The Murder of Kentucky Governor William Goebel, 1900
Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
“Celebrated Criminal Cases of America”
Part III: Cases East of The Pacific Coast
State Senator William E. Goebel was the candidate of the Democratic party of Kentucky for Governor in the election of 1899 and his principal opponent was W. S. Taylor, the Republican nominee.
The State Board of Election Commissioners canvassed the returns and issued a certificate of election to Taylor, who was duly inaugurated, and took possession of the archives and records pertaining to the office.
Shortly afterward a contest was instituted by Goebel before the Legislature at Frankfort and was pending on January 30, 1900.
At 11 a. m. on this date, Goebel left his hotel in Frankfort in company with Colonel Jack Chinn and Captain E. Lillard, warden of the penitentiary.
When they reached the State House gate, a shot was fired from the direction of a three-story building in which a number of State officials, including Governor Taylor and Secretary of State Caleb Powers, had offices.
Simultaneously with the first shot, Goebel uttered an involuntary exclamation of pain and looking in the direction of this building he attempted to draw his revolver, but his strength failed him and he sank to the sidewalk, mortally wounded.
Several other shots were fired from the same direction with great rapidity but no other wounds were inflicted.
When informed of the cowardly assault, Taylor appeared to be horror-stricken and bitterly denounced the act.
He at once ordered out the militia for the purpose of “preserving order,” but the rapidity with which the armed forces responded, caused many to suspect that the soldiers had been held in waiting for some reason not generally known.
The Democratic majority of the Legislature immediately made several attempts to meet, but were forcibly dispersed by order of Governor Taylor.
Despite this opposition, the meeting was held on January 31, and William Goebel was declared Governor and John C. Beckham, Lieutenant Governor.
Ignoring the protests of his physicians, Goebel, by a superhuman effort, sat up in bed and took the oath of office administered by Chief Justice Hazelrig.
His first official act was to issue a proclamation ordering the militia to withdraw from the capitol, but the order was ignored.
On February 1, “Governor” Taylor signed vouchers on the Farmers’ Bank in favor of the militia officers who needed money for their men, but President Rodman refused payment on the ground that Taylor had usurped the office.
Taylor then issued a pardon for a convict named Douglas Hayes, but Warden Lillard, who was with Goebel when he was shot, refused to liberate the prisoner.
As Taylor ordered the militia to prevent the Legislature from convening, an order restraining him from interfering was issued by the court, and one Alonzo Walker was deputized to serve the order on Taylor. The latter would not permit Walker to enter his office, so he tacked the notice on the door, whereupon Taylor rushed out and ordered the soldiers to take him into custody.
On February 3, 1900, Goebel died, and almost immediately afterward J. C. W. Beckham was sworn in as his successor, and he opened an office in the Capitol Hotel.
The feeling was so intense that the soldiers were frequently compelled to fire over the heads of mobs which were constantly gathering and hooting at them.
On February 6, Judge Moore issued a writ of habeas corpus ordering the release of Walker, and although Taylor ignored the order at first he subsequently obeyed it.
On February 8, Governor Goebel was buried with the greatest pomp and ceremony ever witnessed in Kentucky.
On February 10, Taylor withdrew the troops, and two days later the Legislature met unmolested for the first time since the assault on Goebel. The first act was to offer an enormous reward for information leading to the conviction of the assassin.
The bullet which probably passed through Goebel was found embedded in a tree and was a 38-calibre steel-jacket rifle bullet. Taking into consideration the position in which Goebel stood when shot, the angle at which the bullet passed through the body, and its position in the tree, surveyors decided that it was probably fired from the window of Caleb Powers’ office.
Much other evidence was also obtained tending to show that the shots were fired from Powers’ office, and, as a result, warrants were issued for Powers and John Davis, a policeman of the State Capitol square. “Governor” Taylor protected these men and instructed the soldiers not to permit Sheriff Sutter to enter the Capitol for the purpose of serving the warrants.
Powers and Davis subsequently escaped from Frankfort, but it was learned that they were disguised as soldiers and were accompanied by twenty-five soldiers on a train en route to Barboursville, the stronghold of the Taylor faction.
