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Sunday, October 11, 2015

History of Kentucky's Governors (1895-1900)

By Paul Whalen 

2015 is a Gubernatorial election year, with Republican candidate Matt Bevin set to take on Democratic candidate and current Kentucky Attorney General, Jack Conway. 

Fort Thomas resident, Paul Whalen, continues his look into the history of Kentucky's Governor's that will take us up to present day. 


Garrard County native, William O’Connell Bradley became Kentucky’s first Republican Governor upon his election in November 1895.  He had unsuccessfully run for governor against Simon Bolivar Buckner in 1887.

Soon after Bradley’s birth in 1847, his family moved to Somerset.

As a teenager, Bradley ran away from his family home on two occasions in order to join the Union Army.  Being only 14, he was returned to his father.

As a teenager, Bradley served as a page for the Kentucky legislature and began the self-study of law.  At age 18, the General Assembly passed a special law allowing Bradley to take the bar exam.  After passing the bar, he practiced law with his father.

In 1867, Bradley married Margaret Robertson Duncan.  They had two children, Robert and Christine.  They were Presbyterians.

In 1870, Bradley was elected Garrard County attorney.  During the 1880’s and 1890’s, he ran unsuccessfully as a Republican for various positions including U.S. Representative from Kentucky’s 8th district, Governor and U.S. Senator.  In 1889, he declined an appointment from President Benjamin Harrison as Ambassador to Korea.

In 1895, Democrats were split in a three way race for governor which included the Populist Party candidate who was popular in Western Kentucky.  The Democrats nominated attorney general P. Wat Hardin and the Populist’s, Thomas S. Petitt.  This split assisted in the election of “Billy O” as the 30th person to serve as Kentucky’s Governor.

As Governor, Billy O faced a divided General Assembly.  During his term, the House had a Republican majority and the Senate had a Democratic majority.  The Senate President at that time was William Goebel of Covington.

In 1896, the General Assembly was responsible for electing U.S. Senators.  However, this was the era of the debate concerning “free silver” and the gold standard.  The legislature was deadlocked after 112 ballots and tempers flared causing Governor Bradley to call out the National Guard in order to keep the peace among members of the General Assembly.  Eventually, William J. Deboe was elected as Kentucky’s first Republican U.S. Senator.

Under Bradley’s leadership, a special March 1897 session of the General Assembly passed an “anti-lynching” law which included a fine of $500 and removal from office for any peace officer who did not prevent a lynching or mob violence.  It could be said that during Bradley’s four year term there were only 25 lynchings as compared to 56 in the previous four year period in Kentucky.
 In 1898, Bradley unsuccessfully advocated repeal of Kentucky’s “Separate Coach Law”, which provided that blacks and whites ride in separate cars,  trains and street cars.  He named the black person to the board of trustees of Kentucky State College, Edward Underwood.

Violence throughout Kentucky dominated much of Bradley’s tenure.  Feuds plagued Eastern Kentucky.  In Central and Northern Kentucky, there were the “Tollgate Wars” in which Kentuckians protested violently against toll roads.

There was another economic crisis during the mid-1890’s.  Many Kentuckians were upset about paying tolls for worn out roads, many of which had been severely damaged by extensive troop traffic 30 years prior during the Civil War.  Yet, most toll roads had not been repaired.  There had been a custom whereby tolls were not collected from farmers going to the mill.  So many farmers would carry bags of “bran” as if they were on the way to the mill in order not to pay the toll.

In April, 1897, armed and masked marauders went through parts of Washington and Anderson Counties and forced gatekeepers to chop their pikes into pieces and gates.  Raids on toll houses were later made in the month in Mercer County.   In 1898, there were raids against the tollgates in Maysville, Georgetown, Owingsville and Harrodsburg.
(Pp.85-92 Kentucky Land of Contrast by Thomas D. Clark (1968))

In an address to the legislature, Bradley mentioned the need to repair the Governor’s mansion in Frankfort.  The floors were being propped up and holes were being filled with hundreds of yards of weather stripping during the winter.  On February 10, 1899, the Governor’s Mansion caught fire due to a faulty flue in the Governor’s bedroom.  As a result, the governor had to reside in a hotel until the end of his term.

When “Billy O” left office in 1899, he served briefly as the political advisor to William S. Taylor, who ran for governor against William Goebel.  Taylor was inaugurated as Kentucky Governor, but after the assassination of Goebel was forced to flee Kentucky.  He represented Taylor and the Republicans in Federal Court in the lawsuit which unseated Taylor from the governor’s office.

