When Georgia had three governors: The story that won George Goodwin a journalism prize


Originally published Dec. 29, 1996

Back in the days when Gov. Gene Talmadge told Georgians their only friends were God, Sears, Roebuck and ol' Gene himself, an Atlanta newspaperman went snooping in the Capitol vault. In an envelope marked "Telfair County, " he found the state's political scandal of the century.

Proof of dead people rising from their graves - just to vote for Gene's son, Herman Talmadge.

The discovery of voting fraud in Telfair that had enabled Herman Talmadge to be elected as governor by the Georgia General Assembly in January 1947 was a signature moment of "The Three Governors" fiasco when Ellis Arnall, M.E. Thompson and Talmadge claimed to be governor at the same time.

It also permitted reporter George Goodwin to dictate by phone perhaps the most wry and devastating sentence in The Atlanta Journal's 114-year history:

It appeared impossible that 34 citizens anywhere could have appeared at the polls and been voted in alphabetical order, starting with the first letter and stopping abruptly at K.

The Three Governors was part Shootout at the OK Corral, part Watergate and part slapstick comedy. It was full of political mischief, raw fistfights and anti-Talmadge student protesters marching in the streets.

The shenanigans are no less unbelievable today than 50 years ago.

"Yahooism, with an overlay of demagoguery, and politics run amok, " historian Clifford M. Kuhn of Georgia State University says now. "It brought a black eye to Georgia. People across the nation asked, 'What in the world is going on there?' "

And, lo, on the golden anniversary of that battle, the last of the three governors still standing is Herman Talmadge.

Now Talmadge, his once black forelock turned gray and combed back, is in his living room in Henry County, sitting before a portrait of his Papa, Gov. Gene Talmadge. "Ninety percent of the people of Georgia today don't realize it ever occurred, " he says of The Three Governors.

Talmadge smiles as he recalls the high jinks from the January night in 1947 when the General Assembly divided into Talmadge and Thompson factions to wage a battle into the wee hours of morning.

As the vote neared, one of the weapons of choice was alcohol. Each side hoped the other might be too drunk to vote.

"Some of our people were reacting strangely to M.E. Thompson's liquor, " Talmadge remembers.

"A state senator of ours was found on the Capitol grounds, passed out.

"My headquarters was in the speaker of the House's office and Thompson's was in the president of the Senate's.

"The sheriff of Forsyth County came in to our office with a Thompson man and the sheriff was about to kill him.

"This sheriff said he caught the Thompson man serving 'knockout drops.' It was sort of like this 'date rape drug' of today, apparently.

"So we had some of our friends organize a rehab hospital down in the Public Service Commission in the Capitol where they would try to keep our people functioning."

Herman Talmadge's voice is a raspy whisper today. "I was a young man till I was 82, " he likes to say, except now he is 83, a young man grown old. His voice, never pretty, was damaged by 25 radiation treatments at Emory Hospital, treatments which, he says, successfully blasted a malignant tumor from his throat. Doctors tell him the prognosis is good.

Herman and Lynda Talmadge, his third wife, live in a modest split- level home only a wooded mile or so from his former wife, Betty Talmadge, and the white-columned antebellum plantation home she got in their celebrated 1977 divorce.

Each day Talmadge gets up hours before the sun, reads the newspaper cover-to-cover, takes a short walk and then reads the rest of the day, usually a slew of magazines or a book of history.

Her husband's political memories are like history lessons to Lynda Talmadge, 25 years his junior. Now, she is prompted to ask if the Thompson and Talmadge camps spied on each other.

"Not to my knowledge, " the old governor replies.

And then, slyly, Lynda adds, "Would you bet on it?"

Her husband answers with a noncommittal smile.

In July 1946, Gene Talmadge, with a platform that stressed white supremacy, had won the Democratic Primary. In a state dominated by one party, that was tantamount to election. As it was, Republicans would offer no formal candidate that November.

On Dec. 21, 1946, three weeks before he was to assume office, Gene Talmadge died of a liver ailment. His death triggered The Three Governors controversy.

Three men cited different clauses in the state constitution to support their claims as his rightful successor: incoming Lieutenant Governor M.E. Thompson, outgoing Gov. Ellis Arnall and the upstart 33- year old Herman Talmadge, his late father's swashbuckling campaign manager.

