The Late Governor Goebel

He fought, killed, and was killed. 

HUMANITIES, July/August 2013, Volume 34, Number 4

In the last days of the nineteenth century, Kentucky was the most violent state in the union. New York reported a few more murders, but that’s mainly because in some parts of Kentucky such records were not kept. Kentuckians fought, dueled, and killed all the time, over family grudges, property, railroads, turnpikes, insults, and especially politics. And, in politics, there was no tougher fighter than William Goebel, who killed and was killed, becoming the only American governor ever to die in office from an assassin’s bullet.

Violence in Kentucky escalated during the Civil War, and even increased in some areas after the war ended. The issues that had caused the war ripped Kentuckians apart. Families were as deeply divided as Henry Clay ’s grandsons, three of whom had joined the Union army while four others had fought in the Confederate army.

The northern section of the state, where Goebel was from, was urban, industrialized, and opposed to slavery; the western and southern sections were rural and agrarian. In September 1861, the state was predominantly Unionist. After the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, angry slaveholders in Kentucky turned their sympathies southward.

During Reconstruction, Northern Republicans arrived in the commonwealth with intentions of ending white rule and enforcing civil rights for blacks. They treated nearly all citizens, Union sympathizers included, as if they were raving rebels. That made a great many Kentuckians angry. The majority were Democrats who despised “Black” Republicans (so-called because they supported legal equality for blacks), formed a rock-solid voting block that intimidated African-American voters, and controlled the state for thirty years following 1865. Ex-Confederate politicians were especially popular, more so if they had lost an eye or a limb in the war.

When thirty-one-year-old William Goebel, a staunch Democrat, entered politics in 1887, Democratic power was beginning to decline. Economic conditions were poor; workers’ wages were low; farmers were steeped in debt; and taxes were high.

Not your typical Southern politician, not even a Southerner by birth, Goebel had no ties to the Confederacy. He was the son of German immigrants who had come to the United States in the 1850s after the reform movement in their native land failed. The Goebels believed in abolitionism and civil rights for women and blacks. William was born in Sullivan County, Pennsylvania, in 1856, and he spoke only German until he was six years old. After his father returned from a stint in the Union army, the family moved to Covington, in Kenton County, Kentucky. Across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Covington was the second largest city in the commonwealth, with thriving German and Irish immigrant communities.

After graduating from the Law School of the Cincinnati College, Goebel was invited to work in the law firm of ex-governor John White Stevenson. Stevenson admired the young man, whom he thought had an excellent legal mind and sound values, and he introduced Goebel to the Democratic party ’s key players, who welcomed him at first.

Under Stevenson, chief counsel for the Kentucky Central Railroad, and the politician-attorney John G. Carlisle, for whom he also worked briefly, Goebel became expert in contracts,corporations, and railroads. He observed how big businesses circumvented their responsibilities and put profits above their workers’ welfare. With no state laws regulating employment practices, the only way to redress abuses or negligence was through the courts.

In 1883, Goebel went into private practice and began taking on corporations and railroads, specifically the Louisville and Nashville Railroad (L&N), the largest rail network in Kentucky. Many overworked, underpaid railroad employees came to him, as did widows of men killed in train wrecks.

sepia map of louisville and nashville railroad lines

When he successfully defended railroad employees arrested for supporting the Pullman workers’ strike in 1894, Goebel not only paid the men’s bonds but did not charge a fee. They hailed him as their hero: “the railroad lawyer,” the “poor man’s lawyer,” the “champion of the common man.”

Over fifteen years, Goebel tried many cases against L&N and lost none. Settlements in most cases were large. By the time he was thirty, Goebel was rich and respected, but not without enemies.

