I am sure you have heard of “Tricky Dick” Nixon, and probably “Slick Willy” Clinton. But did you ever hear of President Martin Van “Ruin”, or President “Ruther-”fraud” B. Hays. I you ever did, you might also have heard about “Ten Cent” Jimmy Buchanan - who opined that a dime was a fair daily wage, and vetoed new colleges because “"there were already too many educated people -”. But I am pretty certain you have never heard of James William “Honest Dick” Tate, even if you are from Kentucky. But you ought to have.
Sans his nom de plume, there was nothing special about James Tate (above). He was of average height and average weight. His forehead was made large by his retreating jet-black hair line. But his bushy “coffee stainer” mustache was the fashion in his day. They adorned lots of upper lips. However, it did hide a down turned mouth, that perhaps hinted at the tragic death of his three year old son, Howard. Still his daughter, Edmonia Lloyd Tate, survived, as did his loving wife Lucy Hawkins Tate. Then in 1867, after 13 years in various appointed positions in Kentucky politics, the 36 year old James Tate had so “materially contributed, by his personal popularity, to the great success of the Democratic party" that he was elected State Treasurer.
The Treasurer was responsible for all funds collected in fees, permits, taxes, fines and rents, managed the state's bank accounts, paid state employees and dispensed benefits and verified and paid all bills. And it was during his campaign for the office that James William acquired his cognomen. But I cannot escape the suspicion “Honest Dick” Tate was not chosen by the party for his probity, but for his “popularity”. In fact it was Democratic Party supporters who actually bonded him, pledging their wealth as a guarantee of Tate's “rock sand honesty”, as required by law before he could assumed the position. But that guarantee was contingent upon other state officials verifying “Honest Dick's” work And there is no evidence anybody ever actually did that.
To the public, James “Honest Dick “Tate was an average man, making an average salary of $2,400 a year (barely $60,000 today), with perks worth perhaps a thousand dollars more. Jame's average unassuming home, at Second and Shelby Streets in Frankfort, cost all of $6,000 (about $100k today). In other words, just about average. But James was moving in powerful circles now, re-elected every two years for the next two decades. He was the “Treasurer for Life”, and it became known in Frankfort Democratic circles that should a politician need to borrow a few thousand dollars, as Governor Preston H. Leslie did in 1872, then “Honest Dick” would be happy to accept their IOU, and not be too bothersome about demanding prompt repayment. So amiable was “Honest Dick” that he had a safe filled with personal checks, cashed for Democratic friends, and drawn on public accounts, but never submitted for reimbursement.
James Tate also chased his own financial Eldorado, investing in land in Indiana, Virginia and Tennessee, along with several coal mines in Kentucky. However the land he bought does not appear to have appreciated in value, and the mines never seemed to produce enough coal to justify their purchase price. James also tried speculating in stocks and, it appears, when those investments failed, more direct forms of gambling. And like all gamblers, losing was just an excuse to risk more.
All of this was below the surface, while in the public view the 1878 “Biographical Encyclopedia of Kentucky” noted that “Honest Dick” Tate was “successively re-elected by popular majorities, perhaps exceeding those obtained by any other candidate for office in the State...it would seem that his lease on the office might be regarded as a fixed fact.” And in 1886, John McAfee described James Tate as the “trusted and honored treasurer” with an “unblemished record for probity and principle...(James) is held in high esteem, and his integrity and forbearance are regarded as of the highest order.”. But rumors must have been floating about Frankfort, because during the 1887 campaign for governor, the perennial second Kentucky party Republicans brought the issue to the surface.
The Republican candidate for Governor that year was the ex-prosecutor from Garrard County, orator William O'Connell Brady. Trying to find a sore spot during the first gubanetorial debate, Brady charged the Democrats had created unneeded extravagant new offices, like Railroad Commissioners and an Agricultural Bureau. And then, almost as an aside, Brady suggested the time was past due for an audit of “Honest Dick” Tate's books. The Republicans had no evidence, but the attack touched such a tender spot that after just one debate, ex-Confederate General and Democratic candidate Simon Bolivar Buckner, invented a reason to avoid any further debates.
Democrat Buckner defeated Republican Brady as Governor. But his 3 August 1887 victory margin was just 5 points. Brady had made the strongest Republican showing since the Civil War, and it scared the hell out of the Kentucky Democrats. In the same election, James “Honest Dick” Tate won re-election for the 11th time, by a margin of 67,000 votes, far more impressive than Governor Buckner's 16,712 vote margin. That made "Honest Dick" the strongest potential Democratic opposition to the new Governor.
It was that fall, that newly elected Democratic State Senator John Kerr Hendrick, an ex-prosecutor from Livingston County, called for a full audit of “Honest Dick” Tate's books. But James Tate said a family illness required his attention, and he needed a little time to get the records together. Senator Hendricks thought Tate was stalling, but the Governor agreed to put the audit off until the spring of 1888.