Before his father's election in November, a friend had tipped off Herman about an intriguing clause in the state constitution, which seemed to stipulate that should the governor-elect die before taking office, the General Assembly would choose the successor from the two candidates with the highest total.

Gene Talmadge was not in good health. "I had no idea that he would die, " Herman recalls. "We just wanted some insurance to protect our position . . . So I passed the word to about a half-dozen close friends: 'Get me some write-in votes for the general election.' "

Those friends lived in South Georgia, he says, including Stanley Brooks of Helena, in Telfair County. "They got me some (votes) . . . And that's what launched my political career."

Right after his father's funeral, Herman met with his political guru, Roy V. Harris, former speaker of the House. "We planned a campaign, " Talmadge says. "It was a short time so we had to act immediately. We both got on the phone to our leaders all over the state."

Forbidden by state law from seeking a second term, Arnall announced after the funeral that he would remain governor indefinitely, or at least until Thompson, newly elected as lieutenant governor, was sworn in. Thompson also staked claim to the governorship by right of succession.

As 1946 became 1947, charges, countercharges and lawsuits swirled in Georgia's political breezes. A joint session of the Legislature finally convened on Jan. 14.

"We had counted the legislators, " Talmadge recalls, certain Roy Harris had exercised his powerful influence. "I had a feeling of almost 100 percent that we were going to win."

Talmadge forces were convinced they could get their man elected in the General Assembly, but first he had to be eligible.

As alcohol and knockout drops flowed freely, lightning (a.k.a. Talmadge lightning) shot from blue sky - the dramatic discovery by a special legislative committee of 58 additional write-in votes from Telfair County, Herman's home.

Now Talmadge was the front-runner among write-in candidates. Following a slew of parliamentarian maneuvers, he was elected governor, much to the dismay of the Thompson faction, and sworn in at 2 o'clock in the morning Jan. 15. His widowed mother, "Miss Mitt, " was by his side.

"I made my inaugural speech, " Talmadge recalls, proudly, "off the cuff with no preparation whatever on a national radio hook-up at 2:30 in the morning."

With a swagger reminiscent of Ol' Gene, Herman Talmadge and his entourage marched to the second floor of the Capitol to take over the governor's office.

There are different versions as to what happened next. Talmadge supporters either broke through the locked doors or found a spare key.

In the doorway, Gov. Arnall, refusing to recognize the legislative vote just conducted, met Gov. Talmadge. Arnall called him "a pretender."

Arnall refused to surrender his office. "Tell 'em Herman!" came the hallway whoops. A fistfight broke out between members of the Arnall and Talmadge factions. Furniture was smashed and two of Arnall's aides "were roughed up by a mob, " The Atlanta Journal reported.

Talmadge recalls, "We had 8,000 to 10,000 people that were friends of ours, all at the Capitol. Some of them were mad as the devil and some of them had been imbibing. I didn't want anything to happen to Ellis."

Talmadge climbed on top of a desk and asked his supporters "to go on home" He then asked his just-appointed adjutant general, future governor Marvin Griffin, to gather up Arnall and make sure "not a hair is harmed on his head."

As Gov. Talmadge left, Gov. Arnall told him, "You're nice to call. Come again." (Recalling, Talmadge says: "Ellis was facile with words.")

Talmadge's men changed the locks at the governor's office. Arnall set up a desk inside the Capitol rotunda. He conducted business as visitors walked past, a ludicrous sight.

When Herman Talmadge reported for work later that morning, he had a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson concealed in his pocket.

The mere sight likely frightened his wife, Miss Betty, half to death.

"I told her, " Talmadge recalls, " 'I might need it.' "

The first reign of the pistol-packing Gov. Talmadge lasted only 63 days. It was brought down first by a newspaper expose of voting fraud in Telfair County and then, 17 days later, by the Georgia Supreme Court ruling that the General Assembly had exceeded its jurisdiction by electing Talmadge.

The court ruled M.E. Thompson would serve as acting governor; a special elect ion was arranged 18 months later, in September 1948, to fill out the more than two years remaining in Gene Talmadge's unexpired term.