Chief of Police Ross of Lexington gathered his entire force, and when the train pulled into the depot they made a rush into the car, and after a desperate battle Powers and Davis were arrested.
It was learned that on January 18 a meeting was held, in which Caleb Powers was an active participant, for the purpose of bringing fifteen hundred armed men from the eastern section of the state to Frankfort for the purpose of influencing legislative action by their presence. Powers personally arranged the details for their coming and pledged them to secrecy.
Evidence was obtained tending to show that, on January 19, the Militia Company of Frankfort was secretly assembled.
The members were drilled daily, but secretly, inside of the arsenal, where board was provided for them.
While at Barboursville, on January 22, 1900, Caleb Powers addressed to Adjutant General Collier a letter which read as follows:
My Dear Sir :—There are two companies at this end of the state that refuse to go unless they are called out regularly.
The London company under Captain E. Parker and the Williamsburg company under Captain Watkins are the ones.
We must have these men and guns as we are undertaking a serious matter and win we must. Send orders to have these companies join us Wednesday night. Don’t fail. Wire tomorrow.
Will be there Thursday with 1200 men. Arrange board and lodging.
Powers also ordered printed badges bearing the picture and autograph of Taylor, which were to be distributed among the men at the train.
On January 25, twelve hundred men arrived at Frankfort, including several members of the militia, who kept their uniforms concealed. They were accompanied by Powers.
Of the twelve hundred, all were immediately sent home with the exception of 200 picked men.
Just previous to the shooting, Caleb Powers, his brother John, who was a captain in the militia, and F. Wharton Golden, a sergeant in the same organization, boarded a train for Louisville, but Caleb returned almost immediately after arriving at his destination.
On March 23, Powers’ trial began. He immediately filed a pardon signed by “Governor” Taylor, but the court adjudged it invalid on the ground that the judgment of the Legislature was conclusive, and therefore Taylor was a mere usurper and intruder.
An appeal was immediately taken to the Court of Appeals, which upheld the trial judge.
The Supreme Court of the United States was then appealed to, with the result that on May 21, 1900, a decision was handed down which sustained the lower courts, and Taylor was ousted after the mandate from this court was issued.
Powers’ case was transferred to Scott Circuit Court by change of venue upon indictment charging him as accessory before the fact to the murder of Goebel.
At the trial, Sergeant F. Wharton Golden of the State Militia testified that Powers had instructed him to procure a number of men to enter the executive halls and kill enough Democrats to have the contest decided in favor of Taylor. Golden then related how he met John Powers, a brother of Caleb, and John said: “Goebel is to be killed today;” and almost immediately afterward John gave a tall man with a black mustache a key to Caleb’s office. Golden also asserted that “Governor” Taylor was implicated in the conspiracy.
Golden furthermore testified that John Powers had informed him that two Negroes, “Tallow Dick” Combs and “Hocker” Smith had been hired to assassinate Goebel.
On March 26, during the trial, a discussion arose between Col. T. C. Campbell, counsel for the prosecution, and Judge Geo. Denny, attorney for Powers, and the lie was passed. Instantly the enormous crowd stampeded. Doors and windows were broken in the mad flight, but, to the wonderment of all, the expected fusillade did not occur.
On March 27, Henry E. Youtsey, a clerk in the State Auditor’s office, was arrested and charged with being one of the conspirators. Two days later “Tallow Dick” Combs, the Negro mentioned by Golden, was also arrested.
About this time, Youtsey made a confession, in which he charged “Governor” Taylor and Caleb Powers with hatching the plot, and he also implicated ex-Secretary of State Charles Finley.
Youtsey declared that a gun-fighter named Jim Howard fired the fatal shot from a 38-calibre rifle which he, Youtsey, had delivered to him with a box of cartridges for that purpose. He stated that Howard received $1600 for the job.
Following the disclosures made by Youtsey, the grand jury indicted “Governor” Taylor, Caleb Powers, Charles Finley, Jas. B. Howard, Dick Combs, W. H. Culton, a clerk in the State Auditor’s office, and several others on April 17, but Taylor was not arrested until May 31.
In the meantime, the trial of Caleb Powers was continued.
