Monday, October 9, 2017

William Taulbee: A Stain on the Capitol

In most sex scandals involving elected officials, the damage is limited to a politician's career. The scandal is easy fodder for a political opponent to use in the next election. Some voters may be willing to forgive infidelity, but others see it as a sign that the official is untrustworthy, morally unsound, or just plain sleazy.

Occasionally, however, a sex scandal ends in bloodshed. One of the most famous examples is the case of Representative Daniel Sickles, a New York Democrat, who shot and killed his wife's lover within sight of the White House. Arthur Brown, a Republican and one of the first two U.S. senators from Utah, was murdered by his mistress about nine years after he left office.

William Preston Taulbee is another federal politician who wound up meeting his end as a result of a sex scandal. It is unusual, however, in that he did not die at the hands of a jilted lover, cuckolded husband, or angry wife. Instead, he was gunned down by a reporter he had been routinely harassing for his coverage of the scandal.

Taulbee and Kincaid

Taulbee was born on October 22, 1851, near Mount Sterling in Morgan County, a mountainous area of eastern Kentucky. He attended the common schools and was also tutored by his father, who later served in the state's general assembly. In his youth, Taulbee also helped run the family farm.

Although he worked for a time shoveling coal, Taulbee soon left to become a teacher. He married Lou Emma Oney in 1871, and would have five sons with her. Taulbee continued teaching until 1877, when he began to study theology. He became an ordained minister and was admitted to the Kentucky conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church South. Taulbee also studied law and opened a practice after he was admitted to the bar in 1881.

Taulbee's first foray into politics occurred in 1878, when he was elected clerk of the Magoffin County Court. He was re-elected in 1882. Two years later, he became the Democratic candidate for the House of Representatives and handily defeated his Republican opponent, William L. Hurst. He faced a tougher re-election fight in 1886, even though he was battling the same opponent. Both Taulbee and Hurst traveled extensively through their district prior to the election, engaging in fiery debates on 27 occasions. Although it was a tighter race, Taulbee was returned to the House.

There is little information about Taulbee's service in the nation's capital. He was known as a gifted speaker, described as having a dignified bearing despite his rather young age. He was also popular enough in his district that one phrase suggested, "As goes Taulbee, so goes the mountains." His supporters nicknamed him "Our Pres" or "Pres Taulbee."

Soon after winning his second term, rumors began to circulate that Taulbee would not run again in 1888. He essentially confirmed these suspicions when he said he had purchased a house in Washington, D.C. and planned to live there after retiring from Congress.

Charles Euston Kincaid was slightly younger than Taulbee. He had been born on May 18, 1855, and spent much of his early life around Lexington. Kincaid graduated from Centre College and began working in journalism, editing a newspaper in Lawrenceburg for two years. He then worked as a correspondent for the Lexington Courier-Journal, covering state politics and later matters related to the South and Cuba.

Kincaid also dabbled in politics. He picked up the nickname "Judge Kincaid" after he was elected a municipal judge in Lawrenceburg in 1879, and a year later he was appointed a state railroad commissioner. Kincaid also spent a good deal of time abroad, serving as a consular agent to England under President Grover Cleveland. In 1884, he was one of the emissaries appointed by the state legislature to travel to Italy and persuade the authorities there to repatriate the body of Kentucky sculptor Joel T. Hart. Kincaid also served as the private secretary to Governor Proctor Knott and later to Senator John Williams.

By the late 1880s, Kincaid was working as the Washington, D.C. correspondent for the Louisville Times. He was a social friend of several congressmen, but also known for unflinching accounts challenging those in power. Most targets simply shrugged off the attacks, however. Senator James B. Beck, a Kentucky Democrat, commented, "He's one of those small, buzzing bees. He won't hurt anybody, and he's too little to take hold of."

It is unclear how well Taulbee and Kincaid were acquainted during the former's last years in the House. Kincaid undoubtedly had contact with the congressman while covering the actions of Kentucky's congressmen and senators. But any hope of a cordial relationship disappeared after Taulbee became involved in a salacious scandal in December 1887.

