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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Rivalry and unsportsmanlike conduct were at the heart of a scandal between a journalist and a congressman that's left its mark on Capitol Hill. It happened in February of 1890, when a newspaper reporter discovered Kentucky Congressman William Preston Taulbee in a compromising position.

NPR's Peter Overby investigated what came next and why some believe you can still see stairs stained red with blood inside the U.S. Capitol.

PETER OVERBY: William Preston Taulbee's congressional career ended in 1887 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, Washington correspondent for The Louisville Times. The facts are still debated, but Taulbee did not seek re-election. He did what lawmakers often do - became a lobbyist.

For the next two years, lobbyist Taulbee and reporter Kincaid would run into each other at the Capitol. Each considered the other a low-life, not a gentleman. Kentucky state historian James Klotter says Taulbee would be deliberately insulting.

Mr. JAMES KLOTTER (Kentucky State Historian): Either pulled his nose - of Kincaid - or pulled his ear. The versions differ. In essence, you're not worth fighting, I'm just going to tweak your nose or pull your ear.

OVERBY: I'm standing on the marble steps where former Congressman Taulbee and reporter Kincaid met for the last time. It was February 28, 1890. Donald Ritchie is a Senate historian who studied the case. He joined me here at the stairs, the stairs with the stains on them.

Ritchie says Taulbee could have easily overpowered Kincaid. The former congressman…

Mr. DONALD RITCHIE (Senate Historian): A very tall, sinewy man - a mountaineer.

OVERBY: Versus the journalist…

Mr. RITCHIE: Under five feet tall, he weighed less than 100 pounds, and in very poor health.

OVERBY: Earlier that day, Taulbee and Kincaid had exchanged insults as Taulbee entered the House chamber. Taulbee had thrown Kincaid around by the collar. Kincaid went home for his pistol. Around 1:30 p.m., Taulbee and a friend headed downstairs.

Now the stairway's 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, reporter Kincaid took the other. Don Ritchie says Kincaid caught up with them right where we're standing just below the landing.

Mr. RITCHIE: Can you see me now? He said. There was no electricity in here at that time. There was just one little window up here that was casting light.

OVERBY: Taulbee began to turn toward Kincaid. His friend fled. The reporter fired. The bullet went in under the former congressman's eye.

Mr. RITCHIE: Taulbee bled quite profusely on the stairs. A policeman came rushing up and said, who is responsible for this? And Kincaid was still standing here and said, I did it.

OVERBY: So what we have here is blood, or isn't blood?

Mr. RITCHIE: Well, what we have here is a stain in the marble, which is just about the point where the shooting took place.

OVERBY: Taulbee died 11 days later. Kincaid was charged with murder. A jury called it self-defense and acquitted him. Congressional historian Julian Zelizer at Boston University says it fueled a drive for congressional reform -not unlike today.

Professor JULIAN ZELIZER (Congressional Historian): Concern with corruption, concern with the civility on Capitol Hill there all the sudden became something the public was thinking about.

OVERBY: Kincaid died in Cincinnati in 1906, still a reporter, apparently childless. Taulbee left a wife and five children. The family watched as the story morphed into a spicy bit of political lore.

Ms. VIRGINIA HINES BURTON (Mr. Taulbee's Great-Granddaughter): I'm the great-granddaughter of William Preston Taulbee. In my family, this was a tragedy.

OVERBY: Virginia Hines Burton met me at a coffee shop near her home outside Washington. She says some of the history is just wrong. For instance, that Taulbee's wife left him. She says they're buried side by side. Burton says the reality was bad enough.

Ms. BURTON: My great-grandfather was murdered, 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.

OVERBY: It's one of Capitol Hill's stranger sagas, one that involved real people - a detail that can get overlooked then and now.

Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: And you can read some of the original news coverage of the Taulbee scandal at npr.org.

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