Friday, November 25, 2016

William S. Taylor: A Killing in Kentucky


Although he was accused of involvement in a heinous crime in his home state of Kentucky, William Sylvester Taylor was still welcomed to the 1900 Republican National Convention as a delegate-at-large. The meeting would see President William McKinley remain on the ballot for an attempt at a second term, with Governor Theodore Roosevelt of New York named as candidate for Vice President. Taylor joined the other delegates in the near-unanimous decision on this ticket; Roosevelt was the only one of the 926 delegates to not support his name for Vice President, considering it more fitting to abstain.

Taylor, who had been ousted as governor of Kentucky after serving for just a few weeks, had since moved to Indiana. He only agreed to attend the Republican National Convention after he was assured that the officials in Pennsylvania would make no attempt to extradite him to his home state. After the convention, there were rumors that he was traveling toward Niagara Falls, a popular place to cross the border into Canada. These reports proved to be unfounded.

Nevertheless, Taylor continued to be nervous about his surroundings. His immediate successor to the governor's office had been gunned down in front of the state capitol in Frankfort, in an incident which remains the only gubernatorial assassination in United States history. A court contended that Taylor had actively plotted to remove his rival after a bitterly contested race.

Early political career

Taylor was born on October 10, 1853, in Butler County, Kentucky. He grew up on a farm and didn't start his formal education until age 15. Despite this late start, he proved a fast learner and a gifted orator. He became a teacher in 1874, and remained in this profession until 1882. He also continued to work in farming, and later became a lawyer.

During his time as an educator, Taylor entered his first political contest. He ran for county clerk in 1878, but was unsuccessful. Four years later, he tried again and was victorious.

Taylor soon proved a popular Republican candidate in Butler County. He was elected to two terms as county judge, serving from 1886 to 1894, and was named as a delegate to the 1888 Republican National Convention. Between 1896 and 1899, he was Kentucky's attorney general.

The state was a fairly violent place to live during this time. While Kentucky had nominally remained loyal to the Union during the Civil War, sentiments within the state were more divided. The northern part of the state was more developed and industrialized, while the southern portion relied more on agrarian pursuits. During the war, northern Kentuckians had strongly supported the Union while residents living closer to the Tennessee border were more sympathetic to the Confederacy.

Since Kentucky was a slave state, it was subject to Reconstruction after the war. The ongoing tensions in the state contributed to a number of violent episodes, including duels, feuds, and murders. This atmosphere all but guaranteed that a close election result in the 1899 gubernatorial election would not be resolved without bloodshed.

Governor's race

The Republicans chose Taylor as their candidate without much fanfare. He would face off against William Goebel, whose ascension to the Democratic nominee had been much more chaotic.

William Goebel (Source)

Goebel was an attorney and state senator who had also become something of a political boss by the time of the election. He helped organize political efforts across the state, and worked to get his supporters in control of city and county governments. He supported civil rights for black residents and women, and often took on the big railroad companies in his legal work. In the state senate, he supported stronger regulations on the railroads; he often used profanity or insults to shore up his arguments.

Four years before the gubernatorial race, Goebel's crusade for fair transportation regulations had attracted the ire of businessman John Lawrence Sanford. The two men had been at odds over the removal of tolls from some Kentucky turnpikes, an action which cost Sanford money. On April 11, 1895, Goebel was walking with friends in downtown Covington when he spotted Sanford and confronted him. Witnesses said that Sanford ambushed Goebel, pulling a pistol and firing at close range.

The bullet passed through Goebel's coat, but didn't leave a scratch on him. He quickly reacted to the assault by pulling his own pistol and shooting Sanford in the head; the businessman died instantly. Goebel was later acquitted of murder, due to witness testimony that Sanford had previously threatened to kill Goebel and that the state senator had fired in self-defense.

In 1899, Goebel mounted an aggressive effort to win the Democratic Party's nomination for governor. At the state convention, he was one of four candidates vying for the job. He made a secret agreement with fellow candidate William J. Stone, a former Confederate soldier who lost a leg in the Civil War, to assure his favored choice for a temporary chairman over that of Parker Watkins Hardin, an ex-Confederate general backed by the railroads. From there, he was able to get control of the convention's committees and shape its platform.

When the convention's delegates failed to produce a gubernatorial candidate after 25 votes, Goebel proposed that the person receiving the fewest votes on the next ballot should drop out. He then betrayed Stone, having some of his own men throw their support behind Hardin to help put Stone at the bottom of the tally. He believed that Stone's delegates would be more likely to support him over Hardin after Stone was out of the picture. This tactic proved successful, and Goebel was ultimately picked as the Democratic nominee for governor.

