The Kentucky Tragedy

The grave where Jerebaum Beauchamp and Anne Cooke lay in an eternal embrace.

Bloomfield, KY – In this grave rests Jerebaum Beauchamp and Anne Cooke, who, since their deaths on July 7, 1826, have lain in an eternal embrace. Forlorn lovers, if you can call them that, Beauchamp and Cooke hatched one of the most diabolical assassination plots in Kentucky history, a revenge tale that has inspired countless works of fiction, including Edgar Allen Poe’s unfinished play Politian and Robert Penn Warren’s World Enough and Time.

At the time, newspapers around the nation published stories about the sensational case, which today would no doubt be prime material for a Dateline exclusive. “It may be declared one of the most striking and awful combinations of desperate revenge, hardened guilt and fatal result, which have ever been offered… No poet, no novelist has conceived of a story more harrowing, nor framed a lesson more powerful against the indulgence of a licentious passion.”

Indeed, it’s quite the tale, pieced together here from materials found in the State Historical Library in Frankfort.

Jerebaum Beauchamp, born in Barren County, KY, in 1802, took up law and is said to have been a gifted reasoner. He’d come to admire a particularly astute lawyer named Col. Solomon Sharp, who’d been twice elected to the state legislature and to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1820, Beauchamp’s fondness of Sharp ended when it was alleged that Col. Sharp had fathered the illegitimate child of Anne Cooke, who lived not far from Beauchamp in Bowling Green. Sharp denied he had fathered the stillborn child, calling Cooke “a base woman.” Beauchamp, 18, soon sought an audience with Cooke, 36, who turned him away.

The historical record gives conflicting accounts of Cooke. She is described by some as “a beautiful and accomplished woman, having some of the traits, so said, of Caeser’s wife.” Others described her as unattractive, not more than 90 pounds, with dark hair and eyes and sallow skin. “She had lost her fore teeth, had no appearance of breasts and was stoop-shouldered.”

What is clear is that she moved to Kentucky from Virginia following her father’s death to live her brother. In Virginia, she was “a vivacious society belle,” but, removed from her friends, her social rank was lessened and never made headway in Kentucky society. Some time after her unfortunate relocation, the story goes, Solomon Sharp seduced Cooke, impregnated her, then denied the affair. Consequently, Cooke became a recluse and was seldom seen.

Enter Beauchamp, described as a “wild, eccentric lawyer,” who, over time, managed to gain Cooke’s confidence. Eventually, he proposed and she agreed on one condition: that he avenge her honor by killing Sharp. Having agreed to the conditions, Beauchamp spent considerable time traveling between Bowling Green and Frankfort hunting for Sharp. In the confession he wrote while awaiting his execution, Beauchamp said he bullied and humiliated Sharp during their few encounters, even challenging Sharp to a duel, “promising to horsewhip him everyday until he consented.” But by 1823, the matter had quieted down. Beauchamp opened a law practice in Bowling Green and settled into married life with Cooke.

But Sharp’s alleged affair with Cooke resurfaced two years later. In 1825, Sharp resigned his post as Attorney General to run for the U.S. House of Representatives, an election he won easily. By then, Sharp was embroiled in a fiery political controversy between the New Court and Old Court, which centered on the issue of debt relief stemming from the Panic of 1819. Sharp sided with the New Court, which “believed debtors should be relieved of their financial burdens.”

But during the campaign, a handbill surfaced raising the issue of Sharp’s alleged seduction of Anne Cooke’s child with the added claim Sharp had denied paternity to the illegitimate stillborn on the grounds the child was mullato, having likely been fathered by a family slave. This enraged Beauchamp, who vowed anew to avenge his wife’s honor.

Days after the election, on Nov. 6, 1825, Beauchamp arrived in Frankfort, but was unable to find a vacant room at any of the local inns. He finally found lodging in the private residence of the local prison warden. Around 2 a.m., on Nov. 7, he quietly slipped from his quarters and, in a disguise, went to Sharp’s residence. Beauchamp knocked, and Sharp was heard approaching the door.

“Who’s there?” he asked.

“Covington,” replied Beauchamp, pulling a mask over his face as Sharp opened the door. Immediately, Beauchamp advanced into the house, grabbing hold of Sharp’s wrist.

