William Goebel, Governor of Kentucky

By Evelyn Goble Steen
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William Goebel was one of the most controversial men to have ever run for office in the State of Kentucky. He was born January 4, 1856 in Sullivan County Pennsylvania. His German born parents, William and Augusta (Greenclay) Goebel, had immigrated in the 1850s and made their home in a log cabin. The first of their four children, William, grew up in a German-speaking environment, reportedly not using English until he was five years old. Intelligent, hard-working, and thorough, Goebel graduated from Cincinnati Law School in 1877. His father had fought for the Union during the Civil War, yet he found himself running for political office as a Democrat in the Bluegrass state. Goebel was not a strong orator and he was aloof and cold in public, uneasy when mixing with crowds. He overcame his faults by reading widely to become well informed and by winning victories behind the scenes through a strong organization. Politics was his life, and he had few friends. As a result, his whole life was devoted to his search for political power. Brilliant and bold, ambitious and uncompromising, he won allies by his will, his inner force, and his program. "Heading a new group of young Democrats unhappy with the old leadership, he called for aid to the laboring class and greater controls on corporations and their lobbies." He was considered "a friend of the common man." Goebel's forceful and antagonistic manner resulted in strong-willed opposition. No one of his era aroused such passions, and one of his enemies - a former Confederate from his own party - had met Goebel on a street in their hometown of Covington in 1895. Each man drew a pistol and fired one shot. His opponent fell dead; Goebel went free. To those who battled against "Boss Bill" Goebel, the shooting was but another indicator of the man's ruthless nature. To many he was a murderer.

He sought the governorship of Kentucky, to be decided in 1899. As a state Senate leader, he pushed through the Goebel Election Law in the 1898 session. The act established a Board of Election Commissioners, with members basically selected by Goebel, that would choose all local precinct officials and would judge disputed gubernatorial races. Furious opposition arose from both parties, as warnings of one-man rule and one-party tyranny came forth. But enough Democrats remained loyal to override Governor Bradley's veto. The act became law.

In the 1899 governor's race Goebel did win his party's nomination, but in so doing angered his opponents at the Convention in Louisville into organizing a third party, the "Honest Election League." In the end the election came down to a contest between Goebel and Republican William S. Taylor, the state attorney general. Goebel attacked, and on election day the count was too close to call. Each side claimed victory and charged the other with fraud. Finally the Board of Election Commissioners, surprised almost everyone by declaring that Taylor had won the election. In December Taylor was inaugurated as the second governor from the Republican Party, and the matter seemed resolved.

The conflict was only beginning. The Democratic majority in the General Assembly voted to investigate the election to determine whether fraud and illegal military force had been used. A change of only a few votes could make Goebel governor. An investigating committee was formed. Ten of the eleven names picked were Democrats. Republicans expected the committee to recommend removal of enough ballots so Goebel would have a majority, and then the legislature would approve that finding. Desperate Republicans tried to put pressure on the General Assembly and brought in a "Mountain Army" of supporters, a move suggesting that force might be used. Both sides issued threats and counter-threats, and the volatile element was added to an already combustible political mix.

In that atmosphere, Goebel and two of his supporters walked toward the state capitol on January 30, 1900. Within days Goebel might become governor. His long time desire would at last be realized.

Then shots were fired! Goebel had been shot. Mortally wounded from a rifle bullet that had passed through his body. He was taken for treatment to a room in a nearby hotel. Governor Taylor called out the militia and ordered the legislature to reconvene in a safer location. Democratic legislators refused , but found armed soldiers barring them from meeting in the capitol. Gathering secretly in the hotel, with no Republicans present, they accepted the contest committee's report regarding the disputed election, threw out enough votes to reverse the results, and on January 31, 1900, declared Goebel governor. He was sworn in, and in his only official act he ordered the militia to leave and the legislature to reassemble. Soon the new Democratic government called out a friendly militia force to face the Gatling guns staring across the capitol lawn. Republicans in turn cried out about the "steal" of the election and refused to recognized the constitutionality of any of the Democratic actions. Two governments, each with its own force of more than a thousand armed men, faced each other, and the level of tension rose higher and higher. A stray shot could spark bloody violence and perhaps even another civil war, only this time along party lines.

At 6:44 p.m. on February 3, 1900, William Goebel died of his wounds. The only governor in American history to die in office as a result of an assassin. He had been chief executive of the commonwealth for three days. The 44 year old northern Kentuckian had survived the assassin's bullet for only a little over a hundred hours. His last words, at least as reported by the Democratic press, ensured that he would live on as a martyr: "Tell my friends to be brave, fearless, and loyal to the great common people."


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Copyright © 1997-1999 by Evelyn Goble Steen, All Rights Reserved
This page last updated on August 8, 1999