Honest Dick Tate

James "Honest Dick" Tate

James William "Honest Dick" Tate (2 January 1831 –unknown) was the State Treasurer of Kentucky. He was nicknamed "Honest Dick" because of his good reputation and rapport with his colleagues. The nickname turned ironic, however, when Tate absconded with nearly a quarter of a million dollars from the state's treasury in 1888. He was never found.

Tate's thievery was frequently cited during Kentucky's fourth constitutional convention as a reason to impose term limits on Kentucky's elected officials. The one term limit remains in force on most of Kentucky's officials today, although the state's constitution was amended in 1992 to allow the governor and lieutenant governor to serve two consecutive terms.

Early life

James William Tate was born the only child of Nancy (Taylor) Tate and her second husband, Colonel Thomas L. Tate in Franklin County, Kentucky. His father was descended from a Virginia family of Scots-Irish ancestry. His father was a farmer and a veteran of the War of 1812, and his paternal grandfather was a veteran of the American Revolutionary War. His maternal grandfather was Reverend John Taylor, a pioneer Baptist minister in Kentucky.

Tate received his education in Franklin and Woodford counties and finished his schooling in 1848. Later that year, at age 17, Tate began work as a clerk at the Frankfort post office. On 3 June 1856, he married Lucy Hawkins. On 28 June 1858, the couple had their first child, a son named Howard, who died at the age of three. The couple also had a daughter, Edmonia.

Political career

Tate's political career began with an appointment by Governor Lazarus W. Powell to the position of Assistant Secretary of State for the state of Kentucky in 1854. A model Democrat, he resigned the post when Know-Nothing Governor Charles S. Morehead was elected in 1855. Four years later, he was appointed to the post again under Democratic Governor Beriah Magoffin, and supported the Breckinridge wing of Kentucky's Democratic party during the American Civil War. Though Magoffin resigned in 1862 due to disagreements with the General Assembly, Tate continued to serve under Magoffin's hand-picked successor, James F. Robinson, resigning again at the end of Robinson's term in 1863. From 1865–7, Tate served as Assistant Clerk to the Kentucky House of Representatives. At the end of his service in the house, Tate successfully ran for state treasurer, a post to which he would be re-elected every two years for the next two decades.

In 1878, Tate was mentioned in the Biographical Encyclopedia of Kentucky. The biographer gushed that in 1867, Tate had "materially contributed, by his personal popularity, to the great success of the Democratic party" adding:

"Biennially, since that time, without opposition in his own party, he has been successively re-elected by popular majorities, perhaps exceeding those obtained by any other candidate for office in the State. From these evidences of popularity, it would seem that his lease on the office might be regarded as a fixed fact."

In the gubernatorial race of 1887, Republican challenger William O. Bradley made an issue of the need to examine the treasury. Though Bradley ultimately lost the race, the idea of auditing the treasurer's records took root, and the General Assembly began calling for a commission to undertake the audit in the 1887–8 session. Tate claimed to need time to get his books in order; this effectively delayed the establishment of the commission, but it was ultimately formed.

Disappearance and aftermath

In the first quarter of 1888, Tate began a pattern of behavior that would have aroused considerable suspicion in a man of lesser repute. He began depositing only checks in the state's bank account, instead of cash, as was usual. In a short period of time, he paid a number of personal debts. On 14 March, 1888, Henry Murray, one of Tate's clerks, noticed him filling two tobacco sacks with gold and silver coins later determined to be worth about $100,000. He departed for Louisville, leaving a note saying he would return in two days. Again, due to the nature of his job and his perceived record of trustworthiness, nobody found his actions questionable. After a week passed with no word from Tate, it became clear what had happened. Records would later show that, after a few days in Louisville, Tate boarded a train for Cincinnati, and then vanished, leaving his wife and daughter behind.

During the investigation that followed, the state's ledger, which was almost indecipherable, was found to show Tate giving some state officials loans that were many times left unpaid and advances on their salaries, including an advance of several thousand dollars to Governor Preston H. Leslie in 1872. Tate had apparently used some of the state's money to make personal investments in mines and real estate. Governor Simon B. Buckner announced that between his atrocious bookkeeping, his embezzlement and his outright theft, Tate had misappropriated $247,128.50 from the state's treasury.

Impeachment hearings followed in the House of Representatives, and the Senate removed Tate from office, convicting him on four counts. A criminal indictment followed. An 1895 case marked "Not to be officially reported" freed those implicated in the scandal from any obligation to repay the state. "Tateism" became synonymous with political corruption in the state, and Tate's crime was frequently cited at the state's fourth constitutional convention in 1891. The resulting constitution, which still governs the state today, forbade state officials from holding more than one consecutive term in office.

Despite the General Assembly's offer of $5,000 for information leading to Tate's arrest, he was never found. Though his family at first claimed that had heard nothing from Tate and presumed he may have committed suicide, his daughter eventually admitted that she had received at least four letters from her father between April and December 1888. The letters were postmarked from British Columbia (Canada), Japan, China, and San Francisco. Another witness claimed to have seen a letter to one of Tate's friends written in 1890 and postmarked from Brazil. That was the last known communication from "Honest Dick" Tate. An article in The New York Times, citing "friends who should know", claimed that Tate was believed to have died in China in 1890.


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