"Brown-Haired Miss Dodge"

The first report that Taulbee was having an extramarital affair didn't even include the congressman's name. The Washington Post issued a brief article saying a Patent Office employee had caught a Kentucky representative "in a very compromising position" with one of the office's clerks. This wasn't exactly an uncommon occurrence. The model room of the Patent Office, where the miniature versions of various inventions submitted with patent applications were stored, was nicknamed the "Lovers' Retreat" because it was a popular place for flirtatious clerks and their wooing suitors to meet during lunch breaks. The thick cases holding the models offered plenty of hiding places for discreet trysts.

The Patent Office's model room as it appeared in the mid-1860s (Source)

Kincaid pursued the matter further, publishing an article in the Louisville Times with a rambling headline: "Kentucky's Silver-Tongued Taulbee Caught in Flagrante, or Thereabouts, with Brown-Haired Miss Dodge, Also of Kentucky." The headline also declared that the duo had been "lunching on forbidden fruit and hidden waters" and asked, "What's the world coming to?"

Kincaid's reports gave more details than the Washington Post brief, but still erred on the side of Victorian modesty. Taulbee and the clerk had been discovered "in a compromising way," "held sweet communion for half an hour before going to plebeian Monday lunch," and were "rather warmer than they were proper." Kincaid also detailed the circuitous routes Taulbee took to rendezvous with his mistress as well as other maneuvers he employed to try to keep the affair hidden, and determined that the congressman had helped the clerk get her job so they could arrange their meetings more easily. He would later maintain that he had told Taulbee he would be glad to interview him to get his side of the story, but that the congressman had not accepted the offer.

The clerk, Laura L. Dodge, was more accommodating. She sat down for an interview with Kincaid, who described the 17-year-old as beautiful, petite, "plump as a partridge," and "bright as sunshine and saucy as a bowl of jelly." Dodge admitted that she was not from Kentucky, as she had told the Patent Office. She refused to answer Kincaid's question about where she was actually from, saying she didn't want to get Taulbee in trouble. The congressman was a gentleman, Dodge said, and she was supposed to be a lady. "We will both swear on a stack of Bibles that we have not done anything," she declared.

Kincaid wasn't convinced. "What a mess this is for an ex-Methodist minister and a Congressman from the grand old Commonwealth of Kentucky," he ended the article.

Abuse of Kincaid

While newspapers in Kentucky picked up the tale of infidelity, the scandal aroused little interest in the nation's capital. The Washington Post didn't even follow up on its brief to identify the congressman. Patent Commissioner Benton J. Hall said he would investigate the matter, but the outcome was never reported. It seemed one likely result was the dismissal of Dodge, who left the Patent Office in the wake of Kincaid's articles but was soon able to find work in the Pension Office.

Taulbee did not seek the Democratic nomination in 1888, but it seemed clear that he had already made this decision soon after starting his second term, not because he had been exposed as an adulterer. He had also irritated his party a few years earlier. At the 1887 state convention, he proposed censuring President Grover Cleveland. The suggestion which was greeted by hisses and easily voted down.

After leaving office at the beginning of 1889, Taulbee stayed in Washington, D.C. to work as a lobbyist. He was successful in this role, earning a great deal of money. He lost some of these assets in the same year he left office, when House cashier Craven Silcott absconded with $75,000 in congressional payroll funds. The vanished funds included some savings Taulbee had had with the Sergeant at Arms, but he remained comfortably wealthy. His reputation in Kentucky also seemed to be intact. Kentucky's Semi-Weekly Interior Journal suggested that he was still "the most popular man in the district," and that his endorsement would all but guarantee victory for any congressional hopeful from eastern Kentucky.

Kincaid was still working as a correspondent covering Congress, so he ended up frequently crossing paths with Taulbee. Even though Taulbee had weathered the scandal fairly well, he was apparently none too fond of how the reporter had portrayed him. There were suggestions that Kincaid's articles had helped destroy Taulbee's marriage to Eliza, although the matrimony seems to have survived as well; the two would ultimately be buried together. Perhaps Taulbee simply held a grudge against Kincaid for the tenor of his articles.

Whatever the reason for Taulbee's enduring hatred for Kincaid, he rarely if ever encountered the reporter without bullying him. On several occasions, Taulbee insulted Kincaid or warned that he would someday kill him. Sometimes the harassment carried over into physical abuse. Kincaid recalled separate incidents where Taulbee had shoved him against an iron railing, slammed him into the door of a streetcar, and crushed his foot under his heel while the two men were in an elevator. Taulbee also got into the habit of tweaking Kincaid's nose or ear to indicate that he didn't consider the reporter to be worth fighting.

