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Death of a Kentucky Bastard

By Jonathan Meador |

It's a cold comfort to be sure, but as ridiculous and power-hungry as many of their kind can be, I'll take any comfort regardless of its temperature. These modern Kentucky politicos lack the same mixture and apportionment of traits which Goebel had, and in apparently fatal excess.

Far more importantly, our 138 jealous legislators do not live in the same era of relative violence and general atavism which would enable them to do more damage than they already do. Perhaps, as some historians suggest, Goebel's just desserts — he was murdered by an assassin's bullet — serve as a subconscious warning to any politician whose eyes are bigger than their stomachs — although Goebel seemed to have a bottomless craving for power.

The tricks of politicking at the turn of the 20th Century are a little harder to pull off now, and for many good and varied reasons, but aside from anti-corruption laws and the proliferation of citizen watch dog groups, the answer is probably more mundane than all of this: interest group largess and regulatory capture is more than enough to fully sate even the worst of our state's politicians, who've been conditioned, over the years, to settle for a lot less than a physical dictatorship as the End Game of careers spent turning shit into diamonds in Frankfort and in Washington. A few hundred dollars and a plate of West Kentucky BBQ is, in many cases nowadays, all it takes to secure support for a bill, such is how the lowly have risen.

So just what did Goebel do, exactly, to deserve that assassin's bullet? For starters: He was an asshole. Quite possibly, Goebel was one of the biggest assholes that ever called himself a Kentuckian. Born in 1856 to German immigrants by way of what can only be described as a ritual of the blackest of magics, Goebel became Democratic president pro tempore of the state Senate by 1896, the year of his 40th birthday. He amassed a power base of "loyal" Democratic supporters who were in his camp simply because they were too frightened to be in any other, possibly under pain of losing a testicle or two. Nicknames like "The Kenton Czar" and "The Kenton King" easily stuck, as they reflected both his home county and his lust for personal power over all others, no matter the magnitude of the relationship.

Complete control over a large Democratic base and an innate sense of ambition combined to give Goebel the freedom to wield the legislative branch like a 12-inch, 3.5 lb. silicone dildo, the double-headed kind, non-consentually bludgeoning Republican governor William Bradley, Bradley's party, and anyone else who made the simple mistake of not being William Goebel.

The only modern politician who comes close to him in terms of intellect, manipulative demagoguery and a general lack of anything that focus groups might refer to as "warmth" is, by my lights, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Granted, McConnell's status as a living, breathing, non-assassinated politician prevents us as of this writing from discerning his ultimate legacy, whatever that might be, and how it might relate to Goebel. Trickier still when it seems probable that McConnell's legacy will consist of uploading his consciousness into an experimental artificial brain to preserve his accrued political acumen for future Republicans (whom would likely reject legislation legalizing mind-machine interfaces, unless it's for drones; but I digress) — a technology Goebel would have loved to get his hands on, I'm sure.

That's about where the similarities end. Goebel actually fought against entrenched corporate interests, not for them, and in that regard the man was a bully who bullied other bullies — sort of. You could say that his tragedy is that he wound up so alienating himself — multiple accounts suggests he had virtually no intimate friends and never married — that by the end of his life, all he could show for his totalitarian temperament was a state in danger of tearing itself apart barely 40 years after the end of the American Civil War.

Goebel's marginal historical celebrity is defined solely by the simple fact that he is so far the only sitting governor to be assassinated in the history of the United States, which is pretty impressive considering some of the governors that are still alive. Most texts focus upon the rancorous political climate in which Goebel's assassination occurred, and its dark aftermath — rightfully so; context is undoubtedly important to understanding his murder — but they lack a certain flavor about them which, with all due respect, leaves a lot to be desired for a history nerd like me; when bizarre and violent events occur in the otherwise banal (if not perennially absurd) state capital, and if you've worked there for any length of time, you begin daydream about shit like this. I'm not saying it's healthy.

So it was with no small delight that I discovered Exit Laughing, a memoir of sorts written by kick-ass Paducah-born journalist Irvin Cobb, who actually helped to carry Goebel's bleeding body to safety on that fateful morning of January 30, 1900.

Cobb covered state politics in Frankfort for a long time, studying Goebel in particular with a fascinated sense of respect and civic revulsion. In this passage, Cobb recounts how Goebel shot an enemy in the street after penning a newspaper editorial in which he accused said enemy of having gonorrhea.


