The 33rd person to serve as Kentucky’s 34th Governor was the only Governor to be assassinated was Northern Kentucky’s own William Goebel of Covington. In addition to being the only Kentucky who was assassinated, he was the only Kentucky Governor who never married.
William Goebel was born in Pennsylvania in 1856, the son of German immigrants he spoke only German until the age of 5.
The Goebel family moved to Covington soon after his father returned from service in the Union Army during the Civil War.
William Goebel graduated from the University of Cincinnati School of Law in 1877 and practiced law at various times with former Governor John Stevenson and U.S. House Speaker and Treasury Secretary John G. Carlisle in Covington.
With these contacts, Goebel gained early support for his political ambitions. Goebel built a regional urban political organization centered in Kenton County which assisted in his election to the KY Senate in 1887. In 1896, Goebel was chosen by his peers in the Senate as President Pro-Tem.
As a State Senator, Goebel worked for regulating railroad, restrictions on toll roads, abolition of lotteries and pool rooms and the expanded rights of labor. This was at a time when the L & N Railroad (L&N) was a powerful player in Kentucky politics. Goebel was considered a champion of farmers and the common man and an opponent to corporations and special interests.
Goebel was a controversial figure in 1890s Kentucky politics. He killed former Confederate General and banker John Sanford in broad daylight before witnesses on the streets of Covington. Sanford had lost money in toll roads due to legislation championed by Goebel. Additionally, Goebel’s appointment to the KY Court of Appeals had been blocked through the influence of Sanford. Goebel had written an article in which he referred to Sanford as “Gonoherra John”. Sanford is said to have spoken to one of Goebel’s companions as Goebel was passing Sanford on the street. Goebel noticed that Sanford was reaching into his pocket for what he thought was a pistol. As a result, Geobel fatally shot Sanford in self defense. In fact, Sanford did get off a shot which struck Goebel’s coat.
Goebel’s support for increased business and railroad regulation (including the now defunct railroad commission), labor and William Jennings Bryan’s free silver policy caused him to break with many Kentucky Democratic leaders including John G. Carlisle.
Goebel’s organizing ability cause many to accuse him of bossism.
In 1899, Goebel was nominated by a divided Democratic Party. He was nominated on the 26th Ballot of the State Democratic Convention. (Jewell & Cunningham-p. 12) To further stir excitement, William Jennings Bryan the 1896 Democratic candidate for President campaigned several weeks on behalf of Goebel.
In the four person race for governor, Republican Attorney General William S. Taylor defeated Goebel by a mere 2,383 votes. Democrats in the General Assembly began leveling accusations of voting irregularities in some counties. Governor Bradley (Republican) sent militia troops to Louisville and Jefferson County for the election in response to the hiring by Louisville’s Democratic mayor of more police. The Election Commission (which had been created by legislation sponsored by Goebel) decided the election in favor of Taylor by a vote of 2-1. The Commission did not have the power to investigate allegations of irregularities. As a result Taylor was sworn in as Governor in December 1899.
Under the Kentucky Constitution the power to review the election lay with the General Assembly.
When the General Assembly returned in January 1900, Goebel and his supporters requested an investigation into the November 1899 General Election. Frankfort was an armed camp during the month of January 1900 as the investigation preceded in the General Assembly. Armed supporters of Governor Taylor came to the city on trains from traditionally Republican areas of Eastern Kentucky. Then there was the shooting in the old Capitol Hotel Lobby in mid-January between Col. Colson and Lt. Scott which resulted in six deaths including Scott’s. That shooting was related to an old army grudge from 1898. (For more information see Gov. Taylor’s post)
While the election results were being investigated by the General Assembly, Goebel despite being warned of a rumored assassination plot against him, walked flanked by two bodyguards to the State Capitol (now the old Capitol) on the morning of January 30, 1900. Reports are conflicted about what happened next, but five or six shots were fired from the nearby State Office Building, one striking Goebel in the chest and seriously wounding him. Taylor serving as governor pending a final decision on the election called out the militia and ordered the General Assembly into special session, not in Frankfort, but in London, Kentucky, a Republican stronghold. The Republican minority heeded Taylor’s call and headed to London. Democrats resisted the call. Both factions claimed authority, but the Republicans were too few in number to muster a quorum.
The day after being shot, Goebel was sworn in as governor. In his only act as governor, Goebel signed a proclamation to dissolve the militia called by Taylor, an order which was not heeded by the force’s Republican commander. Despite the attendance of 18 physicians, Goebel died on the afternoon of February 3, 1900. Sympathetic journalists recall his heroic last words as: “Teel my friends to be brave, fearless and loyal to the common people”. Though, KY writer Irvin Cobb believes that he said, "That was one bad oyster", referring to what he had had for lunch.
When his body was taken home to Covington for funeral services, due to Goebel’s issues with the L&N Railroad it was carried on a roundabout route using another railroad the “Queen and Crescent”. It was returned to Frankfort for burial in the Frankfort Cemetery using the same route.
Several people were indicted for the murder of Goebel including Kentucky Secretary of State Caleb Power who was tried at least 4 times for complicity in the assassination of Goebel and served about 8 years in prison. It was thought that the shots which killed Goebel came from a window in the Kentucky Secretary of State’s Office. Caleb Powers was eventually pardoned and served from 1911 to 1919 in the U.S. House of Representatives from KY’s old 11th Congressional District in the southeastern part of the state.
With Goebel’s death, tensions eased. The idea of Goebel’s lieutenant governor, J.C.W. Beckham, as governor was more palatable to the opposition than civil war in the state, though many would have preferred war to a Goebel governorship. The matter of the election was eventually decided by the legislature and the Kentucky Courts with the U.S. Supreme Court (Taylor v. Beckham) agreeing that the matter be settled by Kentucky legislature and courts. Beckham took office upon Goebel's death and his position was solidified as a result of the decision of the courts.
GOEBEL STATUTE IN FRONT OF OLD CAPITOL IN FRANKFORT