A brawl between Taulbee and Kincaid would have been extremely one-sided. The former congressman was described as "tall and sinewy," having retained the muscular physique built up in his youth of hard labor. Kincaid, by contrast, was "a little pint of cider fellow," barely five feet tall and weighing less than 100 pounds. He also had a range of health problems, including astigmatism which limited his vision as well as liver and digestive problems. On two occasions in the previous five years, he had nearly died of typhoid fever.

Kincaid never responded to Taulbee's insults, threats, or abuses. He did not want to worry his sick mother, he later said; he also told Taulbee that he did not want any trouble. He hoped that Taulbee would simply tire of this behavior and leave him alone.

Instead, the bullying continued unabated for a full year. It finally culminated in a confrontation on a House stairwell on a winter afternoon.

The final confrontations

On the morning of February 28, 1890, Taulbee spotted Kincaid near the entrance to the House of Representatives chamber. He called out that he wanted to see him. Kincaid responded that he couldn't, since he was "waiting for a gentleman."

Perhaps taking this as an insult, Taulbee responded by grabbing Kincaid by the collar, throwing him about, and giving his ear a violent twist. The House doorkeepers, who controlled access to the chamber, separated the two men.

The exact verbal exchange that followed between Taulbee and Kincaid is uncertain, but the intent of the words is clear. Kincaid protested, "I am not prepared to cope with you physically," to which Taulbee replied, "Well, you had better be." Another version had Kincaid saying, "I am a small man and unarmed," with Taulbee responding, "You had better be armed, or go arm yourself."

Both Taulbee and Kincaid were able to enter the House soon after the scuffle. Word of the altercation spread through the press gallery and among the members of Congress. Some had long expected that the feud between the two men would only end when one of them killed the other. Taulbee's words suggested that the fatal showdown was imminent.

About two hours after the initial confrontation, Kincaid and Taulbee met again on the eastern side of the House wing of the Capitol Building. A Y-shaped staircase descends toward a basement restaurant, and the encounter occurred near where the twin sets of marble stairs meet.

Kincaid had gone home in the interim and retrieved a revolver. Referencing Taulbee's earlier request, Kincaid allegedly declared, "Taulbee, you can see me now." He then raised the gun and shot Taulbee in the face.

An illustration of the incident, inaccurately showing Kincaid shooting Taulbee in the back of the head (Source)

The shot was audible in many parts of the building, including the House chamber. The bullet just missed Taulbee's eye, piercing his cheek. Bleeding profusely, Taulbee managed to stagger away from the scene. Kincaid promptly surrendered to a police officer who rushed to the scene, confessing that he was the shooter.

Although he had suffered a serious wound, Taulbee managed to stay conscious and conversant. He spoke with Senator John Griffin Carlisle, a Kentucky Democrat and former colleague; Carlisle had served in Congress since 1876, including three terms as Speaker of the House. Taulbee admitted to the earlier altercation with Kincaid, but told his friend, "He ought not to have done it. Why did he do so?"

Kincaid, speaking from his jail cell, claimed that he only shot Taulbee after he approached him in a threatening matter. Although the former congressman was said to be unarmed, contemporary articles noted that there were rumors that Taulbee's friends had made sure to relieve him of an "ugly-looking pistol" after the incident. Kincaid told reporters how Taulbee had told several people, including a judge, that he would have Kincaid's blood yet.

"Mr. Taulbee had been dogging me for more than a year. I am almost ashamed to admit it, but he has assaulted me six times," Kincaid said. He added, "No man has suffered more at the hands of another than I have from him. Mr. Taulbee has haunted me like a ghost. He has heaped insult after insult on me, and three different times threatened to kill me."

Reactions to the shooting were split between congressmen and reporters. Elected officials did not always have the best relationships with the press, and some thought that Kincaid and other reporters had dedicated too much attention to the Patent Office scandal. The press corps expressed regret for the incident, but was more likely to sympathize with Kincaid; his fellow reporters described him as an agreeable, fair person who wouldn't have harmed Taulbee unless provoked.

