I would label William Justus Gobel (above) as the all time American politician most likely to be gunned down. On the plus side he was one of the smartest men ever to run for public office in Kentucky, far smarter than his Republican opponents – but also smarter than his own Democratic allies. He was too smart for his own good, as they say. He was cold, arrogant, and rude, and he had one of those sneering faces that just begged to be slapped. He was even described by a journalist who knew him as “reptialian”. He disliked shaking hands, and I can't picture any mother handing over her baby to be kissed by him for fear he would just swallow it head first. Worse, the better you knew William Gobel the more a mere slap across his face left you wanting more. At least two people hated him enough to actually take a shot at him. And only one missed.
The first man to hate “William the Conqueror” enough to pull the trigger was banker John Sanford, whom Gobel had recently referred to in a local newspaper article as “Gonorrhea John”. On April 11, 1895 Sanford intercepted Gobel on the front steps of a bank in their home town of Covington, Kentucky. Sanford asked Gobel, “I understand that you assume authorship of that article?” “Boss Bill” confidently answered, "I do." Whereupon both men simultaneously drew pistols and took their best shots. Sanford's bullet ripped through Gobel's coat and trousers. Gobel's bullet ploughed right through the center of Sanford's forehead. The old Republican died five hours later. Gobel pleaded self defense and walked free.
Four years later “King” Gobel (above) found himself a distant third in a three way race for his party's nomination for Governor. It was clear that General P. Watt Hardin was within a few votes of securing the nomination. So “Czar” Gobel promised the third man, Col. W.J. Stone, that if he first dropped out in favor of Gobel, he would then nominate Stone. It worked like a charm. After several fruitless ballots, Hardin was persuaded to step aside in the name of party unity, whereupon, per their deal, Stone expected Gobel to resign as well. Instead, Gobel had accepted the nomination. It was a brilliant move, and, of course, it also ticked off a lot of Democrats.
The donkey split should have ensured an easy Republican victory in the 1899 Kentucky election, but the elephants were also split, and it became a contest to see who was the least popular candidate, Senator Gobel or Attorney General William “Hog-Jawed” Taylor (above). By all accounts it was a dirty underhanded smear-fest of a campaign, with both sides calling up “private militias” to intimidate voters. But it seems that somehow, Taylor squeezed out a victory. A three judge elections board, all Gobel appointees, even said so, by a 2 to 1 vote. And in December “Hog-Jawed” was sworn in as Governor. But that was when Gobel charged voter fraud (which had been rampant on both sides) and moved things into the Democratic dominated state legislature, where it seemed certain that after a short “investigation” “King” Gobel would be declared the winner.
And that is where things stood at a quarter after eleven on the frigid Tuesday morning of January 30th, 1900, as Senator Gobel and two body guards walked across the courtyard in front of the state house. Just as “King” Gobel stepped around the fountain in front of the state house, five shots rang out. His security guards carried the badly wounded Senator into a nearby hotel.
Within hours of the shooting the investigating committee issued their report claiming that the election had indeed been stolen. An hour later Governor “Hog-Jawed” Taylor declared Kentucky to be in a state of insurrection, and put a pad lock on the capital building. What a mess. The Republican legislators met 100 miles to the south, in London, Kentucky. But they lacked enough members by themselves to form a quorum. On January 31st the Democrats, who had a quorum, met secretly in a Franklin hotel room, and voted Gobel as the new Governor.
On February 1st, “King” Gobel was sworn in and immediately signed an order ordering the state militia to go home, and the pad lock to be taken off the capital building. These were to be “William the Conqueror's” only official acts as Governor. He was tended by 18 doctors, and medicine by committee is never a good thing. His last meal was that Friday evening, and his last words were “"Doc, that was a damned bad oyster." The next afternoon, Saturday, February 3, 1900, William Gobel died. He remains to this day the only American Governor to ever to be assassinated while in office...if he was ever legally in office.
The Democrats offered “Hog-Jawed” immunity from prosecution for his part (if any) in the assassination of Gobel, if he would just turn over the Governorship without a fight. Taylor's advisers urged him to say yes, but in the end he said no. And that was a mistake. Both sides agreed to accept the decision of the Kentucky Court of Appeals. And on March 10th that court voted in favor of the Democrats by 6 to 1. Ignoring his own previous promise, Tayor immediately appealed to the U.S. Supreme court. Waiting for their decision, Taylor told a reporter, “I don't see how the courts can decide against me. If they do, I will stay here and fight. I will not run away.”. Immediately after this interview, “Hog-Jawed” slipped out the backdoor of the courthouse, crossed the Ohio River bridge into Indiana and never returned to Kentucky in his lifetime. And, F.Y.I., the Supreme Court refused to even consider Taylor's appeal.
Sixteen men were indited for William Gobel's murder – all of them Republicans. “Hog-Jawed” Taylor was one, but Indiana Governor James Mount refused to extradite him, saying, ““I do not believe a fair and impartial trial can or will be given Mr. Taylor.” And he was probably right. But then he was also a Republican. Of the remaining fifteen indicted co-conspirators, seven were never charged, three turned state's evidence and two were out-right acquitted. Only three men were eventually convicted, but it took seven trials over eight years to get even that far. The Republican Secretary of State John Powers was convicted of masterminding the murder. Henry Youtsey was convicted of aiding and abetting, despite an insanity plea and many theatrics at his trial. And James Howard was actually sentenced to death for being the actual trigger man.
But in 1908 newly elected Republican Governor Augustus Wilson pardoned both Howard and Powers, and even the Hoosier convert, Taylor. Meanwhile, poor Youtsey, who had turned state's evidence after his conviction, was left to rot in jail. Finally, in 1919, the Democrats returned to the Governor's office in Frankfort, and the turncoat Youstey at last received his pardon. Twenty years after William Gobel's murder, all of his accused and convicted murderers, were free again. Maybe if he had been more likable, they might have stayed in jail longer.
Eight years later, William “Hog-Jawed” Taylor died in his adopted Indianapolis. And I have to tell you, that although I do not approve of murder, if it hadn't been “Hog-Jawed” (and his allies) who had finally shot William Gobel, it would have been somebody else. That's just the sort of guy William Gobel was. Nobody deserves to be murdered. But some people just seem to insist upon it.
- 30 -