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The Kentucky Tragedy

A Story of Conflict and Change in Antebellum America

by Dickson D. Bruce

200 pages / 6.00 x 9.00 inches / 14 Halftones

Southern History

  Hardcover / 9780807131732 / October 2006

A murder case with all the elements of melodrama—including seduction and betrayal, political intrigue, honor, and greed—the Kentucky Tragedy of 1825 riveted the attention of the nation. For decades afterward, its themes resonated in American writing. With unprecedented objectivity, Dickson Bruce recounts the events of the case and offers an innovative analysis of the poems, novels, dramas, and commentary it inspired. He uncovers an intricate connection between public fascination with the Kentucky Tragedy and changing ideas about gender roles, social identity, human motivation, and freedom in the years leading up to the Civil War.

Bruce provides a masterly narration of the Tragedy. Around 1819, Colonel Solomon P. Sharp, one of Kentucky's leading politicians, allegedly seduced Ann Cooke, who subsequently delivered a stillborn child she claimed was fathered by Sharp. During the summer of 1825, rumors of the scandal circulated, incensing both Cooke and her husband, Jereboam Beauchamp, who decided, with the support of his wife, that honor compelled him to kill Sharp. He did so, admitted to the act, and was tried, found guilty, and sentenced to die. On the morning of the execution, the couple attempted suicide by stabbing in Beauchamp's jail cell. Cooke died, but Beauchamp was merely wounded and met his date with the hangman later that day.

The lurid story appeared widely in the popular press and captured the imaginations of many antebellum writers, including William Gilmore Simms and Edgar Allan Poe. Bruce reveals that the Kentucky Tragedy elicited more literary works than did any other episode of the period. By exploring the transformation of the Tragedy into literature, he illuminates the shifting social, political, and intellectual forces that revolutionized American life in this era. 

Dickson D. Bruce Jr. is the author of The Origins of African American Literature, 1680-1865; Archibald Grimké: Portrait of a Black Independent; Black American Writing from the Nadir: The Evolution of a Literary Tradition, 1877-1915; and other books. He is a professor of history at the University of California, Irvine.

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