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William J. Goebel

In office
January 31, 1900 – February 3, 1900
Lieutenant J. C. W. Beckham
Preceded by William S. Taylor
Succeeded by J. C. W. Beckham

In office

Born January 4, 1856(1856-01-04)
Carbondale, Pennsylvania[1]
Died February 3, 1900 (aged 44)
Frankfort, Kentucky
Political party Democratic
Spouse(s) None[2]
Profession Lawyer

William J. Goebel (January 4, 1856 – February 3, 1900)[3] was an American politician who served as the 34th Governor of Kentucky for a few days in 1900 after having been mortally wounded by an assassin the day before he was sworn in. Goebel remains the only state governor in the United States to be assassinated while in office.[4]

A skilled politician, Goebel was well able to broker deals with fellow lawmakers, and equally able and willing to break the deals if a better deal came along. His tendency to use the state's political machinery to advance his personal agenda earned him the nicknames "Boss Bill", "the Kenton King", "Kenton Czar", "King William I", and "William the Conqueror".[5]

Goebel's abrasive personality made him many political enemies, but his championing of populist causes, like railroad regulation, also won him many friends. This conflict of opinions came to a head in the Kentucky gubernatorial election of 1900. Goebel, a Democrat, divided his party with self-serving political tactics at a time when Kentucky Republicans were finally gaining strength, having elected the party's first governor four years previously. These dynamics led to a close contest between Goebel and William S. Taylor. In the politically chaotic climate that resulted, Goebel was assassinated. The identity of his assassin remains an unsolved mystery.


Early life

Wilhelm Justus Goebel was born January 4, 1856, in Albany Township, Pennsylvania[6], the son of William and Augusta Goebel, immigrants from Hannover, Germany. The first of four Goebel children, he was born two months premature, and weighed less than three pounds. While his father served in the Union Army during the American Civil War, Goebel's mother raised the children alone, teaching them much about their German heritage. Wilhelm spoke only German until the age of six, but eventually embraced the culture of his birth country as well, including the adoption of the English spelling of his name.[5]

William J. Goebel.

Goebel's father moved the family to Covington, Kentucky on his return from military service in 1863. Young William attended school in Covington, and became an apprentice to a jeweler in Cincinnati, Ohio. He abandoned that trade, and after a brief stint at Hollingsworth Business College, became a student in the law firm of John W. Stevenson, who had served as governor of Kentucky from 1871 to 1877. Goebel eventually became Stevenson's partner and executor of his estate.[5] After graduating from Cincinnati Law School in 1877, Goebel enrolled at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio, but withdrew to support his family after the death of his father. After a few years of private practice, Goebel partnered with Kentucky state representative John G. Carlisle for five years, then rejoined Stevenson's practice in Covington as a partner.[1]

Personal characteristics

Goebel was never known as a particularly genial person in public. He belonged to few social organizations, and greeted none but his closest friends with a smile or handshake.[5] He was rarely linked romantically with a woman,[5] and is the only governor of Kentucky to never marry.[1] His physical features exacerbated his taciturn nature. Journalist Irvin S. Cobb remarked that Goebel's appearance was "reptilian," while others commented on his contemptuous lips, sharp nose, and humorless eyes. Neither was Goebel a gifted public speaker, eschewing flowery imagery and relying on his deep, powerful voice and forceful delivery to drive home his points.[5]

While lacking in the social qualities common to politicians, one characteristic served Goebel well in the political arena – his intellect. Goebel was well-read, and supporters and opponents both conceded that his mental prowess was impressive. Cobb concluded that he had never been more impressed with a man's intellect than he had been with Goebel's.[5]

Political career

In 1887, James W. Bryan vacated his seat in the Kentucky Senate to pursue the office of lieutenant governor. Goebel decided to seek election to the vacant seat representing the Covington area. His platform of railroad regulation and championing labor causes, combined with the influence of Stevenson, his former partner, should have given Goebel an easy victory, but this was not to be. A third political party, the Union Labor party, had risen to power in the area with a platform similar to Goebel's. However, while Goebel had to stick close to his allies in the Democratic party, the Union Labor party courted the votes of both Democrats and Republicans, and made the election close – decided in Goebel's favor by a mere fifty-six votes.[5]

A statue of Goebel stands in front of the Old State Capitol in Frankfort.