From Beauchamp’s Confession, published after his death:

Mrs. Sharp appeared at the partition door and then disappeared, seeing her disappear I said in a persuasive tone of voice, “Come to the light Colonel and you will know me,” and pulling him by the arm he came readily to the door and still holding his wrist… I stripped my hat and handkerchief from over my forehead and looked into Sharp’s face. He knew me the more readily I imagine, by my long, bush, curly suit of hair. He sprang back and exclaimed in a tone of horror and despair, “Great God it is him,” and as he said that he fell on his knees. I let go of his wrist and grasped him by the throat dashing him against the facing of the door and muttered in his face, “die you villain.” As I said that I plunged the dagger to his heart.

Upon ensuring Sharp was dead, Beauchamp retrieved fresh clothes he stashed by the river and, the next morning, set out for the four days’ horse ride to his home in Glasgow. As Beauchamp made his getaway, handbills offering a $1,000 reward “for the purpose of apprehending the monster who has committed [this] diabolical act,” were posted all over Frankfort.

In Glasgow, Beauchamp and Cooke were preparing to flee to Missouri when, on Nov. 10, a posse arrived at their home, arresting them both. Cooke was spared indictment as an accomplice, but on May 19, 1826, after an hour of deliberation, a jury found Beauchamp guilty. In June, he was sentenced to hang.

Several appeals for pardon were made and denied. During this time, Cooke was allowed to stay with her husband in his cell. When Beauchamp’s final plea for a stay of execution was denied on July 5, Cooke and Beauchamp, having entered into a suicide pact, tried overdosing on laudanum, a powerful opiate. Unsuccessful, they were put under watch.

Two days later, the morning of his scheduled execution, Cooke asked the guard for a moment of privacy with her husband. She pulled out a knife – large or small depending on the source – and, according to Beauchamp, each stabbed themselves in one last attempt to exit the world together. Cooke was taken to the home of one of the jailers, while Beauchamp was prepared to hang. En route to the gallows, Beauchamp was permitted to see his wife, who had been mortally wounded and was too weak to speak. According to witnesses, he “kissed her lifeless lips and declared – For you I lived – for you I die.

His wife dead, Beauchamp was taken to the gallows. According to the Kentucky Commentator: Soon after arriving at the place of execution, [Beauchamp] observed he wished to die; and requested the music which belonged to two independent companies, which had been called out to preserve order.

Flanked by guards who held the weak-kneed Beauchamp upright as the noose was placed around his neck, and standing before some 5,000 spectators, the Twenty-Second Regiment musicians played Bonaparte’s Retreat from Moscow, as the cart was pulled away. Beauchamp struggled for several minutes, thrashing wildly from the hangman’s beam until “all appearance of life disappeared.” Days later, he and his wife were placed in a single coffin. Beauchamp’s father placed his son’s arm around Cooke. They’ve rested undisturbed ever since.

Days before she died, Anne Cooke penned a long poem for inscription on her and Beauchamp’s tombstone. It reads in part:

Entombed here in each others arms,
The husband and the wife repose,
Safe from life’s never ending storms,
And safe from all their cruel foes….

He heard her tale of matchless woe,
And hurrying for revenge he rose,
And laid the coward villian low,
And struck dismay to virtues foes.

The next day, newspapers from around the state were running eye-witness reports of the execution and recounting salicious details of the events leading up to it. The story spread quickly, soon inspiring authors like Edgar Allen Poe, and an unknown Georgia author whose transcripts from her visit to Kentucky 1902 are included in the Kentucky Historical Society file. Judgment on Cooke stands harsher than on Beauchamp. From the Kentucky Commentator:

The violent death of the impenitent woman – whether against her will, by the reckless fury of the miscreant, whom she had goaded so long and steadily to the crime of assassination, or in consequence of an agreement between them to perish madly together – completes the horror and admonition of this series of iniquity.

3 Comments

  1. jennifer says:

    Wow! what a crazy story on what love and hatred will make you do. Thanks for the story, Nathan

  2. Josh says:

    Great read Nate

  3. Nathan says:

    I’m glad you both enjoyed it. It was fund going through the archives and reading all the newspaper reports and other documents. America’s own Romeo and Juliet. 

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