Bitter S.C. feud led to 1903 'crime of the century'
State newspaper founder N.G. Gonzales died at hands of former Lt. Gov. James Tillman
By JOHN MONK
The day 100 years ago an assassin gunned him down on a Columbia
street, newspaper editor N.G. Gonzales was feeling fine - a passer-by described
as "particularly pleased with something" - and he was hungry.
He was feeling fine because his newspaper, The State, was perhaps
South Carolina's most respected daily. Gonzales, 44, was the state's best-known
and most controversial - journalist. His favorite for governor in the 1902 election had won.
And Gonzales was hungry because it was just before 2 p.m.
That was the usual hour he left The State offices, then at 1220 Main St., to walk home for lunch.
What would be different this day - Jan. 15, 1903 - is the unarmed Gonzales encountered by chance a bitter enemy, Lt. Gov. James Tillman.
At 34, Tillman was one of the state's best-known politicians. A large man, he had "feverish black eyes, a strong face and long raven hair," a historian noted.
That day, Tillman carried two concealed pistols - a .38-caliber revolver and a long-barreled German Luger.
People had warned Gonzales about Tillman, but the feisty editor brushed off the warnings. The two had a long-running feud.
Besides, both were aggressive men who didn't shrink from confrontation.
Gonzales once was the only man to volunteer to meet a violent outlaw. In
youth, he was known for becoming righteously indignant and goading others into arguments or fights. Tillman was known for his fistfights and liked to brag
about his prowess.
The previous year, Gonzales had crusaded - in language far harsher than any used today - against Tillman when he ran for governor.
Among Gonzales' words for Tillman: liar, drunkard, debaucher, gambler and criminal.
Those charges were largely true, say historians who have examined the record.
During the governor's race, Tillman - a lawyer and former journalist - bragged Gonzales' crusade would backfire.
But in September 1902, Tillman finished a pathetic fourth in the governor's race. Gonzales' candidate, D. Clinch Heyward, won.
From then on, Tillman stewed in a rage. He carried with him copies
of Gonzales' editorials. If he were to meet Gonzales, Tillman hinted to
his wife, he might
wind up in the penitentiary.
These days, most politicians accept defeat with outward grace.
But that was an era when a man's honor was sacred and sometimes furiously defended.
Dueling had been outlawed in the 1880s, but South Carolina had
a "culture of violence" where guns were commonplace. In the 1890s, South
three times as many murders - most by whites on whites - as all the New England states combined.
Fueling Tillman's anger was the sense his family background entitled
him to the governor's post - the state's highest office. His father, George
a congressman. His uncle, "Pitchfork Ben," was a U.S. senator and former governor.
'SHOOT AGAIN, YOU COWARD'
On Jan. 15, 1902, thanks in part to Gonzales, Tillman was a lame duck lieutenant governor - soon to be jobless.
Then, as now, the lieutenant governor presided over the S.C. Senate.
Shortly before 2 that afternoon, Tillman finished presiding. With state Sens. Tom Talbird of Beaufort and George Brown of Darlington, he walked downtown.
At the same time, Gonzales left The State's Main Street office. He had just approved the final version of what would be his last editorial - a piece on Cuba.
Not much dispute exists about what happened:
Gonzales - a small, slender man - approached the corner of Main and Gervais.
At the same time, Tillman and the senators crossed Gervais toward
the Main Street corner that Gonzales was approaching. It was cold; the
editor had his
hands in his coat pockets.
Gonzales stepped to the sidewalk's inside to avoid the three.
Tillman pulled the Luger and fired at Gonzales, just feet away.
It was a quick move, with no warning.
The editor staggered. He didn't fall. An autopsy would find the
bullet entered between his right nipple and naval, chopped through intestines
and exited his
left front. The bullet was later found on the sidewalk.
Tillman kept his gun pointed at Gonzales, but didn't fire a second time. He spoke to the editor.
A witness, fruit stand vendor Arledge Lyles, was close enough to hear. He said Tillman said, "You will let me alone now."
Gonzales would later say, before he died, that Tillman told him, "I'm taking you at your word."
With the blood pouring from his wound, Gonzales said, "Shoot again, you coward."
Tillman wiped his pistol on his coat sleeve and walked away.
Within minutes, police hustled him to jail, where he was treated
like a guest of honor. He was given a room with a bed, a table, five chairs
washstand. Admirers sent him congratulatory telegrams, and he had as many cigars as he could smoke. An oak fire in a fireplace warmed him.
Gonzales spent the next four days in a hospital, surrounded by doctors. His wife of two years, Lucie Barron Gonzales, was at his side.
The shooting made headlines in South Carolina and around the nation. Most papers expressed outrage, praising Gonzales and condemning Tillman.
Some criticized Gonzales. "We cannot avoid thinking that he is himself to blame," wrote the Mobile Register.
The New York Times used the occasion to make an observation on
South Carolina's racial culture. The Times noted that when a black South
recently had killed a sheriff, a white mob shot the black man dead and burned his body.