About six weeks after Herman Talmadge's coronation, George Goodwin, the Journal reporter, scrutinized the write-in list from the Helena precinct in Telfair. Inside the Capitol vault, he noticed the last 34 voters (Nos. 70-103) were listed alphabetically.

He called Dan Browning, a Helena junkyard owner whom he met only days earlier: "Can you take me to meet some of these folks (on the write- in list)?" he asked.

Together, they tried to visit the homes of voter Nos. 70-103. Some had moved away before the election; others had died years earlier.

Wrote Goodwin in his Pulitzer Prize-winning expose: A relative said that J.M. Hankey, No. 93, died two or three years ago . . . Mrs. Olin Dennis, No. 85, said neither she nor her husband, No. 84, had voted. 'We never voted for nobody, ' she said.

And then: . . . (According to No. 75, Otis Cravey), No. 76, listed as Mrs. Otis Cravey, he said, did not vote - because he does not have a wife.

At least one question about The Three Governors remains unanswered: who was responsible for the 58 write-in votes from Telfair?

In his autobiography, "Talmadge: A Political Legacy, A Politician's Life, " (Peachtree Publishers, 1987), Herman Talmadge wrote: I never told my people to steal votes for me, never intimated that they do so, and wouldn't have condoned it if I had known about it.

Asked to elaborate now, Talmadge says only, "That's sufficient. That's the way it was."

He cites the late Stanley Brooks, an election official in the Helena precinct of Telfair, as the man behind the write-in voters - the dead, long since moved away or just plain made-up.

"(Brooks) controlled Helena, lock, stock and barrel. It was a strong precinct for me, " Talmadge says. "He apparently was in too big a hurry and he wanted to do it the easy way."

Goodwin, now 79, still wonders when the fraud occurred: "It may have happened while the Legislature was in session and (Talmadge supporters) found that they didn't have enough write-in votes."

"I think (Herman Talmadge) had to have been aware of it, but I don't really know, " adds Goodwin, now of Manning Selvage & Lee, a public relations firm.

"Herman had personal ambition to follow in his father's footsteps. He admired his father. But there was real ambition of those behind the Talmadge machine, the county unit system and its insidious control, to retain political power."

Kuhn, the GSU historian who serves as director of the Georgia Government Documentation Project, an oral history program and archive of the state's political heritage, says events in 1946, including The Three Governors, foreshadowed the civil rights movement in Georgia and the strong resistance to it by the Talmadge faction.

And, Kuhn adds, "I think Sen. Talmadge's memories of those events, like the memories of many public figures, tend to be self-serving.

"Not surprisingly political figures are reluctant to discuss in detail shenanigans of the past, whether it is sleaze or impropriety, or the kind of goings-on that transpired in and around the state Capitol in January 1947."

The conversation in the Talmadge living room returns to Stanley Brooks.

Herman: "He didn't want to waste his time telling folks to go to the polls and vote."

Lynda: "He just handled it?"

Herman: "I'm sure he did."

Lynda: "That's what happened?"

Herman: "Yes."

When the cigar smoke finally cleared in Georgia in 1948, young Herman Talmadge, having lost the battle but not the war, picked up his family's dying political dynasty, already two decades old, and carried it three decades more.

Vindication came from the people of Georgia as Talmadge swept past incumbent M.E. Thompson in the '48 election to become governor.

"People enjoyed politics then, " Talmadge is saying now. "It was a form of entertainment. My father and I would make speeches across the state and thousands of people would attend. Now the president of the United States couldn't get that many to turn out."

Together, the reign of Gene and Herman Talmadge stretched more than five decades. "He and I together had 17 races statewide. He won seven out of 10. I had seven and won six."

During his six years as governor and his 24 as U.S. senator, Herman Talmadge renewed friendships with M.E. Thompson and Ellis Arnall.

"M.E. (who died in 1980) was the only party in the state that I would accept collect calls from, " Talmadge says, recalling his Senate days in Washington. He says he visited Arnall in an Atlanta nursing facility shortly before his 1992 death. They did not talk politics or reminisce. "I've contributed to a fund to erect a statue of Ellis at the Capitol, " Talmadge says.

A political lion in winter, Herman Talmadge is thinking about The Three Governors. "Sometimes that seems ages ago - the Middle Ages, " he says.

"And sometimes it seems like yesterday."

Originally published Dec. 29, 1996


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