History of Kentucky Governors

Kentucky Governors and Elections

WILLIAM SYLVESTER TAYLOR--(Goebel's opponent)

WILLIAM S. TAYLOR

1853-1928

1899-1900—Term

                William S. Taylor was inaugurated governor after the disputed election of 1899 against State Senator William Goebel of Covington.  He served a total of 50 days.

            Taylor a Butler County native was a teacher, lawyer and farmer as well as politician prior to becoming Governor of Kentucky.  He began his political career as a member of the “Greenback Party”.  The “Greenback Party” was active after the Civil War from about 1873 to the mid-1880s.  They generally opposed the shift from paper money to a bullion based monetary system because they feared the power of banks and corporations to control prices.  It also opposed the use of both state and federal government to use private guard services like Pinkerton and militias against strikers.  They also opposed corporate monopolies.  Some of these beliefs were similar to those held by Taylor’s Democratic opponent, William Goebel in 1899.  Goebel was against the monopolies imposed by the L & N and other railroads.  Goebel was  a favorite of unions and many populists of the day.

            William Sylvester Taylor was born in a log cabin in Butler County, near Morganfield, Kentucky on October 10, 1853.  He spent most of his childhood working on his father’s farm in Butler County and did not receive any formal schooling until about age 15.  He was an excellent student and by 1874 he began teaching school until 1882.  He later trained in the law all the while farming. 

            In 1878, Taylor married Sara (Sallie) Belle Tanner.  They had nine children, including seven who lived beyond age five.

            In 1878, Taylor ran unsuccessfully for Butler County Clerk.  In 1880, he was active in the presidential campaign of Greenback Party candidate James Weaver of Iowa.  In 1882, he was elected Butler County Clerk.  In 1884, he became a member of the Republican Party.  In 1886, Taylor won the first of two terms as Butler County Judge.  In 1895, he was elected Attorney General of Kentucky along with Kentucky’s first Republican Governor, William O. Bradley. 

            The 1899 campaign for Kentucky Governor was unusually contentious even for Kentucky.  Both the Republican and Democratic Parties were bitterly divided.  Prior to the Republican Convention, incumbent Republican Governor Bradley supported Judge Clifton Pratt of Hopkins County and Republicans from Central Kentucky supported State Auditor Sam H. Stone. 

            Democrats split and one faction nominated former Governor John Y. Brown.  There was also a Populist Party candidate.  Senator William Goebel was a controversial choice for the Democrats.  Former Confederates who were a “safe” voting block for Democrats did not like the fact he killed a former Confederate General John Sanford in an altercation on the streets of Covington.  Blacks who were generally a “safe” voting block for Republicans were upset about the passage of the “separate coach act” which was signed into law by Republican Governor Bradley.  Goebel was an enemy of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad which at that time supported the Republican Party.

            Republican Governor William Bradley did not initially work on Taylor’s behalf during the campaign of 1899.  It was not until Goebel brought 1896 Democratic Presidential Candidate, William Jennings Bryan to Kentucky for several weeks of campaigning did Bradley campaign on Taylor’s behalf.  (Bryan carried Kentucky over McKinley in the 1896 Presidential Election.)  There was no violence on the day of the election though there were at least six killings related to campaign on the days leading up to the election. In Louisville, the mayor who supported Goebel added several hundred men to the ranks of the police.  Republican Governor Bradley sent the militia to Louisville for the election and while the ballots were being counted.

         Election day results showed that Taylor won by 2,383 votes over Goebel with another 15,000 votes going to third and fourth party candidates.  The Board of Elections which had been created by Goebel certified Taylor as the winner stating they had no power to investigate irregularities.  Taylor was inaugurated on December 12, 1899.   With the General Assembly beginning its session, the results of the governor's election were contested in the legislature.  The General Assembly choose an eleven member committee to probe the election whose work began in ernest in January 1900. 

            Tensions in Frankfort were made worse on January 16, 1900 by a shooting which resulted in the deaths of three persons in the lobby of the Capitol Hotel.  A feud relating back to 1898 and the Spanish American War was relived.  While stationed at Anniston, Alabama, Lt. Ethelbert Scott had shot and wounded his commanding officer Colonel David G. Colson.  Scott had never been charged with the shooting of Colson by Alabama authorities.  The chance encounter in the lobby of the hotel resulted in David Colson of Middlesboro (a former Congressman) putting six bullets into Scott a lawyer from Somerset and killing two bystanders and wounding several others.  One of the bystanders, Franklin County Farmer Charles Julian was in the Hotel to purchase a ticket to attend a speech at the hotel that night by William Jennings Bryan.  Scott was the nephew of former Governor William O. Bradley.  Colson was indicted by the Franklin County Jury of three murders and acquitted of all three murders by a jury in April 1900.  (Thomas E. Stephens, “Congressman David Grand Colson and the Tragedy of the 4th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry; The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society; Winter 2000; Vol. 98, No. 1 p.43 and pp. 81-98)  Prior to the shooting of Geobel, this incident was known statewide and regionally as “The Tragedy of Frankfort”.

            On January 30, 1900, as Senator Goebel was walking towards the state capitol building (now the “Old Capitol”) he was shot.  Evidence revealed that the shot came from a window in the Secretary of State’s Office in the annex.  In response to the shooting of Geobel, Taylor called out the militia and ordered that the General Assembly into special session in London. 

            As the Democrats had a majority as well as quorum in each house of the General Assembly, the Democrats secretly met in Frankfort hotel and elected Goebel governor.  On January31, 1900, Goebel was sworn in as governor.  Goebel then signed an order to send the militia home which was not recognized by the militia’s commander.  Goebel died in the afternoon of February 4, 1900. 

            The election dispute was eventually decided by the courts with even the Supreme Court of the United States rendering an opinion on May 21, 1900 to support the decision of the KY Court of Appeals.  (More details to come in the profiles of Governors Goebel and Beckham)

           Governor William  Sylvester Taylor fled to Indianapolis under threat of indictment.  There were attempts to extradite him back to Kentucky and in 1901 an attempt to abduct him because extradition did not work.

            Taylor’s wife Sallie died soon after they fled to Indiana.  They had become penniless as a result of the expense related to the appeal of the election dispute.

            Taylor was able to resume the practice of law in Indiana eventually becoming an executive with the old Empire Life and Accident Company. 

            In 1909, Republican Governor Augustus Willson pardoned Taylor.  Even with that he rarely came back to Kentucky.  The most significant visit was in 1912 when he married Nora Myers at her home in Jamestown.  They had one child.

            Taylor died of heart disease on August 2, 1928 and was buried in Indianapolis.

Gov. William S. Taylor