Getting away with murder

The turn-of-the century political scandal that rocked South Carolina

South Carolina has seen its share of notorious murders and subsequent trials, but none rocked the political and publishing worlds quite like the 1903 murder of Columbia newspaper editor N.G. Gonzales by the Palmetto State’s lieutenant governor, James Tillman.

“This was a dramatic clash between revered and important values of that time,” said James Lowell Underwood, Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Constitutional Law at the School of Law. “On the one hand was the Southern male concept of honor, which doesn’t focus on honesty and integrity and living up to one’s word so much as it focuses on one’s public image. On the other hand was the sanctity of human life and freedom of the press.”

Underwood’s 12th book, “Deadly Censorship: Murder, Honor, and Freedom of the Press,” covers the scandal in depth and has been described as “the definitive examination of the true story of an epic South Carolina murder trial that shocked the nation.”

“Journalists at that time were getting rough treatment,” Underwood said, citing similar stories of newspaper editors and reporters who were shot and killed during that era. “But they were giving rough treatment in kind. Their articles were very personalized in their writing, and their stories were frequently ad hominem attacks.”

Gonzales and his brother Ambrose founded The State newspaper in 1891 to support a number of progressive causes and to oppose the regime of outspoken militant segregationist Benjamin “Pitchfork” Tillman, governor of South Carolina from 1890 to 1894. Tillman’s nephew James was elected lieutenant governor in 1900, and his similar platform and political mudslinging made him a target for Gonzales as well.

James Tillman’s problems with drinking and gambling were no secret, and they were frequent topics of Gonzales’ editorials. Underwood described one piece by Gonzales in The State that offered a sarcastic response to criticism of Tillman for betting on cockfights instead of attending to the duties of his office.

“The piece basically said, ‘Oh, he wasn’t gambling. In gambling, you have to have something of value. All Tillman was wagering was his reputation, and nobody would claim that was anything of value,’” Underwood said. When Tillman unsuccessfully ran for governor in 1902, he blamed Gonzales’ unflattering coverage in The State for his loss.

“Gonzales was a good newspaper man, but he didn’t have a sense of proportion sometimes,” Underwood said. “His former editor at The (Charleston, S.C.) News and Courier had even cautioned him that there was a better way to express himself, saying that criticism was fine, but he didn’t have to do it with such relish and venom.”

By the afternoon of Jan. 15, 1903, Tillman had had enough. He walked out of the Senate chambers for lunch, spotted Gonzales at the corner of Main and Gervais streets, and approached and shot him in the stomach. Gonzales died four days later. Tillman was arrested and reporters from around the country descended on the area to cover the proceedings. Tillman argued that he was forced to defend his honor after the negative press he had received from Gonzales. After a three-week trial, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.

“Deadly Censorship: Murder, Honor, and Freedom of the Press” delves deep into the long-running animosity between Gonzales and Tillman that led to the shooting, the political and legal wrangling surrounding the trial, and the societal mores that led the jury to find it acceptable for one man to murder another in defense of honor. Underwood says he enjoyed researching and writing the book because he found it to be an exciting drama, with some intriguing trial strategy that those with an interest in the law will enjoy. But because the book doesn’t get lost in technicalities, it makes an interesting read for non-lawyers, as well. It has received many favorable reviews, including in American Journalism and Columbia Journalism Review.

Ironically, despite the fact that Tillman killed Gonzales in a bid to restore his honor, he never participated in politics again. He left South Carolina for California before eventually settling in Asheville, N.C., where he died from tuberculosis on April 1, 1911. The surviving Gonzales brothers, still upset over their brother’s murder, all but dismissed any legacy Tillman might have had. The announcement they ran in The State was just one sentence: “Asheville, N.C., April 1: James H. Tillman, a one-time lieutenant governor of South Carolina, died here tonight.”

Underwood’s book was published in December 2013 by the University of South Carolina Press and is the culmination of nearly eight years of work that included archival research at the South Caroliniana Library, The State newspaper and the Library of Congress, as well as personal manuscript collections at Duke, Clemson and UNC Chapel Hill. It is available in ebook and hardcover formats from USC Press, and Barnes and Noble.

Click here to listen to Underwood discuss the book on the ETV Radio program, “Walter Edgar’s Journal.”