On Tuesday, Nov. 7, 1899, Kentuckians headed to the polls to choose their 33rd governor. Because the incumbent, a Republican, was term-limited, the contest came down to two powerful, divisive figures: William S. Taylor, a Republican and sitting attorney general, and William Goebel, a Democratic state senator.
It was an ugly election. When the votes were counted, the Republican won by a razor-thin margin of a little more than 2,000 ballots. Taylor was sworn in. But Goebel cried foul and demanded an investigation.
What happened next left Goebel dead and the state on the verge of a civil war. He remains the only governor assassinated during a contested election in American history.
Nearly 120 years after that chaotic, violent election, the Bluegrass state now faces the potential of its second-ever contested race for its top political job.
On election night Tuesday, after trailing by more than 5,000 votes, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, refused to concede, citing unspecified “irregularities.” The next day, he asked the state to recanvass the election, which requires county election boards to check their math and ensure they added up the votes correctly.
If things still don’t work to his favor, the Republican-controlled General Assembly — in what might be an echo of what transpired at the dawn of the 20th century — could take matters into its own hands, either by recommending a new election or declaring one candidate the victor, according to the Courier-Journal.
The 1899 battle for the state’s governor’s mansion was vicious from the start. In one speech early in the campaign, Taylor warned one audience that Democrats, especially Goebel, would taint elections and harm representative government.
“This is your only salvation. If it fails you then the deadly coils of tyranny will tighten about you and crush to death your political liberties,” he said, according to “The Politics of Wrath” by historian James Klotter.
Goebel enjoyed ginning up his own creative slurs against his fiercest critics. He denounced one ex-Confederate officer who supported Taylor as a “drunkard and debauchee” whose face resembled “a cancerous beefsteak,” according to Klotter’s book. He labeled another prominent critic a “professional corruptionist” and linked others to moneyed interests.
Goebel was a progressive, and campaigned hard to rein in the railroad industry. He championed the cause of “the common man,” Klotter wrote. He sought lower taxes, reduced state government expenses and more money for schools, including cheaper textbooks. His biggest target was the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company — the L&N line. He believed its executives were raking in too much in profits and posed a dangerous influence in political campaigns.
But aside from Goebel’s ardent hatred of the railroad, he was most well-known for having passed as the Senate’s president pro tem the so-called Goebel Election Law in 1898. The new measure established a three-member Board of Election Commissioners, which chose people across the state who would review and rule on election results. Goebel cast the law as much-needed reform, but Republicans excoriated it as outright corruption because it would be led by Democrats.
On the eve of the election, both sides, according to Klotter’s book, predicted “violence and fraud.”
When Election Day did arrive, things devolved fast. The Democratic mayor of Louisville deployed 500 private police officers, “ostensibly to keep the peace, but perhaps to intimidate Republicans,” according to Ohio State University professor Edward Foley’s book “Ballot Battles.” Then, the Republican governor summoned a militia, Foley wrote.
When election returns started coming in, Goebel instantly complained, alleging Republicans were using bogus “tissue paper ballots” to inflate Taylor’s lead, Foley wrote. Other Democrats, according to his book, sought to invalidate 1,200 ballots that misspelled the initials of Taylor’s first and middle names.
The dispute wound up in the hands of the very entity Republicans feared most: the Board of Election Commissioners that Goebel established as state senator. According to Foley’s book, a “Republican force” of 500 armed “mountain men” showed up in Frankfort, the state capital. But the board shocked everyone when its members decided to approve of Taylor’s victory. The final vote tally, according to the Kentucky Encyclopedia: Taylor had 193,714 votes, while Goebel got 191,331. The difference: a measly 2,383 ballots.
A month later, Taylor was sworn in. “THE NEW GOVERNOR SWORN IN,” The Courier-Journal’s front page screamed on its Dec. 13, 1899 front page. “William S. Taylor Inaugurated at Frankfort as Governor of Kentucky.”
But Taylor’s reign would barely last.
The Democratically controlled state legislature, which had the ultimate power in deciding the election, launched its own investigation. They appointed a committee to head the inquiry, its members supposedly selected at random. But the optics of its composition were shady, to say the least: Ten Democrats and only one Republican. “(H)ighly suspicious,” Foley wrote.
Then, on Jan. 30, 1900, before the committee made its decision, Goebel was walking along the Capitol grounds, with two bodyguards. According to Klotter’s book, rumors were swirling that his life was threatened. But there he was, strolling from his hotel room over to the Capitol building. Then, at about 11:15 a.m., a rifle was fired from the secretary of state’s office on the first floor of the building next to the Capitol. Goebel had been shot.
One of his bodyguards rushed up to him and said, “Goebel, they have killed you,” according to Klotter’s book. Goebel tried getting up, but his bodyguard told him to get back down or “they will shoot you again.” “That’s right,” (Goebel) weakly answered.
Goebel was quickly taken to a nearby hotel, where doctors were able to keep him alive. Meanwhile, Democrats in the state legislature were incensed and moved quickly to declare Goebel the winner of the election. He took the oath of his office on his deathbed.
The reporters and editors at the Courier-Journal published a front page on Feb.1, 1900, whose headline blared: “GOEBEL SWORN IN AS GOVERNOR.” The lead story’s headline: “Hovered Near the Gates of Death, Yet Rallied During Day. Scenes in the Governor’s Room.” The article’s second paragraph recounted Goebel’s efforts to stay alive in a tone that was — how to put this delicately — not exactly neutral:
“A braver struggle against death was never made, and a splendid physique, backed by indomitable will-power, has enabled Gov. Goebel to endure what the most skilled physicians in this section of the country declared to be almost impossible, for it will be recalled that last night they said his chances for life were one out of a hundred. He yet may die, but the fact he has survived so long gives faith to those who all day and night hoped and prayed for the recovery of the Democratic party’s leader in his State.”
In his book, Foley said a civil war within the state was a “real risk.” Taylor asked President William McKinley — who would be assassinated in 1901 — to send in troops, but the commander in chief turned him down.
“No matter how dangerous the conditions, he did not want to be the first Republican president since Reconstruction to send in the U.S. Army to prop up a Republican governor at odds with a state legislature controlled by Democrats,” Foley wrote.
On Feb. 3, Goebel died, and his running mate, J.C.W. Beckham, was sworn in as governor.
But the fight was still not over. According to the Kentucky Encyclopedia, both sides agreed to have the courts settle the matter. The battle went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which, in an 8-1 vote, declared it felt no need to interfere in the state election and that no constitutional rights were violated.
The decision was monumental, Foley explained. It established a precedent — lasting a century — that the Supreme Court would not intervene in a state’s ballot battle. The court’s restraint ended when it involved itself in the 2000 presidential election between George W. Bush and Al Gore, who famously fought over Florida’s hanging, pregnant and dimpled chads. The majority of justices ruled, on an appeal from Bush, that a statewide recount of “undervotes” — ballots whose choices indicated no candidate choice — was unconstitutional because of an absence of consistent standards to tally up the votes.
As for Goebel’s assassin? Three men were convicted, all of them connected to Kentucky’s secretary of state, Caleb Powers. Prosecutors portrayed Powers as the mastermind, according to the Kentucky Encyclopedia, and they identified the gunman as James B. Howard, a 33-year-old Republican. Powers and Howard were imprisoned for eight years but were ultimately pardoned because the identity of the killer remained disputed.
“Until new information is uncovered,” Klotter wrote in his book, “the answer to the question, ‘Who killed William Goebel?’ is simply, ‘We do not know.’ Nor may we ever.”