Billy “O” moved to Louisville to practice law but remained active in Republican politics.  He seconded the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt at the Republican Convention of 1904.

In 1908, he was elected by the Kentucky General Assembly to serve in the U.S. Senate.  He was elected in part, due to his opposition to prohibition.  He served until his death in 1914 of injuries sustained as a result of being hit by a street car in Washington, D.C.


William S. Taylor was inaugurated governor after the disputed election of 1899 against State Senator William Goebel of Covington.  He served a total of 50 days.

Taylor, a Butler County native, was a teacher, lawyer and farmer, as well as politician prior to becoming Governor of Kentucky.  He began his political career as a member of the “Greenback Party”.  The “Greenback Party” was active after the Civil War from about 1873 to the mid-1880’s.  They generally opposed the shift from paper money to a bullion based monetary system because they feared the power of banks and corporations to control prices.  It also opposed the use of both state and federal government to use private guard services, like Pinkerton, and militias against strikers.  They also opposed corporate monopolies.  Some of these beliefs were similar to those held by Taylor’s Democratic opponent, William Goebel in 1899.  Goebel was against the monopolies imposed by the L & N and other railroads.  Goebel was a favorite of unions and many populists of the day.

William Sylvester Taylor was born in a log cabin in Butler County, near Morganfield, Kentucky on October 10, 1853.  He spent most of his childhood working on his father’s farm in Butler County and did not receive any formal schooling until about age 15.  He was an excellent student and by 1874, he began teaching school until 1882.  He later trained in  law, all the while farming.

In 1878, Taylor married Sara (Sallie) Belle Tanner.  They had nine children, including seven who lived beyond age five.

In 1878, Taylor ran unsuccessfully for Butler County Clerk.  In 1880, he was active in the presidential campaign of Greenback Party candidate James Weaver of Iowa.  In 1882, he was elected Butler County Clerk.  In 1884, he became a member of the Republican Party.  In 1886, Taylor won the first of two terms as Butler County Judge.  In 1895, he was elected Attorney General of Kentucky along with Kentucky’s first Republican Governor, William O. Bradley.

The 1899 campaign for Kentucky Governor was unusually contentious even for Kentucky.  Both the Republican and Democratic Parties were bitterly divided.  Prior to the Republican Convention, incumbent Republican Governor Bradley supported Judge Clifton Pratt of Hopkins County. Republicans from Central Kentucky supported State Auditor Sam H. Stone.

Democrats split and one faction nominated former Governor John Y. Brown.  There was also a Populist Party candidate.  Senator William Goebel was a controversial choice for the Democrats.  Former Confederates who were a “safe” voting block for Democrats, did not like the fact he killed a former Confederate, General John Sanford, in an altercation on the streets of Covington.  Blacks, who were generally a “safe” voting block for Republicans, were upset about the passage of the “separate coach act” which was signed into law by Republican Governor Bradley.  Goebel was an enemy of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad which at that time supported the Republican Party.

Republican Governor William Bradley did not initially work on Taylor’s behalf during the campaign of 1899.  It was not until Goebel brought 1896 Democratic Presidential Candidate, William Jennings Bryan, to Kentucky for several weeks of campaigning did Bradley campaign on Taylor’s behalf.  (Bryan carried Kentucky over McKinley in the 1896 Presidential Election.)  There was no violence on the day of the election, though there were at least six killings related to campaign on the days leading up to the election. In Louisville, the mayor who supported Goebel added several hundred men to the ranks of the police.  Republican Governor Bradley sent the militia to Louisville for the election and while the ballots were being counted.

Election day results showed that Taylor won by 2,383 votes over Goebel, with another 15,000 votes going to third and fourth party candidates.  The Board of Elections, which had been created by Goebel, certified Taylor as the winner stating they had no power to investigate irregularities.  Taylor was inaugurated on December 12, 1899.   With the General Assembly beginning its session, the results of the governor's election were contested in the legislature.  The General Assembly chose an eleven member committee to probe the election, whose work began in earnest in January 1900.