"He loved power as drunkards love their bottle and he would have waded through blood up to his armpits to have his way. One man — Colonel John Sanford — stood as a lion across his path and Goebel shot him to death in the city of Covington. Sanford tried to draw, but Goebel who deliberately had fostered the quarrel between them, and who crossed a street to put himself in Sanford's path after having hideously insulted Sanford in print the day before, beat him to it. It was claimed he had his revolver already drawn; had it hidden under an overcoat folded over his left arm. Next, foreseeing the day when he would need it, he forced through the Legislature, of which he was a member, a measure that bore his name, the Goebel Election Law, the most cruelly, blatantly unfair device for defeating the popular will that had been enacted since Reconstruction days in the Deep South. Even so, there is no doubt but that Goebel aimed at the ultimate betterment of plain people; the trouble was that his good motives and his clear reasonings were cankered by a lust for authority which gnawed at the man day and night, making him a malignant and a menacing force."

Here, Cobb provides a lovely description of Goebel's physical appearance that would work great as the worst imaginable Tinder profile:

"I never saw a man who, physically, so closely suggested the reptilian as this man did. He had a curious yellowish cast to his skin as though stale suet [i.e. butchered animal fat] rather than live flesh lay beneath it. Under stress he would grow tallowy pale but no flush to betoken red flowing blood ever showed in his face. His hair, which was black and very slick, lay plastered against a small, slanted skull that was strangely flattened at the rear. His eyes were glazy, shallow, coal-black; except when he was stirred an ophidian [i.e. reptilian]film was on them. His throat was disfiguringly swollen, with loose folds of skin overlapping the collar line. It was very like the throats of certain lizards. In repose he would put you in mind of a coiled snake, in action, of the snake about to strike, and when he did strike, lashing out viciously, you almost could see the spattered venom fly. He was a daunting yet a fascinating creature to study."

For what it's worth, the only other contemporary Kentucky politician who solicits regular comparisons to reptiles — turtles, specifically — is Mitch McConnell.

By 1899, this monomaniacal lizardman had the legislature and his own party firmly under his own lock and key, and he quickly set his sights on the governor's mansion in the same way Bond villains regard globes. Although running on a populist platform which pitted him against the powerful Louisville & National Railroad trust and the state's Old Guard, Goebel seemed to have one thing on his mind that seemed to push out all others: helping people by helping Goebel first. He wrested his party's nomination at the convention in Louisville, causing a reactionary third party to rise up against him. Further, Goebel reportedly manipulated an official investigation into the close-shave election against his opponent, Republican William S. Taylor, who briefly served as acting governor before Goebel's hand-picked "investigators" kicked Taylor out — all while Goebel lay dying from a fatal gunshot. (Governor Taylor, it should be noted, would flee the state for Indiana following the attack on Goebel out of fear that he'd be named as a conspirator to it; Cobb called Taylor "a dunghill cockerel" for such irredeemable tail-tucking.)

Unfortunately for all parties, Goebel sought to lift the bootstraps of others by using his own boot to stamp on their faces, and so this naturally frightened and angered a good goddamn awful lot of people to rise up in opposition against the would-be Governor with a fanaticism equal to his own coterie of minions, which included drunkard henchmen with names like "Silent Bob" and "Bad Bill." Goebel's despotic means, and his taciturn presence, earned him comparisons to both Mussolini and Hitler (the latter, Cobb says, regarding rumors of celibacy), and had he not been murdered in broad daylight Cobb believed Goebel would've lived to conquer the nation in some fashion, likely by way of the Presidency, making Huey Long look like a half-bit snake-oil salesmen in the process.

Less than a month after his 44th birthday, on a cold January morning, the situation was already tense. A Democratic militia began to swarm upon the Capitol grounds as entrenched Republicans, loyal to the panicked governor Taylor, stood resolute behind Gatling guns, awaiting the final outcome the official "investigation" into the recount. Then, in the midst of that powder keg atmosphere, a match was struck: A handful of gunshots rung out from the Capitol lawn — including the report of one bullet which struck a perambulating Goebel in his chest, mortally wounding him.

Cobb writes of the incident:

I heard the shot that felled him on a cold January forenoon of 1900 and, hearing it, I ran out of the Legislative Hall and was one of those who helped to carry the stricken man away. There was blood on my sleeve and blood on my hand when we put him down. I did not send the first bulletin of the assassination but I think I did send the first coherent story of it. From the bodyguards who had been with him when he dropped — Colonel "Eph" Lillard and Colonel "Dirk Knife" Jack Chinn — I got the hurried details while we were bearing him those three blocks through the street to the old Capitol Hotel, and rushed them over the wire to my paper, the Louisville Post. On the way he fainted and we thought him dead but he very soon revived.

The ensuing chaos cannot be fully comprehended by us, I think, because we have no idea what chaos of this caliber really looks like outside of the Hunger Games: Mocking Jay, Part II. Shortly after the gunshots, there were ancillary acts of violence set-off in chain reaction fashion. Among them is the tragic murder of an unnamed free black man (a Republican) who was apparently guilty of saying that Goebel, the face of the party of slavery in Kentucky, "got what he deserved" within earshot of a pistol-wielding Goebel supporter. According to Cobb, this Democratic assailant, a man named Ireland, appeared to have been stricken first and shot the man in self-defense. The man later died "without benefit of any newspaper mention whatsoever," Cobb writes.