In 1887, he won his first election—to the state senate, where he quickly became a leader. One of his first bills reduced the toll charges on Covington roads owned by  a corporation. These toll roads were profitable, and the state had invested in the corporations that built them. Ex-Confederate colonel, Covington businessman, and banker, John L. Sanford was furious because he owned stock in that corporation. In retaliation, he blocked Goebel’s chance to become a judge on the Court of Appeals. Sanford’s closest friends were Theodore Hallam and Harvey Meyers Jr., law partners and also ex-Confederate politicians who “managed” politics in Kenton County. This triumvirate watched the young senator ’s progress, interfering with it whenever they could.

Goebel argued vigorously for improving schools and for women to have the right to vote for school board members and to serve as school trustees and as members of the Board of Education. He wanted more rights for blacks as well. He favored regulations for doctors, restrictions on convict labor, better prisons, and free roads. He sided with legislation that was unfriendly to banking interests. He blamed Republicans for practically everything, but a number of Democrats came to rue his influence. His reforms made voters happy but infuriated the ex-Confederate ruling class.

Enraging L&N magnates, Goebel created a wish list of railroad regulations. He was determined to protect the Railroad Commission, make the railroads pay their fair share of taxes, and stop them from interfering with the state’s business. L&N lobbyists were ubiquitous. They worked all over the state, giving free passes, money, food, and whiskey to legislators and anyone else who had any influence in state or county government. The formidable Milton H. Smith, president of the most powerful monopoly in Kentucky, had been sitting in the catbird seat until lawyer-senator Goebel intervened.

During Goebel’s first term in office, the Railroad Commission increased the tax valuation on the property owned by L&N to over three million dollars—a dramatic increase that rankled Smith and his board of directors. Smith quickly began courting friendly legislators, urging them to pass a bill to abolish the commission. The bill did pass the House, but, in the Senate, Goebel and an investigative committee discovered that lobbyists had lavishly entertained legislators while they were in session. The committee sought an indictment against the lobbyists; they did not get one, but the pending bill to abolish the commission was killed.

Goebel worked tirelessly for a convention to rewrite the state constitution of 1850. A new constitution was required to comply with the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Kentucky’s Fourth Constitutional Convention began in September 1890, and the last thing L&N wanted was for Goebel to be a member of it. L&N knew that Goebel would use, as biographer James C. Klotter says, “the constitution as a vehicle to enact laws which he had not been able to pass in the more conservative legislature.”

Goebel did just that. He was successful in securing the Railroad Commission a place in the new constitution, which meant it could not be abolished except by a majority of voters. He was also instrumental in getting a method of railroad property tax valuation included. When the new constitution was finally passed, it also included child labor laws and a requirement that employers pay employees in lawful money, not company store checks.

Kenton County kept reelecting Goebel to the Senate, and his peers in the Senate elected him president pro tempore. According to the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette on April 13, 1895:

No man in the Senate was listened to with more respect and he almost invariably puts through measures he advocated. As a rule, Senator Goebel was a reticent and retiring man, but when he took to the floor to champion a measure, he was lightning. . . . He has done more than any man in Kentucky to break up certain corrupt rings, and the lobby hated him cordially, but at the same time feared him like a wrath to come.

Of course, not everyone in Kenton County was happy about Goebel’s ascension. John Sanford had been fuming since Goebel repealed the toll roads. Sanford’s temper flared again after Goebel represented a group of citizens opposed to increases in tolls on the bridge John Roebling had built between Covington and Cincinnati, another of Sanford’s investments. As many as seven thousand citizens who lived in Covington and worked in Cincinnati crossed that bridge to and from work. The last straw for Sanford came when Goebel moved three accounts—the city ’s, the county’s, and the schools’ deposits—from his bank to Frank Helm’s First National Bank of Covington. With that blow, Sanford, known for his quick temper, publicly stated he was going to kill Goebel or be killed.

What actually precipitated the incident between Goebel and Sanford involved what was called in those days “posting,” a noxious practice by which a person could anonymously publish insulting information about his enemy.