Several newspapermen were aware of the contentious relationship between Taulbee and Kincaid. Jay Durham, a former D.C. reporter, said, "He alway manifested the most intense hatred toward Kincaid. He was voluminous in vile epithets toward the correspondent."

Some accounts suggested that this was simply how Kentuckians settled their disagreements. The infamous feud between the Hatfields and McCoys had been raging for 10 years in the eastern part of the state, and it was only one of several deadly rivalries in the area. A little more than a decade earlier, a judge and former congressman had been gunned down outside his Owingsville hotel by a defendant dissatisfied with his ruling. Ten years after Kincaid shot Taulbee, an unknown assailant would assassinate Kentucky's governor after a contested election. The Courier-Journal of Louisville commented, "that which may regarded in Kentucky and other states of the Union as a matter of self-defense is treated here in Washington as murder in the first degree."

As Taulbee recovered in Providence Hospital, it seemed probable that he would survive. The bullet had lodged somewhere in his skull, and the physicians decided not to try to remove it.

More than a week after the shooting, however, his condition worsened. The bullet had come to rest just inside the skull, and an abscess had formed around the projectile and put pressure on the brain. On March 11, Taulbee died.

Kincaid's trial

Kincaid had been released on $2,000 bail, and turned himself in to face the upgraded charge of murder after Taulbee's death. He was released again due to poor health, and because his friends had helped him raise the $20,000 needed for the new bail, and allowed to return to Kentucky to recuperate.

In the spring of 1891, Kincaid returned to the nation's capital to stand trial on the charge of killing Taulbee. The proceedings had been delayed until after Congress adjourned on March 3, since Kincaid's defense attorneys included Senator Daniel Voorhees, a Democrat from Indiana. Kincaid was also represented by Washington advocate C. Maurice Smith, circuit court judge and former Republican congressman Jeremiah Wilson of Indiana, and Charles Grosvenor, a Republican congressman from Ohio who had left the House after losing his party's nomination in the previous year. U.S. Attorney Charles C. Cole, newly appointed by President Benjamin Harrison, would lead the prosecution.

An attempt to delay the trial a second time occurred after Voorhees came down with rheumatism. However, this request was denied after the court concluded that Kincaid was adequately represented by the remainder of his legal team. Testimony began on March 23.

Over the course of the two-week trial, eight sitting or former members of Congress were called to the stand. A number of Washington reporters also attended the trial as witnesses. The testimony outlined the animosity Taulbee felt toward Kincaid, establishing how the former congressman had tormented the reporter for months. One correspondent quoted Taulbee as saying, "He ought to be killed. By God, I'll kill him." Another said Taulbee had threatened to kick Kincaid's head off if he ever got within 10 feet of him. Many of the reporters said they had relayed these threats to Kincaid, and that he grew increasingly worried about his personal safety.

Two House doorkeepers, William McCormick and Robert Woodbridge, testified that they had witnessed the first confrontation between Taulbee and Kincaid. Woodbridge said he saw Taulbee pull on Kincaid's ear, while McCormick said he'd heard Taulbee call Kincaid a liar. About an hour later, McCormick said, Kincaid returned to the Capitol and spoke with him. He was in an anxious state, wondering what to do since he was a sick man and had been unable to cope with Taulbee while unarmed. McCormick told the reporter he had no advice to give.

The defense expanded on Kincaid's assertion that he had been in fear for his life when he shot Taulbee. Witnesses described Taulbee's long campaign of harassment against the reporter. Kincaid took the stand in his own defense, recounting how Taulbee had once threatened to cut his throat. He also said Taulbee had called him "a damn little coward and monkey" at their first confrontation on the fateful morning of February 28, 1890. The warning to arm himself had been enough to convince him to take up the revolver he never took outside his room.

Kincaid said that he had not been trying to seek out Taulbee, but had simply had another chance encounter with the former congressman. He had been taking one set of stairs down the Y-shaped staircase, intending to go to lunch and meet someone in the basement restaurant, when he unexpectedly came upon Taulbee and a companion on the platform. He said Taulbee immediately reacted by striding toward him, declaring, "I'll show you!"

