Wool-Hat Dictator

By all accounts, Eugene Talmadge was a dictator who strong-armed his way through Georgia politics in the 1930s, who admitted to stealing from the state treasury — and who was elected governor four times in spite of it all.

By "Altoona Tribune"(Altoona, PA). [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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In 1940, Eugene Talmadge was elected governor of Georgia for the third time, in spite of the fact that he admitted to stealing from the treasury, that he overrode the democratic process, and that he generally ran the state as an autocrat. In “Wool-Hat Dictator,” Rufus Jarman outlines some of the often-questionable tactics Talmadge used to build and maintain his popularity.

Talmadge was elected to the governorship a fourth time in 1946 but died before his January inauguration.


Originally Published June 27, 1942

The people who hope to stop Gov. Eugene Talmadge’s march to dictatorship of Georgia at the polls this fall believe Ole Gene once characterized himself more accurately than anybody else could hope to do.

This was last fall, when Gene was groggier than he’s ever been, except for the time he took on Franklin Delano Roosevelt and lost by a knockout. Ole Gene had kicked out half the members of the state board of regents because they vigorously protested his having fired two prominent educators on the ground that they advocated coracial education in Georgia.

The regents felt that Gene had acted simply to set ablaze anti-Negro sentiment for political purposes. The Southern Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools, a powerful accrediting body, voted to suspend Georgia colleges from membership on grounds of “political interference” by Talmadge — an action professionally damaging to graduates of the institutions.

The situation was serious. Talmadge disappeared from Atlanta into a retreat where he hoped to find restoratives for his faith in Talmadge. At this point he asked a reporter what his enemies were thinking about him in connection with the university row. “Do they think I’m a damned fool?” he wanted to know.

“Well, governor,” the reporter opined, “some think you’re a damned fool, some think you’re a dictator, some think you’re a demagogue, and some think you’re just a plain crook. A lot of others think you’re just as mean as hell.”

“I am,” said Talmadge; “I’m just as mean as hell.”

Among those who agree are Georgia university students, who hung Gene in effigy on the capitol lawn last fall and booed him from a football game; labor leaders, who will never forget that he broke the 1934 textile strike with troops; New Dealers, and a large section of middle-class Georgians.

But there is one type of Georgian who loves Gene Talmadge with a deep and undying love — the small farmer, the tenant farmer and sharecropper, men with bearded, sun-scorched faces, who wear overalls and big black hats, stiff with the sweat and grease of 20 summers. They’re called the “Wool-Hat Boys,” down in Georgia.

Talmadge has yelled so often about helping the “pore man” that they firmly believe him, although the Georgia poor man apparently grows poorer, no matter who is governor. They love Talmadge for his campaigns — gigantic medicine shows with whining fiddle music, corn likker, barbecue, watermelons, and a trained cast of performing stooges, topped off by Talmadge discussing state and national issues in homely cracker dialect.

Talmadge goes after the countryman’s vote because a county-unit system in Georgia allows three small counties to offset the vote of such counties as Fulton  — Atlanta — with almost half a million people. Gene has often said he never cared to carry a county that had a streetcar.

Georgia Lullaby 

The Country people shake their heads and say how smart Ole Gene was back in 1932 when an opposing gubernatorial candidate was speaking at Carrollton. A Talmadge cohort set fire to a field of dry grass on the edge of town, and the crowd streamed away from the speech to follow the fire engine, leaving the candidate an empty square.

And again in the 1940 campaign: The three candidates for governor spoke on the same program at several rallies. Talmadge always contrived to arrive with a company of followers after one of his opponents had begun his speech. Talmadge’s arrivals were greeted with cheers that shook the ground and drowned the speaker’s voice, although the crowds were made up of supporters of all three. Finally someone discovered that when Gene arrived a confederate slyly cut the speaker from the amplifying system, substituted a record of crowd noises, and turned the apparatus on full blast.

In appearance, Talmadge is lean and raw, with cold, suspicious eyes staring through horn-rimmed glasses. A shock of black hair hangs across his forehead. He has a jutting jaw and ham-brown complexion. His wide flat mouth clutches a black cigar and emits soothing words to the Georgia countryman. It’s a sort of lullaby for his poverty when he hears Talmadge shout:

“My fellow countrymen, when the big daily newspapers write me up as a great man and a great governor, you can bet your bottom dollar that Talmadge has sold you out. But when you see the smoke creepin’ out of the cracks and crevices, and when you hear weepin’ and wailin’ and gnashin’ of teeth comin’ outa the state capitol, I want you to pray for me to have strength to endure. For when that happens, I’m adoin’ somethin’ for the common people.”

