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Often, by looking to the past we can better understand the present. As we read of the Occupy Wall Street movement, for instance, we see that the line has been drawn in many peoples’ minds between “Wall Street,” representing large corporate interests, and “Main Street,” representing local businesses. But this is not a new struggle, as I was reminded when a dear friend from Florida stopped over for a day or two in Frankfort and suggested we see the sights.
Historian that I am, I tend to take people to the Old State Capitol, scene of one of the most notorious political murders of the 20th century. Kentuckians are all taught in the seventh grade that Gov. William Goebel was murdered in Frankfort in 1900, the only sitting U.S. governor to be assassinated. Still, we easily forget why and under what circumstances.
During the 1890s, Kentucky was recovering from the years of lawlessness and crime that followed the Civil War and was trying to reinvent itself as a modern state. In 1904, it began construction on its current capitol building, which looks impressive today, but must have looked even more so in 1904, before Kentucky had many large public buildings, The Old Capitol looks like a toy in comparison, and it had been so badly outgrown by 1900 that the Old Capitol Annex was already in place.
The late 1800s saw the rise of coal as an industrial product of Kentucky, and of the railroads that hauled it, along with virtually everything else that moved in Kentucky. The regulation of large corporations, particularly railroads, was the Occupy Wall Street movement of its day, and future governor William Goebel was in the thick of it, as a prominent member of the General Assembly, Kentucky’s legislature, representing his hometown of Covington in Northern Kentucky. He famously secured the regulation of railroads by successfully pushing for a provision in Kentucky’s new Constitution, ratified in 1891, which created a Railroad Commission as a constitutional mandate, rather than by a statute that could be revoked by the legislature at any time.
Another issue championed by Goebel was the provision of workers’ compensation coverage for workers injured on the job. In the late 1800s, Kentucky law – and the law of most states – did not allow an injured employee to sue his employer for damages in most circumstances. Goebel championed and succeeded in passing a law providing the beginnings of modern workers’ compensation laws.
Republican gubernatorial candidate, William S. Taylor, won the popular vote in the election of 1899, but Goebel, the Democrat, had worked for the passage of what was derisively referred to as the Goebel Election Law, which provided for state control over local county election officials and for the General Assembly, Kentucky’s to decide election contests. Despite the fact that Taylor took the oath of office and purported to act as governor, Goebel successfully appealed the election results to the General Assembly, who declared him the election winner, a decision upheld by the Kentucky Court of Appeals, then its highest court.
Goebel has been championed as a reformer, and as a proto-New Dealer, and he has been criticized as a power hungry demagogue seeking to destroy Democracy in Kentucky through his election law, which was quietly revoked after his death.
Whoever the real Goebel was, he polarized public opinion in Kentucky more thoroughly than any event since the Civil War itself. Like the Occupy Wall Street movement today, he drew the ire of the economic interests he sought to tax and regulate.
This set the stage for what almost amounted to civil war in Frankfort. The L&N Railroad transported hundreds of armed men from the mountains to Frankfort, a mob known as the Mountain Army. Violence was feared, and eery photographs survive of uniformed National Guardsmen setting up machine guns on the streets of downtown Frankfort to protect the capitol.
Despite the threat of violence, or perhaps because of it, Goebel, flanked by bodyguards, openly walked down the street and onto the grounds of the Old Capitol Building, when several shots were fired from the Annex next door, one bullet striking Goebel in the chest and mortally wounding him.
My friend and I wandered down to the Old Capitol Building, with its statue of Goebel in front, in roughly the spot on which he fell, and looked up at the second floor of the Capitol Annex, from which the shots had been fired.
Former Gov. Taylor, who immediately fled to Indiana, was indicted for the murder, as was Secretary of State Caleb Powers, along with two accomplices, one of whom was accused of being the shooter; the others were claimed to have planned the murder.
It is difficult to imagine what would happen today if two statewide elected officials were indicted for the murder of a sitting governor, and one of them fled to another state. Indiana refused to extradict Taylor to Kentucky, and he lived out his life there, becoming a prosperous lawyer.
Caleb Powers was convicted of complicity in Goebel’s murder, after being tried for it four times. He was finally pardoned by Republican Gov. Augustus Willson, in 1908. Powers began his own public relations campaign, proclaiming himself the American Dreyfus, drawing a parallel between what he claimed was his own wrongful prosecution and that of the French cause celebre Alfred Dreyfus, who had been cleared by that point. Finding a favorable audience on the Chautauqua circuit, Powers immediately ran for Congress from a mountain district and was elected, though by all accounts he was shunned by everyone else in Congress other than other representatives from mountain Republican districts. He later noted that he felt vindicated by having served as many years in Congress as he did in the penitentiary.
