Bluegrass and Bedlam: How Kentucky’s 1899 election led to America’s only gubernatorial assassination

The filing deadline for the race to become Kentucky’s next governor is on January 29, 2019. Gubernatorial elections can be dramatic in the state. Back in 1899, a series of events including the only assassination of a sitting state governor in U.S. history brought widespread civil disorder to Kentucky and ended in a protracted legal battle.
 
At the time, Kentucky law prohibited governors from serving consecutive terms, making Gov. William Bradley (R) ineligible to seek re-election. Republicans nominated Attorney General William Taylor (R) succeed him.
 
Democrats nominated state Sen. William Goebel (D) after 26 rounds of voting at their convention, but party members dissatisfied with the selection of Goebel nominated their own candidate, former Gov. John Brown (D).
 
The general election was close. Taylor defeated Goebel by under 2,500 votes—less than one-fifth the share of the vote captured by Brown.
 
Supporters of Goebel accused the Taylor camp of voter intimidation and election fraud. Still, the State Board of Election Commissioners certified Taylor as the winner.
 
Goebel and Democratic lieutenant gubernatorial candidate J.C.W. Beckham (D) contested the results. In response, the majority-Democratic state legislature authorized the creation of a special commission to determine the elections’ results. While membership on the 11-member commission was officially random, it ended up including nine Democrats.
 
As the special committee was in the process of determining a winner, armed Goebel and Taylor supporters poured into the capital and massed outside government offices. Goebel was shot in the chest by an unknown assassin firing from the Executive Building as he was entering the Capitol.
 
The next day, the special committee proclaimed Goebel, then on his deathbed, the rightful winner of the election. He died three days later.
 
After Goebel’s death, two parallel state governments—a Democratic government based out of Louisville and a Republican government based out of London—continued to operate.
 
An initial proposal under which Taylor and the Republican lieutenant gubernatorial winner would step down to be replaced by Democratic Lt. Gov. Beckham fell through. Eventually, both sides agreed to allow the courts to resolve the matter.
 
The state Court of Appeals (then the court of last resort in Kentucky) ruled in favor of Lt. Gov. Beckham. Although the Republican government appealed the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court, it declined to hear the case on the basis that it did not concern the federal government, leaving Beckham (D) to serve the remainder of the term. Taylor fled to Indiana, where he later died.



About the author

David Luchs

David Luchs is a staff writer at Ballotpedia and can be reached at david.luchs@ballotpedia.org

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