Talmadge learned technique in a tough school of small-town politics at McRae, Telfair County, in the steamy reaches of Southeast Georgia, where the smoke from turpentine stills perfumes the air. Telfair was settled by turpentine and timber men from North Carolina, who brought the section a political dynasty which rules the county ruthlessly.

Talmadge, born of respected parents in Central Georgia, came to Telfair in 1908 after graduating from the University of Georgia Law School and a year of unspectacular practice in Atlanta. He was ambitious, but the local dynasty regarded him as an interloper. Although he lived in the section 18 years, Talmadge was never elected to county office. He was appointed solicitor of the city court of McRae in 1918 by Gov. Hugh M. Dorsey, a friend of his father. Later the state legislature abolished the court at the request of the county political ring.

After that Talmadge gained office again by supporting the only independent candidate to defeat the Democratic nominee in the history of Telfair. This happened because the Democratic nominee for county commissioner informed the courthouse janitor that he intended to give the cleaning job to someone else. The janitor, Ole Bill Harrell, was a poor man in dollars, but rich in relatives. They organized to save Bill’s job by backing for commissioner an independent, J.C. Thrasher, who at the time was having trouble holding his own job as county convict warden. Thrasher won the election with the support of Talmadge and the Clan Harrell.

The new commissioner named Talmadge county attorney. From then on, Gene ran the county — ran it, the grand jury said two years later, from assets of $15,000 to a deficit of $90,000. The jurors characterized the Talmadge-Thrasher administration as guilty of “ inefficiency and questionable transactions.” The state legislature again came to the rescue and abolished the offices of Gene and the commissioner.

When Talmadge was elected state commissioner of agriculture several years later he repaid his political debt to Thrasher by making him state pure food and drug inspector. Thrasher, a man with a huge stomach, performed the duties of his office by attending fairs and carnivals, and sampling food at every counter. He died several years ago.

Talmadge won the agriculture commissionership through some devious maneuvering involving the support of his old Telfair enemies. They backed him in the hope that he might be elected, move away to Atlanta and leave Telfair in their hands. Talmadge and his old enemies held several make-up meetings in the Odd Fellows’ Hall at McRae. They advised him to needle the incumbent commissioner of agriculture into a joint debate in McRae, population 1,500. They said they’d do the rest.

Watermelon Oratory 

The commissioner was J.J. Brown, political boss of Georgia for 10 years by virtue of a machine made up of several hundred fertilizer and oil inspectors he appointed. Five opponents announced against Brown in 1925. Talmadge, probably least known of all, shouted loudest. Brown, thinking he had a straw man primed for his torch, challenged Gene to three joint debates, the first to be held in McRae.

Gene’s friends, including almost everyone he’d ever represented in court, swarmed to the speaking grove, and several loads of watermelons were hauled there for their refreshment. Telfair officials were given seats on the platform and lines to recite.

Brown, a big, bearlike old fellow with a walrus mustache, long hair and a heavy gold watch chain across his middle, strode onto the platform, battle plumes waving. He denounced Talmadge’s records in office and attacked his legal ability.

After an hour of oratory, Commissioner Brown trundled himself to his seat with the air of a conqueror who has swept his enemy from the field. But his moment of triumph was brief.

Gene took his stance and bellowed a single sentence: “How many of you have I represented in the courts and what do you think of me as a lawyer?”

A chorus of eulogies burst; it appeared that Eugene Talmadge probably had given Mr. Justice Holmes instruction in the law. The Telfair officials chimed in. Even those not given parts in the scenario gave tongue.  “Be ye sure your sins will find ye out!” old man Quitman Cook, Telfair’s most devout citizen, screamed at Brown.

The perspiring Brown came close to tears of humiliation. News of his slaughter spread rapidly. Talmadge was the David who had felled Georgia’s Goliath. On election day he carried 140 counties to Brown’s 21.

With a group of cronies, Gene caught the returns over the radio. As his totals piled higher and the bottle passed faster, he strode here and there, pounding the backs of one and all, and shouting, “Look at them votes roll in! Ain’t I a runnin’ fool! I’m Talmadge — the Talmadge!”

The day he took office, June 26, 1927, Gene fired every employee of the commission of agriculture except the Negro porter, who couldn’t be located. Action was the new commissioner’s watchword; he immediately imposed stricter fertilizing regulations and sought higher tariffs on imports competing with Georgia products.

