Lieutenant governor. Born on June 27, 1868, in Clarks Hill (now McCormick County), Tillman was the son of George D. Tillman and Margaret Jones. After his education at Georgetown University, Tillman read law in Winnsboro and was admitted to the bar in 1891. Instead of the law, however, Tillman pursued journalism and began writing for the Winnsboro News and Herald. Writing under the name “Fair Play,” Tillman countered the attacks of Narciso G. Gonzales, editor of the State newspaper in Columbia and one of the state’s most ardent critics of Tillman’s uncle, U.S. Senator Benjamin “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman. From 1893 to 1894 Tillman also served as a correspondent for the Atlanta Constitution and the Columbia Journal. He married Mamie Norris on June 25, 1896. They had one daughter.
Arrogant, bombastic, and a notorious drinker and gambler, Tillman nevertheless rose to political prominence during the 1890s. He was active in the state militia and commanded one of South Carolina’s regiments that served in the Spanish-American War in 1898. That same year Edgefield County elected Tillman as a delegate to the South Carolina Democratic convention. Appealing to racial prejudices and capitalizing on his family name, Tillman was elected lieutenant governor in 1900. Soon afterward, however, he would again cross swords with Gonzales.
In 1902 Tillman ran for governor of South Carolina, a campaign that Gonzales and the State opposed with a series of scathing newspaper reports denouncing the candidate. The State referred to Tillman as “a proven liar, defaulter, gambler and drunkard.” Gonzales accused Tillman (with just cause) of falsifying Senate records, disgraceful military conduct, and fiscal improprieties. When Tillman refused to invite President Theodore Roosevelt to visit South Carolina because Roosevelt had refused to invite his uncle to a state dinner, Gonzales castigated the lieutenant governor’s “boorishness.” Disgraced before the public, Tillman was defeated in his campaign for governor, a defeat he blamed on “the brutal, false and malicious newspaper attacks headed by N. G. Gonzales.”
The Tillman-Gonzales feud ended on January 15, 1903. As the two men passed each other on the sidewalk at the corner of Main and Gervais Streets in Columbia, Tillman pulled out a pistol and shot the unarmed Gonzales once through the abdomen. The editor staggered back to his office and then was taken to Columbia Hospital, where he died on January 19. Tillman was arrested and charged with murder. His defense team succeeded in having his trial moved from Columbia (where the martyred editor was revered) to Lexington County (a center of pro-Tillman support). The trial opened on September 28, 1903. Tillman’s lawyers argued that their client was not guilty on grounds of self-defense, claiming that Gonzales, whose hands were in his pockets at the time of the attack, had moved them in a menacing way before Tillman shot him. The defense also introduced editorials from the State as evidence that such inflammatory attacks justified Tillman’s actions. Such arguments found favor with the pro-Tillman jury. On October 15, 1903, it brought in a verdict of not guilty, ruling that the shooting was self-defense. The state and national press condemned Tillman and the “farce” of his trial.
Tillman retired from public life disgraced and in poor health. He died in Asheville, North Carolina, on April 1, 1911, and was buried in Edgefield.
Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate, 1776–1985. 3 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.
Jones, Lewis P. Stormy Petrel: N. G. Gonzales and His State. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1973.
Sewell, Michael. “The Gonzales-Tillman Affair: The Public Conflict of a Politician and a Crusading newspaper Editor.” Master’s thesis, University of South Carolina, 1967.