We walked around Goebel’s statue, and read the inscriptions, praising him for his championing of the common man and for his efforts to regulate big business, including one written by the Great Commoner himself, William Jennings Bryan, whose 1896 presidential candidacy Goebel had supported.
“Did Goebel really look like that?” my friend asked about the statue. I didn’t know but remembered that the great Kentucky writer Irvin S. Cobb had suggested that Goebel reminded him of a reptile, and that he had little personal charm, despite the friendly demeanor and sophisticated good looks embodied in the bronze.
The monument to Goebel on the Old Capitol lawn lists his last words as “Tell my friends to be brave, fearless, and loyal to the common people.” “Did he really say that?” she asked. I remembered that Cobb, perhaps not enamored with Goebel, claimed that a source in the room when Goebel died reported that Goebel, unsatisfied with his last meal, told his physician: “Doc, that was a damned bad oyster.”
The Old Capitol has the advantage of being near Poor Richard’s Books, where I have actually bought Irvin S. Cobb books, so we stopped in there, too. I love the fact that they are dog friendly; despite the fact that my friend’s miniature Yorkie only weighed 2 pounds, she challenged a white standard poodle to a duel in clear violation of the Kentucky constitution, but we settled the matter amicably. I picked up a nice copy of Greeneville, Miss., poet W.A. Percy’s great autobiography, “Lanterns on the Levee,” a title which evokes the great 1927 Mississippi River flood, with its lantern-lit earthworks. The book is a revelation to anyone who loves the old literary South. It was a steal at six bucks; they had a first edition for 18, but I was happy with the ninth.
We tried to take a gander at the new capitol but found it occupied by Neo-Nazis. My friend at one point shrieked, “I see a Klan hood!” which I am rather sorry was her first image of Kentucky’s capitol, though I was kind of proud of the guy in full beard hat, and wearing a yellow Star of David on his shirt, walking purposefully toward the rally. We should have gone back and heard what he had to say; it was no doubt more interesting than anything the Neo-Nazis had to offer.
Turned away from modern politics, we wandered through the Frankfort Cemetery, in search of Daniel Boone, only to be confronted with another life-size statue of William Goebel. In this one, he has his arm raised, making a point, and his upturned head does seem to have a reptilian cast. “I think that one looks more like him,” I told her. In that pose, he rather reminded me of another southern governor, Huey Long, also slain by an assassin’s bullet and also remembered equally as a social reformer and a demagogue.
On the way to Daniel Boone’s grave, we passed a faded sign, “Paul Sawyier,” with an arrow. Amid all the large statues and elaborate monuments in the cemetery, Sawyier’s grave is marked with a simple square marker in which is set a bronze tablet bearing Sawyier’s name and dates of birth and death, 1865-1917, which largely paralleled those of Goebel, and the simple epitaph: “He loved and painted nature.” And somehow that seemed more elegant than William Jennings Bryan’s flowery tribute to Goebel.
We walked down to Daniel Boone’s grave, which may have the best view of any grave I’ve seen, and looked over toward the new capitol, which from that angle appears to arise out of a forest, a fitting image for Boone’s grave. There was, tied to the metalwork around the monument, a lock of hair, perhaps from two people, tied in what appeared to be a shiny gold shoestring.
We pondered the locks of hair as we left, and the Neo-Nazis, and William Goebel, and the miniature Yorkie, who was getting cold by that point, as were we. When we began the day, I didn’t know I’d be taking a trip through Kentucky history, illustrated by the life and death of William Goebel, and by views painted by Paul Sawyier. Nor did I know that I’d find on the inscriptions on Goebel’s monuments the intellectual underpinnings of the Occupy Wall Street movement. What I did know is that Kentucky history, however and wherever you look at it, always surprises you and is always more complicated than you thought.
In my next column, we’re back to the history of Thoroughbred racing in Kentucky, but this time, I wanted to share a little of the rest of Kentucky’s history, too.
Robert L. Treadway is senior policy analyst at Kentucky First Strategies, LLC, a full-service political consulting, lobbying, and governmental relations firm. In his role as a legal consultant, he also provides legal research and writing services to attorneys and law firms throughout Kentucky. Bob has a life long interest in Kentucky history, which he pursued as a student at Transylvania University, where he graduated with a major in history and minor in political science, and was an award winning editor of Transy’s student newspaper, The Rambler. He is a graduate of Harvard Law School, where his media activities included scriptwriting for Harvard Law Professor Arthur Miller’s TV series, and for Prof. Miller’s role as Legal Editor on ABC TV’s Good Morning, America. He writes, posts, and Tweets about Kentucky history. Look him up on Facebook; his Twitter feed is @rltreadway.