Friday, January 20, 2012

Gonzales recalled on 109th anniversary of his murder

A note for the state's history teachers and buffs among us: Brad Warthen exhumed the memory of Narciso G. Gonzales, co-founder of The State, on his blog today. Warthen has a modern-day anecdote to share, but the example of Gonzales is a powerful one about political power in its own right. After all, how many lieutenant governors of South Carolina have pre-meditatedly murdered an editor of The State newspaper, had their trials moved from Richland to Lexington in order to find more sympathetic juries, and been completely acquitted?

Only one, and the murderous lieutenant governor's name was James Tillman. If the name rings familiar, it should. Tillman was the nephew of "Pitchfork" Ben Tillman, former governor and sitting U.S. Senator at the time of his nephew's rampage on Gonzales.

Here's Warthen's take:

N.G. and his brother founded The State in 1891 for a specific purpose: to oppose the Ben Tillman machine. N.G. wrote the editorials, which lambasted the Tillmanites with a vehemence that would shock most newspaper readers in my lifetime, but which was par for the course in those days.

One of the targets of editorial vitriol was James H. Tillman, Ben’s nephew. James was the lieutenant governor, and aspired to be governor. N.G. wasn’t having it, and criticized him heavily during the 1902 campaign. Tillman lost. Not long after that, on January 15, 1903, N.G. was walking home for lunch. The newspaper office then was on Main St., and Gonzales had to turn the corner of Main and Gervais to get home. As he approached the corner, Tillman headed his way, coming from the Senate side of the State House with a couple of senators.

Tillman went straight up to Gonzales, drew a gun, and shot him in cold blood. He did this in the presence of many witnesses, including a policeman.

As N.G. fell, he cried, “Shoot again, you coward!” As one who inherited his mission of writing editorials for The State, I’ve always been proud of him for that.

He died four days later.

Cold blood.

And this happened at a time when "Gonzales" didn't necessarily carry the ethnic baggage that our immigrant-averse conservative society abhors today. Narciso's father had been a Cuban revolutionary against Spain -- which made him a military hero in America even before he attained the rank of Colonel in the Confederate army, protecting South Carolina.

And on his mother's side, Gonzales was bona fide South Carolina aristocracy: his mother Harriet was an Elliott, descended from Rutledges. (Note: The state department of education is found today in a structure called the Rutledge Building.) Long story short: Narciso Gonzales was somebody.

Warthen continues the tale:

Tillman was arrested and charged with the murder, of course, but the defense obtained a change of venue to the friendlier Lexington County. A strategy of self-defense was attempted, but didn’t seem to be getting anywhere. Then, the defense entered N.G.’s editorials into evidence.

The jury acquitted Tillman. The ostensible reason was self-defense, but since there was nothing to support that — Gonzales was unarmed and not threatening Tillman in any way — it has always been assumed that the jury let him off because the son-of-a-bitch editor had it comin’.

There are some more salient bits to that trial: The change of venue came thanks to the intervention of Senator "Pitchfork" Ben himself, who then attended one day of the trial, just to hold the farmers on the jury in awe -- and likely in fear. Tillman was still one of the most powerful men in government, and wasn't particularly attentive to scruples or to consistency of judgment. Pitchfork's somewhat sympathetic biographer, Francis Butler Simkins, quotes him saying, "Jim Tillman was my nephew, and blood is thicker than water." John Hammond Moore, in his book "Carnival of Blood," adds that Tillman's "jail quarters were soon outfitted with new furniture, books and other comforts..."

Simkins continues,

He tried to influence the verdict by attempting to create the belief that acquittal was inevitable and by unsuccessfully attempting to insert in a newspaper a fictitious interview by what he called a "suppositious citizen." He assisted in paying the expenses of the case and at the trial sat among the defense lawyers...

That's not all. Pitchfork's intercession was successful at getting a hand-picked judge to hear the case: Frank Gary, nephew of revered Confederate General Martin Gary, whose fame stems from declaring at Appomattox, "South Carolina does not surrender."

And how did South Carolinians, we who love virtue and despise injustice, react to Pitchfork's outrageous intervention and display?

We re-elected him, of course -- twice more -- to represent us in the U.S. Senate.

Want one more twist that isn't likely taught in our history books?

Tillman's prosecutor in the Gonzales murder trial was Solicitor John William Thurmond, new father of an infant named Strom, less than a year old.

And one more? John Hammond Moore explains,

Thurmond, it might be noted, had sought out Jim Tillman to defend him when he was charged with the murder of Willie Harris, a drug salesman, in March 1897. Now their roles were dramatically reversed. As solicitor, Thurmond was trying to convict the man who, only six years before, had saved him from prison and possibly even a trip to the gallows.

What a tangled web is our state's history.

More than just being somebody, Gonzales was beloved by Columbia. Moore writes that upon hearing of the editor's death,

Forty-eight hours later, businesses closed throughout the city and hundreds stood in the rain outside a packed Trinity Episcopal Church to pay tribute to Narciso Gonzales.

Another source adds,

Gonzales’ funeral that year was the largest ever, second only to the recent burial of Wade Hampton the year prior, and the outpouring of his colleagues and friends resulted in the monument to his memory in 1905. In granite, the words are etched, “A great editor, an eminent citizen, an honest man….the measure of success is not what we get out of life but what we leave after it.” It has been rumored that the monument, which stands at Senate and Sumter Streets, stands not at the site where Gonzales was murdered, but was placed in the path James H. Tillman normally took on his walk home from the State House, so that he would have to see Gonzales’ monument as a constant reminder of his misdeeds. Tillman died eight years later in Asheville, N.C. in 1911, it seems much diminished socially, politically, and personally after this affair.

You'll notice that the state did not erect a monument to this newspaper editor, this victim of political power on steroids, this martyr to free speech; his friends had to do it.

As for Pitchfork Ben, we have only to visit the State House grounds to see our state's reverie for him.

1 comment:

  1. In a state full of hard-to-believe tales, this one remains near the top. A well-done post.