On October 11, 1899, the Hartford Herald, answering a reader ’s request for facts about the Sanford-Goebel shooting, published a report written by Dr. W. W. Tarvin, the coroner who conducted the inquest.

The Daily Commonwealth had for months been publishing articles “roasting” Goebel at every opportunity, and Goebel was informed that John Sanford was the author of those articles. In fact . . . Goebel was shown the original copies, and they were in Sanford’s handwriting. At last, probably exasperated beyond endurance, Goebel wrote and caused to be published in a little weekly sheet issued every Saturday an article in which he referred to Sanford in severe terms, and that was the immediate cause of the meeting on April 11, 1895.

Those “severe terms” appeared in The Ledger on April 6, 1895, in an article Goebel wrote explaining why voters should not support Sanford’s senatorial candidate, Joe Blackburn. Goebel referred to Sanford as “Col. John- Gon—h—ea Sanford,” thus announcing publicly that Sanford, a well-known public figure and a married man, had gonorrhea.

The shooting took place about 1:30 p.m. on April 11. Goebel and two friends, W. “Jack” Hendricks, then the attorney general, and Frank Helm, president of the First National Bank, were walking toward the bank in downtown Covington. Goebel was in the middle, holding his overcoat over his left arm. As they approached the bank, they saw Sanford standing on the bank steps and leaning on the railing with his left arm, his right hand in his pocket.

Helm said, “Hey, there’s Sanford.”

Goebel replied, “Yes, there’s the son of the bitch.”

Sanford greeted Helm and Hendricks curtly, shaking hands with his left hand, his right still in his pocket. He asked Goebel if he assumed responsibility for that recent newspaper article about him. Dr. Tarvin wrote: “Goebel answered promptly, ‘I do,’ whereupon Sanford with- drew his right hand from his pocket holding a revolver, thrust it forward quickly toward Goebel’s abdomen and fired, the ball cutting through Goebel’s coat and the lower edge of his vest,” but causing him no bodily harm.

The instant he saw Sanford reaching for his pistol, Goebel stepped back and dropped his coat, pulled out his pistol, and immediately fired back. The shots were so close one sounded like an echo. Goebel’s bullet struck Sanford in the forehead. Sanford fell forward on the steps and, without ever regaining consciousness, died an hour or so later.

According to the coroner, several people on the street witnessed the shooting and “the evidence clearly proved that Sanford drew his revolver and fired the first shot. The county judge, a Republican, . . . discharged Goebel as evidence showed that Sanford had threatened to kill Goebel, and had drawn and fired first.”

For a while, Goebel put off running for public office and instead devoted his energy to obtaining control of the political party machinery in his home county. To get reelected in 1897, he had to wrest control of Kenton County away from Sanford allies Theodore Hallam and Harvey Meyers. He started out in petty ward politics, organizing labor against capital and targeting any business financed by more than two owners. Before long, he had a smoothly running political machine with statewide influence. He had “his own men” holding offices in the city and the county governments, and each of “his” office-holders hired only “his men.” By 1897, Goebel had become Kentucky ’s first real boss. Even as Democrats became divided over the gold standard (which Goebel supported) and Democratic power began to decline, Goebel was being called “Kenton King.”

In 1899, tired of having to wrangle with the governor to get things done, Goebel decided to run for the office. In an era when nominating conventions were frequently loud and raucous, this nine-day Democratic convention, held in June at the old Music Hall on Market Street in Louisville, was, as the New York Times described it on June 24, “a continuous performance of howling farce . . . the most uproarious and disorderly body of men ever gathered together for the transaction of political or other business.”

The candidates were Parker Watkins (known as P. Wat and Polly Wolly) Hardin, a popular, handsome, ex-Confederate lawyer backed by L&N; William J. Stone, an ex-Confederate soldier who had lost a leg in the war and was backed by the free-silver populists and farmers, who hated the railroads; and William Goebel, who predicted in a letter to his brother that there was going to be “a hot fight between me and Hardin for the nomination.”

