By Roger Barlow
Kentucky has undoubtedly had its share of political tricksters, but we must never forget the 1888 story of Kentucky State Treasurer, James “Honest Dick” Tate. His character and honesty — beyond reproach. After two decades as Treasurer, he suddenly disappeared. Soon an audit of his thoroughly chaotic records revealed that he had systematically embezzled about $247,000 (approximately 7 million 2018 dollars). With public trust in tatters; Kentucky’s innocence lost forever.
James was known by all accounts to be a kind, genial man, quick to win over those that crossed his path. As a young man, he began working at the Frankfort post office, then was appointed the Assistant Secretary of State, and eventually was elected the Kentucky State Treasurer for two decades.
The 1878 Biographical Encylopedia of Kentucky wrote “His political party and personal friends take special pride in the manner in which he has discharged the duties confided to his care. As Treasurer, as Commissioner of the Sinking Fund, and one of the managers of the State finances, his judgment is held in high esteem; and his integrity, prudence, and foresight are regarded as of the highest order.” So much for integrity.
James William Tate was born on a Franklin County farm Jan. 2, 1831. The only son of Colonel Thomas Lloyd Tate and his wife, Nancy Taylor. Tate’s paternal father and grandfather were both veterans. His mother, Nancy Taylor was the daughter of pioneer Baptist preacher, John Taylor. Married to Lucy Jane Hawkins in 1856 the couple had two children. A son, Howard, died at the age of 3, and a daughter Edmonia Lloyd. Records indicate that James pampered his daughter with every indulgence; money no object. Edmonia then married Alfred Wellborn Martin in 1886 New York City.
In the 1887 Kentucky gubernatorial race, the prospect of auditing the treasury was discussed but then delayed until 1888. Tate’s behavior then began to change dramatically. On March 14, 1888, one of his clerks witnessed him filling some tobacco sacks with gold, silver and paper money, virtually cleaning out the vault. He left a note that he was taking a train to Louisville and would return in two days. A week later, it became evident he had no intention of coming back. He had left Louisville for Cincinnati, and then vanished forever, leaving behind his wife in utter shame. Impeached in absentia, Tate’s family purportedly received letters from South America and Asia.
It seems impossible today that such an incident could happen. What about term limits? The Second Kentucky Constitution of 1799 banned consecutive terms for the Governor (then amended in the 1990’s). However, after Tate’s crime, the Fourth Kentucky Constitution of 1891 integrated term-limits on all elected officials.
Lucy Hawkins Tate soon fell ill with tuberculosis and petitioned Governor John Young Brown to pardon her husband, so that she may see him before she died. Before he had a chance to decline, she died on April 16, 1894, and was laid to rest in Frankfort Cemetery.
To add insult to irony, Tate’s daughter Edmonia Lloyd Tate Martin, petitioned the court to have her father declared legally dead. After all, he “paid” for life insurance. Awarded approximately $12,000 ($340,000 in 2018 dollars) from various insurance companies, Edmonia then promptly divorced her husband.
For many years that followed, Edmonia’s daughter traveled first class, sailing to the British Isles, Italy, France, Spain, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland for her “health.” Who know’s, maybe she was spending quality time with her grandfather, James “Honest Dick” Tate.