In the news lately along with Queen Elizabeth’s death is the story of a Nevada investigative journalist, Jeff German, being stabbed to death after writing a series of investigative exposes of misconduct by Clark County Public Administrator Robert Telles, an elected Democrat who has since been arrested as DNA matching his was found underneath German’s fingernails. As I have written before, there were instances in which murderers won elections AFTER they had done so! The case I am writing about today bears some similarities to this one, except that the journalist in question was also in politics, doling out patronage under the second Cleveland Administration, and the murderer wasn’t just a state legislator who lost reelection, he was South Carolina’s lieutenant governor.
In the Progressive Era a new brand of South Carolina populist was rising from the influence of Senator “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman. This faction was even more populist, more aggressively racist, and more violent in rhetoric (and at times in action). Among these figures was Tillman’s nephew, Jim Tillman (1869-1911). The younger Tillman, the son of Congressman George Tillman, had a reputation as being arrogant, exaggerated in rhetoric, loose on ethics, a heavy drinker, and a gambler. Nonetheless, he appealed to many poor white South Carolinans and his service in the Spanish American War helped his career enough so that he won the 1900 election for lieutenant governor. However, there was a consistent thorn in his side and his name was Narciso G. Gonzales. Gonzales was both a journalist and a political actor, having directed patronage through South Carolina from the Cleveland Administration. He was also a man opposed to Tillmanism and the trends that came along with it, including the use of violence to uphold white supremacy. Although Gonzales had his prejudices against blacks, he opposed lynching as a means of enforcing social control. His prominent newspaper, The State, published articles blasting the young Tillman and accusing him of being “a proven liar, defaulter, gambler, and drunkard” as well as fabricating the state Senate record and having a dishonorable war record (Helsley).
In 1902, the ambitious Tillman wanted to win the South Carolina gubernatorial race, but the damaging articles from Gonzales’ newspaper continued. Also damaging was his calling for President Roosevelt not to be hosted by the governor because Roosevelt banned his uncle from the White House for his fistfight with fellow South Carolina Senator John McLaurin. The reporting against him was accurate, and Tillman came in fourth in the Democratic primary, getting a paltry 17.2% of the vote. After his primary loss he accused Gonzales of lying about him, claiming that his defeat was caused by “the brutal, false and malicious newspaper attacks headed by N. G. Gonzales” (Helsley). On January 15, 1903, the two men crossed each other’s paths while walking down the sidewalk in Columbia, and Tillman turned around and shot the unarmed Gonzales in the abdomen in broad daylight. Gonzales died four days later. He claimed at his trial that Gonzales had moved in a menacing way with his hands in his pockets so he thought he was armed. He was acquitted, but not over this defense; the greatest victory his legal team scored was moving the venue of the trial from Columbia to Lexington County. Lexington County was full of his supporters, and the jury consisted of men who thought that what Tillman had done was acceptable to satisfy honor given the inflammatory nature of certain articles written against him (Kantrowitz). Although dueling had mostly faded away by this time, there was still a lingering honor culture that could result in men killing each other for actual or perceived slights and insults.
The trial was condemned as a “farce” in the statewide press, and although Tillman was acquitted, his story doesn’t have a happy ending. He ran for Congress in the 2nd district in 1904 to replace the late George W. Croft, but was defeated by Croft’s son, Theodore. The following year, an obelisk in Columbia was constructed in honor of Gonzales that stands to this day with the inscription, “A martyr to free speech in South Carolina” (Wis News 10). Tillman’s lifestyle resulted in poor health, and he died on April 1, 1911 at the age of 41. In the wake of Tillman’s political and actual demise, Coleman L. Blease picked up where he left off.
Helsley, A.J. (2016, June 28). Tillman, James Hammond. South Carolina Encyclopedia.
January 1903: Lt. Gov. shoots newspaper owner in front of State House. (2014, August 4). Wis News 10.
J.H. Tillman for Congress; Man Acquitted of Killing Editor Gonzales Announces Candidacy. (1904, March 16). The New York Times.
Kantrowitz, S. (2015). Ben Tillman and the reconstruction of white supremacy. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press Books.