Text: William J. Kimball, “Poe’s Politian and the Beauchamp-Sharp Tragedy,” from Poe Studies, December 1971, vol. IV, no. 2, 4:24-27


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Poe’s Politian and the Beauchamp-Sharp Tragedy

Converse College

On November 7, 1825, Frankfort, Kentucky, was startled by the murder of Colonel Solomon P. Sharp, former Congressman, Attorney-General of the State, and at the time of his death a member-elect of the Kentucky House of Representatives, by Jereboam O. Beauchamp, a young lawyer. The subsequent trial reminded many of the residents that Sharp had in 1819 been involved in a scandal concerning Miss Ann Cook, a lady of good family, and had been accused by some of fathering her child who was stillborn. In consequence of the stain upon her reputation, Miss Cook retired to her family’s farm. Beauchamp heard of her disgrace and, although she was sixteen years older than he, he repeatedly proposed marriage to her. She finally said that she would accept on the condition that he avenge her dishonor by killing her betrayer. To this stipulation he immediately agreed and in 1821 went to Frankfort to challenge the Colonel to a duel. Sharp refused to fight and Beauchamp threatened to horsewhip him publicly, but the Colonel left Frankfort before Beauchamp could carry out his threat. In 1824 Beauchamp and Ann Cook were married. Infuriated by additional slanderous statements against his wife, Beauchamp went again to Frankfort in 1825, certain that Sharp—who was there to attend the opening session of the legislature— could no longer elude him. At 2:00 a.m. of the morning the legislature was to convene, Beauchamp persuaded Sharp by a ruse to open his door and “plunged a dagger in his heart.” On May 19, 1826, after a sensational trial, he was sentenced to be hanged. His wife was acquitted of complicity in the crime and was permitted to share his cell until the execution. The two attempted suicide shortly before the date set for his execution. She died of her wounds, but he was dragged from his cell and hanged on July 7, 1826. They were buried in one grave.

This series of incidents, which was almost immediately labelled the “Kentucky Tragedy,” attracted Poe, together with many of his contemporaries. But although Poe’s unfinished verse drama Politian ( 1835-36?) has long been considered to have been inspired by the real-life drama of Beauchamp and Sharp, the resemblances attributed have been only the most general. Floyd Stovall, in fact, has stated flatly that “Poe’s tragedy has little in common with the Beauchamp-Sharp affair.”] It is my contention here that the facts of the real case directly generated various parts of Politian, and that the work rather closely parallels the Beauchamp-Sharp story.

Accounts of the murder, trial, and execution appeared in the newspapers of 1825 and 1826, especially the seven newspapers of Frankfort, Kentucky. Thomas Ollive Mabbott, in his edition of Politian (2), felt that it is more than probable that Poe’s attention was called to the story by the account given in Chapter XXXIV of Charles Fenno Hoffman’s Winter in the West, which bears the date [page 25:] 1835 on its title page but came out in time to be reviewed in the New York American Monthly Magazine for December 1834. Hoffman wrote:

Incidents like these . . . . seem from the exaggerated sentiment and romantic rashness they betray, as belonging to a bygone age or transpiring on a different planet. But assuming a people so earnest in character as the Kentuckians, and in a community whose sympathies have been outraged by such a tissue of monstrous guilt and romantic infatuation . . . . the tragic fate of Beauchamp and his wife sinks . . . . into men’s bosoms; and the story of their strange loves, of her cruel wrong and his dark revenge, of the savage retribution they exacted from the author of their misery and their crime, and the touching heroism of the death they shared at last together—all combine to make up a drama of real life which can never be forgotten among the scenes where it was enacted. (Winter in the West, II, 161)

If this account drew Poe’s attention to the Beauchamp-Sharp tragedy, he could hardly have failed to see that the facts of this celebrated case were fully as romantic as his own fiction (3). Mabbott suggests that from Hoffman’s words Poe probably took the idea of “drama set in another age “ and that a brief notice of Hoffman’s book in the Southern Literary Messenger (April 1835) is probably Poe’s.4 Despite the fact that the case had been the subject of several literary works since 1826, the only other sources Poe seems to have used are two pamphlets: The Confession of Jereboam O. Beauchamp . . . . (Bloomfield, Ky., 1826); and “Letters of Ann Cook, late Mrs. Beauchamp, to her friend in Maryland containing a short history of the life of that remarkable woman, published by one W. R——n, of Charles County, Maryland” (Washington, D.C., 1826) (5).

