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King Solomon, Town's Grave Digging Drunk-Turned Hero

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
July 25, 2023 3:03 am

King Solomon, Town's Grave Digging Drunk-Turned Hero

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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July 25, 2023 3:03 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, King Solomon was a gravedigger who may have saved the town of Lexington during the Cholera epidemic of 1833. Kentucky journalist Sam Terry tells the story of the man they called “King Solomon.” 

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They're some of our favorites. And this next story comes to us with the help of John Elfner, a high school history teacher and a regular contributor to our show. Kentucky journalist Sam Terry tells the story of the man they called King Solomon.

In November of 1854, the Reverend William M. Pratt recorded in his diary, I preached the funeral today of old King Solomon, 79 years old. He was born the same year with Henry Clay and had drunk whiskey enough to float a man o' war. He was once a person of considerable enterprise and business, but he had been given to drink a great many years and yet was inoffensive and of great integrity. Quite a number of citizens attended his funeral and he had a good coffin worth thirty dollars and some seventeen carriages processed to the cemetery. The deceased was William King Solomon, a Virginia native who claimed to have been a boyhood acquaintance of Harry, as he called Henry Clay, jesting that his own work as a digger of sellers and cisterns was less elevated than the famous statesman.

His loyalty to Clay was unprecedented. When one of Clay's opponents for reelection offered strong drink to Solomon in exchange for his vote, Solomon took him up on the offer and then proceeded to vote for Clay. When asked if he had voted as agreed, Solomon replied, You may have been foolish enough to try to bribe me, but I'm not foolish enough to vote for you. During Solomon's lowest time of life, his wife died and his son ran away, sending him into a liquor-filled existence that reduced him to a vagabond whom Lexingtonians nicknamed King Solomon. By 1833, Solomon's existence, living on the streets and intoxicated, led a local judge to sell him as a servant for a period of nine months. Solomon's purchaser was the least likely of buyers. Aunt Charlotte was a free black woman who had apparently known Solomon in Virginia when he was a free white male and she was an enslaved black female, her owners having given her freedom and bequeathed her some land.

She supported herself by selling baked goods. At Solomon's auction, two Transylvania Medical College students bid on Solomon, viewing him as being near the end of his life and a future cadaver for their studies. Aunt Charlotte was the winning bidder for Solomon. Her exact bid remains a mystery.

Some sources say she paid thirteen cents, while others claim it was thirteen dollars, and yet another maintains it was fifty cents. Whatever the price, King Solomon, the white vagrant, became the temporary property of Aunt Charlotte, the free woman of color, setting in motion one of Kentucky's renowned tales of the past. Aunt Charlotte freed Solomon, and true to his addiction, he managed to acquire some liquor before wandering back to her home where he passed out. When Solomon awakened, he found the town of Lexington in distress with people dying of cholera, one of the most feared maladies of the early decades of the nineteenth century. Referred to as Asiatic cholera due to its origin in the Far East, cholera is contracted by ingesting the Vibrio cholerae microbe via water that is contaminated with human feces. Now at this time in 1833, the town branch ran through Lexington, and heavy rains caused its banks to overflow, while privies overflowed into the ground, creating a deadly mixture that poured into sinkholes only to emerge through springs and other sources of drinking water. A single bucket of contaminated water from a well or public pump had the power to wipe out an entire household.

Naive individuals, unaware of the contamination, soon became victims, stricken with voluminous diarrhea after drinking even a small quantity of infected water. There was little help for the victims. Lexington's only hospital at the time was the Eastern Kentucky Lunatic Asylum.

The town's physicians were principally faculty members at Transylvania's medical college. Three of the physicians died, another was out of town and learning of the epidemic chose not to return, and yet another rendered himself useless after a fall while trying to care for the sick and the dying. The Lexington Observer and Reporter published the names of more than 500 victims in a town with a population of 6,000. The hungover Solomon found that Aunt Charlotte, like most Lexington residents, was packing to evacuate the town.

Historians have pondered how Solomon could have managed to avoid contracting cholera, most drolly concluding that his body was so well fortified with alcohol he was immune to the disease. Solomon, however, refused to leave, and he began burying the dead as the grave diggers had left along with thousands of other residents. Victims of cholera were not afforded the luxury of funerals or even coffins, with many bodies being wrapped in the bed linens on which they had died. Dozens of casualties were piled up near the old Episcopal burying ground on Third Street. Discerning the need, Solomon began digging graves to bury hundreds of bodies, and in turn becoming the hero of Lexington. King Solomon continued to live in Lexington until his death in 1854. He was buried in the Lexington Cemetery, not far from the towering monument marking the grave of his boyhood friend, Henry Clay. In 1908, a large monument declaring King Solomon a hero was placed at his grave. And Kentucky author, James Lane Allen, included the tale of King Solomon of Kentucky in his 1891 book, Flute and Violin and Other Kentucky Tales.

The rest of Aunt Charlotte's story, however, remains unknown. And a special thanks to Kentucky journalist, Sam Terry, and thanks as always to John Elfner. The story of William King Solomon, here on Our American Stories. Folks, if you love the stories we tell about this great country, and especially the stories of America's rich past, know that all of our stories about American history, from war to innovation, culture, and faith, are brought to us by the great folks at Hillsdale College, a place where students study all the things that are beautiful in life, and all the things that are good in life. And if you can't get to Hillsdale, Hillsdale will come to you with their free and terrific online courses.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2023-07-25 04:26:47 / 2023-07-25 04:30:54 / 4

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