Tag Archives: Sallie Knott

“I’d rather have the wisdom than the bliss”

“Someone sent me ‘Beauchampe,’” wrote Sallie McElroy in her journal on October 26, 1857.  The anonymous gift she was referring to was a book by William Gilmore Simms—a reboot, actually, of his 1842 work Beauchampe; or the Kentucky Tragedy: A Tale of Passion.  

Ann Cook

The volume was a novelized version of a true story that began on November 7, 1825, with the fatal stabbing of a man in Frankfort, Kentucky.  The victim, former state attorney general Solomon P. Sharp, had allegedly fathered a stillborn child whose mother, Ann Cook, was now living in seclusion near Bowling Green.  Sharp, however, had not only denied paternity but had shockingly claimed that the child had been of mixed race.  The disgraced Ann then fell in with Jeroboam O. Beauchamp, a young law student 15 years her junior, married him, and convinced him to kill Sharp to avenge her honor.  Just before Beauchamp was to hang for the crime on July 7, 1826, he and Ann attempted a double suicide in the jailhouse, but only she succeeded.  They were buried together in an “eternal embrace,” as they had requested. 

Beauchampe was a rather unusual gift for 23-year-old Sallie, then teaching at a female academy in Bowling Green and boarding under the rather Puritanical eye of its headmistress.  As Sallie knew, tradition demanded that women be shielded from such scandal lest it send them to the fainting couch, or worse, to a life corrupted by the taste of forbidden knowledge.  One of her male friends, in fact, seems to have had her debating the wisdom of opening the book’s cover.

Sallie McElroy

But she did not hesitate for long.  Well-read, wryly observant, and Bible-literate enough to slice and dice the sermons of local clergymen, Sallie understood the double standard behind such male hand-wringing.  “Yes, I will read it!” she wrote in her journal.  “Men are extremely anxious to preserve us pure as saints—we must know nothing of the stream of pollution which ‘flows down our streets like a river’ for fear we shall be spattered a little by the spray as it dashes on in its headlong course!”  True, there was the old saying, “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise,” but a “man wrote that,” she observed, “& I’m suspicious of the whole of ‘em!  At least in this instance, I had rather have the wisdom than the bliss, as dear old mother Eve chose before me!”

So read she did, and emerged unscathed.  Disappointed in the style of the book and its divergence from generally accepted versions of the incident, Sallie nevertheless found it “a most thrilling tale.”  She was somewhat forgiving of Ann Cook—“a most extraordinary woman” who fell victim to “pride & ambition” and whose relatives still lived in the area.  But Beauchamp was “a ninny of a fellow,” his reason captive to his passion.  Sharp, too, was “a monster.”  The bottom line, she concluded, was that “All three met only a just fate.”

Sallie McElroy’s journal is part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid, and here to read about a more recent book on the famous Beauchamp-Sharp Tragedy, written with the aid of our collections.  For more collections, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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A Clutch Performance

Sallie McElroy

In fall 1860, Sallie McElroy Knott enjoyed recording in her journal her impressions of the young Prince of Wales when he visited the St. Louis Fair.  Newly married, Sallie was living with her husband, future Kentucky governor J. Proctor Knott, in Jefferson City, where he was serving as attorney general.  But Sallie had other fair experiences, including one in Bowling Green, Kentucky, when she was still Miss Sallie McElroy, a teacher at the local female academy. 

It was late September, 1857, the school was closed “on account of the Fair,” and her students “were crazy” to go.  Sallie herself was somewhat indifferent, but had resolved to attend in order to root for some of the young people in their first public displays of horsemanship.  The next day, however, she had to confess to her journal of the “dire catastrophe my poor self met with yesterday!  Where to find a corner dark enough to hide my blushes or a washing tub big enough to contain the floods of tears issuing from my eyes!” 

Sallie had dressed quickly to meet her escort at the fair—as quickly as possible, given that these were not the days of shorts, tank tops and flip-flops—but in her rush she had neglected to notice that “my unmentionables were about to burst out at the buttonhole.”  Upon her arrival, “horrors!” Sallie wrote.  “The 1st step I took I felt a loosening around my waist.”  She tried to “clutch desperately” at her “most nether garment through crinoline, flannel etc. with both hands,” but then she met a flight of steps and her escort insisted on taking one of her hands.  Making it to the top “with the aforesaid garment dangling around my feet,” she found a place to sit down, then managed somehow to shed the rogue undies and stuff them in a crack under the seat. 

Sallie’s hope that no one would discover her cast-offs was disappointed in the worst way.  Some young boys not only found them, she wrote, but “twisted my poor lost trousers on a pole & perambulated with them round the Fairgrounds.”  A patron at the fair, one “Dr. Vanmeter,” gallantly intervened “& rescued my poor unfortunates,” but instead of attempting to reunite them with their owner’s “longing legs,” he carefully put them in his pocket!  “I’m afraid he’ll wear ‘em clean out,” Sallie concluded in a comic coda to this bizarre episode, “& I shan’t ever get a last fond look at ‘em.” 

