By SAM TERRY
Jobe Publishing Inc.
The events of the summer of 1833 were recalled in Rev. William M. Pratt’s diary entry for November 23, 1854. “Preached the funeral today of ‘old King Solomon,’ seventy-nine years old. He was born the same year with Henry Clay, and had drunk whisky 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 $30…..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 cellars and cisterns was “less elevated” than the famous statesman’s work. His loyalty to Clay was unprecedented. When one of Clay’s opponents for re-election 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’d 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 life 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 9 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 near the end of his life and future cadaver for their studies. Aunt Charlotte was the winning bidder for Solomon; her exact final bid is a mystery – some sources say she paid .13 cents while others claim it was $13 and yet another maintains it was .50 cents. Whatever the price, “King Solomon,” the white vagrant, became the 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 and promptly 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 19th century.
Referred to as “Asiatic Cholera” due to its origin in the Far East, cholera is contracted by ingesting the Vibrio Cholerea microbe via water that is contaminated by human feces. At the time, the Town Branch ran though Lexington and heavy rains caused its banks to overflow while privies overflowed onto the ground, creating a deadly mixture that flowed 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. Naïve individuals, unaware of the contamination, soon became victims stricken with voluminous diarrhea after drinking a small quantity of infected water.
There was little help for the victims. Lexington’s only hospital was the Eastern Kentucky Lunatic Asylym. The town’s physicians were principally faculty members at Transylvania’s Medical College. Three of the physicians died, another was in another city and learning of the epidemic chose not to return, and another rendered himself useless after a fall while trying to care for the sick and 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 began burying the dead as the gravediggers had left along with the 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 what is now known as the Old Episcopal Burying Ground on Third Street. Discerning the need, Solomon began digging graves to bury hundreds of the 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. Kentucky author James Lane Allen included the tale of “King Solomon of Kentucky” in his book, Flute and Violin and other Kentucky Tales.
The rest of Aunt Charlotte’s story remains unknown.
When Maria Cecil Gist Gratz, wife of Benjamin Gratz, had five orphaned children brought to her home in the summer of 1833, she realized the magnitude of need in Lexington with hundreds of children left without parents. As a result, she organized 24 women from various protestant denominations to for the Lexington Orphan Society, an organization that still exists. They purchased a structure on West Third Street to house the children and employed a teacher to educate them.