Taulbee had a hand in his pocket, Kincaid testified. He said he began to retreat, and declared, "You're going to kill me, are you?" Kincaid also remembered that he had drawn his weapon and warned Taulbee several times to stand back. Taulbee had been undeterred, growling, "I'll show you." It was only when Taulbee was within reaching distance of him that he pulled the trigger, deciding that it was a choice between killing or being killed.

The prosecution suggested that Kincaid should have fled before opening fire for it to be a true case of self-defense; they also framed the matter as one of revenge. Kincaid, angered and humiliated by Taulbee's provocations, had finally decided to ambush him and end the harassment once and for all. One of their key witnesses was Samuel Donelson, a House doorkeeper who was the only witness of the shooting besides Kincaid and the deceased Taulbee. Donelson said Kincaid had waited until he and Taulbee were walking down the stairs before shouting, "Taulbee, you can see me now" and firing the single shot.

Taulbee's brother was also called to the stand. He said that three days before his death, Taulbee told him, "I did not know Kincaid was near and did not know who it was who shot me until I was told." Taulbee had also reportedly said he bore "no resentment" toward Kincaid, although he considered the shooting to be cowardly. The defense scrutinized the statements, pointing out discrepancies between the testimony of Donelson and Taulbee's brother.

The trial ended on April 8. After just a few hours of deliberation, the jury returned with a verdict. They determined that the matter had been one of self-defense; Kincaid was not guilty.

Aftermath and legacy

The shooting of Taulbee helped fuel a flurry of reform efforts on Capitol Hill. Constituents demanded for rules that could improve congressional conduct and morals while limiting corruption.

Kincaid returned to Kentucky and continued to work in politics and diplomacy alongside his journalistic endeavors. He also remained in poor health. He died in 1906, only 51 years old, while working for the Cincinnati Enquirer.

Dodge worked at the Pension Office until 1895, when she was fired. Five years later, she married a Pension Office reviewer named William Albert Paul; after his death in 1927, she was re-married to prominent attorney Tracy L. Jeffords and became well-known on the D.C. social scene. She died on Christmas Day in 1959 at the age of 89.

Taulbee's descendants showed little willingness to forgive Kincaid or accept the verdict that he was acting in self-defense. Six decades after the trial, one of his sons, John Taulbee, denounced the trial as "a farce." Not only had the defense bought off witnesses, he accused, but the shooting had nothing to do with Taulbee's hostility toward the reporter; instead, Kincaid had murdered his father because Taulbee had not named him to a political position. Virginia Hinds-Burton, a great-granddaughter of Taulbee's, said in 2007, "My great-grandfather was murdered. And his murderer got away with murder. And five boys were left without a father. A wife was left without a husband to support her."

A contemporary account of the shooting notes how House janitors started scrubbing away the bloodstains as soon as possible. Even so, much of the blood had soaked into the porous marble. "Some of the stains will remain there for all time," the article suggested.

The observation proved prescient. Visitors to the staircase today can still see dark splotches on the stone. These are said to be Taulbee's bloodstains, still evident after more than 125 years. Those with a belief in the paranormal say the ex-congressman continues to haunt the site of his killing to this day. Reporters who stumble on the stairs aren't just miscalculating a step, they say; rather, Taulbee trips members of the media to show his continuing disdain toward the field of journalism.


Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, "The Shooting of Congressman William Taulbee on the Steps of the U.S. Capitol" at, "Charles Kincaid Trial: 1891" at, "Settled a Grudge" in the Chicago Tribune on Mar. 1 1890, "The Taulbee Inquest" in The Day on Mar. 13 1890, "The Kincaid Case" in the Terre Haute Daily News on Mar. 27 1891, "Kincaid on the Stand" in the Galveston Daily News on Apr. 2 1891, "Are Blotches in Capitol Bloodstains?" in the Poughkeepsie Journal on Nov. 1 1978, "A Historic Killing in the Capitol Building" on NPR on Feb. 19 2007, Kentucky Politicians: Sketches of Representative Corn-Crackers and Other Miscellany by John J. McAfee, Wicked Capitol Hill: An Unruly History of Behaving Badly by Robert S. Pohl, True Tales of Old-Time Kentucky Politics: Bourbon, Bombast, and Burgoo by Bery, Genealogy of the Lewis Family in America, From the Middle of the Seventeenth Century Down to Present Time by William Terrell Lewis

1 comment:

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