|Border States: Journal of the Kentucky-Tennessee American Studies Association, No. 9 (1993)|
The present paper is an analysis of a manuscript in a box labeled
Beachamp Family Papers in the collection of the Filson
Club. The document is approximately fourteen inches long and nine
inches wide. Differences in handwriting indicate that there were
at least two authors. It also bears marks of extensive revision.
It appears to be a compositor's copy of The Confession of Jereboam
Beauchamp, an important document in the famous "Kentucky
Tragedy," the assassination of the Attorney General of Kentucky,
Solomon Porcius Sharp, a New Court luminary, on the night of November
5/6, 1825. The next day Sharp would have become Speaker of the
House and would have announced a plan to reconcile the Old Court
and the New Court factions, according to some sources.
Putting it very briefly, the New Court faction generally,
and the Sharp family in particular, however much dismayed by the
loss of a leader and a husband and brother, desperately wanted
to put their own particular "spin" on the motive
for the killing, preferring that posterity see it as a purely
political assassination. Working in their favor was the fact that
the killer, Jereboam O. Beauchamp, was an Old Court partisan much
given to such remarks about New Court people as terming them "animals
we call Relief men in my country" and "anyone who would
vote for Solomon P. Sharp ought to be damned," and the like.
On this aspect, he was made to order as a logical suspect.
The problem was that, given an extremely liberal interpretation
of the "unwritten law," Beauchamp could be seen as an
aggrieved husband avenging the honor of his wife, even though
Sharp's alleged seduction and impregnation of Anna Cooke had occurred
in September 1818, seven years before, when Beauchamp was a mere
lad of sixteen or so. Although Sharp's being stabbed in the middle
of the night seemed to be carrying things a bit too far even in
the honor-defending category, this particular onus was there and
had been exploited in one of Sharp's previous runs for office
in 1820, as well as in the just-concluded election. Broadsides
by John U. Waring, "one of the most dangerous and desperate
men of blood in Kentucky," attacked Sharp for victimizing
Anna Cooke. It was one of these broadsides, on June 8, that "exasperated"
Beauchamp to k ill Sharp -- one of the rare points on which all
parties agree. Although it does not survive, allegedly the nature
of this particular handbill was that the Sharps had started an
out-of-bounds counter-rumor -- that the illegitimate child had
been born black, and furthermore that they had an affidavit from
the attending midwife saying so, which they could produce if need
be. But, cleverly preempting the Sharps' preemptive strategy,
Waring turned it against them, a fact that also indicates just
how much Sharp's affair with Anna was probably common knowledge.
However much Beauchamp may have thought he could successfully
sail close to the wind and avoid suspicion, not to mention conviction
for murder, it turned out that he was too clever by half. Part
of his assumption -- as presented in the Confession --
was that the very fact he was a logical suspect would shield
him. Indeed, given the temper of the times, a number of others
could also be considered "usual suspects," especially
John U. Waring. The problem here was that Waring was incapacitated
with a gunshot wound in the hip, an occupational hazard, being
the compulsive duelist that he was. Beauchamp felt that any number
of other Old Court promenenti would be suspected, and therefore
that an organized conspiracy would be assumed, thereby deflecting
suspicion from him alone. If this logic seems exactly backward,
it was. In fact, as I hope to show, the Confession is an
"anticipatory rehabilitation" wherein Beauchamp attempts
to combine all the facts relevant to his capture and conviction,
and claim that they were the outcomes of his careful planning.
