he left her. He met her a second time as he was about to turn into the driveway to a farmhouse to ask for directions; instead of making his turn, he coasted on past her, hearing her call after him, “I must return to my good husband’s arms.”
The young cyclist continued on his way and shortly came to the outskirts of Bloomfield. As he passed a cemetery, he saw, to his amazement, the same woman he had run up on twice before, standing just outside the entrance. This time she did not speak to him; instead, she went into the graveyard and vanished into a patch of tall weeds. The bicyclist, intrigued and a bit frightened, followed her, and found the tombstone, but saw no sign of the woman. Later, in a Bardstown inn, he told the story to the innkeeper, who in turn told him the story of Anna and her beloved Jeroboam.
The date was July 7, 1896—seventy years to the day after her suicide and Jeroboam’s execution.
His wife disdained a life forlorn/Reft from her Heart’s beloved Lord/Then reader here their fortunes mourn/Who for their love their lifeblood poured—
Politics, indiscretion, lies, revenge, romance, chivalry, love, murder—and a ghost.
Anna’s way of insuring their story is never forgotten, perhaps?
The Kentucky Tragedy has fascinated famous writers, so Anna needn’t have worried they would be forgotten. Edgar Allan Poe left an unfinished manuscript based on it; southern author William Gilmore Simms, much admired in his time (the antebellum era) devoted an entire book to it, as did Robert Penn Warren, whose WORLD ENOUGH AND TIME (with names discreetly changed) followed his other great novel of politics, chicanery and murder, ALL THE KING’S MEN.