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.
The Other Place at Trustus Theatre
Juliana Smithton is a successful neurologist whose life seems to be coming unhinged. A mystery unfolds as fact blurs with fiction, past collides with present and the elusive truth of Juliana’s mental health boils to the surface in The Other Place, running at Trustus Theatre October 17th through November 1st. There will be a talk-back following the matinee on October 19th. Tickets can be purchased here or by calling the box office at 803-254-9732.
3LAU on Sunday, October 26th and the Unofficial Skrillex Mothership Tour After-Party on the 27th. More information and tickets for both can be found here. VIP tables available.
Four Miles, Twelve Doughnuts
Winston’s Wish aims to increase knowledge and understanding of children with autism, and you can help by participating in the 4.donut Race on October 25th. Start at Edventure Children’s Museum, run 2 miles to Krispy Kreme, eat 12 doughnuts, and run back! Registration is required and can be done here before October 23rd at 5 p.m.
King Lear in Finlay Park
October 16th-18th and 22nd-25th, the South Carolina Shakespeare Company presents William Shakespeare’s King Lear. All performances held at the Finlay Park Ampitheatre at 7:30 PM. For tickets and more information, click here or call 803-665-2000.
Bluegrass, Bidding, and BBQ
Join The Palladium Society Thursday, October 23rd from 7-10 p.m. for its 11th annual silent auction, featuring music by The Mustache Brothers and catering by Bourbon and The Oak Table. Tickets are $30 at the door and include admission, drinks, and food. Get yours online now!
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Cupcake now hiring a closing manager. Must be outgoing, customer service focused, able to work evenings and weekends. Apply in person. 1213 Lincoln Street, Columbia SC 29201. freshcupcakes.com
U.S. Security Associates
Now hiring immediately for armed and unarmed security officers. WE TRAIN YOU! Columbia & surrounding areas. ussecurityassociates.com