The fact that he was convicted was merely a bad break; in any
case, he says, he did not value his life. In his words, "Never
was a murder planned with such studied precaution since the world
began. I knew well it was impossible to avoid being arrested for
the murder. I therefore planned everything with a view to the
evidence which I should be able to bring forward in my favour"
(Bamberg 42). Nevertheless Beauchamp was quickly linked with Patrick
Henry Darby, an Old Court editorialist, and a notorious enemy
of Sharp, who was alleged to have said that Sharp and the rest
of the New Court party did assume a conspiracy and, further,
that Beauchamp was its tool. However, as far as the Sharp family
was concerned, the less openly said about the revenge motive,
the better. In fact, from their point of view, the best "usual
suspect" would have been Darby, not Beauchamp, because Darby
would drag other Old Court personalities down with him, including
John U. Waring. Beauchamp was an inconvenient "adverb"
in a paragraph of the political essay being played out in the
early 1920s. Robert D. Bamberg, the editor of the Confession
in the Matthew Carey Library of English and American Literature,
puts Beauchamp's dilemma best when he says, "Whether or not
Sharp's murder was part of a political plot is hard to determine
[but] Beauchamp, shortly after his indictment, was becoming entangled
in a political web which he had probably not anticipated. . . . Beauchamp
could neither extricate himself from the political web, nor use
it to his advantage, and the very publication of the Confession
and much of its content is steeped in a bitter political struggle"
Putting the best face possible on his circumstances -- he has
been sentenced to hang -- Beauchamp denies being part of any conspiracy,
and avers that he did the murder out of what passed for honorable
motives. He does, naturally, lambaste the New Court Party and
singles out for particularly harsh treatment the Old Court mainstay,
Patrick Henry Darby, who in Beauchamp's version perjured himself
in the trial in order to obtain Beauchamp's conviction. However,
Beauchamp goes on to give Darby an extremely elaborate exoneration
-- so elaborate that the reader is left still feeling that Beauchamp
is giving just enough of a hint that Darby may well have
been a conspirator; this gave Darby great consternation, inasmuch
as the Sharp family would have been happier to see him in the
dock rather than Beauchamp, who may well have been the "fall
guy." (This is not to imply Beauchamp's innocence).
The cunning, calculating, honor-driven anger that Beauchamp gives
us in the Confession is his way of compensating for appearing
to have been a "tool-villain" or merely an incompetent,
cowardly assassin. The present Confession, however, may
not have been the only one. It was alleged by Solomon P. Sharp's
brother, Leander J. Sharp, that Beauchamp confessed the crime
to his uncle, (the confusingly named ) Jereboam O. Beauchamp,
a few hours after his conviction, naming Darby as a co-conspirator.
Leander Sharp printed a summary of this so-called "first"
confession in his Vindication of the Character of the Late
Colonel Solomon P. Sharp, from the Calumnies Published Against
Him Since His Murder, by Patrick Darby and Jereboam O. Beauchamp.
1 (Although printed in 1827, Vindication was
never sold to the public, because Darby threatened to sue if it
was and, perhaps more persuasively, John U. Waring said he would
kill L. J. Sharp if it was. All copies were walled up in the Sharp
home in Frankfort, not to be discovered until many years late
during its remodeling.)
This so-called "first" Confession could have
been in outline form or perhaps even in some sketchy final version,
because Sharp quotes one of Beauchamp's guards as saying that
the "last part, the only true part, never saw the light of
day" (Bamberg 15). But this doesn't make sense, for it implies
that the version we have now merely had an end-piece implicating
Darby and other Old Court notables, which certainly does not square
with Beauchamp's presentation of himself as a lone avenger. To
admit having assistance, or to have acted in concert with a political
cabal, would have besmirched the act of chivalry that Beauchamp
has been orchestrating for himself. There may have been a sui
generis "first" Confession-- or the threat
of one, for on June 17, 1826, Beauchamp's uncle submitted for
the purpose of copyright a title page of a "confession"
supposedly naming Darby specifically, but this version, if there
was one, was never published, and even the title page has vanished,
surviving only as Item 1649 in J. Winston Coleman's A Bibliography
of Kentucky History, which counts six editions in the nineteenth
After his sentencing, Beauchamp requested a three weeks' stay
in order to write a confession. This is not the "first"