With only the two years remaining in former senator Bryan's term to distinguish himself before a re-election bid, Goebel took aim at a large and popular target: the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. A proposal from pro-railroad legislators in the Kentucky House of Representatives to abolish Kentucky's Railroad Commission was passed and sent to the Senate. Senator Cassius M. Clay responded by proposing a committee to investigate lobbying by the railroad industry. Goebel served on the committee, which uncovered significant violations by the railroad lobby.[7] Goebel also helped defeat the bill to abolish the Railroad Commission in the Senate. These actions made him a hero in his district. He ran for a full term as senator unopposed in 1889, and won another term in 1893 by a three-to-one margin over his Republican opponent.[5]

In 1890, Goebel was a delegate to Kentucky's fourth constitutional convention,[8] which produced the current Kentucky Constitution.[9] Despite the high honor of being chosen as a delegate, Goebel showed little interest in participating in the process of creating a new constitution. The convention was in session for 250 days; Goebel was present for just 100 of them.[5] He did, however, successfully secure the inclusion of the Railroad Commission in the new constitution. As a constitutional entity, the Commission could only be abolished by an amendment ratified by popular vote. This would effectively protect the Commission from ever being unilaterally dismantled by the General Assembly.[7]


Duel with John Sanford

In 1895, Goebel engaged in what many observers considered a duel with General John Lawrence Sanford. Sanford, an ex-Confederate and politician turned banker, had butted heads with Goebel before. Goebel's successful campaign to remove tolls from some of Kentucky's turnpikes had cost Sanford a good deal of money. Later, it was widely believed that Sanford blocked Goebel's appointment to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, then the highest court in the state.[10] In response to this, Goebel had written an article in a local newspaper referring to Sanford as "Gonorrhea John".[11]

The duel occurred as Goebel and two of his acquaintances went to cash a check in Covington. Goebel suggested they avoid Sanford's bank, but Sanford, standing outside the bank, engaged the trio in conversation before they could cross the street to another establishment. As Sanford greeted Goebel's friends, he offered his left hand, his right remaining on a pistol in his pocket. Goebel, noticing this and being likewise armed, clutched the pistol in his own pocket. Sanford asked Goebel, "I understand that you assume authorship of that article?" "I do," replied Goebel. Witnesses agree that both men fired their guns, but none could tell who fired first. Goebel was uninjured, the bullet passing through his coat and ripping his trousers, while Sanford was hit in the head. He died five hours later.[10] Though Goebel was acquitted, pleading self-defense, the incident would haunt his future political career.[5] The acquittal was also significant because of prohibitions against duelling in the Kentucky Constitution. Had Goebel been convicted, he would not have been eligible to hold public office.[12]

Goebel Election Law

Democrats, who controlled the General Assembly, felt that county election commissioners had been unjust in selecting local election officials, and that this injustice had contributed to the election of Republican governor William O. Bradley in 1895 and Republican president William McKinley in 1896. Goebel proposed a bill, known as the "Goebel Election Law," which passed along sharp party lines and over Governor Bradley's veto, created a three-member state election commission, appointed by the General Assembly, to select county election commissioners. This system proved to be just as manipulable as the one it replaced, allowing the Democratically-controlled General Assembly to appoint fellow Democrats to the election commission.[7]

Many voters decried the bill as a self-serving attempt by Goebel to increase his political power, and the election board remained a controversial issue until its abolition in a special session of the legislature in 1900.[8] Despite rising to the office of President Pro Tempore in 1896, Goebel became the subject of much opposition from constituencies of both parties in Kentucky after the passage of the law.

Gubernatorial election of 1899/1900

Three men sought the Democratic nomination for governor at the 1899 party convention in Louisville – Goebel, Wat Hardin, and William J. Stone. When Hardin proved the front-runner for the nomination, Stone and Goebel agreed to work together against him. Stone's supporters would back whomever Goebel picked to preside over the convention; in exchange, half of the delegates from Louisville, who were pledged to Goebel, would vote to nominate Stone for governor. Goebel would then drop out of the race, but would be allowed to name many of the other officials on the ticket. As word of the plan spread through the convention, Hardin dropped out of the race, believing he would be bested by the Stone–Goebel alliance.[5]

