January 1903: Lt. Gov. shoots newspaper owner in front of State - WTOC-TV: Savannah, Beaufort, SC, News, Weather & Sports

January 1903: Lt. Gov. shoots newspaper owner in front of State House

N.G. Gonzales memorial monument, Columbia, SC N.G. Gonzales memorial monument, Columbia, SC
COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) -

Every day, thousands of people pass the intersection of Gervais and Main Streets, but they probably don't realize it was the scene of a politically-driven homicide. Some would call it murder.

On January 13, 1903, Narcisco Gener Gonzales, who founded The State Newspaper with his two brothers, was on his way home for lunch from the newspaper office on Main Street.

"The State Newspaper was founded as an anti-Tillman organ, to let voters know there  is corruption, there are different ways at looking at what they were being told, which is what a newspaper should be doing," said historian and author Alexia Jones Helsley. Her book, Wicked Columbia, Vice and Villainy in the Capital, features stories of the city's more sordid past.

Ben Tillman was governor of South Carolina at the time.  His term was filled with controversy.

"He left his office and headed toward the corner here on Gervais Street, speaking to people en route, and about the same time, the South Carolina Senate adjourned, which Lt. Governor James Hammond Tillman presided over," Helsley said.  The Lt. Governor was nephew to Governor Ben Tillman.

Months earlier, Gonzales called the Lt. Governor a "debauchee," "blackguard," "criminal" and "liar" as he ran in the primary for the Governor's race.

"Gonzales never got to the corner," she said. "When Tillman and the senators passed Gonzales, who had on an overcoat because it was January, the Lt. Governor just pulled a pistol and shot the man in the abdomen."

Gonzales died four days later.

Newspapers across the country reported the incident. It's not often the Lt. Governor of a state shoots a prominent newspaperman on the street, in front of dozens of witnesses.

"He took the position that if Gonzales hadn't been armed, he should have been," Helsley said.

But despite the facts, prosecutors delayed charging Tillman. In one of those coincidences of South Carolina History, Strom Thurmond's father was the solicitor on the case.

"The Tillmans put together a very powerful defense team that lobbied to have the trial moved from Columbia, saying it wouldn't be fair," Helsley said. "They moved the trial to Lexington, which at that time was more rural, so the residents were more favorable to Tillman's policies than they thought those in Columbia could have been."

After eight days of deliberation, the jury acquitted Tillman. His victory was short-lived. Tillman died in 1911.

But he lived to see a monument erected in 1905 to honor Gonzales, called "A martyr to free speech in South Carolina." The obelisk still stands at the end of Senate Street where it intersects with Sumter Street, across from the State House.

"There are not many monuments in the United States to newspaper editors," Helsley said. "We have one in Columbia."

Click here for more information on Helsley and her books.

Copyright 2014 WIS. All rights reserved.

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