Poe placed the action of his play in Rome (Mabbott suggests the sixteenth century) and most of the names of his characters he found in Italian history. Beauchamp’s wife, Ann Cook, he named Lalage, a name familiar from Horace; Beauchamp became Politian, named for the Florentine scholar and poet Angelo Ambrogini Poliziano (1454-1494); and to Colonel Sharp he gave the name Castiglione, the surname of Baldassare Castiglione (1478-1529), author of The Book of the Courtier. As Arthur Hobson Quinn points out (p. 232) Poe “made several changes in the characters of the principal actors in the drama.” For instance, Politian is an Englishman, the Earl of Leicester, on a visit to Rome, and instead of being acquainted with the heroine, as in the Kentucky drama, he is so attracted by her voice as she sings in another room of the castle, that he falls in love with her before he has seen her. Despite the foreign locale and foreign names, Poe clearly based these characters and others in no small measure on the romantic figures of the Kentucky tragedy. Many of the phrases and actions are copied from life, and it is with these that I am here concerned.

Although Lalage was Castiglione’s “plighted wife” he has spurned her for the affections of Alessandra, a niece of the Duke Di Broglio who is Castiglione’s father, and they are to be married “tomorrow week.” The immediate result is that Lalage “. . . . sits alone / Continually in her chamber with clasped hands” (I, 47-48). And to a Monk who says to her:

Refuge thou hast,

Sweet daughter! in Heaven. Think of eternal things!

Give up thy soul to penitence, and pray! (IV, 74-75)

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She replies:

I cannot pray!—My soul is at war with God!

The frightful sounds of merriment below

Disturb my senses—go! I cannot pray—

The sweet airs from the garden worry me!

Thy presence grieves me—go!—Thy priestly raiment

Fills me with dread—Thy ebony crucifix

With horror and awe! (IV, 76-82)

These passages can be compared with two passages from Beauchamp’s Confession (pp. 9-10) about Ann Cook: “She sternly refused to make any acquaintances or even to receive the society or visits of her former acquaintances . . . . and she said she could never be happy in society again.” The Monk’s speech reflects a remark of the “Mrs. Ellen R——n,” to whom Ann Cook’s letters were addressed. She says (p. 37): “I begged her to consult her Bible; for in that alone she would find happiness and peace; and to struggle to subdue her violent passions, which might yet lead her into the commission of dreadful errors.”

In her Letters (p. 60) Ann Cook, in reference to Colonel Sharp, wrote of suffering her “heart to be irrecoverably lost and blighted by one so little to be trusted —so little worthy of [her] affections. But whom I yet love.” Poe writes:

And ever and anon amid her sobs

She murmured forth Castiglione’s name

. . . . she loves him still! (1, 52-54)

When the Monk advises her to “think of Cher] precious soul!” Lalage replies:

Think of my early days! Think of my father

And mother in Heaven! Think of our quiet home,

And the rivulet that ran before the door!

Think of my little sisters!—think of them! (IV, 83-86)

Beauchamp in his Confessions (p. 90) wrote that Ann Cook’s “father, brothers and friends, by a most strange succession of calamities had been swept into the grave.”

In Scene VII Politian confesses his love for Lalage in spite of “knowing what he knows” and “seeing what he has seen.” He loves her for her “beauty” and her “woes.” She reminds him that her “seared and blighted name” would not tally “with the ancestral honours of [his] house / And with [its] glory.” He answers that he loathes the name of glory and tells her that it does not matter they “go down unhonoured and forgotten / Into the dust—so [they] descend together.” She reminds him that “A deed is to be done— / Castiglione lives!” to which he replies that “he shall die!” After some hesitation about the forthcoming death of Castiglione, she decides that “—’tis very well! / So that the blade be keen—the blow be sure.”