confession just alluded to, however, although I hypothesized that
vestiges of it may have survived in the present one, the reason
for writing this paper. "Old Jerry," as his uncle was
called, had given the manuscript of, it appears, the present Confession
to the state printer, J.H. Holeman, who refused to print it. Rebuffed,
"Old Jerry" then took the manuscript to Gervis S. Hammond,
a Bloomfield printer, and Confession appeared August 11
1826, about a month after Beauchamp's execution. Since Leander
Sharp's Vindication never appeared, Beauchamp's version
of the "Kentucky Tragedy," famed in song and story,
is the "official" one, fulfilling his motives for writing
it. Literally adding insult to injury, Confession ruined
Sharp's name for posterity, if not for his relatives and close
contemporaries. Indeed, at least one folk song survives, the given
of which is that Sharp is just as bad as Beauchamp has painted
Bamberg's edition of Confession is from this first printed
edition, not the manuscript about to be discussed. As he remarks,
it "was obviously neither revised nor proofread by its author,
is carelessly printed on coarse paper, is illegible in parts,
and is full of typographical errors and typesetter's misspellings"
(15). However much it may be likely that Beauchamp didn't do his
own revising, somebody did, for the document in the Filson
Club is replete with revisions of all kinds, including crosshatchings-out,
interlinear corrections and word substitutions, arrows indicating
transpositions and the like. Most intriguing, however, is one
curious form of editing -- effacing, really. This was done by
pasting strips of paper over lines and whole paragraphs. My attention
was called to this manuscript by Jack Cooke, to whom I owe whatever
I've ever done, or will do, on the Tragedy. 2 My original
hunch was that this effacing indicated that perhaps someone wanted
to hide something, but what? Or perhaps to hide something now
preserving it for a later edition? This theory has to be predicated
upon the assumption that this manuscript is in Beauchamp's hand,
which I believe not to be the case. So much for conspiracy theories!
But among the things predisposing me to a hypothesis that there
may have been in this document "archeological remains"
of the "truth" was the Sharps' own conspiratorial, paranoid
nature in Vindication. As Henry Kissinger is supposed to
have said, even paranoids have real enemies.
There were four cryptic remarks which impact on the conspiracy
theory: two made by Beauchamp; the other at a hearsay's remove,
by his jailer; another by the editor/compositor of this manuscript,
W.H. Holmes. First, a remark by Beauchamp lends credence to the
theory that there may have been a "first" confession,
or at least the threat of one. Shortly before his execution, Beauchamp
said a very curious thing, words to the effect that he had "been
New Court long enough, and would die an Old Court man" (Kallen
357). Given his ardent backing of the Old Court cause, this is
strange, but it could be interpreted that Beauchamp had been,
through middle-men, negotiating with the New Court government
to write a confession that would implicate certain Old Court personalities
-- this was alleged by the Sharps, among others. The payoff would
be Beauchamp's pardon. At the last, Beauchamp says, he decided
that he would be doublecrossed and thus left without the honor
of having avenged his wife, a pure act of chivalry. There had
also been reports that the Beauchamps had been treated to various
delicacies, drinks, desserts and the like during their residence
in Frankfort jail, which seems hardly to have been a season in
durance vile (Kallen 358). (Anna had decided to share her husband's
imprisonment, and wrote one of their benefactors a poem thanking
her for her kindness.) Another intriguing remark made by Beauchamp
appears not in Bamberg's edition, but in the manuscript. However,
this was edited out as being perhaps too "confessional,"
at least for the comfort of Governor Desha. The context is Beauchamp's
exonerating his jailer, John McIntosh, from the charge that McIntosh
had acted as the go-between in Beauchamp's alleged negotiations
with the New Court. But in an introductory sentence to this exoneration,
Beauchamp has said -- and has been silenced -- "Let this
be added to the charge I made against the Governor from promising
me a pardon for accusing the Old Court Party." Then, in Bamberg
(112) the passage continues, which brings us to the third bemusing
remark, Beauchamp's characterization of McIntosh that "he
ever, from the day of my conviction, told me frankly nothing would
avail towards getting a pardon." All of this backing and
filling indicates to me that there had been a fairly brisk give
and take between Beauchamp and the New Court to sell out the Old
Court in general and Darby in particular.
