Rothera on Underwood, 'Deadly Censorship: Murder, Honor, and Freedom of the Press'

James L. Underwood
Evan Rothera

James L. Underwood. Deadly Censorship: Murder, Honor, and Freedom of the Press. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2013. 328 pp. $29.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-61117-299-7.

Reviewed by Evan Rothera (Penn State University) Published on Jhistory (November, 2016) Commissioned by Robert A. Rabe

On January 15, 1903, South Carolina lieutenant governor James H. Tillman shot newspaper editor N. G. Gonzales in cold blood. Tillman’s trial became one of the twentieth century’s first “trials of the century” (p. ix). James Lowell Underwood offers a compelling analysis of Tillman’s trial and explains how freedom of the press, not Tillman, became the defendant.

Tillman blamed the caustic editorials written by Gonzales for his defeat in the 1902 Democratic gubernatorial primary. Gonzales, according to Tillman, impugned his honor by questioning Tillman’s manliness and honesty. Thus, when Tillman saw Gonzales on the afternoon of January 15, he shot him in cold blood. Although witnesses argued over key facts, one fact was absolutely indisputable: Tillman shot Gonzales, who later died of his wounds. Tillman’s trial, Underwood argues, forced a choice between freedom of the press and the sanctity of life on the one hand and, on the other, the notion that violence must vindicate honor. The consequences of the trial, Underwood asserts, were enormous. If editors like Gonzales could be silenced by “gun-barrel censorship,” they would no longer be able to do their duty and keep elected officials honest. Freedom of the press would be severely damaged and officials who would “otherwise fear newspaper scrutiny and act with restraint, would grow more arrogant” (p. 7).

The defense quickly unveiled the strategy they employed throughout the trial. They made the press and Gonzales the perpetrators and Tillman the victim. They painted a free press as “an ogre preying on worthy men and destroying the careers of dedicated public servants” (p. 40). This was a clever strategy because Gonzales was dead and could not speak for himself. Only his editorials could speak for him and the defense ruthlessly employed them to make Tillman seem the victim of a demonic editor. However, Underwood cautions, that is an incorrect reading. Gonzales certainly criticized Tillman and other South Carolinians but most of his editorials represented “the kind of scrutiny government needs in a democracy” (p. 25).

While the defense painted the press as irresponsible monsters, Tillman reaped the benefits of belonging to a powerful political family. Tillman’s father, George D. Tillman, had been a US congressman and his uncle, Benjamin R. “Pitchfork Ben” Tillman, currently served in the US Senate. These political connections served Tillman well. Although Chief Justice Young John Pope denied bail, he considered Tillman the victim of a vicious press. Judge Daniel A. Townsend granted the defense’s change of venue motion. Underwood considers this decision questionable because the case “seemed to lack the compelling demonstration of pervasive, community-wide prejudice” (p. 53). Townsend picked Lexington County as the new venue. While not as pro-Tillman as the surrounding counties, Lexington was nevertheless Tillman country. In addition, Chief Justice Pope appointed Frank B. Gary, a practicing lawyer, as a special judge. “Cousin Frank” was an old friend of the Tillman family. Despite the seemingly open-and-shut nature of the case, Tillman’s political connections ensured that this case was anything but a slam dunk for the prosecution. Interestingly, although he was a political ally of Ben Tillman, solicitor J. William Thurmond prosecuted the case vigorously.

The heart of Deadly Censorship is Underwood’s excellent analysis of the trial. Underwood correctly notes that the prosecution and defense cases rested on small details. For instance, defense witnesses claimed Gonzales jammed his hands deep into his pockets as if he held a gun. Prosecution witnesses countered that Gonzales had his thumbs out, making it impossible for him to hold a gun. Did Gonzales, as defense witnesses claimed, alter his path to intersect with Tillman’s? Or, as prosecution witnesses testified, did he veer away from Tillman? In both cases, defense witnesses worked to strengthen Tillman’s self-defense claim. Even with their many advantages, the defense resorted to slimy tactics. When cross-examining August Kohn, a friend of Gonzales and witness to his death, the defense attacked Kohn for being Jewish and tried to use his religion to discredit him in the eyes of the jury. The defense employed blatant hearsay, which was allowed “to gain the illusion of substance in the eyes of the jury” (p. 112). One does not have to look hard to see the hand of “Cousin Frank” favoring his friend.

