This morning I was on Tom Finneran’s Boston radio show for the second time this week (Tom is the former speaker of the Massachusetts House; I met him in Key West last week), and was asked what the nation should make of the roar of approval that Newt Gingrich got last night when he blamed the media for bringing to light his second ex-wife’s allegations.
I explained that historically, the media got off light on that one. Playing to resentment to those “nattering nabobs of negativism” in the media is of course an old Republican pasttime across the country. But in South Carolina, it can get you everywhere.
Getting away with asking for an open marriage is nothing. This is a ploy that will enable you to get away with murder.
So I regaled the Boston audience with the tale of N.G. Gonzales and James H. Tillman. Most of you know the story, but for those who don’t…
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.
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’.
Early in 2003, a number of events were held to mark the centennial of Gonzales’ murder. At one point, Solicitor Donnie Myers, an avid student of the case, was asked to present his popular lecture on the subject to employees of The State. I introduced him, and stood to the side as he enthusiastically launched into it.
At the critical point in the narrative, channeling Tillman, Donnie reached dramatically into his briefcase and, pulling out a .45 automatic pistol, brandished it menacingly in my direction. Me being the editor.
I grinned at him, enjoying his act (I had seen it before). But our then-publisher, Ann Caulkins, who admitted to a greater-than-usual fear of firearms of all sorts, practically gasped aloud. She later admitted that for a split second there, she actually feared the solicitor was going to shoot me.
If that had happened, it wouldn’t have been the first time.