– Chronicle editorial after Tom Watson’s death in 1922
Georgia’s decision to move the statue of Thomson’s Tom Watson from our Capitol’s main entrance was cheered Monday by many familiar with the sinister side of the old Populist’s politics.
And in some celestial newsroom I imagine many former Augusta Chronicle editors are applauding as well.
That’s because Watson and this newspaper spent three decades in a bitter political feud unsurpassed in The Chronicle’s 228-year-old history.
It began as a political disagreement in the 1890s.
Then-U.S. Congressman Watson, previously supported by The Chronicle and its famous editor Patrick Walsh, switched from being a Democrat to a Populist.
Walsh was furious and he called Watson “a grandstand player” and “a traitor.”
He also accused him of “preaching a war of the poor against the rich.”
When Watson’s re-election came up in 1892, The Chronicle switched its support to Maj. James C.C. Black.
It was not only an ugly campaign, but it also was a deadly one.
In his editorials, Walsh attributed three homicides, including that of a Richmond County deputy sheriff, to Watson-inspired campaign violence.
The Democrats defeated Watson, although some suspicious voter fraud helped. It was noted, for instance, that more Democrats voted in Richmond County than were registered.
Walsh died in 1899, and the next decade saw Watson and The Chronicle bark at each other at every opportunity.
For example, The Chronicle once ran a full-page report with the fully capitalized headline: “HOW TOM WATSON HAS ABUSED PRACTICALLY EVERY MAN OF PROMINENCE IN AMERICA FROM CHRISTOPHER COLUMBUS DOWN TO WOODROW WILSON.”
Below it were dozens of examples, many a paragraph or two, repeating Watson’s commentary on just about every prominent politician, judge and educator in Georgia and America.
Watson called out the Catholic Sisters of Mercy and Booker T. Washington for their perceived transgressions, and his thoughts on the growing movement toward women’s suffrage, included mild sexual innuendoes.
Things grew particularly testy, however, when a new Chronicle editor, Tom Loyless, challenged Watson over the Leo Frank murder trial.
Frank, a Jew, had been convicted in Atlanta of the brutal assault and death of a teenage female employee of the pencil factory he managed.
Many at the time and most folks today think Frank was innocent, convicted in a wave of anti-Semitism stirred up by people such as Watson.
Watson had a nationwide reputation for his published attacks on Catholics, blacks and Jews, and he really didn’t like Frank. When Georgia Gov. John Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence, Watson did not respond charitably.
Neither did others, and a mob dragged Frank from his prison cell and lynched him.
Loyless and The Chronicle, which had earlier praised Slayton for helping Frank, reacted quickly, demanding that members of the mob be hunted down and brought to justice. Loyless also blamed Watson for inciting such an act in a Chronicle editorial: “Tom Watson has cost Georgia more than ten thousand good and true men can rebuild in twenty years,” he wrote.
Loyless soon left Augusta and Watson remained in Thomson, successfully being elected to the U.S. Senate in 1920.
When he died in 1922, the state buried him with honors and The Chronicle buried its editorial hatchet, writing: “we were diametrically opposed to him, but all is over with him now, and we hope all’s well.”