On July 18, the co-defendant, Culton, was called as a witness for the prosecution and gave very damaging testimony against Powers.
Ed. Steffel, a messenger boy, swore that he saw the barrel of the rifle sticking out of Powers’ window when the shots were fired; that the window was open a few inches at the bottom and the curtain was drawn down.
He stated that the reason he paid particular attention to the partially opened window was because it was unusual to see a window in that condition on a cold, raw day in midwinter.
On July 30, Caleb Powers testified in his own behalf. He protested his innocence, but admitted that he was instrumental in bringing mountaineers into Frankfort, claiming that it was done for the purpose of protecting Taylor.
On August 18, the case was finally submitted to the jury, and after deliberating forty-five minutes, a verdict of guilty was rendered, which was received with prolonged applause.
On October 2, the trial of Henry Youtsey began in Georgetown.
McKenzie Todd, former private secretary to “Governor” Taylor, testified that three days previous to the shooting, he entered Caleb Powers’ office and saw Youtsey experimenting with a rifle at the same window from which it was alleged the shots were fired.
On October 9, Arthur Goebel, a brother of the murdered Governor, was about to take the witness stand, but Youtsey sprang at him and was only overpowered after a desperate struggle. Youtsey was then on the verge of a mental collapse and his condition was such that several days elapsed before the trial was resumed. Arthur Goebel then testified that he visited Youtsey in his cell shortly after his confession and that he stated that it had been arranged to have the negro, Dick Combs, do the shooting, but that Taylor objected on the ground that the negro could not be trusted.
Evidence was produced showing that just previous to the shooting, Youtsey went to the office of the commissioner of agriculture, where he met a squad of armed men and brought them back to the foot of the stairway in the hall near the door leading from Powers’ office.
He then told them that a man would soon come out of the office and join them and at that instant they should all go off together and scatter.
On October 20, Youtsey was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Jim Howard, who was charged with firing the fatal shot, was subsequently tried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, but was pardoned on June 13, 1908.
Caleb Powers obtained a new trial and was again convicted.
Again he appealed the case and again obtained a new trial, which resulted in the jury disagreeing.
On June 13, 1908, he was pardoned while he was confined in the Georgetown jail awaiting his fourth trial.
In March, 1909, Taylor, ex-Secretary of State Finley and the remainder of those charged with the murder (excepting Youtsey) were pardoned by the Governor.
On February 3, 1910, the tenth anniversary of the death of Governor Goebel was observed at Frankfort by the unveiling of a $15,000 monument above the grave in the State Cemetery, in the presence of a great throng.
Coincident with this ceremony, the body of Arthur Goebel, who died three days previous to the unveiling, was laid to rest beside his brother.
At the conclusion of the ceremony, the only living brother, Justus Goebel, bitterly denounced Governor A. E. Wilson for pardoning Powers and Howard.
In conclusion he said: “Today another brother, Arthur, you have just buried. The shot that killed William broke Arthur’s heart, and the pen that pardoned Powers and Howard pierced that broken heart and killed him.”
Caleb Powers: After leaving prison, Powers was elected as a Republican to the 62nd and to the three succeeding Congresses (March 4, 1911 – March 3, 1919) but was not a candidate for renomination in 1918. He served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1912 and moved to Washington, D.C., and served as assistant counsel for the United States Shipping Board from 1921 until his death in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1932. He was buried in City Cemetery, Barbourville, Kentucky.
Caleb Powers married Laura Rawlings in January 1896 and she died six months later. He was survived by his second wife, Dorothy. He had one daughter, named Elsie.
William S. Taylor: Taylor was indicted as an accessory in the assassination of Goebel. He fled to Indianapolis, where the governor refused to extradite him. At least one attempt to abduct him by force failed in 1901. Despite being pardoned in 1909 by Republican Governor Augustus E. Willson, Taylor seldom returned to Kentucky.
Financially strapped by the costs of challenging the election, Taylor became an insurance executive and practiced law. Shortly after arriving in Indiana, his wife died. In 1912, he briefly returned to Kentucky to marry Nora A. Myers. The couple returned to Indianapolis and had a son together. Taylor died of heart disease on August 2, 1928, and was buried at the Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.