Now that Congressman Anthony Weiner has been hounded from office over the stupidest sex scandal ever, let us pause to reflect upon the
classic tale in this genre.
If you visit the Capitol Building, ask a tour guide to show you the bloodstains on the east steps. The blood, which has resisted all attempts at cleaning, once belonged to Representative William Taulbee of Kentucky, who was shot on those steps on February 28, 1890.
A former minister and lawyer, Taulbee was elected to the House in 1884. He left office in 1889, after journalists divulged what was then called "the Patent Office scandal."
Taulbee was a tall, burly, good-looking fellow in his later 30s, married to a woman named Lou Emma. In one photo (no longer on the net), he somewhat resembles a young Tom Selleck. The journalist who ended his career, and his life, was named Charles Kincaid. To visualize him, imagine Wally Shawn -- or maybe "Frohike" from the X-Files
-- compacted to a size under five feet and less than 100 pounds.
He had it in for William Taulbee.
Kincaid discovered that Taulbee had developed a strong affection for a plump, blue-eyed brunette named Laura Louisa Dodge. (Back then, "plump" was a good
adjective. One source calls her a blonde.) She was 17 -- probably 16 when they first met.
Nowadays, Taulbee would be called a pedophile. No-one would believe his protestations that Laura had lied about her age, even though she had. In 1890, people were a little more sensible about these matters.
Taulbee found Laura a cozy position (so to speak) in the patent office, where he visited her nearly every day. The affair first came to light with these words, published in the Washington Post
The model-room of the Patent Office is known as "Lovers Retreat" at the Interior Department, because at the lunch hour all the flirting clerks repair to it to carry on their little schemes and designs. The cases which contain the models are so thickly placed that they offer protection from prying eyes. One day last week Attendant Gill, of the model-room, was passing along, when his attention was attracted by seeing a man and a girl behind one of the cases in a very compromising position.
That story appeared in December, 1887. Taulbee's name did not appear in print, although the article indicated a congressman from Kentucky. D.C. insiders snickered. This was an amusing anecdote, not a matter for serious investigation.
The story would have soon disappeared from memory if not for the efforts of Charles Kincaid, a Louisville reporter (who, like his target, had once passed the bar). Kincaid kept pursuing the case, divulging the names and all the sordid details to the folks back home in Kentucky.
In those days, polling agencies could not reveal whether the constituents were in a forgiving mood. Taulbee decided to serve out his term without offering his name for renomination. History does not record what he told Lou Emma, but one can guess.
Taulbee became a lobbyist and continued to work on Capitol Hill, which also remained Kincaid's beat. The two ran into each other on several occasions. Kincaid could not resist verbally taunting the physically imposing former congressman. Eventually, Taulbee took to picking up Kincaid by the nose or the ear, as a way of expressing disdain.
Accounts vary as to what really happened on February 28, 1890. We know that the two men met twice on that day.
It is said that during the first encounter, in the morning, Taulbee picked up his diminutive taunter on the pretext that he could not otherwise see him. At some point, Kincaid blurted out: "I am not armed."
"Then you had better be," replied Taulbee.
Later that day, Taulbee met up with Kincaid again, on the marble eastern staircase, which is Y-shaped: Two opposing stairways converge at a landing. When I checked contemporary reports (remember microfiche?), I found odd disagreements as to details. In a version published by the New York Times
, Kincaid insulted Taulbee, who responded by trying to lift the smaller man by his ears.
Spurred by the congressman's earlier warning, Kincaid had carried a concealed weapon into the Capitol Building. He shot Taulbee in the face. The bullet lodged in his brain.
In another version, Kincaid stood some ways away on the opposing staircase. He shouted "Can you see me now
?" before firing.
Obviously, the latter scenario (which I consider the likeliest) places Kincaid in a far more precarious position from a legal standpoint. If Taulbee had physically assaulted him, Kincaid could claim self-defense. Either way, I believe the journalist had concocted a scheme to exact vengeance for his earlier humiliations.
The contemporary New York Times
coverage surprised me. All sympathy went to fellow journalist Charles Kincaid, who collapsed in a nervous fit and spent days in a sick bed. Reporters barely mentioned Taulbee, who did not
die instantly. He was taken to a hospital, where he managed to hang on for a remarkable 11 days. One of the doctors attending him was his own brother. When William Taulbee finally died, the NYT gave his passing only a perfunctory mention.
At trial, Kincaid was declared innocent on the grounds of self-defense. I think he was guilty. Obviously, one cannot speak with certainty about his motives at this historical remove. He died in 1906.
Laura married well, became a society matron, and lived until 1959.
So what does this story tell us about sexual and political mores, then and now?
Taulbee's indiscretion was, by any reasonable measure, far worse than Anthony Weiner's -- yet both Taulbee's fellow congressmen and the Washington press corps seemed to consider the matter worthy of no more than a few bawdy chuckles. Matters came to a head only when Kincaid fixated on Taulbee; even after exposure, the congressman was allowed to serve out his term. Although one can't psychoanalyze long-dead individuals, it seems clear that the rodent-like journalist felt an intense jealousy toward the tall congressman whom ladies considered attractive. Even after Taulbee left office, envy prodded Kincaid to keep heckling his target. Eventually, the newsman went in for the kill.
Many now wonder why Weiner -- who did not commit adultery, and whose indiscretion was more silly than sexy -- had to go, while other politicians are allowed to keep their offices even after they've been caught "hiking the Appalachian Trail" (so to speak). Perhaps the answer has to do not with the scale of the offense but the nature of the adversary.
Do not discount the role played by individual psychology. For an act of political violence, the only necessity is one vindictive little man -- "little" in the truest sense of the word -- who won't stop until he tastes blood.
Of course, smallness comes in many varieties. In recent days, I've learned that some right-wing Jews have said some ugly things about Weiner's marriage to a woman of Arab heritage. That intolerance is, in my view, very
Those who follow such matters insist that three ghosts walk the Capitol Building. One is John Quincy Adams, who died during a debate in the House in 1848. Another is the legendary Demon Cat -- affectionately known as DC -- a spectral tabby who grows, in mid leap, to the size of a saber-tooth tiger. DC supposedly shows up just before a national tragedy, although he has neglected his duties in recent decades.
The third is the shade of William Taulbee.
I once started a screenplay inspired by that bit of folklore. A woman inherits her husband's congressional seat after he dies in an absurd accident. (Think Sonny Bono.) The ghost of Taulbee, who has had the chance to observe Washington for many years, shows up to tell her how to outsmart the malign forces trying to manipulate her. The story turns into The Ghost and Mrs. Muir
on Capitol Hill.
Maybe I ought to get back to that one...