Through a secret agreement made with Stone during a midnight hack ride around Louisville the night before the convention, Goebel succeeded in getting his man, Circuit Judge David B. Redwine, elected temporary chairman instead of Hardin’s man, W. H. “Roaring Bill” Sweeney. Redwine’s election created an awful commotion: boos, jeers, hissing, cowbell-ringing, fistfights, and pistol-firing.

The temporary chairman seated more of Stone’s and Goebel’s delegates than he did Hardin’s, by 2-1. Thus, Goebel gained control over all the committees. Redwine also succeeded in getting Goebel’s platform adopted, which required the nominee to support the controversial new election law, the Chinn bill, and the McChord Railroad bill that L&N had fought so fiercely. With his campaign financed by L&N, Hardin could not accept the platform and asked that his name not be put in nomination, but his supporters ignored his request.

lithograph of a man being shot
Photo caption

Detail of "Hon. William Goebel, 'our martyred governor,'" printed by the Henderson Lithograph Company

Library of Congress

Nominations of Goebel, Stone, and Hardin were made on the fourth day of the convention, which had been so noisy and threatening that Redwine asked the chief of police to bring in some of his men before the voting began. For four days and nights, numerous rounds of delegate voting took place, with each candidate receiving about one-third of the votes. It was hot and humid in the cigar-smoke-filled hall, and delegates were tired and angry. Cowbells rang and horns blew while the band played “Dixie” over and over. Bored with the stalled votes, the delegates wanted to go home and reconvene at a later date. Then Goebel, sitting in a far corner of the stage and observing the bickering, stood up to speak, and the hall fell silent.

Goebel presented a resolution which required that after the twenty-fifth vote had been taken the man with the lowest total would drop out. They all agreed to that. Then Goebel took a gamble. He decided to throw enough of his votes to Hardin so that Stone ended the round as the lowest man. Goebel was betting that Stone’s people so hated Hardin and L&N that their votes would go to him. And that’s what happened. Goebel became the Democratic candidate for governor. His supporters cheered and threw their hats into the air.

The next day, the Courier-Journal, the largest and the most respected newspaper in the statecalled his success “the most masterly management ever witnessed in a Kentucky convention. . . . Goebel stamped himself a genius of political strategy.”

The silver-tongued orator William Jennings Bryan, whom Goebel had helped earlier, somewhat re- luctantly came to Kentucky to campaign with him. Bryan liked what Goebel stood for and admired his courage, but as a religious man he was offended by Goebel’s frequent use of profanity.

Appearing before a crowd of Democrats, Goebel’s old enemy Theodore Hallam recalled that he had once said that if the Democrats nominated “a yaller dog” for governor, he would vote for him. “So how come you’re against Goebel now?” someone asked. Indeed, Hallam allowed, he had said he would vote for “a yaller dog,”then added, “but lower than that ye shall not drag me!” Speaking in that same town later, Goebel fired back, saying that Hal- lam, a lobbyist for L&N, was “a drunkard and debauchee” with “the face of a cancerous beefsteak.”

On August 13, 1899, the Louisville Courier-Journal pointed out that Goebel’s real opponent in the race was L&N, not William Taylor. The paper published Goebel’s speech in which he read a letter that L&N’s chairman, August Belmont, sent him, saying that the railroad would do all that it could “to counteract the evil influence of your unjustifiable hostility.”

At all his stops, Goebel asked crowds if they wanted the Louisville and Nashville Railroad to be “the master or the servant of the people.” That question, especially in rural areas, brought cheers and the rousing response, “Servant!” Speaking in favor of unions, he stated: “I believe that the labor unions have just as much right to organize and protect themselves as have the operators and manipulators of the trusts.” Proud that he was a selfmade man, Goebel played up his own humble origins:

I have not had a powerful family connection nor wealth to aid me. I am not the chance bearer of a great name made famous by somebody else. I sprang from the ranks of the common people, and there is nothing under heaven’s sun of which I am prouder.

