William Goebel was felled by a bullet Jan. 30, 1900, the only governor in American history to die in office from wounds inflicted by an assassin. Monday marks the 106th anniversary of this tragedy.
The 1899 gubernatorial election saw Republican Attorney General William S. Taylor trying to succeed fellow Republican William O. Bradley against two Democrats: William Goebel, a state senator from Covington, and former governor John Young Brown, a conservative nominated by a convention of Democrats angry at Goebel.
Goebel had alienated many conservatives and constituents with his use of abusive tactics to gain the nomination. The infamous Goebel Election Law passed by the legislature in 1898 was supposed to be a reform measure to ensure fair elections but was actually just the opposite.
The Democrats were stunned with the election results. In the closely contested race, the Board of Election Commissioners announced that Taylor had 193,714 votes, Goebel 191,331, and Brown 12,140. Taylor was inaugurated in December.
But when the General Assembly met in January, the Democratic-controlled body decided to investigate the contest. The Republicans feared they would be voted out of office as had happened earlier in Tennessee. The presence of armed pro-Taylor protesters from the mountains added to the tension. By Jan. 30, 1900 a decision by the legislature was near. It was in that atmosphere that Goebel was shot while walking to the statehouse on Broadway.
I recently read That Kentucky Campaign; or the Law, the Ballot and the People in the Goebel-Taylor Contest by R. E. Hughes, F. W. Schaefer and E. L. Williams. It was published in 1900 shortly after the murder. State Historian and recognized expert on the Goebel affair, James C. Klotter, says of this book it is perhaps the best book-length study considering the authors closeness to events, it is surprisingly accurate.
On the morning of Jan. 30, while the legislature and the special committee were discussing the possibility of unseating the Republicans, Goebel approaching the Capitol was shot in the chest by a rifleman. Sen. Goebel was first carried to Dr. E. E. Humes office (located in our museum building) and then placed in his room at the Capital Hotel.
Gov. Taylor declared Kentucky in a state of insurrection and instructed the legislature to meet in London. The Democrats refused to do this and because the militia prevented them access to the Capitol they met in the Capital Hotel instead.
From That Kentucky Campaign we read: In at one of the gates of the almost deserted square hurried three men, one somewhat in advance of the other two. That was Warden Eph Lillard of the penitentiary. The others were Senator Goebel and his close champion, Jack Chinn.
As they proceeded up the walk Lillard forged ahead and Chinn dropped behind slightly, being something of a heavyweight and winded by his walk from the hotel. He was the most immediate witness of the wounding of his leader, and told it in these words:
As I could not walk rapidly, Goebel fell back with me, while Lillard walked about 30 yards ahead of us through the yard towards the state building. No conversation occurred between us, so far as I can remember. I was on Goebels right, and he was about two feet ahead of me when the first shot was fired. The fountain is in the center of the pavement, about 60 feet in front of the broad steps of the state building. When we were about half way between the fountain and the steps I heard the report of a rifle.
At almost the same instant Goebel bent double, groaned harshly, clutched at his right side, fell to his knees. I said: My God! Goebel, they have killed you, but was a little too far away to catch him. I guess they have, he said as he was falling.
He fell to his right and then forward, rolling over on his back. I think his right knee struck the pavement first. He raised in a moment as if to get up on his elbow, when I said: Lie still, Goebel, or they might shoot you again.
The first shot struck Goebel and it was fired from one of the upper floors of the executive building, just east of the General Assembly building, to which we were going. The first shot was followed in quick succession by four others, and I heard the bullets hum by me and over the body of Goebel. I am of the opinion that the second shot was fired from a side window, while the first was fired from a front window. It is my impression that they were rifle shots.
Later the Democrats, holding a majority and quorum in each house, met in secret at the Capital Hotel and declared certain votes illegal, and voted Goebel in as governor. The Republicans refused to recognize their findings. Goebel died in his room at the Capital Hotel on Feb. 3 and his lieutenant governor, J. C. W. Beckham, took over for the Democrats.
We had two legislatures, two governors, and two militias vying for power and civil war seemed possible. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and the courts finally decided in May that the Democratic majoritys actions were legal. Three men, including the Republican secretary of state, were later convicted of murder or conspiracy in a series of trials. Eventually all three were pardoned by Republican governors, and the identity of the assassin remains uncertain.
Perhaps tomorrow or later this summer while youre attending one of the downtown concerts, youll take a moment and look closely at the statue of Goebel, arms folded, staring away into the street. Perhaps youll walk up to the small plaque that identifies the spot where Goebel fell and wonder yourself just what did happen on that Jan. 30, 1900.
You wont be alone. Historians still have not answered for certain the question of who killed Goebel.
Research courtesy of Lowell Harrisons Kentucky Governors, Carl Kramers Capital on the Kentucky, Tom Clarks A History of Kentucky and James C, Klotters The Politics of Wrath.
The Capital City museum will be closed to the public starting Monday through the last day of February. We are happy to announce that we will be proceeding with our expansion into another section of the building to create more exhibit space. When completed the new exhibit space will be formally opened during Novembers Candlelight Tour. Meanwhile I will still be taking your donations in my office at the opposite end of the building. For an appointment call (502) 803-1808 or e-mail at email@example.com.