Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Chaos at the Capitol

Magnet # 445:  Old State Capitol, Frankfort Photo

Material:  Plastic

Purchased By:  Me

Tomorrow marks the anniversary of the day in 1900 when Kentucky governor William Goebel passed away after an assassin gunned him down days earlier.  He was shot on his way to the State Capitol Building.  Goebel was a somewhat shady politician who had been engaged in a bitter, fiercely close election to become governor of the state.  Tensions were running high between political parties and some wondered if another civil war wouldn't break out.  But Goebel's death was pretty much the worst of the fighting and when he passed, tensions still ran high but the threat of violence was over.  To this day, he remains the only United States state governor to have been assassinated while in office.

William Goebel was born to a family of German immigrants in Pennsylvania in 1856 and was the first of their four children.  For the first five years, he only spoke German.  He went on to study law at the Cincinnati Law School and practiced in Kentucky.  Before long, he became known as a man who was not particularly friendly or sociable, almost never greeting anyone with a smile or handshake.  He also had a severe appearance that some even called reptilian and was not a very talented public speaker, relying more on force than appeal.  And he remains the only unmarried Kentucky governor. But what he lacked in charm and personality, Goebel made up for in intellect and ambition.  He was an avid reader with a keen intellect and even his many opponents were impressed.  Before long, he turned his attention toward politics, running for a seat in the Kentucky Senate.  The race was close, and Goebel won a narrow victory, running as a member of the Democrat Party.  He won two reelections, but his time in the Senate wasn't without controversy.  In 1895, despite his efforts to prevent it, Goebel ran into one of his enemies, a businessman he had referred to as "Gonorrhea John" in a newspaper article, on the street.  They then engaged in what many consider to be an impromptu duel after both showed he was armed.  The other man was struck in the head with a bullet and died of his injuries while his shot simply tore through Goebel's clothes.  He was acquitted after he plead self-defense, but the shooting would follow mar the rest of his political career.  Four years later, Goebel decided to run for governor of the state. Both the fight to receive his party's nomination and the election itself proved to be brutal, but Goebel was up to the task, even if it meant lying and breaking alliances.  The results were very close once again, and Goebel's opponent was declared victorious until the decision was overturned by the General Assembly.  Accusations of dirty politics were being hurled by both parties, Republicans around the state were incensed, and the state seemed dangerously close to breaking out in civil war.  Goebel was warned that, with tensions running as high as they were, an attempt might be made on his life, but he nonetheless traveled to what has become the Old State Capitol on the morning of January 30, 1900.  He was escorted by two bodyguards but they couldn't prevent shots from being fired.  This time, Goebel found himself on the receiving end of a mortal wound.  He held on for days, and was sworn in as governor the next day, but finally passed on February 3.  His lieutenant governor succeeded him and people across the state began to calm down, as many preferred him to Goebel.  His Republican opponent, fearful of being charged in Goebel's death, fled to Indiana, where he was harbored by their governor and was never even questioned about his role in the assassination.  A handful of people were indicted for the crime, and while three went to trial, authorities were never able to determine just who fired the shots that brought down Goebel.  It remains a mystery even now, and it's believed that individual will never be known.

Kentucky certainly hasn't forgotten its fallen leader.  Even though the building he was heading to on that fateful day was no longer the State Capitol a mere decade after Goebel's death, it has become the Old State Capitol and is a museum and home to the Kentucky Historical Society.  A plaque had been installed on the grounds to mark where the politician fell.  And nearby, an imposing statue of the man himself looks down narrowly at pedestrians.  Also, just down the street at the Kentucky Historical Society, the suit coat that Gobel was wearing is on display.  It's protected by glass casing, but they have a button for visitors to push that will illuminate the bullet hole.  I saw it for myself and it was pretty interesting.  At that time, I hadn't heard the full story about Gobel and it's certainly been fascinating finding out more about the man and his times.  He may have had the shortest time in office of any Kentucky governor, but the Bluegrass State will never forget William Goebel.

1 comment:

  1. Hard to believe such a disagreeable person could be elected.