Much of this scene is founded largely on fact; pages 74-75 of Ann Cook’s Letters read:

. . . . He offered me his hand. Yes, forlorn and abandoned as I was, he was willing to become my husband as he had been my friend. What could I do? I addressed him candidly and openly. [page 26:]

‘You know my history,’ said I, ‘and my shame, if you are willing to receive to your bosom a poor outcast, whom the world has stigmatised as guilty and polluted, with a wounded heart and a blighted name, then take me. I am yours forever.’

‘My dear Ann,’ he replied, ‘I regard you as the innocent victim of the most detestable treachery.... I have long admired the cultivation of your mind, and the proud dignity and elevation of your soul You were calculated to grace the most elevated circles of society . . . . I am proud to be the object of your choice, humbled as you may be in your estimation, or . . . . in that of an unfeeling world. . . . my attachment is deep, sincere, and ardent, and while we live it shall never become extinct. . . . .’

A reporter for the Lexington Kentucky Reporter of July 7, 1826, recorded Beauchamp’s farewell to his dying wife as follows: “‘Farewell,’ said he, ‘child of sorrow— Farewell child of misfortune and persecution—you are now secure from the tongue of slander—for you I have lived; for you I die.’” Poe could have read this newspaper article, for it was quoted in an appendix to the Confession. And Poe’s Politian says: “And life shall then be mine, for I will live / For Thee, and in shine eyes— and Thou shalt be / No more a mourner—” (VII, 7880).

Much of Scene IX, in which Politian seeks out Castiglione to engage him in a duel, thus to avenge the grievous wrong Castiglione has done Lalage, follows very closely Beauchamp’s description in his Confession ( pp. 15-17) of an encounter with Colonel Sharp. Politian (drawing) says: “Thus to the expiatory tomb, / Untimely sepulchre, I do devote thee / In the name of Lalage!” (59-61). Castiglione replies: “Hold off thy hand—with that beloved name / So fresh upon thy lips I will not fight thee / I cannot—dare not” (66-69).

In his Confession (p. 15) Beauchamp wrote: “Colonel Sharp, I have come deputed and sent by her, to take your life.... Will you fight me a duel?” To which, according to Beauchamp, Sharp replied, “My dear friend I cannot fight you, on account of Miss Cook.... I never can fight the friend of that worthy injured lady.”

In the play Castiglione falls upon his knees at the feet of Politian and says “Alas! my lord, / It is—it is— most true. In such a cause / I am the veriest coward. O pity me!” (72-73). Beauchamp, thinking that Sharp was about to run, sprang forward, caught him by the breast of his coat, and said, “Now you damn’d villain, you shall die.” Sharp then fell on his knees and said, “My life is in your hands, my friend I beg my life. Spare it for mercy’s sake.” Beauchamp then records that he said “. . . . tomorrow I shall horsewhip you in the streets, and repeat it daily till you fight me a duel.... You are about such a whining coward, as I was told you were.” In lines 85-90 Politian says:

Think not to fly me thus. Do thou prepare

For public insult in she streets—before

The eves of the citizens. I’ll follow thee—

Like an avenging spirit I’ll follow thee

Even unto death. Before those whom thou lovest—

Before all Rome I’ll taunt thee, villain—

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The final scene (XI), “Interior of the Coliseum,” is comprised almost entirely of Poe’s poem The Coliseum which Poe incorporated into the play as a soliloquy said by Politian. After the soliloquy Lalage enters “wildly” and informs Politian that “the hour is come / For vengeance or will never” (55-56) for Alessandra and Castiglione (the bride and bridegroom) are now at the altar rail. The again-aroused Politian swears that “By the God of Heaven / I’ll mar this bridal if at the altar’s foot / The bridegroom dies,” and dashes out (60-61). Mabbott (I, 297) suggests that Poe seems here to recall something on page 84 of Ann Cook’s Letters where she wrote, “I suggested that it would be better to plunge the dagger into his heart while folded in the arms of her for whom he deserted me.” He further suggests (p. 298) that in ¢he final speech of Poe’s play when Lalage says: “Farewell Castiglione and farewell / My hope in Heaven!” (62-64), she (unlike her prototype in real life) repents, although too late.

