Charles Kincaid Trial: 1891

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Charles Kincaid Trial: 1891

Defendant: Charles Euston Kincaid
Crime Charged: Murder
Chief Defense Lawyers: Charles H. Grosvenor, C. Maurice Smith, Jeremiah M. Wilson. Daniel W. Voorhees assisted with pretrial matters
Chief Prosecutors: Charles C. Cole, Howard C. Clagett
Judge: Andrew C. Bradley. Judges Edward F. Bingham, Alexander B. Hagner, and Martin V. Montgomery presided over various pretrial hearings
Place: Washington, D.C.
Date of Trial: March 23-April 8, 1891
Verdict: Not Guilty

SIGNIFICANCE: This trial resulted from the bitter feud between a former congressman and a reporter that eventually led to the first fatal shooting of a current or former congressman inside the nation's Capitol.

Both Congressman William P. Taulbee of Kentucky and news reporter Charles E. Kincaid were rising stars in 1887. The 36-year-old son of a state senator, Taulbee was an attorney and an ordained Methodist minister. First elected to Congress in 1884, he was already a respected member of the House of Representatives and was called the "Mountain Orator" because of his tall, lean build and his ability to sway listeners. Kincaid, age 32, was also from the Blue Grass State. Originally a lawyer, he was elected the municipal judge of Lawrenceburg in 1879 and edited a weekly newspaper before going to Washington, D.C. in 1885 as Senator John Williams's private secretary. Kincaid later became the Washington correspondent for a number of prominent newspapers, including the Louisville Courier-Journal and the Louisville Times. However, in December 1887, bad blood arose between him and Taulbee.

An Extramarital Affair Exposed

The trouble began when Kincaid published an article exposing Taulbee's extramarital affair with a young woman who worked at the U.S. Patent Office. As described within the modesty of the times, the pair was found "in a compromising way," they held "sweet communion for half an hour before going to plebeian Monday lunch," and the two "were rather warmer than they were proper." The story first appeared in the Washington papers and was reprinted in the Louisville press and the New York Morning Journal. As a result, Taulbee's personal and professional life was destroyed. His wife of 17 years left him, and the congressman didn't even bother to seek reelection; instead, he remained in Washington, D.C., to practice law.

Taulbee blamed all of his problems on Kincaid and his hatred steadily grew. The two frequently crossed paths and, each time, there was a confrontation where Taulbee got the better of Kincaid. Taulbee was six feet two inches tall, strong, and in great physical condition. In contrast, Kincaid was short and in terrible health. Born with an eye defect (astigmatism) that narrowed his vision, the correspondent also had a tumor on one eyelid and since 1885 he nearly died twice from attacks of typhoid from which he never fully recovered. He also had liver and digestive problems that his doctors said were due to stress. The reporter tried his best to avoid his tormentor, but it was Kincaid's job to be at the Capitol to interview politicians, lobbyists, and other newsmakers, and Taulbee was frequently there to chat with old friends and acquaintances. Sometimes, the ex-representative even lay in wait to intercept his victim.

For example, Taulbee once tossed Kincaid across a hallway. On other occasions, the former congressman dashed the correspondent against an iron railing and jammed Kincaid against the door of a streetcar. When the two were in an elevator, Taulbee slammed his heel down on the reporter's foot and held it there while his victim screamed in pain. The ex-representative once cornered Kincaid and said, "I ought to cut your throat." The reporter also received warnings from friends and politicians that Taulbee threatened to kill him and had gone to the Capitol's Press Gallery in search of his prey. Every time he met the former congressman, Kincaid did not have the physical strength to resist and he offered apologies in the hope that the attacks would lessen. But it was to no avail. In February 1890, tragedy struck.

A Shooting at the Capitol

At about 12 noon, Kincaid went to the Capitol to conduct an interview. While waiting in the corridor, Taulbee appeared. "I have no time to talk with you. I don't want any trouble with you," said the reporter, but he was shouted at, grabbed by the shoulder, and his ear was violently pulled. "I am a small man and unarmed," maintained Kincaid, but Taulbee replied in a malicious tone, "You had better be armed, or go and arm yourself." Two hours later, the two met again on the steps to the Capitol's basement restaurant. A shot rang out and a bullet hit Taulbee in the face near the eye. Kincaid made no attempt to escape and said, "I did it." Arrested, the reporter was later set free on bail pending any change in the former congressman's condition.

Taulbee was first taken to his residence and then to Providence Hospital. Initially, the wound was not considered fatal, but the doctors were unable to locate the bullet and their patient's condition worsened. He died on March 11. Kincaid again voluntarily surrendered and was taken into custody, but was shortly released due to his frail health and allowed to return to Kentucky to recuperate. While awaiting trial, newspaper editorials in that state proclaimed their support for Kincaid and a group of prominent lawyers began to prepare his defense.