In his campaign speeches, Goebel talked about the close relationship his opponent, William Taylor, had with the railroads. He reminded his audience that Republican Governor Bradley had vetoed nearly every reform bill that Goebel and his colleagues had written. On many occasions, Goebel stated, “I believe that the railroad corporations should have a bit in their mouths and the Democratic party should hold the bridle.”

The railroad had always contributed to political campaigns, but never to this extent. Urey Woodson, Goebel’s close friend, explained that “Milton Smith took command of the campaign against Goebel. Smith made no secret of this and spared no money in attempting to organize the State to defeat Goebel.” In 1904, August Belmont, chairman of the L&N board, told Woodson that he and his associates spent more than $500,000 to defeat Goebel, adding, “We would have spent twice that much had we thought it necessary.”

The afternoon before Goebel was shot, Woodson asked his friend what he would do first after he had been sworn in as governor. Without hesitation, Goebel answered he would ask for a special grand jury and get an indictment against Milton Smith and his two cronies for criminal libel and put them in jail for at least two years.

Much to everyone’s surprise, on November 7, 1899, Goebel narrowly lost the election by a little over 2,000 votes. He took the news graciously, thanking his supporters and saying he planned to go home to rest awhile.

Goebel’s supporters, however, did not give up so easily. They identified thousands of ballots to be thrown out and convinced Goebel to ask for a recount. As specified in the state constitution, contested elections in the governor and lieutenant-governor races were to be decided by two Contest Committees, one for each office; each committee made up of eleven members of the legislature. Names of each legislator were written on separate slips of paper that were rolled tightly and dropped into a box. The clerk then shook the box and drew eleven names, reading each name aloud. The committee to decide on the governor ’s race had nine Democrats, one Republican, and one Populist, who, Klotter says, usually voted Democratic.

On the morning of January 30, 1900, shortly after 11:00, Goebel was walking briskly across the Capitol grounds with two friends. It was clear and cold that morning, but eerily quiet and vacant. Over the four preceding days more than a thousand armed mountain men from eastern Kentucky, a Republican stronghold, had blanketed the grounds. Governor Taylor and Caleb Powers, his secretary of state, had sent for them to protest the election recount and to intimidate the Contest Committee that was meeting.

The Louisville Courier-Journal declared, “Armed Mob of Mountaineers Invade Frankfort to Bully the Legislature.” Reports said L&N had brought the “Mountain Army ” to Frankfort free of charge, but the railroad denied it. That morning of January 30 not a single mountaineer was in sight.

When Goebel was a few feet from the broad steps of the entrance to the three-story state Capitol Building, a shot rang out from the Executive Building. A bullet struck Goebel in the chest on his right side. Trying to reach in his pocket for his pistol, he dropped to the ground. When he tried to rise, his friend Jack Chinn exclaimed, “Lie down or they will shoot you again.”

Goebel was hemorrhaging. Men frantically rushed to carry him back to the Capital Hotel, where Dr. E. E. Hume had an office. The nearly two-block path they took was stained vividly with blood. The doctor knew immediately the wound was fatal. A small rifle bullet had “entered Goebel’s right breast slightly above the nipple, shattering a rib, and piercing the lower portion of the right lung, causing immediate suspension of digestion and paralyzing the kidneys before exiting his back near his spine.”

Goebel was taken to his room on the second floor. Those present said he showed great fortitude and courage, remaining calm and conscious and speaking a few words. Physicians from Louisville and Lexington came to assist.

News of the shooting spread like wild fire; Republicans panicked, fearing retaliation, and hundreds of teary-eyed Goebel supporters packed the Capital Hotel hallways, lobby, and grounds, while others gathered in the streets. Many onlookers carried guns and pistols.