Poe continued an interest in the Beauchamp-Sharp case well after he abandoned his play based on it, for he commented several times on the theme as it was treated by some of his contemporaries. In a review of William Gilmore Simms’ Beauchampe (1842) in Graham’s Magazine, 20 (May 1842), 320, Poe wrote:

The events upon which this novel is based are but too real. No more thrilling, no more romantic tragedy did ever the brain of poet conceive than was the tragedy of Sharpe [sic] and Beauchampe [sic]. We are not sure that the author of ‘Border Eagles’ has done right in the selection of his theme. Too little has been left for invention. We are sure, however, that the theme is skillfully handled.

In a review of Simms’ The Wigwam and the Cabin in the Broadway Journal, 2 (October 4, 1845), 190, Poe wrote “‘Beauchampe’ is intensely interesting; but the historical truth has somewhat hampered and repressed the natural strength of the artist.” Charles Fenno Hoffman wrote Greyslaer ( 1840), and in his Literati article on Hoffman in Godey’s Lady’s Book, 33 (October 1846), 157, Poe commented:

. . . . Greyslaer followed a romance based on a well known murder of Sharp, the Solicitor General of Kentucky, by Beauchampe [sic]. W. Gilmore Simms . . . . has treated the subject more effectively in his novel ‘Beauchampe’, but the fact is that both gentlemen have positively failed, as might have been expected . . . . The real events were more impressive than the fictitious ones. The facts of this remarkable tragedy, as arranged by actual circumstances, would put to shame the skill of the consummate artist. . . . The incidents might be better woven into a tragedy. . . .



(1) The Poems of Edgar Allan Poe (Charlottesville: U P of Virginia, 1965), p. 342.

(2) Politian: An Unfinished Tragedy (Richmond, 1923).

(3) John H. Ingram, Edgar A. Poe: His Life, Letters and Opinions (London, 1880), p. 111.

(4) Collected Works of Edgar Allan Poe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard U P, 1969), 1, 243. All references to the play are from this edition. [page 27:]

(5) Although Mabbott believes that Poe composed the play in 1835 (see his edition of Politian, p. 58), the early date of the two pamphlets and the late date of Hoffman’s work (almost the same as Poe’s first fragment) suggest that Ingram (p. 111) may be correct in believing that Poe may have written at least a portion of Politian as early as 1831—a view endorsed by James A. Harrison Complete Works (New York: Crowell, 1902), and J. H. Whitty, The Complete Works (New York, 1911). Mabbott doubts Ingram, Harrison, and Whitty on this point, if they are correct, it throws out Mabbott’s theory that Poe learned of the case through Hoffman. It is known, however, that he was still at work on the play in the spring of 1835. John P. Kennedy, in a letter dated 13 April 1835 to T. W. White, proprietor of the Southern Literary Messenger, wrote that Poe was “at work upon a tragedy, but I have turned him to drudging upon whatever may make money” (see Rufus Wilmot Griswold, “Memoir,” p. xxix). Poe seems never to have been happy about the play, perhaps because it did not meet the high aesthetic standards he set for himself. Mabbott (Collected Works, I, 241) feels that Poe abandoned the play deliberately, “for while the play is unfinished, the conclusion was obviously planned.” Fewer than “one hundred of the lines written have been lost, and the general plan of the final scene is obvious.” Mabbott also notes that Poe never published the play as an entity nor decided finally on the division into acts. Mabbott numbers the scenes I to XI. Stovall (Poems, p. 341) disagrees. Poe published five scenes of Politian in the Southern Literary Messenger in 1835-36 which were reproduced in The Raven and Other Poems in 1845. In 1846, when asked about the other scenes, Poe replied, “There is no more of ‘Politian.’” See Arthur Hobson Quinn, Edgar Allan Poe, A Critical Biography (New York: D. Appleton Century, 1941), p. 522.


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[S:0 - PSDR, 1971]