A Historic Killing in the Capitol Building

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William Taulbee

Congressman William Preston Taulbee was shot and killed inside the Capitol in 1890. The gunman, journalist Charles Kincaid, had written an article that had ended Taulbee's political career. Courtesy of Virginia Hinds Burton hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Virginia Hinds Burton

This 1887 headline in The Louisville Times sparked a feud between Kincaid and Taulbee that would end in Taulbee's death. University of Kentucky hide caption

toggle caption University of Kentucky
Washington Post Article

Further coverage of the Taulbee scandal appeared in The Washington Post in December, 1887 Proquest Historical Newspaper Database hide caption

toggle caption Proquest Historical Newspaper Database
Chicago Tribune Article

The story of the shooting grabbed headlines across the country, such as this article from The Chicago Tribune, published in March, 1890. Proquest Historical Newspaper Database hide caption

toggle caption Proquest Historical Newspaper Database
Staircase i

These marks on the marble staircase in the Capitol are said to be blood stains from Taulbee's shooting. Peter Overby hide caption

toggle caption Peter Overby

These marks on the marble staircase in the Capitol are said to be blood stains from Taulbee's shooting.

Peter Overby

In 1887, William Preston Taulbee's congressional career ended with this headline:

"Kentucky's Silver-Tongued Taulbee Caught in Flagrante, or Thereabouts, with Brown-Haired Miss Dodge."

The story was written by another Kentuckian, Charles Kincaid, who was the Washington correspondent for The Louisville Times.

The facts of the scandal are still debated.

But Taulbee did not seek re-election. Instead, he did what lawmakers often do: He became a lobbyist.

Over the next two years, Taulbee and Kincaid ran into each other at the U.S. Capitol. Each considered the other a low-life, not a gentleman.

Taulbee would deliberately insult Kincaid, says Kentucky state historian James Klotter. As they passed each other the congressman would pull on the reporter's nose or ear.

The message was, says Klotter, "You're not worth fighting, I'm either gonna tweak your nose or pull your ear."

The Bloodied Stairway

On Feb 28, 1890, Taulbee and Kincaid met for the last time, on a marble stairway.

Taulbee could have overpowered Kincaid with ease, says Senate historian Donald Ritchie. He describes the former congressman as a "mountaineer," a "tall and sinewy" man. The journalist, on the other hand, was barely five feet tall, weighed less than 100 pounds, and was in very poor health.

Earlier that day, as Taulbee entered the House chamber, he and Kincaid had exchanged insults. Taulbee had thrown Kincaid around by the collar. Kincaid went home for his pistol.

Around 1:30 that afternoon, Taulbee and a friend headed downstairs to lunch at the House dining room.

The stairway is in a "Y" shape — twin staircases from the second floor to a landing, and a single flight from the landing to the first floor.

Taulbee and his friend took one staircase, and reporter Kincaid took the other. Kincaid caught up to them just below the landing, says historian Donald Ritchie.

"Can you see me now?" Kincaid reportedly said to the congressman.

As Taulbee turned toward Kincaid, his friend fled, leaving no eyewitnesses.

The reporter fired. The bullet went in under the former congressman's eye.

According to Ritchie, Taulbee bled profusely on the stairs:

"A policeman came rushing up and said, 'Who is responsible for this?' Kincaid was still standing [on the steps] and said, 'I did it.'"

A stain survives to this day on the marble stairs at the place where Taulbee was shot. It is rumored to be the stain left by the former congressman's blood.

The Aftermath

Taulbee died 11 days after he was shot. Kincaid was charged with murder, but a jury called it self-defense and acquitted him.

The case fueled a drive for congressional reform.

"Concern with corruption, concern with the civility on Capitol Hill, all of a sudden became things the public was thinking about," says Boston University historian Julian Zelizer.

Kincaid died in Cincinnati in 1906 still working as a reporter.

A Family's Loss

Over the years, the story morphed into a spicy bit of political lore. But Taulbee left a wife and five children, and the family felt the loss.

"In my family, this was a tragedy," says Virginia Hinds Burton, the great-granddaughter of William Preston Taulbee.

And Burton says some of the "history" about Taulbee is wrong. It was rumored that Taulbee's wife left him. Not so, Burton says, pointing out that the two are buried side by side.

Burton says the established facts are grim enough.

"My great-grandfather was murdered," she says. "And his murderer got away with murder. And five boys were left without a father. A wife was left without a husband to support her."

The story — one of Capitol Hill's stranger sagas — endures.

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