Gene’s efforts to impose a higher tax on dried milk and butter substitutes resulted in a Federal Court case in which there was considerable reference to the vitamins in butter substitutes and dried milk as compared with regular dairy products. One evening Talmadge, grouped with counsel around a bottle of Scotch, suddenly inquired, “Just what are these here vitamins?”

“Why, Gene,” a lawyer replied,” vitamins are something in food besides the regular nourishment. They make you feel good. They make you slick; make your hair shine.”

Man About Town 

Next day while Talmadge was on the witness stand, the presiding judge asked, “Mr. Talmadge, your counsel has made repeated references to vitamins. Can you tell this court what vitamins are?”

Counsel for Talmadge suffered a collective heart attack.

The witness crossed his knees, spat hard and true at a distant gaboon, and gave forth. “Well, judge, I had a hound dog once that was run down and pore, lean and sick. Then I began feedin’ him sweet milk and clabber —  both rich in vitamins — and he picked right up. His coat got slick and fine. That was because of vitamins, judge. They make you look slick; make your hair shine. I’m glad, judge, you asked me about vitamins.”

Talmadge’s six-year career as commissioner was notable for extracurricular activities, which drew an investigation by the state senate. When Gene moved to Atlanta he left down on the farm near Sugar Creek his three children and his wife, known as “Miss Mitt.” She wore overalls, rode horseback over the place, and yelled orders to Negro workers from atop a tall tree stump. Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Gene attended sporting events far and near, and was fast building a reputation as a man about town. Talmadge’s personal expenses charged against the state were some years more than six times those of his predecessor, the senate investigating committee charged.

Legislators were especially chagrined because Gene charged trips to the Kentucky Derby and other national sports events against the state.

The commissioner had a ready explanation. “I stopped all along the way and made inquiries about agriculture. You’ve got to keep up with things in agriculture these days.”

Peregrinating Pork 

But the senate was most outraged over $14,136.68 which, it was charged, Talmadge lifted from the treasury to “put the state in the hog business.” This probably was a sincere effort on Gene’s part to raise the price of pork, rather than to empty the political pork barrel. But Gene’s technique indicated that no matter how bad a lawyer he may have been, he knew a good deal more about law than about hogs.

Acting as a broker, the commissioner of agriculture rounded up 82 carloads of hogs and shipped them North to market. At the first stop, the price was too low, so the undaunted commissioner ordered the stock shipped to another, and another, and another. The pigs lost so much weight in their travels that the experiment went in the red $10,000, which Talmadge blithely paid from state funds. He said he used the rest of the $14,136.68 to pay department salaries.

The senate demanded impeachment, but the legislature had enough Talmadge men. Instead, they demanded that Gene run for governor the next year. His campaign was loaded with sure-fire appeal for the Wool-Hat Boys from hill and hollow.

The candidate promised to reduce all automobile and truck license tags to three dollars. About the embarrassing matter of the $14,136.68, he told countrymen, “Yas, I tuck the money. But if I stole it, I stole it for you.”

He painstakingly constructed a masterpiece of a rabble-rouser as a campaign address and delivered it 200
times. A mobile claque always traveled with him from one speechifying to
another, and the inner guard saw to it
that recruits hit the Talmadge sawdust
trail at the proper moment. Stooges
included the Tree-Climbing Haggards From Danielsville. Of varying shapes and sizes, the numerous Haggards shinnied up pines near the platform and shouted down such encouragements as: “Tell us about Ole Sargon Tom Hardwick, Gene.” While serving a previous term as governor, Hardwick had endorsed the patent medicine Sargon, and the ethically fastidious Talmadge never allowed him to forget it.

Others of the troupe shrilled, “You tell ’em, Gene! Take off your coat, Gene!” This allowed Talmadge to display his political trademark, red galluses [suspenders]. Once an elderly stooge had fallen asleep when the time came to respond to Talmadge’s cue, “What do you think of that, brother?” The question was twice repeated, but the old fellow could only emit an unintelligible gobble. His false teeth had slipped out and fallen into the sand.

Another stooge, an old woman wearing a Mother Hubbard, tried to save the situation by instantly quavering into a Talmadge campaign song:

Talmadge red, Talmadge blue, 
I wish my name was Talmadge too. 

The star of Gene’s vaudeville troupe was Fiddlin’ John Carson, a hillbilly bard who played a 225-year-old fiddle while his daughter, Moonshine Kate, accompanied on the guitar. They assembled the crowds with such selections as the Three-Dollar Tag song, to the tune of Hesitation Blues. It went:

I gotta Eugene dog, gotta Eugene cat, 

Im a Talmadge man from ma shoes to ma hat.

