Murder and Madness: The Myth of the Kentucky Tragedy by Matthew G. Schoenbachler (review)
- Ohio Valley History
- The Filson Historical Society and Cincinnati Museum Center
- Volume 10, Number 1, Spring 2010
- pp. 91-92
- Additional Information
BOOK REVIEWS SPRING 2010 91 T he “Kentucky Tragedy” was the name given to a series of events—a murder, subsequent trial, execution, and related suicide—that brought national attention to the state between 1825 and 1826. It later became the basis of fictional portrayals ranging from Edgar Allen Poe’s aborted attempt to (most famously) Robert Penn Warren’s novel World Enough and Time (1979). While multiple writers have turned to the story for subject matter, only a small number of historians have attempted to unravel the tragedy’s complicated series of events. According to Matthew G. Schoenbachler, most of these accounts either ignore the most reliable sources or else take them too much at their word. In Murder and Madness, Schoenbachler asserts that those who took part in the Kentucky Tragedy predetermined subsequent interpretations. The murder on the streets of Frankfort was the perpetrator’s intentional imitation of Byronic romanticism, flummoxing chroniclers of the tragedy ever since. A cynical deist Tidewater transplant, Anna Cooke hid in her western Kentucky home, reading Mary Wollstencraft and refusing all suitors until well into her thirties. Her heart could be won only by another eccentric, the younger Jereboam Beauchamp, a backcountry Zelig who tended to reset his public persona according to his changing social needs, imitating the Byronic “abandonment of convention” (92) (Schoenbachler argues that many young Americans were so afflicted by the Newstead Abbey Bard). But their union came only after Cooke was allegedly raped or seduced— Schoenbachler reiterates the early nineteenth century indeterminacy between the two—by one Solomon Sharp, lawyer and National Republican politico. Cooke gave birth to a stillborn child that was supposedly Sharp’s, but he parried the accusation by insinuating a liaison between Cooke and a black man, an element of the story that Schoenbachler says has been curiously absent in most accounts. The teenaged Beauchamp’s courtship of the thirty-something Cooke was inspired by his idealizing her as the sort of damaged damsel that his literary heroes would have protected and, true to form, her eventual acquiescence came out of their shared bibliophilia. The marriage also produced murder. When Beauchamp ambushed Sharp on a Frankfort street, it looked like the sort of honor killing that historian Bertram Wyatt Brown has established as familiar, if not commonplace, in the Old South. The fact that it came amid Kentucky’s first (of many) great internal political disputes, the “Old Court/New Court” debate (a great illustration of post-Jeffersonian disillusionment irrespective of the Kentucky Tragedy), and Sharp’s role at the center of said dispute, made many think Murder and Madness: The Myth of the Kentucky Tragedy Matthew G. Schoenbachler Book Reviews BOOK REVIEWS 92 OHIO VALLEY HISTORY Matthew G. Schoenbachler. Murder and Madness: The Myth of the Kentucky Tragedy. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 2009. 392 pp. ISBN: 9780813125664 (cloth), $35.00. it a political assassination. Schoenbachler insists otherwise; the murder was an apolitical act of life imitating art. Beauchamp believed his betrothed had been dishonored without justice and he appointed himself to balance the scales. After Beauchamp was indicted for murder the facts became murky, mostly because contemporary editors wanted the account to square neatly with the dictates of fictional form, and hedging a bit when it did not (apparently they also read too muchByron). Thishasbeen,Schoenbachlerstates, a continuing problem: “We of the early twentyfirst century, although liable to believe ourselves too savvy to be susceptible to such blandishments, are every bit as eager as early nineteenth-century Americans to nullify the boundaries between entertainment and more serious endeavor. We should be more careful” (231). But in the end, Schoenbachler argues, Beauchamp was the author of his own story. His bizarre courtroom behavior, the couple’s jail cell suicide pact (she succeeded; he did not), and his refusal to exhibit proper gallows behavior were all just plot elements in his lived novel. Beauchamp “understood that a ritual was being enacted, that a performance was being staged,” Schoenbachler writes, “but he refused to play a role that he had not scripted” (207). Is this a sufficient explanation for one of the early republic’s most celebrated scandals? Decades ago, Louis B. Wright’s Culture on...