A small contingent of Democrats, disgusted with the manipulative dealings at the convention, refused to support Goebel. They formed a group called the Honest Election League and named John Young Brown, who had served as governor between 1891 and 1895, as their nominee.

During his campaign, Goebel accused Taylor of having a cozy relationship with Kentucky's railroad interests. At his rallies, he frequently asked whether the attendees wanted the corporations to be "the master or the servant of the people." William Jennings Bryan, who had been the Democratic nominee in the 1896 presidential election, campaigned on Goebel's behalf.

Aside from his populist appeal, Goebel had another advantage going into the election. While in the state senate, he had overseen the passage of a controversial new election law. This act established a three-member board of commissioners, appointed by the state legislature, to determine the victor in contested elections. Since the Democrats were in power in the legislature, the commission established in 1899 would likely favor the Democratic candidate.

A contested result

When the votes were tallied after the general election on November 7, Taylor had eked out a razor-thin majority. The Republican candidate had earned 193,714 votes, while Goebel had mustered 191,331. The Democratic candidate's underhanded tactics had proved his undoing; the Honest Election League had convinced 12,040 voters to cast a ballot for Brown instead of Goebel.

At first, Goebel was content to accept the loss. However, his supporters convinced him that the election had been marred by corruption. He challenged the result and asked for the matter to be heard before the election commission. But in a move that surprised Kentucky's voters, the Democratic commissioners voted two to one that Taylor had won the election fairly. On December 12, the Republican candidate was sworn into office.

Their finding still had to be approved by the state legislature, but the Democrats in this body continued to suspect that Taylor had only won the election through fraud. The legislature opted to launch their own investigation into the issue, drawing a group of 11 legislators at random to look into the contest. In what was likely a premeditated maneuver, the selection picked 10 Democrats and only one Republican. Taylor and his allies feared that the committee was almost certain to invalidate the election results.

A political cartoon shows Goebel trying to dislodge Taylor from the "Governor's Chair" with the Kentucky legislature (Source)

On January 2, 1900, the Democratic legislature formally contested the election results. They charged that a wide range of corruption had taken place on Election Day, including voter intimidation, military interference, a conspiracy by the L&N Railroad and the Republican Party to bribe voters, and the acceptance of fraudulent returns and "thin" ballots (those where the paper was thin enough that it was possible to determine who a voter chose by looking at the back of the ballot).

To put pressure on the legislature, Taylor called for supporters from the strongly Republican regions of eastern Kentucky to come to Frankfort. A large number of these Appalachian "mountain men" answered his call, surging into the capital and bringing firearms in a show of force. Tensions and resentment over the election continued to worsen.

The death of Goebel

The stalemate continued until the end of the month, when a shocking turn of events threw the state into even greater turmoil. While walking with his comrades toward the state capitol on January 30, a shot rang out. The bullet pierced Goebel's chest, breaking through a rib and puncturing a lung. His friends rushed him to the Capital Hotel, where the Democrats had set up a base of operations. A doctor worked to stabilize the wound, but knew that it was almost certain to be fatal.

An illustration portraying the scene moments after Goebel was shot (Source)

In the wake of the attack on Goebel, Taylor called the militia to Frankfort to keep order. He also ordered the state legislature to disperse, calling on them to reconvene a week later. Suggesting that it would be "sheer madness" for the legislature to assemble in the capital in the current environment, he asked them to meet in the town of London - an eastern Kentucky community and Republican stronghold.

Taylor also issued a statement a day after the shooting, blaming the "unprecedented and unlawful" acts of the legislature for the incident. However, he also decried the attack on his opponent as unacceptable. "The dreadful tragedy which occurred yesterday shocked and startled all, and can be no more sincerely deplored by any one than myself," he said.

Given that their nominee for governor was slowly dying of a gunshot wound, the Democrats weren't in the mood to reconcile with Taylor. Instead, they looked at his actions as a blatant attempt to seize power by force. They charged that the call for armed men to occupy the capital and the subsequent shooting of Goebel demonstrated that Taylor was willing to rule through "force, fraud, and corruption." In defiance of Taylor's orders, the Democratic members of the legislature tried to assemble on their own. After the militia refused to let them meet at the capital, courthouse, and opera house, they finally came together at the Capital Hotel.

On January 31, the Democratic legislators declared that they had deemed enough of the ballots for Taylor to be invalid. As a result, they concluded that Goebel had won the highest number of "legal votes." A total of 76 members of the state house of representatives and senate signed a declaration naming Goebel as governor and John Crepps Wickliffe Beckham as lieutenant governor; the document also denounced Taylor for "filling the capital of the State with reckless armed men, who have assassinated an honored member of this general assembly, and in calling out the militia without cause, excluding the general assembly from the legislative halls and in preventing it from meeting to transact the business of the commonwealth."