Now let us turn to the editor and compositor, and probably one
of the authors of this manuscript. W. H. Holmes is worth quoting.
Written 28 November 1826 on a copy of "Dinsmore's Railroad
and Steam Navigation and Route Book," Holmes's afterword
to Confession reads as follows:
I do certify that the foregoing narrative is a true copy [italics mine] taken from and printed from the original manuscript written by J.O. Beauchamp, as presented to me by Mr. G. S. Hammond -- some trifling and unimportant alterations excepted. Some hard expressions against individuals were softened or expunged.The missing preface, edited out by Holmes, and his editorial comment, might lend credence to the belief that the Filson manuscript is in Beauchamp's own hand. This is too good to be true, however. For one thing, the document is in at least two, probably three, and possibly four, hands. There is even a second, truncated, manuscript, beginning at the beginning, but which breaks off. For another, until it had been subjected to Holmes's tender mercies, it was remarkably "fair," as if the writer[s] had known for quite some time what was going to be said and how. Samuel Johnson once observed that the imminent prospect of being hanged concentrates the mind wonderfully. That being the case, Beauchamp and/or his amanuenses had theirs made up. Part of our difficulty is deciding what Holmes means by true copy. Is this document a copy of the one given by "Old Jerry" to Hammond? Is it Holmes's copy from the Beauchamp original? Until the provenance of the manuscript is investigated, these questions will remain -- and there is another paper in that! In any case the manuscript is uniformly neat, as if its writers were in no hurry. It will also have been noted that although Bamberg says that Confession was published 11 November, Holmes's testimony is dated 28 November. Frankly, I don't know what to make of this.
In witness whereof, I subscribe, et.
William H. Holmes
November 28 1826
When Jack Cooke told me of the mysterious, tantalizing paperings-over
and effacings of this document, my first thought was that this
might be remnants of the legended "first" Confession.
Perhaps these effacings covered over the "whodunit"
elements that the Sharps allege Beauchamp had dealt -- or was
going to deal -- to Desha. In this scenario, then, the version
we have is just minus the "good stuff" -- taken out
by Holmes's ostensible concern for sparing the survivors Beauchamp's
"hard expression." The real agenda, of course, would
be to suppress embarrassing revelations about the coziness between
Beauchamp, the "fall guy," and the real movers and shakers.
Further consideration rendered this theory extremely unlikely,
for the abovementioned reason that after depicting himself as
a lone-wolf avenger, it would be insane to have mentioned accomplices.
The next possibility, less attractive and conspiratorial -- conspiracy
is always more attractive -- is the logical one. Holmes merely
acted as a kind of censor; I must admit a certain amount of chagrin
here, as the lines from Robert Penn Warren's World Enough and
Time still resonate: "We have what is left, the lies
and half-lies and the truths and half-truths. We do not know that
we have the Truth. But we must have it" (3)."
What we lack, then, is a "smoking gun." We will not
get it in this document, either, no matter who wrote it. We don't
even know if it is in Beauchamp's hand, although in the papers
of J. Winston Coleman there supposedly exists such a sample, and
a letter in the Filson Club collection allows that Coleman has
said he would provide a photostat. If he did, it does not appear
in the Filson's card catalogue. It turns out, prosaically, that
Holmes's editing is just what he says it was. Beauchamp did
indeed have some harsh words for Eliza Sharp, and some rather
ungallant things to say about a woman known as Ruth Reed. Holmes
actually did Beauchamp's image a good turn here, inasmuch as he
had been at pains to present himself as woman's avenger and a
chivalric idealist insofar as trifling with affections was concerned.
