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The Four Days Governor

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Recently I was in Frankfort, KY visiting a friend and she took me to see the Frankfort Cemetery.  There are a number of illustrious people buried there, including Daniel Boone and many previous governors.  Her favorite, however, was William Goebel, a governor who was assassinated.

As a business librarian and blogger, I am always looking for business related items that might make for good blog posts , so my attention  was caught by what was inscribed on the base of Goebel’s monument.  One side had three items related to legislative accomplishments: anti-lottery laws, railway rate regulation, and school book legislation that ended textbook monopolies. The other side of the base had a quote attributed to him that is pictured in this post: The question is; are the corporations the masters or servants of the people?


IMG_20140503_153627_231Besides the issues noted on his monument, he supported other issues and laws, such as a franchise tax law, an employer’s liability law, regulation of toll bridges and roads, and extended civil rights for women and minorities.  Much of what Goebel either supported or encountered during his legislative career, particularly regulating railroads and railroad rates, were also important to other states and even the federal government.  For many years after his death his name was used as a rallying cry for what was then sometimes referred to as Goebelism and later he was sometimes called the First New Dealer.  I had thought to write a post about these accomplishments, but it turns out that the events surrounding his brief governorship and death were what stood out.

Wilhelm Justus Goebel was born January 4, 1856, in Pennsylvania.  After the Civil War the family moved to Covington, KY, where he studied the law and eventually became a lawyer.  After James W. Bryan vacated his Senate seat in 1887 to run for lieutenant governor, Goebel was able to win the seat in a very narrow election and served the remaining two years of the term trying to distinguish himself.  At the time, pro-railroad legislators in the Kentucky House of Representatives wanted to abolish Kentucky’s Railroad Commission and a committee formed by Senator Cassius M. Clay (cousin to Henry Clay) was established to investigate lobbying done by the railroad industry.  Goebel served on the committee and helped to defeat the bill that would have abolished the Commission. This was quite popular among his constituents and he was able to earn a full term.  Goebel was also a delegate at the state’s constitutional convention and was able to insure that the Commission could only be abolished by an amendment ratified by popular vote and not by the General Assembly.

Hon. William Goebel, "our martyred governor"
Hon. William Goebel, “our martyred governor”

Goebel ran afoul of local businessman John Lawrence Sanford after successfully working to remove tolls from some of Kentucky’s turnpikes. This cost Sanford quite a bit of money and eventually came to a head with a duel between them on April 11, 1895 in which Sanford died. While Goebel was acquitted of murder, the event haunted his political career.  Now the oath of office for officials in Kentucky includes language about dueling.

The election for governor of Kentucky in 1899 was, like many elections, full of drama. While there was confusion in the primary, Goebel won his party’s nomination.  But it was the general election that would prove to be particularly dramatic. The results were contentious  and accusations were flying over various irregularities including voter intimidation.  The vote was very close and many thought Goebel won, but William S. Taylor was eventually declared the winner and was inaugurated on December 12, 1899.  Goebel and his supporters continued to fight the results and it was likely this that led to Goebel being shot on January 30 near the Old State Capitol.  The General Assembly reversed the election results and gave Goebel the win. He was inaugurated the next day but only served as governor for a few days before dying on February 3.

IMG_20140503_153518_378Over a dozen people were implicated in the crime, including William S. Taylor, the deposed governor, who then fled to Indiana.  Only a few men ever went on trial including Caleb Powers  the previous governor’s Secretary of State, who many believed was the mastermind.  Powers was eventually convicted, as was Henry Youtsey and Jim Howard.  The convictions for Powers and Howard were overturned but Powers was tried several more times before being pardoned by Governor Augustus E. Willson in 1908.  Powers even wrote a book telling his side of the story. The true identity of the assassin remains a mystery.

As for the statue for the “martyred governor” that inspired this post – it is one of two dedicated to Goebel.  In 1900 the Goebel Monument Fund was established to take donations for a monument, and in 1908 the one in Frankfort Cemetery was erected. The second statue stands at the Old State Capitol and was dedicated in 1914.


  1. Very interesting! I want to read more about all of the players in this deleterious drama. So sad this country is a country of bloodshed – always has been, always will be….

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