Tag Archives: Sallie McElroy

“Just retribution! but how awful!”

“Horrible!” wrote Sallie Knott on April 15, 1865.  The previous evening in Washington, D.C, President Abraham Lincoln had been shot at Ford’s Theater and Secretary of State William H. Seward stabbed by unknown assailants.  At home in Lebanon, Kentucky, Sallie sat down to record her reactions in her journal.  But it wasn’t easy to sort out her thoughts, for at the outbreak of the Civil War she had made one thing clear to that same journal: “I glory in the name of Rebel.”

As a young schoolteacher in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Sallie had developed a disdain for Northern attacks on her state’s way of life.  Her anti-Yankee sentiments grew after she married her cousin James Proctor Knott in 1858 and moved to Missouri, where he was a lawyer and state legislator.  In 1861 Knott, now Attorney General of Missouri, was stripped of his office for declining to take an oath not to “aid the Southern cause,” and the couple was forced to return to Kentucky. 

Sallie Knott

For the next four years, Sallie remained largely true to her promise to confine her journal entries to personal affairs, but the news from Washington demanded comment.  Sallie could not restrain her sense of triumph.  “Just retribution!  but how awful!” she declared.  Lincoln had proclaimed the previous day “a universal Thanksgiving day,” but “while his partisans were feasting & making merry, by his own order, over the misfortunes of a brave & oppressed people, he & his chief director & adviser in all his fiendish schemes, are dying!  Lord, thou art just & holy; & thy judgements infinitely surpass our desires or comprehension.”

Her thoughts then turned to the identity of the perpetrators.  Of course, fingers pointed to Southerners as “the prime movers in the plot,” but Sallie put her money on General Ulysses S. Grant who, “with the army at his back, is going to try to make himself sovereign & absolute!”  Grant had accepted Lincoln’s invitation to attend the play at Ford’s Theater, she noted, but then backed out and left town.  And like Americans who, after President Kennedy’s assassination, rejected the “lone gunman” theory, she saw conspiracies in the shadows.  “Why,” she asked, “was there no attempt to arrest either assassin by guards, servants, police, nor a theatre full of people?” 

Would “a terrible struggle for absolute power & the rights of the people” now ensue, with the army on the side of despotism”? Sallie wondered. “ Let us be still & see!”  In the meantime, she had to hold her tongue around grieving family and friends and at her church’s memorial for the martryed president.  “No heathen Juggernaut ever received so much devotion as we have been obliged to offer at the shrine of Abe Linkhorn’s dead, ugly old phiz!” she sputtered.  “Bah!  ‘tis perfectly sickening!”

Sallie McElroy’s journal is part of the holdings of the Manuscripts & Folklife Archives of WKU’s Department of Library Special Collections.  Click here for a finding aid.  Search all our collections through TopSCHOLAR or KenCat.

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“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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