Wearing red galluses and black wire-framed glasses, Eugene Talmadge captivated throngs of voters with his populist agenda and attacks on progressivism. During his time, there were only two groups–those who were for him and those who were against him. And if you were against Ole Gene, you were a communist. Out of the ten times he ran for a State-wide office, Talmadge won seven elections.
Talmadge is remembered for causing controversy with his fiery rhetoric and political schemes. But Talmadge’s biggest controversy was created by something that comes for every man: his death. Talmadge entered the 1946 gubernatorial primary running—in part—on a platform opposing two recent court rulings that undermined Georgia’s “white primary” system. See King v. Chapman, 62 F. Supp. 639, 640 (M.D. Ga. 1945); Smith v. Allwright, 321 U.S. 649, 664-66(1944).
The incumbent, Ellis Arnall, could not run for re-election due to term limits. Talmadge faced stiff opposition in the Democratic primary from James Carmichael. But in the end, Talmadge’s fiery rhetoric earned him a victory. Interesting, Talmadge lost the popular vote but won a majority of the county-unit votes, which trumped the popular vote. Having won the primary, Talmadge was all but assured to be the next governor.
At the age of 62, Talmadge died in an Atlanta hospital a scant three days after winning the general election. Many supporters noticed Talmadge’s health deteriorating while he campaigned and keenly organized a write-in campaign on behalf of Eugene’s son Herman Talmadge. When Eugene died, the Talmadge supporters began politicking the legislature to tabulate the votes of the election and select the governor from the next highest vote getter. After the Telfair delegation “discovered” a few votes that weren’t originally counted, the legislature elected Herman Talmadge as governor in the early hours of January 15, 1947.
Ellis Arnall refused to recognize Herman’s election. On January 18, Thompson took the oath of office and became the first Lt. Governor of Georgia; he was immediately recognized by Attorney General Eugene Cook as the acting Governor. This prompted Arnall to finally resign. Thompson and Talmadge both asserted they were the rightful governor. Both attempted to carry out the functions of there office simultaneously, which of course only led to more conflict. Secretary of State Ben Fortson, who favored the anti-Talmadges, would take the state seal and hide it in the seat of his wheel-chair to prevent either party from taking it.
Most of the media, both national and local, favored Thompson and likened Talmadge to a king who seized power. State officials began picking sides between the two would-be governors and refused to honor the requests of the other side. The fiasco would come to an end in March when the Georgia Supreme Court decided the outcome of the election and ensuing crisis.
In the years since Thompson v. Talmadge was decided, historians have referred to this crisis as the “Three Governor’s Controversy.” A title that is somewhat misleading as no three individuals claimed to be Governor in the actual lawsuit, as Arnall was content to step aside for Thompson. The Georgia Supreme Court would hold that Thompson was the rightful Governor. Thompson never saw political success after his brief stint as Governor. Herman Talmadge, of course, would throughly defeat Thompson in a special election in 1948.