Saturday, July 30, 2011

An Assassination in Kentucky

The November 1899 election for governor and its aftermath was a wild and crazy time in Kentucky. Based on articles published in The Morning Herald in Lexington, this was far more than a hotly contested race between then Kentucky Attorney General William Taylor (R) and State Senator William Goebel (D). It was about as controversial, combative, suspect and scandalous an election as you will ever find and it resulted in the assassination of Goebel.

Last week in Those Places Thursday – Old Capitol Building, I showed you the plaque marking the spot where William Goebel fell. I also mentioned I have a family connection to the Goebel assassination. Books have been written on this subject so I can’t begin to cover the whole story here but before we get to my family connection some back-story is necessary. The highlights go something like this.

The election on 7 Nov 1899 saw the end of an extremely heated campaign but it was just the beginning of the controversy. Newspaper headlines the next day announced that Taylor had won by between 8,000 and 15,000 votes but Goebel did not concede. He contested pretty much everything and tried to have the entire vote in several counties thrown out but election officials eventually declared Taylor the winner. He became the 33rd Governor of Kentucky on 12 Dec 1899.

That did not stop Goebel. He continued his efforts to overturn the decision and eventually contested it to the General Assembly. A board selected and appointed by the General Assembly met for two weeks starting in mid-January 1900 to review the case. On January 30, Goebel and some of his friends/body guards were about to enter the Capitol when shots were fired mortally wounding Goebel. At the time of the shooting, Goebel was still a state senator.

While Goebel lay dying in his room at the nearby Capital Hotel, the board declared that he was entitled to the governorship but approval by the General Assembly was required to make it official. Governor Taylor did everything he could to prevent the vote but a quorum of 19 members of the senate and 53 from the house met in secret at the hotel on 31 Jan 1900 and accepted the board’s recommendation. Goebel took the oath of office that evening.

Goebel died on 4 Feb 1900 having spent his entire time as governor on his deathbed. There was still confusion about who was actually the Governor of Kentucky. “Senator Goebel Passes Away As The Shades of Evening Gather” was the sub headline of the article in The Morning Herald announcing Goebel's death but the article referred to him as both Senator Goebel and Governor Goebel.

Taylor continued to function from the governor's office and claim that he was indeed the governor of Kentucky. On 7 Feb 1900, J. C. W. Beckham (Goebel's Lt. Governor) held a reception in Cincinnati and announced that he was now the governor. For a few months, both Taylor and Beckham claimed to be the lawful governor and the case finally ended up in the courts.

The Circuit Court ruled in favor of Beckham and the Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld that decision on 6 Apr 1900. Taylor appealed to the United States Supreme Court but that body declined to hear the case on 21 May 1900, leaving the lower court's ruling to stand. Taylor fled to Indiana amid rumors that Beckham would have him arrested.

And we haven't even gotten to the indictments and murder trials yet. (You knew that's where my family would come in - right?)

To be continued.

Kentucky. Lexington. The Morning Herald, 1899-1900.

Klotter, James C. William Goebel: The Politics of Wrath. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 1977.


  1. Oh, hurry, post the rest! Spell bound here - -

  2. don't leave us hanging!!! Cliff hangers not allowed! ;) wow. I had no idea there was even such a scandal!

  3. I'd better get to writing (haven't started part 2 yet).

    Sandy - I remember having Kentucky history in 7th grade and I remember learning that Goebel was assassinated but I would swear we were told it was at his inauguration. I'm sure this whole scandal was not taught at all. I know I've learned more history doing genealogy than I ever learned in school.

  4. Totally agree Linda. I wasn't even interested in History much in school because of the way it was taught. My mother got me started reading James Michener books which really got me interested and then genealogy was the ultimate history learning experience and I don't ever want to quit now. My son in law is a history teacher at a GA high school and he says they have to teach it the way they are told to, even if it isn't accurate history. A shame.

    Great post, I'm waiting for the rest!

  5. Oh my. Shades of Louisiana and the Kingfisher. Can't wait for the next part!

  6. Why don't they teach stuff like this in history? Can't wait for more!

  7. Linda, My husband said that he had no idea you two were related. His family refers to Berry as "Big Jim" Howard. Lisa Howard