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 William Justus Goebel

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William Justus Goebel

  • Birth 4 Jan 1856 Sullivan County, Pennsylvania, USA
  • Death 3 Feb 1900 Frankfort, Franklin County, Kentucky, USA
  • Burial Frankfort, Franklin County, Kentucky, USA
  • Memorial ID 6865289

Governor of Kentucky. One of the most controversial politicians in his state's history, he served as Governor for four days in 1900. He remains the only Governor in the US who was assassinated while in office. The son of German immigrants, Goebel was born in Sullivan County, Pennsylvania, and raised in Covington, Kentucky after the Civil War. He graduated from the Cincinnati Law School in 1877 and became a prominent attorney in Kentucky's Kenton County, often fighting big business interests. From 1887 he was a member of the State Senate and was its President pro tempore from 1894 until his death. A progressive Democrat, he championed railroad regulation, trade unions, and expanded civil rights for women and African-Americans, and sought to dismantle corporate monopolies within the state. But his single-minded pursuit of power and cold, abrasive personality made him many enemies. On April 11, 1895, Goebel killed political rival John Sandford in a gunfight (some called it a duel) in Covington; he was tried for murder and acquitted on the grounds of self defense. Around this time the Republicans began gaining ground in Kentucky's political machine and Goebel's partisan tactics grew more brazen. In 1898 he overrode a Governor's veto and pushed through the Goebel Election Law, which created a commission, hand-picked from the Democrat-controlled General Assembly, to select all county election officials and review the results of state elections. Republicans claimed that in practice this would amount to one-party rule in Kentucky and even some Democrats questioned its legality. (The law would be repealed in 1900). Goebel's ruthless maneuvering to secure the nomination for the 1899 Governor's race divided his party even further, and tensions ran high among the voting public. The Republican candidate, William S. Taylor, won the election by a narrow 2383 votes and took office in December, but Goebel contested the results, charging ballot fraud. He received threats that if he won on appeal he would be killed, and was assigned bodyguards. On January 30, 1900, as Goebel walked to the State Capitol building, he was shot in the chest by a sniper and rushed from the scene for treatment. Declaring a state of emergency, Governor Taylor called for the militia to occupy Frankort and attempted to have the Assembly reconvene in London, Kentucky, a Republican stronghold, but its Democratic majority ignored the order. The following day the legislature announced it had thrown out enough disputed votes to declare Goebel the winner, and he was sworn in as Governor on his deathbed. His only acts in that capacity were to countermand the state of emergency decree and order the Assembly back to the capitol. Taylor refused to recognize the ruling. The militia remained in Frankfort, and as armed citizens on both sides of the issue began mobilizing in the streets Kentucky seemed poised on the brink of Civil War. Goebel died from his wounds on February 3, making a political solution to the crisis more feasible. The election appeal was upheld over Taylor's protests, and Goebel's running mate, J. C. W. Beckham, succeeded him as Governor. In the Spring of 1900 sixteen men were indicted for complicity in Goebel's murder, including Taylor, who avoided arrest by fleeing to Indiana. Five stood trial and three were convicted: Kentucky Secretary of State Caleb Powers, accused of masterminding the plot; Jim Howard, the alleged gunman; and Henry Youtsey, charged as Howard's accomplice. But due process in the trials and subsequent appeals was so muddied by corrupt partisanship (including biased judges, rigged juries, and perjured testimony) that it became impossible to determine guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. In 1908 and 1909, Governor Augustus E. Willson pardoned all but one of those who had been indicted for the assassination. Henry Youtsey, who did not appeal his conviction, was paroled in 1918 and pardoned in 1919. With so much conflicting evidence surrounding the case, most historians believe that Goebel's killer or killers will never be identified with certainty. A monument to the Governor stands on the grounds of the former State Capitol building, just yards from where he fell.

Bio by: Bobb Edwards


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  • Maintained by: Find A Grave
  • Originally Created by: Garver Graver
  • Added: 21 Oct 2002
  • Find A Grave Memorial 6865289
  • Find A Grave, database and images (https://www.findagrave.com : accessed ), memorial page for William Justus Goebel (4 Jan 1856–3 Feb 1900), Find A Grave Memorial no. 6865289, citing Frankfort Cemetery, Frankfort, Franklin County, Kentucky, USA ; Maintained by Find A Grave .