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South Carolina Politics

Mark Powell’s Palmetto Past & Present: ‘Print, Shout, Shoot’

That time a South Carolina politician killed a journalist …

Welcome to Palmetto Past & Present, a column from our newest contributor, J. Mark Powell. Be on the lookout for future installments in the weeks to come.

A legendary feud is being renewed as the 125th General Assembly gavels to order this week at the State House in downtown Columbia, South Carolina. It pits members of the Second Estate (government officials) against the Fourth Estate (the press). The two have been going at it nonstop ever since South Carolina’s first newspaper hit the streets in 1732. Like mistrustful spouses in a bad marriage, each keeps a suspicious eye on the other.

Once, that bad blood resulted in actual bloodshed. If you think things are toxic today, you should have seen what happened a century ago. To put it in modern terms, imagine lieutenant governor Pamela Evette gunning down Brian Tolley, editor of The State newspaper. And doing it in downtown Columbia, no less.

Sound farfetched? That’s exactly what happened in January 1903.

The roots of the quarrel stretched back a dozen years earlier. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman was a late 19th-century political powerhouse. He got his nickname by saying he would use a pitchfork to prod “that bag of beef,” the portly U.S. president Grover Cleveland, into adopting Tillman’s push for populist agrarian reforms to help poor farmers.

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In 1891, just two months into Tillman’s term as governor, three brothers founded The State. Ambrose, Narciso (N.G.), and William Gonzales had worked for Charleston’s News and Courier. They sided with the Democratic Party faction that bitterly opposed Tillman’s policies in general and the governor personally.

Tillman was famous (some say notorious) for his full-throated, take-no-prisoners attacks on opponents. The State’s editorials written by N.G. paid him back in kind. For example, they referred to one of his mouthpieces, The Piedmont Headlight in Spartanburg, as “the Lighthead.” On issue after issue, the paper and governor disagreed. If Tillman was for it, The State was against it. And vice versa, each attacking the other in virulent terms. (Readers, it should be noted, gleefully lapped it up).

Tillman went on to become a U.S. senator and The State continued to oppose him. The animosity carried over to Tillman’s young nephew as well.

James H. Tillman made the most of his family connections. Trained as a lawyer and admitted to the state bar, he instead took up the pen and began rebutting N.G.’s fiery editorial attacks on his uncle in equally highly combustible language. He also had deep personal flaws: A gambling addiction, a love of the public limelight, and an intimate familiarity with the business end of a bottle.

After a stint commanding a South Carolina regiment in the 1898 Spanish-American War (the “splendid little war”), he returned home to Edgefield County and quickly got on the political fast track.

(Click to view)

Ben Tillman‘s statue on the grounds of the S.C. State House (Travis Bell Photography)

His family name and the trademark Tillman bombastic style got him elected South Carolina’s 64th lieutenant governor in 1900 just barely past age 30. The governor’s office appeared within reach.

Until Gonzales got him in his editorial crosshairs …

The editor laid it on thick and juicy, pulling no punches as he went after the nephew with the same ferocity it had used on the uncle, calling the younger Tillman “a proven liar, gambler, and drunkard.”

The relentless attacks ultimately took their toll. James Tillman went down in flames in the 1902 Democratic gubernatorial primary (which back then was tantamount to winning November’s general election). Finishing a distant fourth in a five-candidate race, it was a stunning setback for an emerging Palmetto political dynasty.

Tillman took it hard, grew increasingly bitter, and — presumably — increasingly drunk. He blamed Gonzales, and Gonzales alone, for his defeat.

Things came to a lethal conclusion on a blustery cold Thursday afternoon early in 1903. The two men ran into each other on the corner of Main and Gervais Streets in Columbia on January 15. Tillman pulled out a gun and shot the unarmed Gonzales in the waist in broad daylight. Bleeding profusely, the editor looked at Tillman and reportedly said, “shoot again, you coward.”

Gonzales was eventually taken to a hospital where he died four days later.

Tillman’s trial made national news. He invoked the rather dubious claim of self-defense, arguing since Gonzales’ hands were in his coat it had seemed he was reaching for a gun. The jury, which some Gonzales supporters believed was tampered with, found Tillman not guilty.

That’s right: Tillman got away with murder.

The damage was done, though. Though his uncle remained in the U.S. Senate, James Tillman’s political career was shattered beyond repair. He retired from public life and died a broken man of tuberculosis just eight years later.

A monument to Gonzales today stands on Senate Street across from the Statehouse, located on the path the editor took each evening while walking home from work.

Though seldom visited today, it’s a silent reminder of the power of words set in print and spoken on the air, of the impact those words can have on public discourse, and of the enduring feud between politicians and the press that shows no sign of ending anytime soon.         

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Mark Powell (Provided)

J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at mark@fitsnews.com.

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1 comment

Sounds Good January 11, 2023 at 10:09 am

I wonder if we could dig up James Tillman so he could deal with the present day communists who have infested The State for decades.

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