Kentucky attorney Eric C. Conn, who fled the country after pleading guilty to charges of Social Security fraud, was recently captured in Honduras and returned to the United States after being on the run for nearly six months. The international escape harkens back to the case of Kentucky treasurer “Honest Dick” Tate, who served from 1867 until 1888. Although Kentuckians had put great trust in Tate, he was anything but honest. And, like Conn, he fled the country.
Authorities never captured Tate. Although he was rumored to be hiding in several countries, his fate remains unknown.
James W. Tate was born in Franklin County on Jan. 2, 1831. As a teenager, he worked at the Frankfort post office. In 1859, at age 28, he became assistant secretary of state, a position he held until 1863. Two years later, he became assistant clerk of the House of Representatives.
In 1867, Tate used this experience and jovial personality to win election as treasurer. A trusted and beloved figure who supposedly enjoyed a good practical joke, he served 10 consecutive terms.
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By 1886, Tate was so ingrained in this position that the Courier-Journal quipped, “There may not be another earthquake in Kentucky for 20 years, but no doubt the next one, come when it may, will find Dick Tate still holding the office of State treasurer.”
A year later, the paper again poked fun at Tate’s longevity, jokingly telling readers that he had served Gen. Andrew Jackson during the War of 1812 and had helped win the Battle of New Orleans. “He is a great old man and deservedly popular,” the newspaper later said.
Yet on March 14, 1888, Tate left his office, telling colleagues that he was going to Louisville for business. No one protested when he carried out large bags full of cash and coins. When he failed to return, it became apparent that he had absconded with state funds. When authorities sorted out his accounts, it showed that he had defrauded the state of nearly $250,000.
“Like a peal of thunder from a cloudless sky came the announcement this morning that State Treasurer James W. Tate was a defaulter,” the Courier-Journal wrote.
In addition to purchasing property with public money, Tate gave loans to friends and colleagues. When borrowers failed to repay, Tate cleaned out the vault and fled.
Although authorities offered a reward for his capture, Tate was never seen again. His wife and daughter reputedly received letters from him from Canada, South America and Asia.
Former Sen. N. W. Utley, who served as a missionary in Japan, might have met Tate. While in Japan, Utley came across a stranger who was surprisingly well versed in Kentucky history and politics. Years later, Utley realized that “he was probably the last Kentuckian who shook hands with and conversed with Dick Tate.”
Tate’s thievery had a long-term impact on the commonwealth. It made Kentuckians wary of elected officials remaining in office for extended periods. When the state’s fourth constitution was finalized in 1891, top leaders were barred from serving back-to-back terms. This changed with a 1992 constitutional amendment allowing two consecutive terms.
It is unknown when and where “Honest Dick” Tate died, but the legacy of this theft lives on through term limits for Kentucky’s top officials.
Stuart W. Sanders is the Kentucky Historical Society’s History Advocate.