That's when I reach for my revolver
The spirit fights to find its way
I think we can all agree that this year’s Presidential campaign – which pits Mr. Insane-in-the-Membrane against Ms. Liar-Liar-Pants-on-Fire – is a real train wreck.
American history is replete with dumpster-fire political contests. For example, there’s the Frank Underwood–Will Conway matchup in the most reason season of House of Cards.
|Underwood and Conway|
And then there’s the 1899 Kentucky gubernatorial campaign, won by Democratic candidate William Goebel.
You’ve never heard of William Goebel. But some believe that the Huey Long-like Goebel was smart and ruthless enough to have achieved higher office – perhaps even the Presidency – if he had not been assassinated only weeks after that 1899 election, when he was 44 years old.
I got interested in Goebel after Betsy Golden Kellem, mentioned him in a recent post to her fabulous blog, which is called Drinks With Dead People.
(You can click here if you’d like to read Drinks With Dead People, which I highly recommend. The only problem with Betsy’s blog is that she posts somewhat infrequently – unlike 2 or 3 lines, Betsy has chosen quality over quantity when it comes to blogging.)
Goebel was a lawyer who specialized in suing the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, which was the largest railroad in the state. He was only 31 years old when he was elected to the Kentucky Senate from Covington (the second-largest city in the state at the time) in 1887.
Goebel’s margin of victory in that first race was a mere 56 votes. But he seems to have learned the tricks of the political trade quickly. Six years later, he overwhelmed his opponent by a three-to-one margin.
Irvin Cobb, a Paducah newspaperman who covered Kentucky politics for many years, later wrote these words about Goebel:
[T]here is no doubt but that Goebel aimed at the ultimate betterment of plain people; the trouble was that his good motives and his clear reasonings were cankered by a lust for authority which gnawed at the man day and night, making him a malignant and a menacing force. . . . He loved power as drunkards love their bottle and he would have waded through blood up to his armpits to have his way.
Cobb went on to describe Goober’s appearance in less-than-flattering terms:
I never saw a man who, physically, so closely suggested the reptilian as this man did. He had a curious yellowish cast to his skin as though stale suet rather than live flesh lay beneath it. Under stress he would grow tallowy pale but no flush to betoken red flowing blood ever showed in his face. His hair, which was black and very slick, lay plastered against a small, slanted skull that was strangely flattened at the rear. His eyes were glazy, shallow, coal-black; except when he was stirred an ophidian [i.e. reptilian] film was on them. His throat was disfiguringly swollen, with loose folds of skin overlapping the collar line. It was very like the throats of certain lizards. In repose he would put you in mind of a coiled snake, in action, of the snake about to strike, and when he did strike, lashing out viciously, you almost could see the spattered venom fly. He was a daunting yet a fascinating creature to study.
Goebel had plenty of political enemies, but the man who hated him the most was banker John Sanford. Sanford had invested in several privately-owned Kentucky toll roads, and Goebel introduced a bill that would reduce the tolls on those roads. Goebel later arranged for the bank accounts of the city of Covington, the county Covington was located in, and the local school district to be moved from Sanford’s bank to another one.
Sanford submitted several anonymous articles roasting Goebel to a local newspaper, and Goebel retaliated by penning a piece referring to the banker (who was a married man) as “Gonorrhea John.”
Historian Marianne C. Walker’s article in the July/August 2013 issue of Humanities magazine describes what happened when Goebel and Sanford confronted one another on a Covington street in April 1895:
Goebel and two friends, W. “Jack” Hendricks, then the attorney general, and Frank Helm, president of the First National Bank, were walking toward the bank in downtown Covington. Goebel was in the middle, holding his overcoat over his left arm. As they approached the bank, they saw Sanford standing on the bank steps and leaning on the railing with his left arm, his right hand in his pocket.
Helm said, “Hey, there’s Sanford.”
Goebel replied, “Yes, there’s the son of the bitch.”
Sanford greeted Helm and Hendricks curtly, shaking hands with his left hand, his right still in his pocket. He asked Goebel if he assumed responsibility for that recent newspaper article about him.
Walker then quotes from an account of the confrontation written by the county coroner :
Goebel answered promptly, “I do,” whereupon Sanford withdrew his right hand from his pocket holding a revolver, thrust it forward quickly toward Goebel’s abdomen and fired, the ball cutting through Goebel’s coat and the lower edge of his vest, but causing him no bodily harm.
|Sandford and Goebel shoot it out|
Goebel – who was later quoted as saying “I ask no quarter and I fear no foe” – responded in kind. From Walker’s account:
The instant he saw Sanford reaching for his pistol, Goebel stepped back and dropped his coat, pulled out his pistol, and immediately fired back. The shots were so close one sounded like an echo. Goebel’s bullet struck Sanford in the forehead. Sanford fell forward on the steps and, without ever regaining consciousness, died an hour or so later.
The fact that Goebel had shot and killed a man was apparently not an impediment to running for higher office in Kentucky in those days, so Goebel threw his hat into the ring in the governor’s race only four years after he slew Sanford.
Only four years later, Goebel, Wat Hardin, and William Stone were candidates for the Democratic nomination for governor. Hardin was the frontrunner, but Goebel and Stone got together and ganged up on him at the state nominating convention. Then Goebel stabbed his erstwhile ally in the back and walked away with the nomination.
Goebel’s shenanigans split his party into two factions, and the Republican nominee, William Taylor, won the election. But it was close – fewer than 2500 votes separated the candidates.
Goebel’s supporters accused his opponent of voting fraud, and the state Board of Elections was called on to declare a winner. All three of the Board’s members were Democrats, but they refused to overturn the results. The Republican candidate was sworn in as governor on December 12, 1899.
So that was that . . . or was it? Read about what happened next in the next 2 or 3 lines.
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“That’s When I Reach for My Revolver” was the first track on Mission of Burma’s Signals, Calls, and Marches EP, which was released on July 4, 1981.
Here’s “That’s When I Reach for My Revolver”:
Click below to buy the song from Amazon: