On January 30, 1900 a man walking on the grounds of the Kentucky State Capitol building with his two bodyguards was shot at five (six?) times, he was hit once in the chest, and subsequently died on February 3. The mans name was William Goebel and he was the Governor elect of Kentucky, or was he?
The shooting occurred just the day before Goebel was to be sworn in as Kentucky’s next Governor, and the shots that killed him came from a window of the State Building itself. In the days preceding the shooting, rumors of an assassination plot had been widely spread and by partially basing their theory of the crime on these rumors the authorities were led to quite a number of suspects. However, before we discuss the facts of the criminal case, some background about what led up to this shooting and why the State of Kentucky was on the very brink of a full scale civil war would seem to be in order.
William Goebel was a very powerful figure in the Kentucky legislature, his various nicknames included “the Kenton King”, “Kenton Czar” and “King William I”, he also had a long history of blatantly self-serving and often illegal political maneuvering. In fact just a few years before Goebels death he himself had killed a political opponent in what was described as “a duel, of sorts” on the street in Covington (Goebel claimed self-defence and was acquitted even though dueling is prohibited by Kentucky’s Constitution).
When Goebel decided that it was time to move up to the Governors mansion he first used legislation he introduced to pave the way for his eventual victory. Posing as an “election reform” bill, but in reality anything but, the “Goebel Election Law” effectively gave Goebel the power to appoint the first members of Kentucky’s new State Election Commission. Once that was taken care of it was time for Goebel to find a way to become his parties nominee at the state Democratic convention.
While Goebel was a force in the legislature he was not the most popular candidate in his party, in fact he was running in third place. To fix this Goebel made a pact with the second place candidate, William Stone, Stone’s supporters were to support whomever Goebel picked to run the convention. In return, half of the Louisville delegates pledged to Goebel would vote to nominate Stone for Governor. Goebel would then drop out of the race and be rewarded by getting to name many of the other officials on the ticket.
Goebel, who now controlled the convention’s credentials committee also began systematically denying voting credentials to known backers of the front-runner, Wat Hardin. Hardin, who had enough sense to know when he was beaten, then dropped out of the race. With the front runner now out of the way Goebel immediately betrayed his pact with Stone and announced his re-entry to the race. Upon hearing that Stone had been betrayed and that the pact was now history Hardin also re-entered the race believing that he still had a chance to secure the nomination.
(confusing enough yet?)
After several rounds of rather heated and disorganized balloting there was still no candidate with a clear majority. At this point the convention chairman (who had been picked by Goebel as part of the now defunct pact) announced that whichever candidate got the least votes in the next ballot would be dropped from the voting. The unlucky candidate dropped by that round of balloting was Stone and that put his backers in a rather uncomfortable position. Either vote for the man who had betrayed their candidate or vote for Hardin who was widely seen by their branch of the party as a tool of the rich railroad interests.
Enough of them sided with Goebel to give him a majority on the next ballot, all the scheming and back-stabbing had finally paid off for him. There was however one problem that Goebel had failed to foresee, many people in the Democratic party were so utterly disgusted by this turn of events that they left and split the party. This new group called themselves the “Honest Election Democrats” and held their own convention and nominated their own candidate for the Governors seat.
Goebel may have secured his own nomination but only at the cost of engendering a three-way race for the Governors seat. With the Democratic party vote split Republican William S. Taylor defeated both Democratic candidates in the general election but with only a narrow margin of votes over Goebel. The Democratically controlled legislature and Goebel immediately started making accusations of “voting irregularities” and demanded that the Election Commission declare Goebel the winner.
In a move that surprised everyone, especially Goebel who had picked them out and given them their jobs, the Election Commission ruled 2-1 that the votes should stand as they were (this allowed Taylor to take office pending the outcome of further disputes). Goebel wasn’t about to give up yet though, he somehow engineered the resignations of the two Commission members who had voted against him and then claimed that the sole remaining Commissioner had the authority to appoint the replacements for those seats. This claim was patently false and “Governor” Taylor quickly pointed out that the right to appoint replacement board members belonged to the Governor (him) under the very law that Goebel himself had gotten passed to create the Commission.
Taylor and Goebel ended up arguing their dispute over the Election Commission appointments in front of the Kentucky Court of Appeals, then the highest court in the state. Unfortunately for Taylor the Court of Appeals was a bastion of the Democratic party at the time and sided with Goebel while studiously ignoring the actual wording of the legislation they were ruling on. Meanwhile the Kentucky General Assembly having been denied the cover of the Election Commission deciding the matter in their favor bit the bullet and went ahead and “invalidated” enough Republican votes themselves to make Goebel the election winner.
