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1946 Fifty Years Ago

June 2024
2min read

Putsch Comes to Shove

On December 21 Eugene Talmadge, a virulent white supremacist who had just been elected governor of Georgia, died at the age of sixty-two. Since Talmadge had not yet been inaugurated, no one was sure what to do next. The reform-minded incumbent, Ellis Arnall, vowed to remain in office until a successor was legally qualified. The lieutenant governor-elect, Melvin Thompson, claimed the post for himself. And there was a third aspirant—Talmadge’s son Herman, who shared his father’s racist views. An obscure clause in Georgia’s constitution said that if no candidate for governor received a majority, the legislature could choose from the top two vote-getters. When the senior Talmadge’s health started to fail before the election (in which he was unopposed), his supporters quietly arranged for some voters to write in Herman’s name. That way, if Eugene died, the legislature could pick his son to replace him—maybe.

On January 14 thousands of Talmadge supporters mobbed the capitol in Atlanta, where Georgia’s legislature was meeting in joint session to count the votes. As Fiddlin’ John Carson, a long-time stump entertainer at Talmadge rallies, strolled the halls playing “Sugar in the Gourd,” the official tally was announced: 143,279 for Eugene Talmadge, 699 for James Carmichael (whom Talmadge had defeated in the Democratic primary), 637 for D. T. Bowers (a nonentity who made a hobby of running for office), and 617 for Herman Talmadge. Then, in the sort of accident that used to occur often in Southern politics, an extra 58 Talmadge write-ins suddenly materialized from his native Telfair County. (The ballots had been put in the wrong envelope, it was explained.) A later investigation showed that Telfair had done some fiddlin’ of its own: Many of the voters were dead, and a large block of them had voted in alphabetical order. With the postmortem write-ins added to his total, Herman Talmadge nosed out Bowers (who in real life, appropriately enough, was a tombstone salesman) for second place.

Amid arm-twisting, intimidation, bribery, and even attempted kidnapping, the legislature elected Herman Talmadge governor, with the key procedural measure squeaking by on a vote of 128 to 126. After being sworn in at 1:55 A.M. on the fifteenth, Talmadge tried to occupy the governor’s office. Arnall refused to yield, as fistfights broke out between the opposing camps. During the night Talmadge’s men snuck in and changed the locks. Arnall retaliated by setting up shop in the capitol’s lobby.

On January 18, with Thompson installed as lieutenant governor, Arnall resigned, and Thompson proclaimed himself governor. The state treasurer announced that he would release no funds until he could be sure who was in charge. Banks refused to cash state checks, and the secretary of state impounded the Great Seal of Georgia, even taking it home and sleeping on it until the situation cleared up. With the government paralyzed and Georgia a national laughingstock, Talmadge proposed to resolve the dispute with a special election—for white voters only. Confident of victory in the courts, Thompson declined the offer.

The standoff continued until March 19, when Georgia’s supreme court ruled in favor of Thompson. The clause Talmadge was relying on, it decided, applied only when no candidate received a majority. In this case Eugene Talmadge had received a whopping majority, and since he was not able to serve, Thompson had legally succeeded him. Some Talmadge supporters, exhibiting newfound respect for the distinction between living and dead, grumbled about the illogicality of certifying the election of a corpse. Others questioned the court’s power to override the legislature. Talmadge accepted the decision, however, and vacated the governor’s office. He got the last laugh in 1948, when he defeated Thompson handily.

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