When Killing the Editor was a Matter of Honor

By Charlie Nutt
Wednesday, January 22, 2014
Mayor Steve Benjamin generally has no kind words to say about Free Times political columnist Kevin Fisher, a frequent critic.

And Gov. Nikki Haley undoubtedly has days when she’s not happy with a news report or opinion piece on television or in a local newspaper.

But the rough and tumble business of politics today can’t hold a candle to the days when it was literally a blood sport. And the blood was right here on the streets of Columbia.

Consider the opening scene in James Lowell Underwood’s new book Deadly Censorship: Murder, Honor and Freedom of the Press.

It was Jan. 15, 1903, and South Carolina’s lieutenant governor, James H. Tillman, and two state senators had just left a legislative session in the State House and crossed Gervais Street. Coming down Main Street on his way home for lunch was Narciso G. Gonzales, the editor and co-founder of The State newspaper and the man whose writing Tillman blamed for his loss in the gubernatorial primary the previous year.

Without warning, Lt. Gov. Tillman drew a Luger pistol from his pocket and shot the unarmed Gonzales right there on the northeast corner of Gervais and Main. Gonzales died four days later.

At least as shocking was the outcome of Tillman’s trial (which drew heavy national attention) on a charge of murder: He was acquitted.

The trial had been moved across the river to Lexington County — considered “Tillman country” — and most of the all-male jurors were farmers. The jury — shown on the dust jacket of Underwood’s book — apparently bought into the idea that the lieutenant governor’s action was an honorable and appropriate response to the editor’s frequent insulting and belittling of Tillman in print.
“The two had been going at each other for the better part of 13 years,” Underwood said this month in discussing his book.

In the antebellum days, they might well have ended up fighting a duel. By the turn of the 19th century, dueling was out of favor in matters of personal honor, but “It was considered unmanly to go to court,” Underwood said. “You had to have some confrontation.”

In his book, which was just published by the University of South Carolina Press, Underwood looks at the story of the two central characters but also the nature of political comment in newspapers of the day.

It’s clear in the book that Underwood, a professor emeritus of constitutional law at USC, doesn’t sanction the slaying of a political critic, but the picture he paints is nuanced about what happened and why. He provides background about the character of the two men (Gonzales looked scholarly, but he was known to act violently too), he offers astute analysis of the prosecution and defense cases in a detailed review of the trial, and he shares insight into attitudes of personal honor in the South of that era.

Does Underwood see a political lesson for today in the Tillman-Gonzales relationship? In a limited way, yes, he said recently.

“You’re getting this polarity from the cable networks,” he said. “You fight to the death — in a political sense.”

Underwood will speak about his book from noon to 1 p.m. on Jan. 23 at the South Carolina State Library (1500 Senate St., 734-8666) as part of the free Speaker @ the Center series.

Let us know what you think: Email editor@free-times.com.

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