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A political name game

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By Jay Cason

Political campaigning that unmercifully seemed to go on forever finally concluded Tuesday. The mudslinging from both parties was brutal. But modern-era campaign shenanigans pale in comparison to the political hi-jinks perpetrated by some shirttail relatives of a Lawrenceburg man who, in 1912, came very close to being elected president of the United States.

James Beauchamp Clark, better known as “Champ” Clark, was born in Lawrenceburg on March 7, 1850 to John and Aletha Beauchamp Clark. The younger Clark continued to reside in the area until 1875 when, after earning a law degree at the University of Cincinnati, he moved to Missouri.

In 1892, Missourians elected Clark, a Democrat, to the United States House of Representatives. He lost the seat two years later, but regained it in 1896 and eventually became Speaker of the House in 1911.

In 1912, Clark was in control of his party and was the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for the presidency. But he ultimately lost to Woodrow Wilson on the 46th ballot, after failing to gain the two-thirds majority necessary for the nomination. Wilson of course became president. Clark remained in the House until he was defeated in 1920.

Years before he ever ran for office, Clark changed his name from James Beauchamp (pronounced Bo-champ) to Champ. It has been reported that he made the change because “J.B. Clark” was very common and because “Champ” would easily fit and would also look good in future headlines. But maybe he simply wanted to remove any potential name association with some unsavory relatives.

Jereboam O. Beauchamp was Clark’s first cousin twice removed. Like Clark, Beauchamp was a Kentucky lawyer.

In 1820, Beauchamp fell in love with a woman named Ann Cooke, who was his senior by about 16 years. She agreed to marry Beauchamp, but only if he would murder Col. Solomon Sharp, a former state attorney general, who was rumored to be the father of her illegitimate child.

Beauchamp agreed to kill Sharp and traveled to his Frankfort home where he made an unsuccessful attempt in 1821.

In 1824, after being admitted to the Kentucky bar, Beauchamp and Cooke were married and the illegitimate child issue seemed be forgotten. But later that year, new fuel was added to Beauchamp’s still-smoldering fires of resentment. A man, running against Sharp for a seat in the Kentucky legislature, fanned the dormant flames by distributing handbills that accused Sharp of seducing Cooke and fathering her illegitimate child.

Incensed by renewed accusations against his wife and Sharp, Beauchamp again traveled to Frankfort to finish the job he’d attempted three years previous. He was successful on his second attempt, fatally stabbing Sharp in his home’s doorway Nov. 7, 1825.

Beauchamp was convicted and was hanged July 7, 1826. But he didn’t go quietly. Two days before the scheduled hanging, while Ann visited her jailed husband, they attempted suicide by overdosing on laudanum. The attempt failed, but unbelievably they were afforded another chance when a sympathetic guard agreed to give them some privacy on the day of the hanging.

Ann smuggled a knife into the cell and by the time the ploy was discovered, Beauchamp was so weak from loss of blood that he had to be hustled off to the gallows and supported by two men in order to be hanged. Ann also expired from her wounds.

And if one bad apple in the Beauchamp/Clark family tree wasn’t enough, another cousin, Noah Beauchamp, was hanged in 1842 for stabbing a man to death in Indiana.

When Clark dropped his first name and took the Beau out of Beauchamp, maybe he did so for the reasons generally accepted by historians. But maybe not. Perhaps he simply realized that while he couldn’t choose his relatives, he could choose to change his name.

E-mail Jay Cason at jcason@theandersonnews.com.