Sallie (McElroy) Knott’s journals (we’ll hear from her yet again) are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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Sallie and the Prince

It was the 1860 fall fair season, and St. Louis, Missouri was abuzz over a royal visit to the Fifth Annual Fair of the city’s Agricultural and Mechanical Association.  Albert Edward, Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) was just eighteen when he arrived on September 27 with the Duke of Newcastle as part of a tour of Canada and the United States.  He had drawn large and appreciative crowds everywhere he went, and newspapers gushed over the young prince’s appearance and demeanor.  It was left to individual Americans, at once dazzled by and suspicious of this embodiment of inherited privilege, to offer more realistic impressions.

Sallie (McElroy) Knott

One such onlooker in St. Louis was Sarah “Sallie” (McElroy) Knott.  Married for two years to Missouri’s attorney general J. Proctor Knott, 26-year-old Sallie was still having difficulty adjusting to life away from her family in Bowling Green, Kentucky and being the wife of a “public man” (Knott would later become Governor of Kentucky).  But she found a confidante in her journal, in which she recorded her earnest thoughts and sometimes acid takes on the people and events around her.

When a procession of carriages carrying the Prince of Wales and his retinue arrived at the St. Louis Fair, Sallie was there.  Like so many of her countrymen and women, she had written in her journal, “I anticipate the pleasure of feasting my Republican eyes with a sight of royalty!”  Afterward, she described her experience with the requisite amount of Republican snark.  “He sat in a carriage,” she wrote, “with the Duke of New Castle beside him, & drove round the circuit of the grounds, for the gratification of the plebeian crowd of a hundred thousand or more, all eager to see a future King.  I stood within three feet of him, & gave him a specimen of American manners in the shape of my best tuck & bob curtsey! of which he was ill-bred enough to take no manner of notice!!”  The massed spectators did not prevent Sallie from getting a close look at what Queen Victoria’s genes had wrought: “He was a gawky Dutch-English stripling, sitting with head tucked down like any awkward boy, & picking to pieces a bouquet he held in his hands.  He is the possessor of an immense nose – huge feet & hands – bandy legs – blue eyes & quantity of light hair – ruddy complexion, almost fair as a girl’s – upon the whole rather a good face, but nothing uncommon.” She also found the “old Duke” to be nothing special beyond “a portly, good natured looking Englishman.”  It was an age before paparazzi, when the strobe of camera flashes was yet to annoy the royal retinas, but Sallie also found the Prince spared of another hazard: the halitosis of over-adoring commoners.  “The multitude had sense enough to keep quiet,” she observed, “& so the cortege swept by, undisturbed by sniffing the air, tainted by the huzzahing breath of the ‘great-unwashed’”!

Albert Edward, Prince of Wales

Sallie (McElroy) Knott’s journals (there will be more of her wisdom to come) are part of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  For more collections, search TopScholar and KenCat.

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Stitches in Time

On this June 13, National Sewing Machine Day, we remember the 19th-century English, French, German and American inventors who alleviated (or at least revised) the toil of the tailor and seamstress.  We also remember the millions of women who saw their employment and domestic lives transformed by the new technology. 

Early in 1861, Sallie Knott had much to write about from Missouri to her mother in Bowling Green, including the election of Abraham Lincoln that had ignited talk of secession.  Also of note, however, was her friend’s new Grover & Baker sewing machine.  “I’ve learned to sew pretty well,” Sallie reported.  “It only cost $45 & answers pretty well when there is no stout jeans for servants.”  She had run up a calico dress in only one day, and was quickly losing interest in sewing by hand.  “It spoils one very soon,” she admitted.  “I dislike to take up any needle now to do anything – even to baste.”

Whether at home or in the workplace, women were quick to find that like much new gadgetry, the sewing machine pushed them to perform more labor in the same time rather than the same labor in less time.  “Lizzie sews every day,” a correspondent reported to her cousin from Bourbon County in 1870.  “She has a Wheeler & Wilson machine, and has all the sewing she can do.”  The machines also required a new technical language for parts and maintenance.  “Send me No. 26L306 sewing machine Needles one doz. for Improved Singer Head No. 6389759,” wrote Lewis County, Kentucky’s Annie Kinney to Sears, Roebuck in 1918.  Her efficient requisition was accompanied by a sample needle and a preference for ones “just a little longer,” if possible.

On its way to becoming synonymous with the sewing machine, Isaac Merritt Singer’s company developed a mass marketing strategy for women who sewed at home.  In 1885, Singer wrote from its Cincinnati office to Bowling Green lawyer Clarence McElroy about one of its local agents on whom it relied to sell machines, parts and accessories.  J. C. Webb had signed on as a full-time agent in 1880, receiving a salary of $15 per week plus a 3% commission on sales.  His contract also stipulated that he was “to furnish one Horse to be used in the business and to pay for its keeping.”  Webb, however, had attempted to buy his horse in the company’s name, making Singer responsible for payment.  While reluctant to make a scene, the Singer representative was firm in his instructions to McElroy.  “We do not question our obligation to pay for a Horse if Mr. Webb had bought it for the use of the company, but we cannot admit that an agent has a right or authority to purchase a Horse for another party and bind the company by a note.”  Besides, he pointed out, there was the matter of that clause in the contract – prepared, as it happened, on another newfangled device, the typewriter.

Click on the links to access finding aids for these collections in the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  For more, search TopSCHOLAR and KenCat.

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