"But when Tillman shot Gonzales ‘.‘.‘. no little army gathered
to inflict justice of any kind, and the present indications are that even
the law will fail to punish
the white assassin," The Times wrote.
Meanwhile, in great pain, Gonzales neared death. Doctors tried experimental treatments. But infection set in.
Just after noon on Jan. 19, 1903, Gonzales died of gangrene.
The Knoxville Sentinel wrote: "Instead of erecting a monument
to Gonzales, the state of South Carolina would win more credit for itself
by erecting a
gallows to the murderer."
Ambrose Gonzales, N.G. Gonzales' brother and The State's publisher,
wrote a public note saying, "With heavy hearts his work is taken up by
loved him well, and in his name The State is pledged anew to the principles for which he gave his life."
To blunt charges of favoritism, The State hired reporters from other papers to cover the shooting and its aftermath.
On Jan. 21, 1903, some 1,500 mourners attended a service at Trinity
Episcopal church, across from the State House. Only former S.C. Gov. Wade
a Confederate hero who died in 1902, had had a larger funeral at the time.
The shooting was just the beginning.
"This was the crime of the century in South Carolina, and it
would lead to the trial of the century," said Donnie Myers, longtime S.C.
prosecutor who has
studied the incident and often gives talks on it.
The trial didn't start until September. Meanwhile, many reflected on Gonzales and his life.
Although his name was decidedly un-South Carolinian, Narciso Gener Gonzales was South Carolinian in temperament and lineage.
He was born in 1858 on Edisto Island. His mother, Harriet Rutledge
Elliott Gonzales, was a member of South Carolina's white slave-owning aristocracy.
father was Ambrosio Gonzales, a leader in the first revolution for Cuban independence.
N.G., as he was called, was named for two Cuban patriots. As
a child, he read avidly and liked to test himself - telling people to put
him to bed in the dark,
for example, because he didn't need the light.
Because of the Civil War and his family's resulting financial straits, N.G. never got a formal education. But he had a knack for educating himself.
He became a journalist by accident. While a young telegraph operator
in Hampton County, he began writing stories for the Charleston News &
now the Post & Courier. He became Columbia legislative correspondent, then Washington correspondent.
Today, a reporter covering Congress or the Legislature is expected
to be objective. But in that era, it was normal for reporters - and newspapers
blatantly favor one faction or the other.
During the 1880s and 1890s, Gonzales was a supporter of the old
S.C. aristocracy - the class of former slave owners and gentry that began
and fought the
That era also saw the rise of a populist movement, led by "Pitchfork"
Ben Tillman of Edgefield County. Tillman represented poor farmers and used
speaking skills to criticize the gentry Gonzales supported.
Gonzales also was progressive. He advanced ideas that were liberal
for the time: He opposed forcing children to work in mills, defended labor
battled the convict leasing system, opposed lynching and backed school reforms, including educating blacks.
Those ideas pitted Gonzales against Ben Tillman, who preached lynching blacks and sought to put them into a status only slightly above slavery.
In 1890, Gonzales - then Columbia correspondent for the News
& Courier - worked against and wrote critically about Ben Tillman,
then running for
governor. Tillman won.
COMPETING POLITICAL FACTIONS
In response, Gonzales, his brother, Ambrose, and other anti-Tillman
activists raised money to create The State. On Feb. 18, 1891, the first
edition rolled off
the press in downtown Columbia. As The State does today, it had the palmetto tree on its masthead.
By 1902, The State had weathered tough times and forced some
major competitors out of business. Historians say it was the state's most
- a testimony to its state capital location, as well as to the energies of Gonzales.
By 1902, Ben Tillman was a U.S. senator. His in-state political heir was his nephew, Lt. Gov. James Tillman.
Gonzales took issue with James Tillman's politics.
In particular, he was incensed that James Tillman publicly had
insulted President Teddy Roosevelt in early 1902. Gonzales idolized Roosevelt.
Rough Riders had helped free his beloved Cuba, and Gonzales couldn't forgive James Tillman's insult.
From then on, Gonzales investigated Tillman's questionable actions and wrote about them.
So, on one level, the shooting of Gonzales by Tillman was an event between two men who despised each other.
On another level, it was a showdown between representatives of that era's two most powerful political movements.
THURMOND, BYRNES AND NELSON
The trial that began Monday, Sept. 23, 1903, is said to have
been the most sensational trial ever held in South Carolina. Before the
trial, Tillman's lawyers
won two victories.
They had the trial moved across the river to Lexington - a community
full of Tillman supporters and Gonzales critics. And the trial judge, Frank
Gary, was a
One story - never proven - has it that Tillman's allies sent a man to prospective jurors' houses to see whether they were pro-Tillman or pro-Gonzales.
