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Robert Treadway: Ky. Treasurer ‘Honest Dick’ Tate wasn’t really; he took the money and ran

On March 14, 1888, Kentucky’s longtime state treasurer, James William “Honest Dick” Tate, boarded a train in Frankfort with two large bags of silver and gold coins, the value of which was later estimated at $100,000, a 4-inch roll of bills, whose value was never determined, and a secret plan. Whatever the plan was, it worked, and neither he nor the money was ever seen again.


James William "Honest Dick" Tate
(Wikipedia Photo)

Tate had left a note behind at the treasurer’s office saying that he would return from Louisville in two days. When he failed to materialize, inquiries revealed that he had left Louisville in route to Cincinnati, and this was the last that he, or the missing money, was heard from. The “absconding,” as it was called, of Honest Dick Tate, was the greatest economic crime of the 19th century in Kentucky and remains unsolved to this day: No one knows where Honest Dick ended up, or what he did with the money.


The public first became aware of Tate’s defalcation on March 20, 1888, when the governor issued a statement to the General Assembly “suspending” Tate from office.


Hambleton Tapp and Kentucky’s state historian, James C. Klotter, in their wonderful book “Kentucky: Decades of Discord, 1865-1900,” quote a commentator at the time as suggesting that “Such a flash of lightning, and a peal of thunder as was never before seen or heard came out of a clear sky, and rocked the state as nothing had done since the [civil] war.”


The cash represented a good chunk of the state’s treasury. In those days, many payments were made in cash, and for several months, Honest Dick deposited only checks into the state’s bank account, never cash. This should have made those he worked with suspicious, but after all, Honest Dick Tate got his nickname because of the perception of his honest, and the friendliness of his dealings with colleagues.


It turned out that some of those dealings were a bit too friendly; Honest Dick had engaged in a pattern of making advances on elected officials’ salaries, loans that were often never paid back. It appears that he made such a “loan,” in the amount of several thousand dollars, to sitting Gov. Preston H. Leslie in 1872.


“The atmosphere about Frankfort,” Tapp and Klotter quote one source as writing, “was such 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.”


The timing of Honest Dick’s departure was no accident. During the heated gubernatorial campaign of 1887, Republican opponent William O. Bradley, a genuine reformer who is little known today, demanded an audit of the state treasurer’s office, an event which had never occurred before. The election, to some degree, involved a re-fighting of the Civil War. Bradley, a Republican, was closely aligned with Ulysses Grant’s wing of the Republican Party, while his Democratic opponent, Simon Bolivar Buckner, was a former Confederate general.


Bradley famously asked voters to stop fighting the Civil War, and particularly to end their long term practice of electing former Confederate Democrats to office. Though Bradley lost this election (he would be successful on his next try, in 1895), he had raised enough of a stink about the treasury that the General Assembly itself appointed a commission to conduct the examination.


Tate, ever the cool customer, played for time, saying that he needed time to get his books in order. This delayed the inevitable, but the legislature announced that the audit would go forward in 1888, whether Tate was ready or not.


Tate’s ledgers and account books were so inaccurate and slipshod that the amount he stole has never been accurately determined. After his administration attempted to audit Honest Dick’s books after the fact, Gov. Buckner estimated the loss at about a quarter of a million dollars, a staggering sum at the time, roughly equivalent to a bit over six million dollars today.


Despite the fact that the legislature offered a $5,000 reward for information on Tate — in an era when working people made $100 a month — no reliable information came forward, and the state government realized that it would have to act against Honest Dick without his presence. In absentia, Tate was impeached by the Kentucky Senate and indicted for his crimes. Soon “Tateism” became a byword for political corruption, and the example of Honest Dick Tate was often held up during Kentucky’s Constitutional Convention which resulted in Kentucky’s current 1891 Constitution.


In particular, the imposition of term limits on all statewide elected offices was attributed to the Convention’s view that Tate, who had been elected and re-elected to office for 20 years, had been able to cover up his corruption because of his long tenure and knowledge of the state’s procedures.


Bradley’s message of reform and leaving the Civil War behind resonated much better in 1895, when he was elected as arguably Kentucky’s most progressive governor of his era. In particular, in the area of civil rights, Bradley distinguished himself, attempting to fight off the wave of anti-black legislation sweeping not just Kentucky, but the nation at the time.


He advocated for the abolition of Kentucky’s “Single Coach Law,” which forbade blacks and whites from sharing the same railroad coach, and appointed far more blacks to government patronage positions than any former governor. So, arguably, one legacy of Honest Dick was the election of a progressive governor in the wake of Tate’s own crimes.


Where did Honest Dick go? No one knows, and the speculation became the greatest sport of the Gilded Age in Kentucky. Honest Dick had, after all, left behind a wife and daughter, his son having died as a child. Although the family initially told investigators that they had not heard from Tate, his daughter later admitted that she had received letters purporting to be from Tate between April and December of 1888, postmarked from California, British Columbia (Canada), and China. A friend claimed that he had received a later letter from Brazil.


The letter from Brazil was the last known communication from Tate, though the New York Times reported in 1890, based on information from “friends who should know,” that Tate had died that year in China.


Scholars have come to no firm conclusions about Honest Dick’s fate. In the decades after the Civil War, many former Confederates (though Tate had not been one himself) fled to Brazil, where slavery remained legal until May of 1888, two months after Tate left Kentucky. A large Confederate presence was established in Brazil, and a city, Americana, in the Sao Paolo state, remains to this day, though news reports suggest that barely a dozen English speaking families remain there. Most former Confederates who went to Brazil eventually returned to the United States. But in 1888, a large and vibrant community of southerners existed in Brazil, and it is unlikely that any of them would have felt any loyalty to Kentucky, which had rejected their cause during the war.


So, if Tate were looking for a community into which he could fit in, Brazil might well have fit the bill.


Ultimately, though, that is speculation as well. For better or worse, Honest Dick Tate, wherever he died, and however he lived after leaving Kentucky, was never
apprehended by the authorities, and it is unlikely that the details of his final days will ever be known. His legacy lived on in Kentucky, though, until 1992, when the
Constitution of Kentucky was amended to provide that Kentucky’s governors, unable to succeed themselves in office since 1800, could now do so, the last Kentucky
Constitutional office to be limited to a single term. The ghost of Honest Dick Tate was finally laid to rest.


Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a lifelong interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award-winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Miller’s role as legal editor on ABC TV’s “Good Morning, America.” He writes, posts and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.

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