As the hand-picked investigative committee ruled in Goebel's favor, the dying man was inaugurated on January 31, a day after taking a slug to the chest. A dying Goebel ordered the Republican partisans to kindly remove the Gatling guns from the Capitol — one of his only acts as governor.

Fortunately for all parties, the ornery bastard died, taking with him a good deal of the tension that threatened to spark armed civil conflict. The Gatling guns were withdrawn, and people were generally less likely to kill each other in the streets based on which party they belonged to. In the days and weeks to come, the situation cooled into a kind of cold war between Republicans and Democrats. The Capitol, and its business, officially lie inert as the courts tossed around the issue of who was actually governor. Lowell Harrison and James Klotter write in A New History of Kentucky that "state government ground to a halt," and note that the Supreme Court's ultimate refusal to hear the issue — on the grounds that the chaos unfolding in Kentucky wasn't technically a federal matter — resulted in Democrats retaining control of the badly fractured state government.

In the following decade there were trials of the three conspirators, which fingered Kentucky secretary of state Caleb Powers, Knox County clerk Henry Youtsey, and James Howard, reportedly a hunter who was good with a rifle, as culprits. Cobb covered them all. Only one of three tried perpetrators, Youtsey, was hit with charges that stuck, and even then he was pardoned by a succeeding governor. Not a one of them was actually found guilty of the murder itself, and for the most part they retired to lives of relative obscurity.

It is said that the coward William S. Taylor died in Indiana.

To understand how little Kentuckians continue to not care for or about Goebel, consider that his high-profile murder remains unsolved well over a century later — although it could be argued that the toxic political atmosphere in Kentucky at the time and the politicized nature of the trials of the three conspirators extinguished any real chance of due process, much less justice. The Kentucky Bureau of Investigation is busy with relatively more recent crimes, and anybody who was personally or politically slighted by the Kenton Czar has joined him in the big sleep.

How ironic, then, that it was Goebel's death which prompted the only nice things anyone ever had to say about him publicly who wasn't forced to do so. On the day of Goebel's funeral, Cobb writes:

It had been a bitter, miserable day, first thawy, then freezy, with spates of rain and snow mixed. We had remained, we reporters, while U.S. Senator Joseph Clay Stiles Blackburn, from amidst a dense damp pack of active and honorary pallbearers, delivered the stately official oration. Considered that a few years ago he had stood by the open grave of John Sanford demanding vengeance on the slayer of his fellow soldier and lifelong friend, and now stood alongside that identical slayer's coffin demanding the same measure of punishment for whoever had killed him, Senator Blackburn acquitted himself very well. Somebody was unkind enough to say he lifted eloquent and heart-moving quotations from the Sanford tribute and bodily incorporated them into the Goebel eulogy, all with such deftness that you hardly could detect the seams.

More oddly, the main point of factual contention that I can find between these many histories of William Goebel is the matter of his supposed last words, which is victim to some degree of hagiography.

I think I know why. A moderate temperament, a predilection for the trappings of Southern hospitality, and perhaps an unspoken 20th Century commitment to the semblance of decency at all costs in spite of reality combine here more than any other place as evidence that Kentuckians are more susceptible to this kind of whitewashing than most; we just want to get on with things, it seems; a man is dead, let him rest in peace — but let's not solve the crime of his murder. In effect, this brand of false, paternalistic veneration is the opposite of grave-robbing, and just as immoral but for the opposite reasons; sometimes the dead don't deserve to have anything extra added to their casket than what they should be afforded as much as we've no right to take anything from it. It upsets the scales.

In this final anecdote, Cobb observes how history — even that which is recorded of American tyrants — can become something else entirely in death's wake.

Several hours after he expired, a newspaper proprietor of literary pretensions came forth to where the newspapermen of the "death watch" lingered and from a scrap of paper read what he solemnly, almost tearfully proclaimed to be the farewell utterance of the deceased. It was: "Be brave and fearless and loyal to the great common people." Duly we all telegraphed this sentence in to our shops — with our respective tongues in our respective cheeks. The thing sounded entirely too oratorical, too rhetorical for Goebel to have uttered it and besides, he had been a master of plain-spoken, straightforward English. Not even on his deathbed could we conceive of him as using two words meaning precisely the same thing — "brave" and "fearless," where either one would have served. So, not for publication but for our own private information, two of us did a little snooping. This was the actual fact: Shortly before he went off into the final coma, Goebel expressed a craving for oysters — his favorite dish. His case was hopeless anyhow, so they let him have one. He spat it out and looked up at an attendant physician and whispered: "Doc, that was a damned bad oyster!" I wonder how many of the last words of swooning idols have been manufactured to order by high-pressure salesmen of propaganda?

The answer, of course, is almost all of them.

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