Goebel was sworn in shortly before 9 p.m. In his only act as governor, he signed an order for the legislature to reconvene and the militia to disperse. The leader of the militia, sympathetic to the Republicans, refused to obey the order. Beckham responded by replacing the state's adjutant general with someone more in line with the Democrats, allowing him to call out a separate militia to reinforce Goebel's claim to the governor's office.

Now it was the Republicans' turn to cry foul, accusing the Democrats of trying to steal the election from the duly elected candidate. Some even suggested that Goebel was already dead, and that the legislators had given the oath of office to a corpse.

Militia members, with a Gatling gun, in front of the Kentucky state capitol (Source)

For a time, the state of Kentucky was essentially split between two state governments. Taylor held the Executive Building, refusing to concede the election. Goebel and Beckham held their own claims to the gubernatorial office. The Republican and Democratic legislators were meeting separately, within blocks of each other. Two separate militias faced each other. Observers in other parts of the United States wondered if the situation might devolve into a civil war within the state.

Three days after he was named governor of Kentucky, Goebel died. Beckham was promptly sworn in to take his place. The dispute continued, with Taylor asserting that he had been elected fairly and that Beckham was "claiming and pretending to be the governor of Kentucky."

On February 6, three days after Goebel's death, Democratic and Republican leaders met to try to resolve the question over who held the rightful claim to the governor's office. The stated purpose of the summit was to "end the unfortunate condition of political affairs now existent in Kentucky." At first, it seemed like the Democrats had triumphed; the parties agreed that Taylor and his lieutenant governor, John Marshall, would step down.

But on February 10, Taylor announced that he would not sign the agreement. The matter would have to be decided in the courts.

Life as a fugitive

The Louisville Circuit Court ruled that Goebel had been the victor in the 1899 election. The decision was sustained after the Republicans appealed it to the Court of Appeals. Taylor managed to have the case heard before the U.S. Supreme Court, but the justices decided on May 21 that the federal government had no jurisdiction in the dispute. As such, the lower court rulings would stand and Beckham would become governor.

Soon after this decision, Taylor left Kentucky for good. By this time, several people had been charged in the assassination of Goebel. Taylor feared that he would be accused of complicity in the murder.

The indictments had been handed down in April. Several witnesses had claimed that the fatal bullet was fired from annex of Kentucky secretary of state in the Executive Building. The grand jury named several of the "mountain men" as the principal conspirators in the murder: James and Berry Howard, Henry Youtsey, Harland Whitaker, and Dick Combs.

A number of other men were charged as accessories before the fact. This group included Caleb Powers, Taylor's secretary of state; Charles Finley, a former secretary of state; Captain John T. Powers, Caleb's brother; William H. Culton, a clerk in the state auditor's building; and F. Wharton Golden. The grand jury named Taylor as an indirect accessory to the crime, along with Green Golden and State House police captain John Davis, but did not indict them.

Democratic investigators charged that the decision to kill Goebel had been agreed upon by 25 men meeting in the Executive Building. The people named as principals or accessories, they alleged, had been the leaders of the plot.

Caleb Powers, who went to trial four times for Goebel's murder (Source)

Many of the men charged in the assassination had no intention of submitting to arrest. Caleb Powers and Davis reportedly disguised themselves as militiamen and boarded a train to Lexington, but their escape attempt was discovered and they were captured when they arrived in the city. Whitaker was arrested soon after Goebel was shot after he ran out of the governor's office, and was found to have several revolvers on him; he was later killed in a mine explosion in Idaho.

Taylor and Finley had fled north to Indianapolis. Here, they found themselves protected by a series of sympathetic Republican governors. James A. Mount, whose term began in January 1897, refused to let Kentucky officials take either man back across the state line. At one point, Finley was arrested and a Kentucky state police officer tried to take custody of him. He had to be released after Mount refused to approve the extradition.

Taylor also appealed to William McKinley for a pardon. The President said he sympathized with the ousted governor, but could not grant the request.

Kentucky returned to relative peace after Beckham was confirmed as governor, and he would stay in office until 1907. During that time, the courts would seek justice for Goebel's murderer. Caleb Powers was convicted, along with Howard. Youtsey confessed to being involved in the assassination and was sentenced to life in prison. However, the verdicts in Powers' and Howard's cases were later overturned.

Powers would be tried for Goebel's murder a total of four times. He was convicted three times, twice being sentenced to life in prison and once to death; in each case, the result of the trial was overturned.   Taylor refused to leave Indiana to testify on his former cabinet official's behalf, despite reassurances that he would have immunity from arrest, on the belief that it would be unwise to return to Kentucky.