To take first his words for Ruth Reed, Beauchamp wants us to believe
that he had set up an elaborate ruse for being in Frankfort on
business, while intending to kill Sharp. It involved moving to
Missouri, with all the obvious activity that would involve. The
trip to Frankfort was supposedly to finalize his land affairs
in Kentucky. He had set that trip up to his acquaintances. However,
to make assurance doubly sure, Beauchamp claims that "I had
secretly prepared me an excuse for running away and delaying my
removal [to Missouri] for a week...I secretly procured a process
to be issued against me, which if executed, would unavoidably
prevent my intended removal for that season" (43). This gives
Beauchamp a week to go to Frankfort and kill Sharp. What Beauchamp
is doing here, however, is making the best of a bad situation
by incorporating this event retrospectively -- and prospectively
-- into his "master plan." For he had been named by
Ruth Reed as the father of her illegitimate child, born 10 June
1824. The warrant for Beauchamp's arrest was dated 25 October
1825 (Coleman 47-48). Beauchamp avers that he avoided being served
-- on the ostensible warrant he claims to have arranged -- vowed
to stay and fight the charge, although never intending to do so,
was advised by a Mr. Bradburn that the warrant was merely harassment,
and Beauchamp should move to Missouri as he planned. In the Confession
Beauchamp is careful not to state the nature of the process he
procured. Somehow, given his own scenario as an avenging redeemer
of wronged women, one doubts that it would involve a charge of
fathering a child out of wedlock! But in the manuscript there
is a rather long passage given to l'affaire Reed. Holmes
had crossed out and papered over this passage -- as being unchivalric,
At any rate, here is Beauchamp's posthumous damage control of
his image. He manages not only to discount Reed's accusation,
but shows posterity how he planned to use it:
I had secretly prepared me an excuse for running away and delaying my removal for a week. [At this point Beauchamp renders the Reed story] There was a young Lady in the neighborhood who had complimented me for civilities of my wilder days with calling me the father of her child. But I was not and she has had the justice several times to declare I was not. But far be it from me to say anything which might add in the slightest degree to her misfortune. She has repeatedly however declared to the neighborhood that she did not doubt at all but that it was the child of another man. And she were [would?] now I have no doubt wholly exculpate me from all charge as she had heretofore done several times. I am compelled to thus far notice the charge of her seduction from the path of virtue if settled upon me, however humble the sphere in which she moves, infinitely more disgraceful to my memory than would be the charge of having stolen her father's horse.The sanctimony and arrant hypocritical gall of this passage notwithstanding, it is also notable for Beauchamp's attempt to build an image that will stand up in posterity. As mentioned earlier, however, Holmes has done Beauchamp a favor by eliminating this rationale, for it should be transparently obvious that Reed had sworn out a warrant for Beauchamp, that Beauchamp probably did avoid being served, and indeed did have to go to Frankfort -- not, however, due to his meticulous planning of events. After searching for a month, the process-server "returned the warrant a month later with the short notation of the reverse side: 'the within named Beauchamp, not found in my county'" (Coleman 48). By this time, of course, Beauchamp was in Frankfort prison.
B[??] on the sev[??] evening before I was to die at Frankfort.
Holmes's other notable "expunging" is Beauchamp's commentary
on Eliza Scott Sharp. Mrs. Sharp had made a very effective witness
at Beauchamp's trial, his comments to the contrary. Naturally
the recipient of everyone's sympathy, she also was as close as
the Commonwealth had to an eyewitness. Her subdued and dignified
demeanor and soft-voiced testimony added further to her credibility.
She damaged Beauchamp in another way, as well. In the 3 April
1926b issue of The Patriot, a New Court newspaper, she
accused Patrick Henry Darby of at least instigating the murder,
but the fallout of accusing Darby inevitably covered Beauchamp
as well. In fact, it appears that the accusation was written by
L. J. Sharp over her signature -- at least this was Beauchamp's
view. The article seemed to provide a plausible version of the
times, places, motives, and plan of action that such a conspiracy
would have encompassed. (Darby went to the counterattack in his
own paper, the Commentator and the battle of the broadsides
was on, Darby defending himself in an eight-part series -- another
topic for a paper!) The following passage, crossed out heavily
by Holmes, was to have appeared after Beauchamp's characteristically
gloating remark concerning himself: "and robed [sic] her
of her adored husband" (78).