Farmer in the cawnfield hollerin whoa, gee, haw,

Kaint put no thutty-dollar tag on a three-dollar car. 

Arriving when the crowd was sufficiently large and enthusiastic, Talmadge attacked the fertilizer companies and praised the “pore folks.” Then came a description of an imaginary baseball game in which Talmadge listed his nine opponents in fielding positions, himself at bat.

His two strongest opponents, John Holder and Tom Hardwick, were pitcher and catcher. The crowd went into ecstasies when Gene told how Catcher Hardwick would slap his mitt and shout, “Honest Jawn, Honest Jawn, th’ow Ole Gene that ole croo-o-oked ball.” Talmadge assured his hearers that he’d knock that “ole croo-o-oked ball” out of the lot  — a bit of humor that went over bigger in rural Georgia than anything since Punch and Judy.

Reaching his climax when he got around to his legal troubles, Talmadge shouted, “I bin afightin’ so hard up in Atlanta for you all, and I wouldn’t quit till finally they drug of me down to the jailhouse and shuk of the keys in ma face.”

Then he would pause, tuck in his shirt, brush his hair from his forehead, and conclude softly, “My fellow countrymen, the constitution makes the governor of Georgia immune from the processes of the courts. I want you to put me where they can’t enjoin me or mandamus [impel by court order] me. If you’ll just put me where they can’t law with me, I’ll run the rogues out of Georgia and make it a place where a decent man can make a livin’. They’s a big rock house out on a hill there in Atlanta that the state has provided for its governor to live in. And when Miss Mitt and me move in there, I want you boys to come to see us and bring us a ham.”

The Wool-Hat Boys swept Talmadge into the governorship, and they brought him hams — so many that he built a smokehouse back of the mansion. He grazed a milch cow on the gubernatorial lawn, and planted cotton in a small parkway in fashionable Ansley Park, “to show the people of Atlanta what cotton looks like, growin’.”

Talmadge struck swiftly when an unfriendly legislature refused to authorize his promised three-dollar license tag. The day after adjournment he legalized it by executive decree. The rush for cheap tags was terrific. Temporary license desks were set up all over the building, and Talmadge spoke from a balustrade.

The three-dollar tag became famous nationally. Thrifty motorists as far away as Brooklyn sent for them — and so saved several dollars a year, until the hometown police got wise.

The tag battle won, Talmadge sat as judge and jury for 19 days, trying members of the state public service commission, and ended by firing them all. He explained, “The big utilities companies paid high-powered lawyers to intimidate the old commissioners. I’ll appoint some high-powered damn fools to combat ’em.”

The members of the state highway board were next. They tried to fight back through the courts, but were escorted from office by troops when Talmadge proclaimed martial law.

Meanwhile, Talmadge was not neglecting his own entertainment, and expanded his country-boy-come-to-town good times. He traveled to Miami, New York, Cuba, and other pleasure spots, and was wined and dined in fashionable Atlanta homes. He once attended a formal reception leading a lean hound, apparently for future campaign use in case his social activities should reach the ears of the Wool-Hat Boys.

Gene’s most celebrated adventure was his trip to the Kentucky Derby in 1934 with W.E. Wilburn, state highway board chairman, and Taxi John Whitley, his favorite highway contractor and sugar daddy for many gubernatorial junkets. Entraining for Atlanta after the race, the three found no diner aboard, and dispatched the porter for sandwiches and coffee. He returned, saying the manager of the station restaurant had nothing big enough to hold the amount of coffee desired. Whitley took the Negro back to the restaurant and purchased a large urn of coffee. He returned in time to see the train sliding out of the Louisville station.

Clutching his urn and accompanied by the worried porter, Whitley hailed a taxicab and told the driver to catch the train at its first stop. They arrived too late. There followed a wild ride through the night as the flying cab attempted to overtake the train at Knoxville. The cab was stopped in one small town by the sheriff, who held the occupants for suspected kidnapping.

Aboard the train His Excellency and the highway chairman were having their own troubles. Whitley had the tickets for all three, and the conductor demanded payment. Talmadge refused, and the debate grew heated.

Back up the road, Whitley talked his way from the sheriff’s clutches. Over the long-distance phone he persuaded a rail official to hold the train at Etowah, Tennessee. His careening cab arrived some hours later to find a train waiting. But, unhappily, the official had ordered the wrong one held. Whitley instructed his driver to proceed to Atlanta by slower stages, and next morning drew up before the mansion in the dusty cab with the dreary Negro and the cold urn of coffee.