Kincaid's chief lawyer was U.S. senator Daniel Voorhees of Indiana. His other attorneys were C. Maurice Smith, a prominent Washington advocate, Jeremiah Wilson, a former Indiana judge and congressman, and Charles Grosvenor, a three-term member of the House of Representatives from Ohio who was retiring in March 1891. Because Congress was in session and Voorhees and Grosvenor were still busy with the nation's affairs, the court granted a continuance until after the legislature adjourned on March 3, 1891. That March, another motion to delay the trial was made because Voorhees had suffered a rheumatic attack and would not be available before mid-June. That motion, however, was denied on the grounds that Kincaid could still be well represented by his three remaining lawyers.

The trial began on March 23, 1891, in Washington, D.C. U.S. attorney Charles C. Cole led the prosecution's team. President Benjamin Harrison had appointed him to his post only three weeks before. This was Cole's first major case in his new role.

Kincaid Pleads Self-Defense

Because of the publicity, most of the people who were on the panel of potential jurors had already formed an opinion as to Kincaid's guilt or innocence. As a result, only four of the panel's 26 members were accepted by both the defense and prosecution, and another 50 individuals had to be summoned and interviewed before a jury of 12 was finally picked. During the next two weeks, those 12 would hear the testimony of nearly 60 witnesses, some of whom came from as far away as Massachusetts and Louisiana to attend the trial.

Kincaid's lawyers argued that their client acted in self-defense. After Taulbee assaulted and threatened him, the reporter went home upset and frightened, but decided to return to the Capitol to keep an appointment. Before leaving his room, however, Kincaid picked up his revolver for protection. At the Capitol, he met with some other reporters, begged them not to print anything about his latest encounter with Taulbee (some of the earlier incidents apparently were picked up by the press), and then headed down the steps to the basement restaurant for lunch. Kincaid did not realize, however, that Taulbee and another man (Samuel Donaldson) were standing near the bottom of the steps. Once Taulbee saw Kincaid, the former congressman raised his left hand and started to approach. "You're going to kill me," said Kincaid as he backed away. "Stand back." But as the reporter drew his gun, Taulbee merely said, "I'll show you" and continued to march towards Kincaid as his intended victim retreated to the landing on the steps. Once Taulbee was almost within arm's reach, Kincaid was convinced that it was the ex-politician's life or his own, so he fired.

During the trial, eight current and former members of Congress, as well as a number of newspapermen, testified about Taulbee's numerous threats against Kincaid. One said that Taulbee frequently remarked that he ought to kill Kincaid because Kincaid had ruined his and his family's reputation. Another indicated that Taulbee threatened to kick Kincaid's head off if the correspondent ever came within 10 feet of him. A third quoted Taulbee as saying, "He [Kincaid] ought to be killed. By God, I'll kill him." Many of these witnesses warned Kincaid about the threats and this, according to the defense lawyers, contributed to their client's fears for his life.

Prosecution Calls Shooting Revenge

The prosecution, however, claimed that Kincaid sought out Taulbee with the intention of killing him in revenge for the assault he suffered earlier that day. Samuel Donaldson, a friend of Taulbee's and, aside from Kincaid, the only surviving witness to the shooting, testified that the correspondent waited for Taulbee as he and Taulbee walked down the stairway. Before the former congressman knew that Kincaid was there, the reporter called out, "Taulbee, you can see me now," and fired.

The prosecution also argued that, even if the shooting occurred as Kincaid alleged, the correspondent still had a duty to flee before firing his gun. According to Cole, shooting Taulbee in self-defense was an option only if Kincaid had been backed into a corner and had nowhere that he could safely run to; otherwise, the killing would at least be manslaughter. (Of course, Kincaid's lawyers countered that no such duty existed.)

There was also a "dying declaration" supposedly made by Taulbee to his brother three days before his death. "I did not know Kincaid was near and did not know who it was who shot me until I was told." The defense, however, hammered away at both Donaldson's testimony and the statements recorded by Taulbee's brother, pointing out inconsistencies and raising doubts about their truthfulness.

On April 8, 1891, after only a few hours of deliberation, the jury returned with a verdict of "not guilty." A few days later, Kincaid returned to Kentucky with his sister and nephew. He would later serve on the Kentucky Railroad Commission and as an American diplomat. In 1896, Kincaid returned to the newspaper business and became a reporter with the Cincinnati Enquirer. However, his health remained poor and he died in 1906 at the young age of 51. Despite his accomplishments, Charles Kincaid was still best known, at the time of his death, as the man who shot Congressman William Taulbee.

Mark Thorburn

Suggestion for Further Reading

Klotter, James C. "Sex, Scandal, and Suffrage in the Gilded Age." The Historian: A Journal of History 42, no.2 (February 1980): 225-43.

Ross, Shelley. Fall from Grace: Sex, Scandal, and Corruption in American Politics from 1702 to the Present. New York: Ballantine Books, 1988.

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Charles Kincaid Trial: 1891

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