Tensions in Frankfort were made worse on January 16, 1900 by a shooting which resulted in the deaths of three persons in the lobby of the Capitol Hotel.  A feud relating back to 1898 and the Spanish American War was relived.  While stationed at Anniston, Alabama, Lt. Ethelbert Scott had shot and wounded his commanding officer Colonel David G. Colson.  Scott had never been charged with the shooting of Colson by Alabama authorities.  The chance encounter in the lobby of the hotel resulted in David Colson of Middlesboro (a former Congressman) putting six bullets into Scott, a lawyer from Somerset, and killing two bystanders and wounding several others.  One of the bystanders, Franklin County Farmer Charles Julian, was in the Hotel to purchase a ticket to attend a speech at the hotel that night by William Jennings Bryan.  Scott was the nephew of former Governor William O. Bradley.  Colson was indicted by the Franklin County Jury of three murders, but acquitted of all three murders by a jury in April 1900.  (Thomas E. Stephens, “Congressman David Grand Colson and the Tragedy of the 4th Kentucky Volunteer Infantry; The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society; Winter 2000; Vol. 98, No. 1 p.43 and pp. 81-98)  Prior to the shooting of Geobel, this incident was known statewide and regionally as “The Tragedy of Frankfort”.

On January 30, 1900, as Senator Goebel was walking towards the state capitol building (now the “Old Capitol”) he was shot.  Evidence revealed that the shot came from a window in the Secretary of State’s Office in the annex.  In response to the shooting of Geobel, Taylor called out the militia and ordered  the General Assembly into special session in London.

As the Democrats had a majority as well as quorum in each house of the General Assembly, the Democrats secretly met in the Frankfort hotel and elected Goebel governor.  On January31, 1900, Goebel was sworn in as governor.  Goebel then signed an order to send the militia home which was not recognized by the militia’s commander.  Goebel died in the afternoon of February 4, 1900.

The election dispute was eventually decided by the courts with even the Supreme Court of the United States rendering an opinion on May 21, 1900 to support the decision of the KY Court of Appeals.  (More details to come in the profiles of Governors Goebel and Beckham).

Governor William Sylvester Taylor fled to Indianapolis under threat of indictment.  There were attempts to extradite him back to Kentucky and in 1901 there was an attempt to abduct him because extradition did not work.

Taylor’s wife Sallie died soon after they fled to Indiana.  They had become penniless as a result of the expense related to the appeal of the election dispute.

Taylor was able to resume the practice of law in Indiana, eventually becoming an executive with the old Empire Life and Accident Company.

In 1909, Republican Governor Augustus Willson, pardoned Taylor.  Even with that, he rarely came back to Kentucky.  The most significant visit was in 1912 when he married Nora Myers at her home in Jamestown.  They had one child.

Taylor died of heart disease on August 2, 1928 and was buried in Indianapolis.

1900 Term

The only American Governor to be assassinated was Northern Kentucky’s own William Goebel of Covington.  He was also the only Kentucky Governor who never married.

William Goebel was born in Pennsylvania in 1856, the son of German immigrants he spoke only German until the age of 5.

The Goebel family moved to Covington soon after his father completed service in the Union Army during the Civil War.

William Goebel graduated from the University of Cincinnati School of Law in 1877 and practiced law at various times with former Governor John Stevenson and U.S. House Speaker and Treasury Secretary John G. Carlisle in Covington.

With these contacts, Goebel gained early support for his political ambitions.  Goebel built a regional urban political organization centered in Kenton County which assisted in his election to the KY Senate in 1887.  In 1896, Goebel was chosen by his peers in the Senate as President Pro-Tem.

As a State Senator, Goebel worked for regulating railroad, restrictions on toll roads, abolition of lotteries and pool rooms and the expanded rights of labor.  This was at a time when the L & N Railroad (L&N) was a powerful player in Kentucky politics.  Goebel was considered a champion of farmers and the common man and an opponent to corporations and special interests.

Goebel was a controversial figure in 1890’s Kentucky politics.  He killed former Confederate General and banker John Sanford in broad daylight before witnesses on the streets of Covington.  Sanford had lost money in toll roads due to legislation championed by Goebel.  Additionally, Goebel’s appointment to the KY Court of Appeals had been blocked through the influence of Sanford.  Goebel had written an article in which he referred to Sanford as “Gonoherra John”.  Sanford is said to have spoken to one of Goebel’s companions as Goebel was passing Sanford on the street.  Goebel noticed that Sanford was reaching into his pocket for what he thought was a pistol.  As a result, Geobel fatally shot Sanford in self-defense.  In fact, Sanford did get off a shot which struck Goebel’s coat.

