Kentucky’s 1899 gubernatorial race was unusually heated. After years of Democratic domination since Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Republicans were finally becoming competitive. In 1895, the voters tired of poor economic conditions and elected its first Republican governor, William Bradley. The following year Kentucky’s voters for the first time chose a Republican president, William McKinley. The GOP wanted to repeat their gubernatorial victory in 1899 with state Attorney General William S. Taylor. The Democrats had selected as their nominee state Senator William J. Goebel. Goebel was a controversial figure within his own party. A staunch populist who battled railroads, he made many enemies with his abrasive personality, often lacing his arguments with profanity and insults. He had also attracted controversy for his eventually lethal conflict with wealthy banker and Confederate veteran John Sanford. He was angered that Goebel’s successful advocacy of removing tolls from many of Kentucky’s turnpikes had cost him a lot of money and he had previously muttered that he would kill Goebel. He also may have been behind an anonymous smear campaign against him as well as a denial of a judgeship on the Court of Appeals. Goebel responded with a scathing article in which he alleged that the married Sanford had gonorrhea, referring to him as “Gonorrhea John”. Sanford was enraged and approached Goebel on the street, asking if he had written the article, to which Goebel affirmed. Sanford shot at Goebel, but missed. Goebel returned fire, shooting Sanford in the head. He was acquitted for the killing as an act of self-defense, but had he been convicted of dueling, he would have been barred from holding public office. This was not the only issue he had with the more traditional Democrats of Kentucky.
Goebel also differed from the traditional Democrat as he was the son of a Union veteran and was favorable to civil rights. A small group of Democrats were dissatisfied with his nomination and the means to which he won it to the point of running former governor John Y. Brown on the “Honest Election Democrats” ticket. Because of this split in the Democratic Party, the 1899 election was close, with Taylor initially winning by 2,384 votes. However, the Democratic Kentucky General Assembly would not give up and claimed voter fraud accounted for the difference, even though a special elections board with three pro-Goebel men that Goebel had created had certified the results for Taylor. Republicans thought Democrats were out to steal the election, and armed citizens from staunchly Republican Eastern Kentucky descended upon Frankfort to prevent this from happening. The tensions were high and violence seemed nigh, and there were numerous reported threats on Goebel’s life. On January 30, 1900, Goebel was walking to the Old State Capitol with two guards when five to six shots were fired from the State Building, with one hitting Goebel in the chest. The Democratic majority certified the election for him the next day and the dying Goebel was sworn in. He lingered until February 3rd before succumbing to his wound.
Sixteen men were indicted for involvement in the murder, including Governor Taylor and Secretary of State Caleb Powers. The prosecution charged that Powers had, with the knowledge of Taylor, masterminded the plot and arranged for Jim Howard, who had been on trial for murder in a blood feud, to shoot Goebel, with Republican State Auditor clerk Henry Youtsey acting as an intermediary between them. The alleged reward for Howard for pulling the trigger was a pardon from Governor Taylor. As for Taylor, he was able to avoid jail time by fleeing to Indiana, and the state’s Republican governor refused to extradite him. Of the defendants, Youtsey proved the weakest link. He had been arrested trying to leave Frankfort disguised as a woman, witnesses testified to him expressing a desire to kill Goebel, and some had placed him at the State Capitol building at the time of the shooting, cleaning a rifle. Over the course of the first trial, he faked insanity, faked a coma, and offered contradictory testimony. After being sentenced to life imprisonment, Youtsey offered testimony for the prosecution, implicating Powers and Howard. Powers and Howard were convicted three times, but their verdicts were overturned on appeal due to the intensely partisan jury selection (360 of 368 people called up for jury duty in one of the cases were Democrats, in another, 173 out of 176) and intense partisan bias exercised by the judge, Goebel supporter J. Campbell Cantrill, who in the first trial had issued jury instructions practically demanding the jury issue a guilty verdict. On a fourth trial for Caleb Powers, in which the jury was mostly Republican, the jury deadlocked.
A fortunate development occurred for Powers and Howard when in 1907 Kentucky elected its second Republican governor, Augustus Willson. The following year he pardoned Powers and Howard, while keeping the unstable Youtsey in prison, as it was Willson’s conviction that he alone had murdered Goebel. In 1910, the voters of Eastern Kentucky’s 11th District, certain of the innocence of Powers, elected him to Congress. Ironically, he served alongside Judge Cantrill for as long as he had served in prison, retiring in 1919. Another alleged conspirator who had fled to Indiana, Charles Finley, would also serve time in Congress. Youtsey would be paroled in December 1918 and pardoned the following year. This all leaves us with a question: who perpetrated the only assassination of a sitting American governor? The case to this day remains unsolved and we may never know as the environment surrounding the trials was overly partisan, the physical evidence was lacking, and the remaining evidence was too contradictory.
Edwards, B. “Henry Eckert Youtsey”. Findagrave.com.
Klotter, J.C. (1977). William Goebel: The politics of wrath. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 111-125.
Pearce, J. (1994). Days of darkness: The feuds of Eastern Kentucky. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 191.
Woodson, U. (1939). The First New Dealer, William Goebel: His origin, ambitions, achievements, his assassination, loss to the state and nation; the story of a great crime. Louisville, KY: The Standard Press.