Talmadge easily won his second term in 1934 on the momentum of his first administration. His medicine show played a very successful return engagement. Sometimes his meetings were picketed by striking textile workers. He took this good-naturedly until the votes were in. Then he mobilized 2,270 guardsmen and crushed the strike within a few days. Later, the legislature refused to pass an appropriations bill. Talmadge ran the state on a cash basis, after ejecting the state comptroller general and treasurer. He smashed the treasury vault that the ousted treasurer had locked with an 82-hour time lock.

Having thus carried out for almost four years his march through Georgia, the state grew too small for Gene. He took a look at the national scene and began to belabor the Roosevelt Administration with the vigor he had used on his Georgia opponents.

Withered Grass Roots

Gene called the New Deal a combination of “wet nursin’, frenzied finance, and plain damn foolishness.” He inquired whether the president thought the American people “were dead or asleep or drunk.”

“You can’t borrow prosperity, nor drink yourself sober,” he said. The noise he made attracted the Liberty League, which saw in the wild Georgian an anti-administration stooge deep in the heart of Dixie. The league financed nationwide radio addresses and trips for Talmadge. Gene, now really on the big time, was mentioned not infrequently as presidential timber.

A much-publicized meeting in Macon, known as the “Grass Roots Convention of Goober Democrats,” was to consolidate Talmadge’s Southern following. A throng from all the old Confederate states was slated to attend, but actually only about 3,000 showed up, most of them Talmadge hirelings and Wool-Hat Boys. Speakers included the Rev. Gerald L.K. Smith, of the old Long mob; Thomas Dixon, author of The Klansman; and one bewhiskered old fellow who was not on the program, but who took the floor at the end of the meeting to announce that his daddy had “killed a sight of damn Yankees,” and he “wished he’d killed some more.”

Gene “gave it to ’em,” and “poured it on ’em,” but despite all his oratory, the meeting was a decided flop. People forgot about Talmadge as a possible President after that, and he was badly beaten that fall in his race for the U.S. Senate against the incumbent, Richard B. Russell Jr.

Two years later, Gene again ran for the Senate, saying no evil of the New Deal, but advocating a program of “40 acres and a mule,” which he was never able to explain. He lost by an eyelash to Walter F. George.

The Battle of the Three R

The field was fertile when he announced he would run for a third term as governor in 1940. Georgia was tired of the free-handed administration of E.D. Rivers, and Talmadge’s opposition was divided. The Wool-Hat Boys still loved him, although he was not the Talmadge of old. He had grown bony and wrinkled, and looked old. His clothes draped loosely. He was so ill that his advisers were afraid he could not finish the campaign. But politics acts as a tonic on Talmadge, and he won hands down, after a red-hot campaign.

The Wool-Hat Boys swarmed to town at Gene’s invitation to come and “tromp down the grass on the governor’s lawn.” One old cracker walked the 60 miles from Cartersville to Atlanta to bring Gene a live ’possum. They cheered when Gene ended his inaugural address: “Well, boys, I guess that’s about all. I gotta git in that office now and start some politics.”

Apparently encouraged by his landslide election, Gene flashed his old personality for several months. He dominated the legislature and engineered the defeat of a bill allowing construction of a gasoline pipeline that the president had declared essential to national defense. He increased the governor’s term from two years to four, effective next election. He secured the right to fire the state treasurer and comptroller general, both elective positions, and he got the power to appoint the state auditor. He awarded contracts almost at will, and secured power to transfer funds from one department to another. “I reckon,” he said, “I’m what you’d call a minor dictator. But did you ever see anybody who was much good who didn’t have a little dictator in him?”

Then came the fight with the regents. As it became apparent that Georgia colleges might lose their rating because of him, Talmadge became obviously worried. Perhaps he saw the shadow of another disaster similar to his anti–New Deal crusade. He talked vaguely of a “college education for every able-bodied boy and girl in Georgia.” Talmadge’s position became critical when the Southern Association suspended the Georgia schools. Then, at the depth of his difficulties, war came and Gene lost himself in the sound of gunfire. Crying out for a greater war effort, and so on, he diverted attention from the school situation. Bullets have been kinder to Eugene Talmadge than to his old pal, Huey Long, who once considered asking Talmadge to be his presidential running mate.

The Kingfish decided against Talmadge finally, and was reported as having said, “Gene Talmadge is all right, but he is too dumb for his ambition.” 

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