Goebel’s support for increased business and railroad regulation (including the now defunct railroad commission), labor and William Jennings Bryan’s free silver policy caused him to break with many Kentucky Democratic leaders including John G. Carlisle.

Goebel’s organizing ability caused many to accuse him of bossism.

In 1899, Goebel was nominated by a divided Democratic Party.  He was nominated on the 26th Ballot of the State Democratic Convention. (Jewell & Cunningham-p. 12)  To further stir excitement, William Jennings Bryan, the 1896 Democratic candidate for President, campaigned on behalf of Goebel.

In the four person race for governor, Republican Attorney General William S. Taylor defeated Goebel by a mere 2,383 votes.  Democrats in the General Assembly began leveling accusations of voting irregularities in some counties.  Governor Bradley (Republican) sent militia troops to Louisville and Jefferson County for the election in response to the hiring by Louisville’s Democratic mayor of more police.  The Election Commission (which had been created by legislation sponsored by Goebel) decided the election in favor of Taylor by a vote of 2-1.  The Commission did not have the power to investigate allegations of irregularities.  As a result, Taylor was sworn in as Governor in December 1899.

Under the Kentucky Constitution, the power to review the election lay with the General Assembly.

When the General Assembly returned in January 1900, Goebel and his supporters requested an investigation into the November 1899 General Election.  Frankfort was an armed camp during the month of January 1900, as the investigation preceded in the General Assembly.  Armed supporters of Governor Taylor came to the city on trains from traditionally Republican areas of Eastern Kentucky.  Then there was the shooting in the old Capitol Hotel Lobby in mid-January between Col. Colson and Lt.  Scott which resulted in six deaths including Scott’s.  That shooting was related to an old army grudge from 1898.  (For more information see Gov. Taylor’s post).

While the election results were being investigated by the General Assembly, Goebel, despite being warned of a rumored assassination plot against him, walked flanked by two bodyguards to the State Capitol (now the old Capitol) on the morning of January 30, 1900.  Reports are conflicted about what happened next, but five or six shots were fired from the nearby State Office Building, one striking Goebel in the chest and seriously wounding him.  Taylor, serving as governor pending a final decision on the election, called out the militia and ordered the General Assembly into special session, not in Frankfort, but in London, Kentucky, a Republican stronghold.  The Republican minority heeded Taylor’s call and headed to London.  Democrats resisted the call.  Both factions claimed authority, but the Republicans were too few in number to muster a quorum.

The day after being shot, Goebel was sworn in as governor.  In his only act as governor, Goebel signed a proclamation to dissolve the militia called by Taylor, an order which was not heeded by the force’s Republican commander.  Despite the attendance of 18 physicians, Goebel died on the afternoon of February 3, 1900.  Sympathetic journalists recall his heroic last words as: “Tell my friends to be brave, fearless and loyal to the common people”.   Though, KY writer Irvin Cobb believes that he said, "That was one bad oyster", referring to what he had had for lunch.

When his body was taken home to Covington for funeral services, due to Goebel’s issues with the L&N Railroad, it was carried on a roundabout route using another railroad the “Queen and Crescent”.  It was returned to Frankfort for burial in the Frankfort Cemetery using the same route.

Several people were indicted for the murder of Goebel including Kentucky Secretary of State Caleb Power who was tried at least 4 times for complicity in the assassination of Goebel and served about 8 years in prison.  It was thought that the shots which killed Goebel came from a window in the Kentucky Secretary of State’s Office.  Caleb Powers was eventually pardoned and served from 1911 to 1919 in the U.S. House of Representatives from KY’s old 11th Congressional District in the southeastern part of the state.

With Goebel’s death, tensions eased.  The idea of Goebel’s lieutenant governor, J.C.W. Beckham, as governor was more palatable to the opposition than civil war in the state, though many would have preferred war to a Goebel governorship.  The matter of the election was eventually decided by the legislature and the Kentucky Courts with the U.S. Supreme Court (Taylor v. Beckham) agreeing that the matter be settled by Kentucky legislature and courts.  Beckham took office upon Goebel's death and his position was solidified as a result of the decision of the courts.

1 comment:

  1. Q: Where in Covington, KY did Goebel and Taylor debate for the 1899/1900 Governor election? Was it at the County Courthouse? Or somewhere else?