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Kentucky By Heart: Story of William ‘King’ Solomon a poignant one for this challenging time of pandemic

By Steve Flairty
KyForward columnist

For many years as a fourth-grade teacher, I read the story of William “King” Solomon’s heroism in 1830s Lexington to my students. I appreciated the poignant tone of the narrative, and I loved the great lesson of a common person acting bravely and compassionately while in the midst of a devastating cholera pandemic, one that killed nearly five hundred of the town’s approximately seven thousand population.

William “King” Solomon (Image provided)

It’s a stirring example for us in today’s challenging time of the coronavirus.

The book I read from was an excellent intermediate-level elementary social studies’ supplement called Traces: The Story of Lexington’s Past, authored by Dag Ryen. It was published in 1987 by the Lexington-Fayette County Historic Commission. I’ll both paraphrase and offer quotes from the account, then enrich the historical narrative by sharing some tidbits from other places.

Though the town of Lexington in that period was called “The Athens of the West” and known as an educational and cultural hub, William Solomon was a simple man who eked out a living, said the book, “…doing odd jobs for the town. He cut stumps out of the streets, filled in ruts and potholes, dug ditches to drain the water, and trimmed branches off trees in the public square.”

Solomon’s appearance is described as him wearing “the same old dusty hat and the same baggy pants…(and) his face was round and as wrinkled as his clothes.” Personality-wise, he was known to be “friendly, kind, and helpful…(and) very fond of whiskey.”

Solomon’s headstone (Image courtesy of Sam Terry IV)

The fondness for whisky part turned into a real problem, and he was often picked up by authorities for public intoxication.

By most accounts, he is portrayed as an amiable sort, and probably had many acquaintances around town. One of them was a free black woman known as “Aunt Charlotte.” The woman lived in a house near a notable creek running through Lexington called Towne Branch, and her “career” selling baked goods and doing jobs for the town trustees was demonstrably more successful than Solomon’s. In time, she helped to make a big difference in his life.

Brought before the local court (again) for being drunk in public, the judge decided to “sentence” Solomon by making him an indentured servant, meaning he would do work for another citizen for nine months to pay his societal debt. Aunt Charlotte bought his services, and things appeared to go well in the partnership. He did jobs around her house and helped deliver her bakery goods. She helped keep him out of trouble.

Steve Flairty is a teacher, public speaker and an author of seven books: a biography of Kentucky Afield host Tim Farmer and six in the Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes series, including a kids’ version. Steve’s “Kentucky’s Everyday Heroes #5,” was released in 2019. Steve is a senior correspondent for Kentucky Monthly, a weekly KyForward and NKyTribune columnist and a former member of the Kentucky Humanities Council Speakers Bureau. Contact him at sflairty2001@yahoo.com or visit his Facebook page, “Kentucky in Common: Word Sketches in Tribute.” (Steve’s photo by Connie McDonald)

But in 1832-33, Lexington was subdued by their part in a cholera pandemic originating in Asia. Cholera, spread through fecal matter in unclean water, proved deadly. It’s reported that Lexington eventually lost about 500 of their approximately 6,300 population from the disease.

According to the Traces book, the scourge started slowly with a few cases, first breaking out “in the small cabins and houses along the Town Branch, in the neighborhood where Aunt Charlotte lived.” Sadly, she caught it and was one of the earliest to die. People stayed in their houses and businesses were closed. Some even fled to the countryside to avoid infection.

Besides the onslaught of a terrible disease and the deaths, there was another by-product. There were hundreds of dead bodies that needed to be buried and few people who were willing to help do so. That’s when a poor, humble man who was fond of whisky stepped up and showed amazingly true grit over several months in 1833 Lexington, Kentucky.

Traces stated it this way:

He (Solomon) stepped in where others couldn’t or didn’t dare. Day after day he carried the dead to the cemetery and laid them to rest in graves he had dug the day before. He pushed his hand cart around town, often the only person in the streets, picking up the victims at their homes. He went about the grim business of burial with a patience that no amount of education could have taught him. For many months in 1833, King Solomon was Lexington’s true hero.

I always enjoyed the class discussions we had after sharing the William “King” Solomon story. Students usually mentioned the man’s compassion and bravery, along with the encouragement that Aunt Charlotte gave him. But if it was not brought up as we talked, I made sure I suggested that there is at least something good in every person, and that we might sometimes have to look patiently to find that good.

In the age of Covid-19 and its challenges, someone’s actions nearly 200 years ago can serve to inspire us today.

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Terry Foody’s Book Cover

The gist of the story from the Traces book is most likely true. However, details found in other sources may differ somewhat. Much is murky, and I’m not a historian, so I’ll not attempt to make a lot of definitive conclusions. I’ll also not offer an exhaustive list of sources.I have read varying accounts on how much Aunt Charlotte paid for Solomon’s services. One source mentioned that she survived the cholera pandemic (Traces did not) and I also have seen different numbers of deaths and population figures for 1833. Some say she knew Solomon back in her early days in Virginia before they migrated to Kentucky.

Following are places one may look for more (and varying) information. A self-published book by Terry Foody, RN, MSN, called The Pie Seller, the Drunk, and the Lady (2014, 2016), offers both cited sources and a dramatic rendering of the Solomon and Aunt Charlotte story, along with a useful chapter called “Lessons for Our Global Health Today.”

Noted Kentucky writer James Lane Allen included a short story called “King Solomon of Kentucky” in his book, Flute and Violin and Other Kentucky Tales (1891). The story makes strong use of period dialect and is replete with flowery literary verbiage. Speaking of Solomon’s bravery, Allen wrote: “Out of what unforeseen depths of nature did he draw the tough fibre of such a resolution!” And, one phrase found its way to Solomon’s gravestone: “For had he not a royal heart?”

Sam Terry IV wrote a delightful piece in his “My Kentucky” column in The Jobe Newspaper Network called “Solomon and Charlotte: An Unlikely Partnership.” His quote from Rev. William M. Pratt’s diary illuminated the overwhelming appreciation that people of Lexington demonstrated at Solomon’s funeral in 1854. Later this year, Sam will have an audio story on the national series “Our American Stories,” and he currently has one on the “Think History” portion of the Kentucky Humanities Council web site.

Here are other links that might prove helpful for your study of Solomon and the period:

Notable Kentucky African Americans Database

Lexington History Museum

How Lexington’s Cholera Epidemic Changed History.

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  1. Terry Foody says:

    Thank you, Steve Flairty for including my book! My background in Public Health Nursing was impetus for years of research on Lexington’s Cholera Epidemic, and its heroes. I recorded a recent podcast – # 128, on Think Humanities, kyhumanites.org, comparing Cholera to Covid, revealing similar patterns of reponse.Just before Covid, Doug High interviewed me beneath Solomon’s portrait for KET’s Kentucky History Magazine, Vol.1 https://www.ket.org/program/chronicles-kentucky-history-magazine-12942/. The book is available from terryfoody.com and New on Amazon.

  2. Steve Flairty says:

    Thanks for all you do, Terry!

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