Political Assassinations: William J. Goebel
William J. Goebel, the recently inaugurated governor of the commonwealth of Kentucky, lay dead, the victim of an unknown assassin’s bullet.
Early on the morning of Tuesday, February 6, 1900, a slow-moving train carried his body to his hometown of Covington, Kentucky, to lie in state. When the large building where his corpse was on display was opened so the throngs could view the casket, 100,000 people paid their respects. The following day, the body was transported back to the state capital, Frankfort, for burial.
Goebel’s remains followed a circuitous route on the Queen and Crescent line, avoiding the more direct Louisville and Nashville rail line in memory of the governor’s long-running feud with L & N officers. As the train chugged past numerous Kentucky hamlets, citizens lined the tracks to pay silent homage to their slain leader. They grieved for a man who had become in death what he seldom had been in life—a popular figure. As of this writing, he remains the only U.S. governor killed in office by an assassin.
Chapter 20 of my 2017 book, Political Assassinations and Attempts in US History: The Lasting Effects of Gun Violence Against American Political Leaders, discusses Goebel’s murder, which remains unsolved.
Following a contentious gubernatorial election in Kentucky in 1899, Goebel emerged as the victor, but he left many enemies in his wake. The governor-elect employed bodyguards after he received repeated death threats. Unfortunately for him, they were not able to stop gunfire that erupted from behind a building as he walked on the grounds of the Old State Capitol in Frankfort.
The episode occurred on Tuesday morning, January 30, 1900, as Goebel confidently strode across the capitol grounds accompanied by Eph Lillard, warden of the local penitentiary, and Jack P. “Dirk Knife” Chinn. The capitol complex normally was the scene of much activity, but on this morning no one was bustling about. One historian observed that the area was “eerily quiet and vacant.” Mobs of men from both sides of the aisles had converged on the capital in recent days, and everyone feared that violence would erupt at the slightest provocation. Rumors had circulated that Goebel might be in danger owing to the various factions that were incensed at the probable election results, and so he had taken precautions. Lillard and Chinn had been recruited to serve as bodyguards.
Unfortunately, Goebel had refused to alter his routine, which meant that anyone who wished him harm knew when and where he would be vulnerable. Perhaps he appeared at the capitol to demonstrate his bravery in the face of danger, or perhaps he believed that little harm would come to him from the faceless, nameless men who hid behind the mob. Whatever the reason, Goebel’s final gamble proved to be foolish. When he was a few feet from the steps leading to the capitol entrance, the sound of a rifle shot echoed across the courtyard.
No one could be sure where the shot originated, but the result was devastating. A bullet struck William Goebel in the chest on the right side of his body. He crumpled to the ground. When Goebel tried to stand, Chinn called out, “Lie down or they will shoot you again.” It was sage advice.
After a few moments, satisfied that no additional shots would be fired, bystanders frantically rushed to Goebel’s aid. Bleeding profusely, the wounded man remained conscious but in obvious distress. Several men gathered him up and carried him to the nearby Capitol Hotel, where a medical doctor, E. E. Hume, maintained an office. As luck would have it, Hume was in his office that morning. The doctor examined Goebel, who appeared “white as a sheet” from shock and loss of blood. A small rifle bullet had torn through his chest above the nipple, shattering a rib and penetrating his lung. It exited his back near the vertebrae. Dr. Hume understood that the wound was fatal.
Goebel was sworn in as governor, but he survived for only four days before succumbing to his wounds. In one version of his deathbed scene, he supposedly remarked, in suitably heroic fashion, “Tell my friends to be brave, fearless, and loyal to the common people.” In another version, Goebel muttered, “Doc, that was a damned bad oyster.”
The search for Goebel’s assassin lasted for many years. In the partisan atmosphere of the time, Democrats discovered a number of Republican-leaning would-be assassins who bragged about their participation in the crime. Caleb Powers, secretary of state under a Republican governor; Henry Youtsey, a young lawyer working with the state auditor’s office; and James Howard, an outlaw with one murder charge pending, all came under fire. Indictments, trials, and convictions followed, as did appellate court reversals. The men supposedly were part of a conspiracy to kill Goebel, but the contradictory testimony, conflicting accounts from various witnesses, and dearth of physical evidence made the record unclear. The trial transcripts and other contemporaneous records were simply too unreliable and the passions were too intense to produce useful leads. To this day, the identity of the killer remains unknown.
The assassin’s motives probably were political. If so, the act of killing the offending politician was rational, in a sense, and the killer probably was a classic Type 1 assassin. Without knowing more about the triggerman or the existence of any conspiracies, however, any assessment of motives or the state of mind of the killer is nothing more than conjecture. It is an unsatisfying end to an unsatisfying episode.
Reflecting on his brother’s life in December 1900, 10 months after the murder, Arthur Goebel wrote that “It is almost a year since William died, and he lives in the minds of the people as much as ever.” The reason he was remembered, and would be remembered for years to come, seemed obvious to a grieving brother. “Why is it? He is Goebel; that is all.”