It was than that a change appeared in “Honest Dick's” modus operendi. Some on his staff noted cash deposits in the state's bank accounts slowed to a trickle. And, if any had noticed, he paid off in full a number of his personal debts. Then on Wednesday, 14 March, 1888, Henry Murray, a Treasury Clerk, noticed his boss in the office vault, filling two tobacco sacks with gold and silver coins, and an approximately 4 inch thick roll of paper money. Murray assumed the Treasurer was preparing to make a bank deposit. And even after “Honest Dick” was found to have slipped out of the office unseen, no one was alarmed. A note left on his desk informed the staff he was going to Louisville for two days. It caused little notice. Long time staffers knew better than to expect the boss to return to the office before Monday.
But “Honest Dick” did not return on Monday morning. A staffer dispatched to his home on Second Street, was told his wife Lucy had not heard from him since he left for Louisville, the previous Wednesday. Telegraphed inquires to the Ohio River town said the Treasurer was last seen on Friday evening at a bar, drinking heavily. Saturday, 17 March, he had been seen boarding a train for Cincinnati. After that, James “Honest Dick” Tate simply vanished. Newspapers would call it the “Great Kentucky Absconsion”.
The scene left behind told the story of a desperately disorganized personality. Staffers said it had always been that way. The account books seemed written in barely legible hieroglyphics, filled with post dated transactions, erasures, corrections, and indecipherable notations. The safe contained women's beaded bags and purses, and a satchel belonging to a dead infant. It was also brimming with $150,000 in IOUs and “cold checks” from $5 to $5,000, some going back ten years. No hard cash was left behind except for a bundle of $1,000 in $10 bills, found under the safe. How long it had laid there in the dust, no one could say.
In the afternoon of Tuesday, 20 March, 1888, the Speaker of the Kentucky House of Representatives, and the President of the state Senate, and the Secretary of State, received the following message: “It having been learned this morning that said James W. Tate has been absent from his ofﬁce since the 15th instant...there is in all probability a large deﬁcit in his public accounts...we by virtue of the authority vested in us...hereby suspend said James W. Tate...” It was signed “S. B. BUCKNER, Governor”. From this day forward, “Honest Dick” Tate would be referred to as “The Defaulting Treasurer.”.
George Willis, a Democratic spin doctor was left spinning. “Such flash of lightning and peal of thunder as was never heard before or since came out of clear sky and rocked the state and the Democratic party as nothing had done since the (Civil) war." Kentucky's state historian noted that “almost everyone was under suspicion either as an accomplice of Tate or because of owing the treasury money, and those who had borrowed money from the treasury were numerous.” Briefly, and perhaps for the first time in Kentucky history, the politicians were ashamed. The Governor was forced to make a personal loan just to keep the state afloat for awhile.
So inaccurate and confused was The Defaulting Treasurer's record keeping that it proved difficult to make an accurate account of the missing funds. And it was not in the interest of those with checks and IOU's in the safe to make an accurate accounting. A week later Governor Buckner announced the missing tally at approximately $247,128.50 (almost $6 million today). Within a week James “Honest Dick” Tate was impeached in absentia on six counts and removed from office, and then indicted by a grand jury. A reward of $5,000 was offered for his arrest. But the money was never claimed.
Luckily, daughter Edmomia had married a man named Martin, and was living free and clear in distant Kansas City, so the abandoned wife, Lucy, could live with her. She had to leave Frankfort because the state of Kentucky had seized the house and everything of value within it, all of Jame's bank and stock accounts, including 100 barrels of “Big Spring” bourbon whiskey – another bad investment by the “Defaulting Treasurer”.
The house, the whiskey, the investments, were sold at auction, and collected $50,000 (over $1 million today.) But that left the bond holders on the hook for the remaining $200,000 (about $5 million today). They paid, but thanks to a Kentucky Supreme Court decision in 1895, none of those who had authored checks or IOU's found in the safe were required to reimburse the bond holders. That judgement was marked “Not to be officially reported”, and sealed. Most of the names on the IOU's never became public, leaving the bond holders on the hook.
But what happened to the “Defaulting Treasurer”, “the Great Absconder”, AKA James “Honest Dick” Tate? He was rumored to be everywhere from Bremen, Germany, to Toronto, Canada. Some said he had joined the expiate Confederate community in Honduras, or Brazil, where slavery remained until May of 1888. In October of 1893 there was a brief flurry of excitement when a newspaper reported he was “Said to have been seen on the “Cotton Belt Train.” in Arizona Territory. But that proved to be mistaken identity, since the New York Times had reported “friends who should know” said he had died in China three years earlier. In 1894 Navy Ensign Hugh Rodman, who had known Tate back in Frankfort, reportedly had dinner with the “Defaulting Treasurer” in Japan, and said he was not well. That should not have been surprising, since he would have been well over sixty by then.
Edmonia later admitted to receiving letters from her father, posted from San Francisco, British Columbia and Japan. The last one read, in part, “I know I will be much denounced and by parties who forget former circumstances”. He professed to being interested in returning to denounce his partners in crime. But he never came back, and he never sent any money to his abandoned wife and daughter. In 1896 1,200 Kentuckians signed a petition asking the Governor to grant a pardon to James Tate, so he could return and name names. No such pardon was ever offered. With time new scandals rocked Kentucky, and people forgot about “Honest Dick “ Tate. But we should remember our mistakes. That is how we learn from them.