In November 1907, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Samuel W. Hager had said he would not pardon Powers or commute his sentence if he was elected. Powers, preparing for his fourth trial, criticized Hager for making the decision before his case had even been resolved. He also asserted that the charges would have been thrown out long before if pro-Goebel Democrats hadn't comprised the juries, tried unsuccessfully to get his case transferred to federal court, and claimed he knew who had murdered Goebel and that it wasn't Howard.

Powers' fourth trial ended in a hung jury. Governor Augustus E. Willson, who became the first Republican to hold the office since Taylor after his election in 1907, pardoned Powers in 1908. Powers later wrote a book defending himself against lingering rumors that he had gotten away with murder.

After Mount left office in Indiana in 1901, his successor continued to shelter Taylor and Finley. Governor Winfield T. Durbin became a close friend of Taylor's, and later said he rejected an attempted $93,000 bribe to turn the former governor over to Kentucky authorities. Charles A. Bookwalter, the mayor of Indianapolis, claimed that the man who had been hired to prosecute the cases against Taylor and his co-defendants, Thomas A. Campbell, offered to give him $25,000 if he allowed Taylor to be kidnapped. Bookwalter said he refused, instead ordering the police to guard Taylor's home for 60 days. Campbell again approached him, offering a higher sum to remove the guard, and the mayor again refused.

There were worries that vigilantes would try to shanghai the ex-governor across state lines to face criminal charges. In November 1904, Durbin said he was not sure if incoming Governor J. Frank Hanly would continue to refuse requisitions to send Taylor back to Kentucky. Hanly, a Republican, had only said that he would consider the case on its merits before deciding what to do. In the end, he never gave Taylor up to the Kentucky authorities.

Later years

While living in Indiana, Taylor resumed his work as an attorney. He later became the vice president and general counsel of Empire Life Insurance.

Willson had been governor of Kentucky for about 16 months before he decided to end Taylor's exile. On April 23, 1909, he pardoned the former governor as well as Finley, John Powers, Whitaker, Davis, and defendant Zach Steele. The governor, who had previously pardoned Caleb Powers and James Howard, said he had looked into Goebel's assassination and come to the conclusion that Youtsey had acted alone. The only evidence that had come up against Taylor was testimony that he had written to Howard inviting him to come to Frankfort to kill Goebel. Since Howard had not been accused of shooting Goebel, Willson considered this accusation irrelevant.

The governor believed that the decision of Taylor and others to flee the state was not a sign of their guilt, but rather their fear that they would not be able to get a fair trial. Willson also moved to dismiss the charges against the other defendants, leaving Youtsey as the only one to be convicted in Goebel's death.

"From the fair, impartial study of the reports of all of the trials and from my knowledge of the condition of these times, I believe that Governor William S. Taylor had no guilty knowledge of the murder of William Goebel and that he would never have been indicted but for political excitement and passion," Willson said.

The identity of Goebel's assassin remains a mystery. Youtsey was the only one to serve a significant prison sentence for the crime, although he did not claim to be the gunman. He remained behind bars until December 1918, when he was paroled.

Three months after he was pardoned, Taylor made his first visit to Kentucky since Goebel's assassination. However, he said he did not intend to come back to live in the state permanently. He had experienced too much sorrow in the wake of the 1899 election, he said, including the death of his wife and daughter of "broken hearts."

Taylor returned to his career in Indianapolis and spent the rest of his days in this city. He died of heart disease on August 2, 1928, at the age of 74.


National Governors Association, Kentucky Historical Society, "The Four Days Governor" by Ellen Terrell on the Library of Congress website, "Kentucky Has Two Governors" in the Deseret News on Feb. 1 1900, "The Rival Governors" in the Daily Star on Feb. 16 1900, "Ten Kentucky Indictments" in the Boston Evening Transcript on Apr. 18 1900, "Taylor in Bad Health" in the Toledo Blade on Jun. 28 1900, "Governor Taylor in Danger of the Law" in the Nevada Daily Mail on Nov. 18 1904, "Taylor Will Not Testify" in the Boston Evening Transcript on Aug. 2 1907, "Caleb Powers' Strange Case" in the Evening News on Nov. 26 1907, "Pardons in the Goebel Case" in the Boston Evening Transcript on Apr. 24 1909, "Ex-Governor Taylor Returns to Kentucky" in The Daily Star on Aug. 30 1909, "Death Recalls Ancient Feuds of Governors" in the St. Petersburg Times on Aug. 4 1928, "The Late Governor Goebel" in Humanities in August 2013, Kentucky's Governors edited by Lowell H. Harrison, The Encyclopedia  of Northern Kentucky edited by Paul A. Tenkotte and James C. Claypool, A New History of Kentucky by Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter, That Kentucky Campaign by R.E. Hughes, F.W. Schaefer, and E.L. Williams, The Independent Vol. 52Powers v. CommonwealthOfficial Proceedings of the Twelfth Republican National Convention