Saturday, March 13, 2010

Just finished reading - The Kentucky Tragedy: A Story of Conflict and Change in Antebellum America by Dickson D. Bruce, Jr.

I first heard about the "Kentucky Tragedy" story shortly after moving to the state. The museum theater group were I work (The Kentucky Historical Society) presented a theatrical interpretation of the story at the annual Boone Day celebration this past June in Frankfort. Unfortunately I was not able to see the play, but I remember that my curiosity to learn more about this event was stirred from the play's description.

Author Dickson D. Bruce in The Kentucky Tragedy: A Story of Conflict and Change in Antebellum America not only covers the history of the Tragedy, but also explores the plethora of copy-cat works of fiction and theatre that closely followed this intriguing murder. Well known authors such as Edgar Alan Poe, William Gilmore Simms, and Charlotte Barnes, among a host of lesser known writers all used the story as a base for works largely because of the public interest in the story.

The idea of honor was as pervasive as any in antebellum America; and most historians would agree even more so in the Old South than anywhere else. At that time one's reputation and family name was paramount to any other consideration, especially for those of wealth and political renown. Bruce uses the idea of honor throughout his book to explain not only the story of the Kentucky Tragedy, but also as a framework to explain how the related events were received by Americans that read the story and the related fiction works that followed.

OK, OK, maybe I have whetted your appetite for what went down. Here goes: Around 1819, Solomon P. Sharp, one of the Bluegrass state's leading politicians allegedly seduced Ann Cooke, who later delivered a stillborn child she claimed Sharp fathered. A few years later Cooke married Jereboam Beauchamp (17 years her junior). During the summer of 1825, the scandal of Cooke and Sharp's illicit affair reemerged, most likely for political reasons. The resurfacing of the event obviously sent Mr., and now Mrs., Beauchamp into a fury. The couple agreed that the only honorable course left them, since Sharp had ruined Ann (and by marriage, Beauchamp's) good name, was to kill Solomon Sharpe.

On November 7, 1825, the day before the Kentucky legislature was set to meet, at about 2 a.m., Beauchamp went to Sharp's Frankfort home and knocked on the door. After a very brief conversation Beauchamp stabbed Sharp in the chest and then fled the scene. Beauchamp was caught, tried, and sentenced to hang for the murder. Ann received permission to visit often with her husband in jail while he awaited his execution date. After asking to be left alone sometime before the execution, they both drank laudanum that Ann had smuggled in, with a desire to commit a double suicide. The drug did not have the desired effect though, it only made them sick. The morning of the execution Ann somehow smuggled in a dagger, and as they pledged their love for one another, they apparently stabbed each another. The stab wound she received proved fatal but his wasn't. Beauchamp's hanging went on as scheduled. The two had requested to be placed together in a single grave and their wish was granted. Wouldn't this make for an interesting short movie?

In his conclusion, Bruce explains that although much as changed since the time of the Kentucky Tragedy, much has also remained the same. "We remain, in many ways, part of the Tragedy's world. Our admiration for the antisocial, violent hero remains undiminished. And many of the tendencies and tensions of antebellum life - its competitive individualism, its stress on appearances, even its seemingly archaic approaches to gender - remain with us as well. We continue to define courage, loyalty, and duty in essentially violent terms. Placing law on the side of rules and rules in opposition to heart-felt action, we remain wedded to scenarios in which law and justice, law and virtue, stand in tense relationship that only violence can resolve. We retain that fascination with and fear of the physical self that underlay the Tragedy's appeal in its own time."

It appears that the Kentucky Tragedy is still as popular today as it was in the 1820s and 1830s. Yet another recent scholarly work has appeared on the subject. Murder and Madness: The Myth of the Kentucky Tragedy by Matthew G. Schoenbachler just came out last fall from the University Press of Kentucky. Looks like I'll have to check out this one too.

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