The defense argued Tillman acted in self-defense. However, Tillman’s real defense was that the editorials justified his killing Gonzales. Nobody questioned the fact that Gonzales criticized Tillman and that Gonzales genuinely detested Tillman. However, Tillman was hardly a helpless victim cowering before a vindictive press. He made plenty of venomous remarks against Gonzales and used the press to disseminate them. Furthermore, Tillman’s own testimony demonstrated that he, not Gonzales, was the aggressor. Fundamentally, “harsh words, no matter how critical, do not justify murder” (p. 139). However, that Tillman reached for violence was not surprising. Not only was he hot-tempered, but Tillman was heir to a legacy of violence--both George and Ben Tillman had been key players during “Redemption.” In addition, assaulting and murdering newspaper editors was not uncommon in the nineteenth century and occurred throughout the United States, not just in the South. Underwood concludes that the trial became a “political jousting match” instead of a “quest for justice” (p. 165). It is not hard to figure out which side has Underwood’s sympathy and it is hard to fault him for this opinion.

The verdict, given all the advantages the defense enjoyed, was predictable. The jury found Tillman not guilty. No one had disputed the fact that Tillman shot Gonzales but the defense’s blame-the-victim-and-the-press strategy and the power of Tillman’s political connections allowed Tillman to get away with murder. Critically, the verdict accomplished little for Tillman himself. It did not revive his political career and did not, Underwood contends, redeem his honor. Gonzales’s legacy, on the other hand, was secure. People remembered Gonzales as a fearless critic who spoke truth to power and who was shot for exercising his right to free speech. Censorship, Underwood sensibly concludes, most often backfires.

There are two issue with this book that merit comment. The first is has to do with organization. While Underwood offers background sketches of Tillman and Gonzales, he might have spent more time, perhaps in an additional chapter, examining the Tillman-Gonzales feud. In this chapter he could have cited extensively from the editorials and provided readers with additional background and a better understanding of the criticisms Gonzales leveled at Tillman. Additional context, in other words, as well as more attention to the editorials themselves, especially given how important they became during the trial, would have been appreciated.

The second issue has to do with interpretation. Before discussing the verdict, Underwood comments that the issue of freedom of the press received little attention in Gary’s charge to the jury. Therefore, Underwood contends, the trial did “real damage to freedom of the press while seeming to deal with it only incidentally” (p. 206). Underwood contends here, as he does throughout the book, that the trial made freedom of the press the defendant and did it considerable damage. However, a few pages later, Underwood notes in his discussion of the verdict that national and state newspaper denounced it. Indeed, many commentators seemed to have been energized rather than intimidated by the verdict. Did Tillman’s trial, therefore, really have a negative influence on freedom of the press? Had the trial occurred in 1803--a full century earlier--the answer would likely be yes. Newspaper editors were assaulted and murdered with some frequency for what they wrote in their papers during the nineteenth century. However, it is difficult to see this trial as having such a chilling effect on freedom of the press after 1903. To be sure, Tillman’s acquittal was a miscarriage of justice and a bitter blow to the Gonzales family. However, as Underwood himself observes, “the press would not be intimidated into subservience” (p. 220). However, the trial did not, on the whole, seem to have the effect on freedom of the press that Underwood thinks it did. In fact, by making editors angry and defiant, the trial may in fact have bolstered freedom of the press. Today, 113 years after Tillman shot Gonzales, we are in the midst of a vicious electoral cycle. Politicians have said horrible things about each other, things far worse than what Gonzales said about Tillman. However, despite these nasty and vicious personal criticisms, none have resorted to violence, in the way Tillman did, to solve their grievances. Freedom of speech, even freedom of speech that goes well beyond holding government officials responsible, is tolerated, if not universally applauded.

Criticisms aside, this excellent book will appeal to anyone interested in legal history, southern history, the history of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, freedom of speech, and the relationship between violence and politics. It will certainly prove useful in upper-division undergraduate classes and graduate seminars.

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Citation: Evan Rothera. Review of Underwood, James L., Deadly Censorship: Murder, Honor, and Freedom of the Press. Jhistory, H-Net Reviews. November, 2016. URL:

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