The 1903 Tillman-Gonzales Affair: South Carolina’s “Crime of the Century”

Monument to N. G. Gonzales

In the shadow of the South Carolina State House stands a monument. Most that pass it each day on this busy street corner in Columbia are perhaps unaware for whom the monument was erected more than a century ago or that this monument is the final chapter to a long running feud between two men fueled by their polarizing political ideologies and personalities. Narciso Gener Gonzales, S.C.’s most celebrated newspaper editor at the turn of the 20th century, was shot  in broad daylight and killed by Lt. Governor James H. Tillman on the afternoon of January 15, 1903. Deemed the “Crime of the Century” in S.C., the trial received national news coverage, and is one of the most interesting episodes in Columbia, South Carolina history.

The two men, Gonzales and Tillman, represented two political camps that had wrestled for power for almost three decades in S.C. The son of the Cuban Revolutionary and Confederate officer Ambrosio Gonzales and Harriet Rutledge Elliott, a member of S.C.’s planter class, Gonzales identified politically and socially with the Bourbons, elites who had ruled S.C. prior to the Civil War. When Reconstruction ended with the election of the Bourbon party’s General Wade Hampton III in 1876 as governor and U.S. Senator in 1879, a new political party arose when middle class white voters sought a previously unattainable seat at the political table. This new party, called the Farmer’s movement or Agrarian revolt, elected Benjamin “Pitchfork” Tillman governor in 189­0 and U.S. Senator in 1895. James H. Tillman, a news reporter and later a politician himself, was Ben Tillman’s nephew.

N. G. Gonzales

N.G. Gonzales, with his two brothers, founded The State newspaper in Columbia in 1891, after having worked many years as a correspondent to the Charleston News and Courier and other S.C. papers. The State quickly gained recognition as a quality news source and was one of the largest newspapers in S.C. by the turn of the 20th century. Gonzales was known for his acerbic wit and brilliant rhetoric, but he also gained a reputation for an overly earnest self-righteousness in his writings. His infamous editorials were often characterized as bombastic and scathing indictments of South Carolina politicians serving in Congress and at the State House. A long running political badinage occurred for years between Ben Tillman and N. G. Gonzales over major issues of the day. Ben Tillman described The State as “that rattlesnake down on Main Street” and claimed that “Gonzales has dished out more malice and hatred than any other man in the State except [of course] myself.”[1] He also magnanimously replied once that “he had always given Gonzales credit for being honest and straightforward and a man with backbone and principle, though he is my enemy.”[2] Gonzales published a recurring biblical themed column which satirized Tillman’s governance in the Old Testament prosaic character of Benjamin the Tillmanite. He repeatedly described Tillman with unkind adjectives like “blackguard, blatherskite, buffoon, and an intemperate demagogic accident” and often blithely added that “those who lived by the pitchfork would fall under the harrow.”[3]

James H. Tillman

When Jim Tillman came on the political scene, Gonzales was equally ungenerous with the nephew of his political rival, Ben Tillman. Jim Tillman referred to Gonzales as “that Spaniard” and “the Cuban pony” and Gonzales in turn labeled him as “Tillman the Little” and lambasted Tillman for his reputation as a “liar, defaulter, gambler, and drunkard.”[4] Years of acrimony between the two culminated around 1902. After a brawl on the floor of the U.S. Senate between Uncle Ben Tillman and fellow S.C. Senator John McLaurin, President Teddy Roosevelt slighted Ben Tillman and in turn nephew Jim Tillman withdrew an official invitation to President Roosevelt on a planned visit to the state, later smoothed over by Gonzales’ younger brother Willie.  This same year, Lt. Gov. Tillman while presiding over the Senate, overruled a motion in the Senate as non-debatable. Some requested he seek a higher opinion from Congressional leaders who advised that he rescind his decision. Tillman, instead, lied and reported that the higher opinion had sustained his original ruling. Outraged, Gonzales castigated Tillman in The State pointing to this incident as yet another example of Tillman’s low character when he ran for governor that year. Jim Tillman lost the gubernatorial race, handily, in the fall of 1902.

On a brisk January 15, 1903, Gonzales strode up Main Street from his office heading home for lunch. As he approached the corner of Main and Gervais Streets, across the street from the SC State House, he happened to encounter his political rival, James H. Tillman who was serving his last few days in office as Lieutenant Governor of S.C. The Lt. Governor and a few of his colleagues in the General Assembly were also going to lunch while the Senate recessed. As Gonzales passed the three men, without apparent provocation from eyewitnesses, Tillman withdrew a Luger pistol and shot Gonzales once in the belly. Gonzales fell to the ground and retorted “Shoot me again, you coward.” Gonzales perished from effects of the gunshot wound four days later.

Read the entire article here from the Watchman and Southron, September 30, 1903

Because Gonzales was so admired in Columbia, Tillman sympathizers claimed he wouldn’t get a fair trial in Columbia and  pulled strings to get the trial moved across the river to Lexington County. The trial took place in September and October of 1903. William Thurmond, whose son would become the future S.C. governor and one of the longest serving U.S. Senators in history, served as the state solicitor for the prosecution. Papers all over the country covered the Tillman trial in 1903, partly because Gonzales was so well-known but also because many journalists and editors were great admirers of Gonzales. The trial also raised an issue about freedom of the press and the safety of journalists, inferring that an acquittal in this case might portend open season on journalists.