After the Court of Appeals ruling the newly appointed Election Commission members also sided with Goebel and proclaimed that he had won the election. As you can imagine the Republican voters and members of the legislature were incensed over this very flagrant theft of the election and as tensions rose organized armed militias were called up by both sides. The state was now left hovering on the brink of a civil war because of one mans quest for the Governors chair and his willingness (and that of his party) to do anything to get it.
Now that you know about the events leading up to the shooting of William Goebel you can probably make better sense of the “suspects” identified by the authorities as having committed the crime. Eventually a total of sixteen people were indicted, including “Governor” Taylor, for involvement in the conspiracy to assassinate Goebel. Caleb Powers, who was Taylor’s Secretary of State was accused of masterminding the plot to kill Goebel which was then supposedly carried out by a man by the name of Jim Howard.
Here is where the story gets even more politically twisted and perhaps shows why sixteen people were indicted for a crime that probably only involved perhaps two or three of them, if any. Goebel was sworn in as Governor the day after he was shot which meant that normally his Lieutenant Governor would take his position should Goebel die in office. In this case though the election results were still being vigorously disputed and the Republicans had an large armed militia based in Frankfort that was making the Democrats nervous.
The Democrats met with the Republicans and offered them a deal, if the Republicans would recognize Goebel’s election as being legitimate (and thus the Lieutenant Governors right to take over the office now) and send the militia back to their homes then the Democrats would give all Republican officials immunity from prosecution in the assassination plot along with some other minor concessions. Taylor refused the deal, but to his credit he agreed to resolve the election issue through litigation rather than try to use threats of force to press his claim to the office that had been stolen from him.
After the death of Goebel tensions between the two sides had begun to relax even without any deal having been made yet. While people may have been willing to go to war to prevent Goebel from taking office the same wasn’t necessarily true in regards to his Lieutenant Governor. Taylor ultimately lost his bid to re-claim the Governorship, the Kentucky State Court of Appeals ruled against him (duh) and the United States Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
As you might have come to expect by this point in the story, the prosecutions against the people indicted for the plot against Goebel became politically tangled as well. Caleb Powers, the accused “mastermind” was tried and convicted three times in front of Democratic affiliated Judges and juries made up entirely of Goebel supporters. His convictions were then thrown out on appeal three times, each time by a Republican affiliated appeals court Judge, his fourth trial ended in a hung jury.
The story of Jim Howard the alleged shooter is nearly identical to that of Powers, he was tried and convicted in the same overtly biased way and also had his conviction thrown out on appeal by a Republican Judge. Howard was tried and convicted again after the first conviction was thrown out and then was tried and convicted yet again after that conviction was overturned. In 1908 when Governor Augustus Willson won the office back for the Republican side he pardoned both Powers and Howard for any involvement in the murder.
A man named Henry Youtsey who was alleged to have been the go-between for Taylor/Powers and Howard was convicted and received a life sentence but then turned states evidence and testified against Howard at his second trial. The story he told confirmed the prosecutions theory that Taylor was aware of and helped to plan the killing of Goebel.
During cross-examination Howard’s defense attorney pointed out obvious contradictions in the story Youtsey had given the jury but Howard (as was already stated above) was again found guilty anyway. Youtsey was paroled in 1916 after serving 15 years and then pardoned in 1919 by Democratic Governor James Black.
(If he had kept his mouth shut he surely would have been pardoned in 1908 when Powers and Howard were after only having served 7 years.)
William Taylor left the state and took up residence in Indianapolis, Indiana in order to avoid the indictment he was sure would be issued against him, he was correct. The Governor of Indiana refused to extradite Taylor back to Kentucky so Taylor was never even formally questioned by the authorities about any role he might have had in the alleged plot. Taylor was pardoned for any role in the crime by Kentucky Governor Augustus Willson in 1909, just as Powers and Howard had been a year earlier.
Thus ends the sordid tale of William Goebel, the only state Governor to ever be assassinated while in office. While no act of murder can ever be described as a good thing, at least in this instance it very likely saved the lives of a good many other people. If Goebel had not been assassinated the outbreak of violence between the Republican and Democratic supporters was virtually assured. How widespread it really would gotten cannot be said with any degree of certainty, but contemporary accounts leave little doubt that both sides were armed, ready, and quite lethally serious about defending their rights as they saw them.
Try to remember this story the next time you read a newspaper article or a blog posting about some kind of current political chicanery and get tempted to declare the whole system broken and give up. Our current politicians look like a bunch of pikers when you compare them to the likes of a William Goebel or a Huey Long, if we survived them (and worse) then we can survive these ones too. ;)