Wednesday, December 24, 2008

James "Honest Dick" Tate: gone without a trace

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From Kentucky Politicians by John J. McAfee

James William Tate was born in 1831 in Franklin County, Kentucky. After working as a post office clerk, he was appointed to the post of assistant secretary of state in 1854 and 1859, resigning both times to follow commercial pursuits. In 1865, he became an aide to the clerk at the Kentucky House of Representatives, and in 1867 he ran as a Democrat for state treasurer and won. "Honest Dick" Tate served in the post for the next two decades, comfortably winning re-election every two years. John J. McAfee, writing in 1886, described Tate as honest and amiable, a "trusted and honored treasurer" with an "unblemished record for probity and principle."

Two years later, Tate's reputation was tarnished in one of the most bizarre financial scandals ever to hit the political scene. During his 21 years of service, Tate's bookkeeping had never been seriously scrutinized. As the state government moved to do so in 1887 and 1888, Tate managed to delay the process by saying he needed more time to get his records in order. On March 14, 1888, Tate departed for Louisville. Two days later, he took a train for Ohio and was never seen in Kentucky again.

On March 20, Governor Simon Buckner suspended Tate from his duties. By that time, Tate had a good head start on the government, which discovered that he had disappeared along with a substantial amount of money. Investigators found the treasurer's records in a shambles, and it took 10 days to sort through them and discover a $247,000 shortfall. The theft led to increased suspicions in the capital for a time, as several legislators had borrowed from the treasury. Fayette Hewitt, the state's auditor, came under criticism for not overseeing Tate's activities. Ultimately, it was determined that Tate acted alone.

Soon after Tate was found to be missing, a $5,000 reward was offered for his capture. The Kentucky Legislature introduced articles of impeachment against the treasurer, found him guilty in absentia of four counts, and removed him from office. Buckner appointed Stephen G. Sharp to serve as a replacement. A criminal indictment charging embezzlement was handed down in Franklin County three months after Tate's disappearance.

The exact amount that Tate absconded with remains unclear, since some of the nearly quarter-million dollar sum was due to shoddy practices and not direct theft. Tate had distributed several illegal IOUs, ranging from less than two dollars to over $5,000, that had never been paid back; some money was used to gamble on stocks, and some was simply stored improperly and found in various places in the treasury. Tate's bond and sureties helped reduce the burden on the state. Tate certainly took some of the cash, however. He was found to have purchased land in other states as well as coal mines in Kentucky. A clerk in the treasury testified that he saw Tate filling up two sacks with gold and silver coins and a wad of bills shortly before his disappearance.

The incident led the state to create the office of the state examiner and inspector to oversee the treasurer and auditor. The state also imposed term limits on elected officials.

Tate left behind a wife and daughter, and corresponded with them until December of 1888, going to Japan and China before returning to the United States. The letters stopped on December 3. Some 1,200 people petitioned for his pardon in 1896, but nothing became of it. The New York Times reported in 1890 that friends thought Tate had died in China within the past year. However, citing Tate's daughter as a source, the Times reported seven years later that Tate was believed to be alive and well, a wealthy coffee planter in Brazil who had even made trips to Chicago for the 1893 World's Fair and as part of a pan-American delegation. Tate's daughter, seeking to collect on a life insurance policy, had been looking to have him declared legally dead under a Kentucky statute. In January of 1898, the Times reported that the insurance companies had agreed to pay off on the policy.

Sources: History Mysteries by James C. Klotter, Kentucky Politicians: Sketches of Representative Corn-Crackers and Other Miscellany by John J. McAfee, Kentucky: Decades of Discord 1865-1900 by Hambleton Tapp and James C. Klotter, The Weekly Underwriter Volume 62 (1900), "Defaulter's Death Admitted" on Jan. 22 1898 of the New York Times, "Ex-Treasurer Tate May Be Pardoned" on Dec. 6 1896 of the New York Times, "Believed to Be Dead" on Aug. 9 1890 of the New York Times, "A Lost Defaulter Found" on Sept. 27, 1897

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