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Treasures from the Capitol Museum: Three Governors

August 18, 2014
Reporters crowded around the Georgia Supreme Court Decision in March 1947

In the summer of 1946, Eugene Talmadge claimed the Democratic primary thus ensuring the title of governor because the Republican Party didn’t have a nominee. Indeed, in November 1946, in poor health, Eugene was elected Governor of Georgia. Preparations started for his prestigious inauguration aimed to be held in January, 1947. However, on December 21, 1946, the poor health of Eugene Talmadge finally gave up. Eugene died without a successor and without being officially inaugurated as Governor of Georgia.

About two years earlier in 1945, Georgia wrote a new state constitution creating the position of Lieutenant Governor who would become chief executive if the Governor died in office. So, does that mean that the newly elected but not yet inaugurated Lieutenant Governor Melvin Thompson would then become the next Governor of Georgia? Thompson thought so, but not everyone agreed. The controversy formed because Eugene was never technically inaugurated as Governor and Thompson wasn’t technically inaugurated as Lieutenant Governor either.

So the General Assembly convened on January 14, 1947 to elect Georgia’s new Governor. Legend has it that some of Eugene’s followers found a shaky precedent giving the state legislature permission to choose the next Governor. Since there was no Republican nominee, some of Eugene’s legislative supporters figured they could then write-in a candidate with enough votes to be second or third to what Eugene had. So, they chose Eugene’s son Herman on January 15, 1947 (where they may or may not have forged some fake votes). Naturally, Thompson was not too happy, so he appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court.

All the while, outgoing Governor, Ellis Arnall, decided that this was a great big mess. So he declared that he wasn’t going to leave office until it was set in stone who the new Governor would be. This infuriated Talmadge supporters (who didn’t like Arnall’s policies) causing fights between the different groups. The night Herman was elected by the General Assembly, Arnall refused to leave his office—literally. So Herman set up camp in the executive secretary’s desk while Arnall holed away in the governor’s office. The next day, Herman got into the governor’s office and changed the locks. So, Arnall took up camp at the information kiosk inside the Capitol.

Thus Georgia had three governors.

Luckily, Secretary of State Ben Fortson took the state seal home every night during this mayhem ensuring no one had the ability to authorize any official documents.

In the end, the Georgia Supreme Court has the last call. They declared in March 1947 that Melvin Thompson was the true governor until a special election could be held in September 1948. When September rolled around, Herman Talmadge crushed Thompson in an easy victory.

You can find this story and more on the New Georgia Encyclopedia or by taking a Capitol Museum Tour.

Photo Courtesy of the Capitol Museum

About the Author

Bethany McDaniel is the Interactive Web Content Manager for GeorgiaGov. She graduated from Berry College in Rome, GA with degrees in Visual Communication and History.