Read the article in the Watchman and Southron, September 30, 1903

The proceedings of the case were followed closely by several national papers, as well as local papers like Sumter’s Watchman and Southron, a newspaper with clear sympathies for Gonzales. In the article to the left, the reporter printed an impassioned preamble to the trial written by John  Marshall of the News and Courier, which raised broader issues of the state of lawlessness and justice in S.C. at the time. “There are not found wanting who declare that verdicts in murder trials in South Carolina are a by-word and a laughing stock. It would be futile to  deny these things…it is their notorious verity that makes the present emergency so momentous. It is because they are true that the eyes of men are so riveted so keenly upon this Court, this jury, these lawyers, this trial. Therefore, is James H. Tillman guilty or not guilty? What say you?”

Read this article from the Watchman and Southron, October 7, 1903

The proceedings of the trial are outlined in this article, with descriptions of the examination and cross-examination of witnesses for the prosecution including Ambrose Gonzales, N.G.’s brother and business partner, two young boys who identified Tillman on the street the day of the shooting, members of legislature, the doctors who treated the dying Gonzales, James Hoyt who was Gonzales assistant editor and friend, and W.F. Steiglitz, a gunsmith who repaired the weapon used in the killing the day prior to the incident. Ambrose Gonzales was asked to read five months of editorials written by N.G. Gonzales during 1902 to show the “white-hot” nature of Gonzales’ editorials toward the defendant. The reporter concluded that “Traditions are to be reckoned with…the men who are to determine whether James H. Tillman is a murderer are Southern men [with] Southern mental processes. Their estimation of provocation is such as their neighbors hold now [and] their fathers before them. They have been taught that there are words more stinging than blows-that a man has to take good heed of his facts before he is justified in calling another a cur, or a coward, or a thief, or liar.” He added then “that it was essential for the State’s estimation that the men who are to pass in judgment upon Mr. Tillman’s deed should not be left under the impression that there was no more in the language applied to him by Mr. Gonzales than the words that blistered and burned.” In other words, that there was truth in Gonzales’ claims against Tillman.

Read this article from the Watchman and Southron, October 7, 1903

The trial at this point became heated. Testimony given by witnesses stated Gonzales was himself unarmed on the fateful day. Two witnesses friendly to Tillman, testified to the premeditated nature of the killing, in which Tillman had stated to a Mr. Terrell editor of the Johnston Monitor that he intended to be a candidate for Governor and that he was going “to go down to Columbia and kill Mr. Gonzales.” When Terrell returned that he should fight him rather than kill him, Tillman stated that “he would shoot him down like a mad dog without giving him a show.” Dr. Adams testified that he witnessed an occasion when Tillman sat and listened as someone read one of Gonzales’ fiery editorials speaking of Tillman’s conduct as “mock theatricals,” Tillman retorted that “Mr. Gonzales might call it what he wished but he [Tillman] would make it the God d–dest tragedy that ever happened in S.C.”

Read the article here in the Watchman and Southron, October 14, 1903

At this point, the State had rested and the Defense began its case. Jim Tillman took the stand and electrified the court room. “The nerves and brain of every man in sound or sight sprang to attention [when] the prisoner at the bar rose slowly to his great height, a little darker glow coming to his face, a little more set expression coming to his rugged features…striding forward deliberately to the clerk’s desk he took the oath and ascended the stand.” Tillman proceeded to give the history of his and Gonzales’ bitter relationship, beginning with his own forays into journalism, how he had been blackballed from admission to the prestigious South Carolina Club, how he had invited Gonzales to a dual over on one of the islands in the Savannah River to avoid the anti-dueling law in S.C., and various other grievances over the years.

Read this article here from the Watchman and Southron October 21, 1903

Outrageously, James H. Tillman was acquitted of the murder of N.G. Gonzales by the 12 man jury in Lexington County. The defense’s case that Gonzales’ ferocious indictments on Tillman’s character was just cause for the shooting seemed to resonate with many citizens. One can imagine the public outcry at the verdict by many of S.C.’s citizens who disagreed with such a verdict. Two such articles appeared in the October 21, 1903 issue of the Watchman and Southron, one an indignant letter to the editor by one W. McPheeters, and another titled “Out, damned spot!” by Dr. C. C. Brown. Dr. Brown sums the whole affair with these words. “And yet to go free, after all, is not much now! Ah, whither shall I free from hell. Myself am hell! The genius of history sits with his quill in a nerveless hand, and will write a true record at last and he will put the story down so that no man can challenge it.”

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.

[1] Jones, L. P. (1973).  Stormy Petrel: N. G. Gonzales and His State. Columbia, S.C.: USC Press, Tri-centennial Studies, No. 8, p. 223.

[2] Jones, L. P. (1973).  Stormy Petrel: N. G. Gonzales and His State. Columbia, S.C.: USC Press, Tri-centennial Studies, No. 8, p. 229.

[3] Jones, L. P. (1973).  Stormy Petrel: N. G. Gonzales and His State. Columbia, S.C.: USC Press, Tri-centennial Studies, No. 8, p. 230.

[4] (2006). James H. Tillman. In Walter Edgar. Editor. South Carolina Encyclopedia (p.962-963). Columbia, S.C.: USC Press.

Photographs:

Gonzales monument. Photo taken by the author.

N.G. Gonzales. Courtesy of Google images, latinamericanstudies.org.

Jim Tillman. Courtesy of Google images, find-a-grave.com.

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