Within a half hour, Governor Taylor declared a state of emergency and ordered the militia to Frankfort. He ordered the legislature to adjourn immediately and meet the next week in London, Kentucky, a solidly Republican location, miles away from Frankfort. Reporting threats and rumors of assassinations, newspapers carried headlines warning of violence and bloodshed, such as “Irresponsible Armed Men Brought to Frankfort.”

That night, Democrats from both Houses quietly searched for a place that was not barred by soldiers and yet large enough for them to meet to vote on the Contest Committee’s decision. They finally found a secret location—right there in the Capital Hotel, where Goebel lay dying. By entering the lobby a few at a time, they escaped detection. Meanwhile, as snow fell outside, Taylor and his colleagues remained locked in their offices in the Executive Building, protected by armed soldiers.

The next day, January 31, the Contest Committee declared Goebel had received the highest number of legal votes and had been lawfully entitled to the governorship of Kentucky for the term beginning December 12, 1899. The report was signed by a quorum of senators and representatives, all Democrats.

Chief Justice James H. Hazelrigg, along with several others, rushed to the hotel and swore Goebel in as governor. Although Republicans tried to spread the rumor that he was dead when he was sworn in, eight witnesses testified that Goebel, dressed in a clean white nightshirt, raised his right hand and took the oath of office. When asked to sign a proclamation, he insisted it be read to him first and then signed it. Thus, Goebel’s single act as governor was to instruct the militia to disband and go home.

Thorny questions arose: Did Taylor have the authority to adjourn the General Assembly and have it meet a week later in another location? The constitution requires it to meet in Frankfort unless there is “war, insurrection or pestilence.” Was the capital in a state of emergency? Did Taylor even have the authority to declare it so? Would the militia follow Taylor ’s orders or Goebel’s?

Wanting to make absolutely certain that they had done everything according to the law, the Democrats met again on Friday and went through the entire procedure a second time. Weaker but still conscious and able to speak, Goebel was sworn in again, this time by a circuit judge. John C. W. Beckham was also sworn in again as lieutenant governor and acting governor. The first act Beckham performed was to replace the Adjutant General Collier with his own man, John B. Castleman, who promptly organized a militia to guard Beckham and the streets of Frankfort.

For the time being, Kentucky had two governors, two lieutenant governors, two adjutant generals, two militias, and two legislatures, each conducting its own business as if the other side did not exist.

With his lungs filled with blood, Goebel died at 6:44 on the evening of February 3, 1900. Before he was buried, two prominent Republicans, David W. Fairleigh, a lawyer from Louisville, and John Marshall, lieutenant governor under Taylor, met with Democratic senator J.C.S. Blackburn at the Capital Hotel. They proposed a peace conference between Republicans and Democrats, saying that Governor Taylor had agreed to it.

On the cold, rainy morning of February 6, 1900, while Goebel’s body was being carried on a train—not the L&N—home to Covington, a meeting was held at the Galt House in Louisville between an equal number of Republicans and Democrats. After a few hours of quiet discussion, they signed an agreement “to end the unfortunate condition of political affairs now existant in Kentucky.” Most important was the statement saying William Taylor and John Marshall would voluntarily retire, leaving Beckham governor of Kentucky.

Four days later, at a mass meeting of anti-Goebel Democrats, Republicans, and representatives from L&N, Taylor refused to sign the agreement and wanted the courts to decide his fate. After Louisville Circuit Court judge Emmet Field ruled in favor of the Democrats, Republicans went to the Court of Appeals, which upheld the lower court’s decision. The Republicans then took the question to the U.S. Supreme Court, which said, on May 21, 1900, the issue was not a federal one and sent it back down to the state. Fearing prosecution, Taylor fled to Indiana, where he lived the rest of life.

By May 22, 1900, life in Kentucky had finally settled down. The double governments had disappeared. Beckham was governor, and peace prevailed in the old Bluegrass State—at least for a while. The only question remaining was, Who killed Goebel? To this date, we have no answer.