But Goebel took a calculated risk, reneging on the agreement once his man was installed as presiding officer. Hardin, seeing that Stone had been betrayed and believing he might yet be able to secure the nomination, re-entered the fray. After several chaotic ballots resulted in no clear majority for any of the three, Goebel's hand-picked chairman announced that the man with the lowest vote total in the next canvass would be dropped from the ballot. That turned out to be Stone. This put Stone's supporters in a difficult position. They were now forced to choose between Hardin, who was seen as being a pawn of the railroad industry, or Goebel, who had just turned on their man. In the end, enough sided with Goebel to give him the nomination.[5] Goebel's tactics, while not illegal, were unpopular with many and fractured the party.[13] A disgruntled faction calling themselves the "Honest Election Democrats" held a separate convention in Lexington and nominated John Y. Brown for governor.[7]

In the general election, Republican William S. Taylor defeated both Democratic candidates, but his margin over Goebel was a mere 2,383 votes.[11] Democrats in the General Assembly began leveling accusations of voting irregularities in some counties, but in a surprise decision, the Board of Elections created by the Goebel Election Law and manned by three hand-picked Goebel Democrats, ruled 2–1 that the disputed ballots should count, indicating the law gave them no legal power to reverse the official county results and that under the Kentucky Constitution the power to review the election lay with the General Assembly. The Assembly invalidated enough votes to give the election to Goebel. The Assembly's Republican minority was incensed, as were voters in traditionally Republican districts. For several days, the state hovered on the brink of a possible civil war.[5][7]

Assassination and aftermath

A sketch of the Goebel assassination that appeared in Harper's Weekly in 1900

While the election results remained in dispute, Goebel, despite being warned of a rumored assassination plot against him, walked flanked by two bodyguards to the Old State Capitol on the morning of January 30, 1900. Reports conflict about what happened next, but five or six shots were fired from the nearby State Building, one striking Goebel in the chest and wounding him seriously. Taylor, serving as governor pending a final decision on the election, called out the militia and ordered the General Assembly into a special session, not in Frankfort, but in London, Kentucky, a Republican area.[11] The Republican minority heeded the call and headed to London. Democrats resisted the call, many retiring to Louisville instead. Both factions claimed authority, but the Republicans were too few in number to muster a quorum.[10]

A plaque set in front of the Old State Capitol building marks where Goebel fell after being shot.

One day after being shot, the dying Goebel was sworn in as governor. In his only act in that capacity, Goebel signed a proclamation to dissolve the militia called up by Taylor, an order which was not heeded by the force's Republican commander. Despite the ministrations of 18 physicians, Goebel died the afternoon of February 3, 1900. Sympathetic journalists recalled his heroic last words as "Tell my friends to be brave, fearless, and loyal to the common people." Skeptic Irvin S. Cobb uncovered another story from some in the room at the time. On having ingested his last meal, the fallen governor supposedly remarked "Doc, that was a damned bad oyster." In respect of Goebel's displeasure with the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, the governor's body was transported not by the L&N direct line, but circuitously from his hometown of Covington north across the Ohio River to Cincinnati, and then south to Frankfort on the Queen and Crescent Railroad.[5]

Resolution of the election

With Goebel dead, tensions began to ease. The idea of Goebel's lieutenant governor, J. C. W. Beckham, as governor was more palatable to much of the opposition than civil war in the state, though many of them may have preferred war to a Goebel governorship. After a lengthy meeting, a bipartisan compromise was drafted which would have ended the matter. The terms called for Republican recognition of Goebel's rightful election (and Beckham's subsequent right to govern). Republicans would also remove the militia from Frankfort. Democrats would, in turn, extend immunity to any Republican official found to have ties to the assassination, stop contesting elections for other state offices, and work to pass a nonpartisan election reform bill. The agreement needed only Taylor's signature to become effective. Unwilling to relinquish his office, Taylor balked.[5]

Compromise having been exhausted, both sides agreed to litigate the matter. The Kentucky Court of Appeals found that the General Assembly had acted legally in declaring Goebel the winner of the election. That decision was appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States. Arguments were presented April 30, 1900, and on May 21, the justices decided 8–1 not to hear the case, allowing the Court of Appeals' decision to stand.[14] The lone dissension was that of Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan, a Kentucky native.[10]

Trials and investigations

During the ensuing assassination investigation, suspicion naturally focused on deposed governor Taylor, who fled to Indianapolis, Indiana under the looming threat of indictment.[8] The governor of Indiana refused to extradite Taylor, and he was thus never questioned about his knowledge of the plot to kill Goebel. Taylor became a successful lawyer in Indiana, and was pardoned in 1909 by Beckham's successor, Republican Augustus E. Willson.[11]

