Only one sitting governor in the history of the United States has been assassinated, which is remarkable over two hundred and forty years of history and the number of men who have served as governors. The very unlucky man was William Justus Goebel. A Democrat, Goebel had an abrasive personality. He was not a glad-hander, greeting only his closest friends. His features were described as reptilian. Nonetheless, his championship of populist economics as a Democrat gave him the political heft to win a State Senate seat in Kentucky.
In 1895 he had a shootout with a political opponent, former Confederate General John Lawrence Sanford. Goebel had referred to Sanford as Gonorrhea John in a newspaper article. Witnesses were not sure who fired first. Sanford’s bullet passed through Goebel’s coat and ripped his trousers. Goebel’s bullet hit Sanford’s head, Sanford dying five hours later. Placed on trial, Goebel claimed self-defense and was acquitted.
Goebel ran for Governor as a Democrat in 1899. He was opposed by Republican William Taylor and John Y. Brown, a former Democrat governor, who ran as the candidate of a faction of the Kentucky Democrats. Taylor won the election, beating Goebel by 2,383 votes. The Democrat controlled General Assembly invalidated enough votes to allow Goebel to win. Republicans were incensed and the state seemed to be heading for civil war. William Taylor was sworn in pending a judicial determination of who won.
On January 30, 1900 Goebel, while walking near the State Capitol in Frankfort, came under fire from persons unknown. Five or six shots were fired from the State Capitol with one seriously wounded in the chest. The next day Goebel was sworn in as governor, dying on February 3, 1900. The Kentucky Court of Appeals eventually ruled that the General Assembly had acted legally in having Goebel sworn in.
William Taylor came under suspicion of involvement in the assassination. He fled to Indiana. The governor of Indiana refused to extradite him to Kentucky and eventually Taylor became a prominent Indiana attorney. He was pardoned by Kentucky Governor Augustus Wilson, a Republican, in 1909. Sixteen men, including Taylor, were indicted in the murder. Three were convicted, with two having their convictions overturned on appeal, their trials being far from fair and conducted in a lynch atmosphere. The third who had received a life sentence was paroled in 1916 and pardoned in 1919 by Governor James Black, a Democrat. Just who was behind the assassination of Goebel remains a mystery.