And Mrs. Sharp is a very weak minded female. This I was told so soon as I came to Frankfort; so that I never much dreaded her evidence; but was rather disposed to pity her for the misery I had brought upon her: altho' I knew she was not altogether guiltless of her husband's blood: as her licentious tongue had been in great degree the origin of those falsehoods and calumnies which accelerated her husband's doom. But when she yielded herself to say & swear whatever suited the views of those who sought to make Col. Sharp's death a political thing, the Anti-Relief people, who composed the greater portion of intelligence and respectability in the State, lost all confidence in any of her statements about the assassination.Holmes may well have thought this was going too far, adding insult to injury as it does. Beauchamp's reference to Mrs. Sharp's "licentious tongue" refers to her supposed rankling about the affair between Solomon and Anna -- after all those years! According to Beauchamp, the story about the black child had been concocted to placate her, but for "in-house" consumption only. According to Beauchamp's version, the story managed somehow to go public -- probably due to Waring -- at which point the broadsidings became even more exasperating to the Sharps. For now Sharp was not only a seducer, he had gone so far as to defame his victim in the most vicious way imaginable in those days. At that point, then, the tale had to be documented in some way, hence the claim that the midwife had given testimony to that fact. As the Sharps point out, a handyman, French Fort, did swear that on the way to the burial he looked in the coffin and observed that the child was "not white, but evidently colored" (352). That the child may have been a "blue baby" seems not to have been considered. Also in Vindication a midwife does give testimony about the child's color. Whether this is the midwife we do not know or even whether the truth is being told.
This concludes the significant changes from Bamberg's edition.
So it would appear that there is no need as yet to edit, as it
were, a Revised Standard Version: perhaps a Variorum edition?
It was my hope that beneath Holmes's paper strips and crosshatchings
there might have been the archeological remains, as it were, of
the so-called "first" Confession. Such was not
to be, however. I had hoped, upon opening the box containing the
manuscript, to gaze with wild surmise on the equivalent of Troy
VIIa, with perhaps the mask of Agamemnon thrown in. Far from suppressing
critical facts, things that may have shed "new light"
on the Tragedy, Holmes's editing is just what he says it was:
"trifling and unimportant." Ironically, Holmes did Beauchamp
a big favor by effacing his very ungallant characterizations of
Eliza Sharp and Ruth Reed. Especially in the latter case does
Beauchamp look bad. Among his reasons for killing Sharp was that
his seduction of Anna Cooke was "a species of dishonour,
which from my earliest recollection, had ever excited by most
violent reprobation..." He goes on to describe such behavior
as having "dishonor and baseness in it" (26). True enough,
but it appears possible that his behavior mirror-images Beauchamp's
own. Otherwise, why his elaborate self-justification against poor
Ruth Reed, who, one gets the impression, was one of life's victims?
Aside from what might be regarded as the theme of "damage
control" in Beauchamp's attempt at "prospective rehabilitation,"
what have we? No "smoking guns" certainly, no "now
it can be told" revelations. Still, for a time it was very
exciting up there in the Filson reading room.
1. All quotations from Sharp's Vindication in this paper
are drawn from Kallsen's volume, cited below.
2. For further discussion see: J. W. Cooke, "'Pride and Depravity':
A Preliminary Examination of the Beauchamp-Sharp Affair,"
Border States 6 (1987): 1-12; Fred M. Johnson, "Letters
of Ann Cooke: Fact or Factoid," Border States 6 (1987):
Bamberg, Robert D., ed. The Confession of Jereboam G. Beauchamp.
Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1966.
Coleman, J. Winston. The Beauchamp-Sharp Tragedy. Frankfort,
KY: Roberts Printing Co., 1950.
Kallsen, Loren J., ed. The Kentucky Tragedy: A Problem in Romantic
Attitudes. New York: Bobbs-Merrill, 1963.
Warren, Robert Penn. World Enough and Time. New York: Random
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