The trial featured many of the state's best lawyers. The influence of some extended into the 20th century and beyond:
• William Thurmond, the prosecutor, was the father of former U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond and grandfather of U.S. Attorney Strom Thurmond Jr.;
• Jimmy Byrnes, who would become S.C. governor, U.S. senator,
U.S. Supreme Court justice and adviser to Franklin Roosevelt, was hired
by The State to
take dictation at the trial. Byrnes' verbatim texts were printed the next day in The State;
• Tillman's lawyers included Patrick Henry Nelson, founder of
the Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough law firm, today the state's
largest law firm. Another
Tillman lawyer was Cole Blease, a future S.C. governor and U.S. senator who became known for advocating lynching blacks from the halls of Congress.
During the trial, Tillman's lawyers stressed he acted in self-defense, claiming Tillman believed Gonzales was reaching in his pocket for a pistol.
Asked whether he saw Gonzales' pistol, Tillman testified: "I
thought I saw one where the hand went down in the pocket. ‘.‘.‘. I was
thinking he was going
to fire on me first. ‘.‘.‘. I certainly expected him to shoot me."
Closing arguments took 2½ days. The jury deliberated 20 hours. Two jurors held out for conviction, but gave in.
On Thursday, Oct. 15, 1903 - nine months to the day after Gonzales was shot - the verdict was announced: not guilty.
"The ghastly joke is ended," wrote the reporter covering the trial for The State. A headline declared, "The farce is ended. ‘.‘.‘. The cards were stacked."
On one level, Tillman's lawyers successfully argued self-defense, said Myers, the Lexington prosecutor who has studied the case.
But defense lawyers also read Gonzales' anti-Tillman editorials to the jury, Myers noted.
"What was really argued was that anybody who would write such
terrible things about a man needed to be killed, and Tillman was the right
man to kill
On Dec. 12, 1905, more than 2,000 people turned out to the dedication of a large granite obelisk to Gonzales.
Standing at Sumter and Senate streets, the Gonzales monument
is across from the S.C. Senate and the lieutenant governor's office, where
it is said to
keep an eye out for scoundrels.
Famed Southern editor Josephus Daniels wrote in the Raleigh,
N.C., News and Observer, "The people of South Carolina erected a monument
because he fought their battle and because he was the foe to public men who do not have the high conception of public office as a sacred trust."
At the monument's dedication, the Rev. Samuel Smith said the
granite shaft stands "perpetual ‘.‘.‘. pointing ever upward ‘.‘.‘. saying
to all who pass by: N.G.
Gonzales died on the field of honor."
The affair is a reminder of how things have changed.
Newspapers advocate in more balanced ways these days.
Violence against journalists is rare - in the United States.
However, in many countries, journalists still are killed. The Committee
to Protect Journalists notes
more than 300 journalists have been murdered in the past 10 years - mostly in unstable countries including Algeria and Colombia.
Gonzales family heirs sold The State newspaper to Knight Ridder in the mid-1980s.
Still, The State remains a force in S.C. life and politics.
Stories about the slaying and trial - possibly true, but for which there is little or no documentation - also still are told.
One story has it that journalist H.L. Mencken visited Columbia in the 1920s, read The State and didn't think much of it.
"Gonzales was the last editor there worth shooting," Mencken is said to have said.
Another story is that after the trial one of the Lexington jurors said, "Whoever heard of a jury anywhere convicting anyone of killing a newspaper man?"
Tillman never again held office. He died on April Fool's Day, 1911, in Asheville, N.C., and was buried in Edgefield. He was 42.
So far as can be determined from available records, The State did not note Tillman's passing.
His uncle, Ben Tillman, wrote in 1914 that James "had as many brains as any Tillman I ever knew, but could not control his passions."
"We were always brought up to be proud of him, and not ashamed,"
said Helen Tillman Nicholson Milliken, 52, a Columbia historian and James
great-granddaughter. "We wanted to believe he was defending the Tillman name."
Milliken has a sense of humor, adding, "I'd rather have something like that than a boring, dull family background."
In traveling the state, she said, she meets people who say Tillman was in the right. "It's almost like a cult of people who side with James Tillman."
Gonzales left no direct descendants. A daughter died in childbirth.
His widow died in 1936 at 65. However, descendants of the extended Gonzales
live in Columbia today.
'HERE WE ARE'
Some years ago, Alex Sanders - judge, college president and, most recently, unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate - was at a Christmas party in Columbia.
Sanders spotted children who were the descendants of the Tillman
and Gonzales families. He told them that one of their ancestors had murdered
other's ancestor. Then he said, "And here we are, years later, at a Christmas party."
The lesson, said Sanders, is that hate does not have to be passed through the generations.
This story was based on information from: "South Carolina, a
History," by Walter Edgar; "Stormy Petrel," by Lewis Jones; "Palmettos
and Oaks," by Robert
Pierce; "Fighting Words (The History of the Media in South Carolina)," by Patricia McNeely; and "The State," by S.L. Latimer Jr. News clippings and original
records at USC's Caroliniana Library, the Richland County library and The State's library also were consulted.