Sixteen people, including Taylor, were eventually indicted in the assassination of Governor Goebel. Three accepted immunity from prosecution in exchange for testimony. Only five ever went to trial, two of those being acquitted.[4] Convictions were handed down against Taylor's Secretary of State Caleb Powers, Henry Youtsey, and Jim Howard. The prosecution charged that Powers was the mastermind, having a political opponent killed so that his boss, Governor Taylor, could stay in office. Youtsey was an alleged intermediary, and Howard, who was said to have been in Frankfort to seek a pardon from Taylor for the killing of a man in a family feud,[11] was accused of being the actual assassin.[4]

The trials were fraught with irregularities. All three judges were pro-Goebel Democrats,[11] and at one point the juror pool of 368 people was found to have only eight Republicans. Republican appeals courts overturned Powers' and Howard's convictions, though Powers was tried three more times, resulting in two convictions and a hung jury and Howard was tried and convicted twice more. Both men were pardoned in 1908 by Governor Augustus E. Willson.

Youtsey, who received a life sentence, did not appeal, but after two years in prison, he turned state's evidence. In Howard's second trial, Youtsey claimed that ex-governor Taylor had discussed an assassination plot with Youtsey and Howard. He backed the prosecution's claims that Taylor and Powers worked out the details, he acted as an intermediary, and Howard fired the shot. On cross examination, the defense pointed out contradictions in the details of Youtsey's story, but Howard was still convicted. Youtsey was paroled in 1916 and was pardoned in 1919 by Democratic governor James D. Black.[4][5][11]

Most historians agree that the assassin of Governor Goebel will never be conclusively identified.[4]

See also


  1. ^ a b c Powell, Robert A. (1976). Kentucky Governors. Frankfort, Kentucky: Kentucky Images. OCLC 2690774. 
  2. ^ Lowell H. Harrison, ed (1985). "William Goebel 1856–1900". Kentucky's Governors. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813115396. 
  3. ^ of Kentucky_pg4.htm "Chronological Listing of Kentucky’s Governors: 1879–1907". Kentucky Department of Libraries and Archives. 2006-02-15. of Kentucky_pg4.htm. Retrieved 2007-01-13. 
  4. ^ a b c d e Kleber, John E., ed (1992). "Goebel Assassination". The Kentucky Encyclopedia. Associate editors: Thomas D. Clark, Lowell H. Harrison, and James C. Klotter. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813117720. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Klotter, James C. (1977). William Goebel: The Politics of Wrath. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813102405. 
  6. ^ Heverly, Clement F., History and Geography of Bradford COunty Pennsylvania, 1615-1924. Towanda, PA: Bradford County Historical Society. 1926. p 469
  7. ^ a b c d e Hood, Fred J. (1978). "Goebel's Campaign for Railroad Regulation, 1888–1900". Kentucky: Its History and Heritage. St. Louis, Missouri: Forum Press. ISBN 0882730193. 
  8. ^ a b c Kleber, John E., ed (1992). "Goebel, William". The Kentucky Encyclopedia. Associate editors: Thomas D. Clark, Lowell H. Harrison, and James C. Klotter. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813117720. 
  9. ^ "Constitutional Background". Kentucky Government: Informational Bulletin No. 137 (Revised). Frankfort, Kentucky: Kentucky Legislative Research Commission. February 2003. 
  10. ^ a b c d Woodson, Urey (1939). The First New Dealer, William Goebel: His origin, ambitions, achievements, his assassination, loss to the state and nation; the story of a great crime. Louisville, Kentucky: The Standard Press. 
  11. ^ a b c d e f g McQueen, Keven (2001). "William Goebel: Assassinated Governor". Offbeat Kentuckians: Legends to Lunatics. Ill. by Kyle McQueen. Kuttawa, Kentucky: McClanahan Publishing House. ISBN 0913383805. 
  12. ^ "The Constitution of the Commonwealth of Kentucky: Informational Bulletin No. 59" (PDF). Kentucky Legislative Research Commission. October 2005. Retrieved 2007-10-09. 
  13. ^ Kleber, John E., ed (1992). "Music Hall Convention". The Kentucky Encyclopedia. Associate editors: Thomas D. Clark, Lowell H. Harrison, and James C. Klotter. Lexington, Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 0813117720. 
  14. ^ "Taylor v. Beckham, 178 U.S. 548 (1900)". Retrieved 2007-03-06. 

Further reading

External links

Political offices
Preceded by
William S. Taylor
Governor of Kentucky
Succeeded by
J. C. W. Beckham


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