Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Randy Newman – "Kingfish" (1974)

Ain't no Standard Oil men gonna run this state
Gonna be run by little folks like me and you

In the last 2 or 3 lines, I introduced you to William Goebel, who was the Democratic candidate for Governor of Kentucky in 1899.  

Only four years earlier, Goebel and a political enemy had drawn their revolvers and shot it out on a street in Covington, Kentucky.  Goebel was a better shot, killing his rival by putting a bullet in his head.

Goebel used every trick in the book to secure the Democratic nomination in 1899, but his high-handedness resulted in a number of Democrats holding a separate convention and nominating former governor John Y.Brown on the “Honest Election Democrats” ticket.

William Goebel
Brown won only 3.0% of the popular vote — roughly 12,000 votes — in November.  But that was enough to throw the election to the Republican, William S. Taylor, by a narrow margin.   

Democrats alleged election fraud, but the state Board of Elections — which consisted of three Democrats who were political allies of Goebel – refused to overturn the results.

So Goebel asked the Democrat-dominated state legislature to step in.  A committee consisting of ten Democrats and one Republican was appointed to investigate the validity of the election results.  

Sensing that the fix was in, gun-toting Republicans began to descend upon Frankfort, the state capital.  (A number of them were arrested by local police, but promptly pardoned by the Republican governor.)

On the morning of January 30, 1900, Goebel and two friends were walking into the state capitol building when Goebel was struck by a bullet fired by an unseen assassin.  He was taken to a nearby hotel and a number of doctors were summoned to treat him.

Historian Marianne C. Walker’s 2013 article for Humanities magazine describes what happened next:

News of the shooting spread like wild fire; Republicans panicked, fearing retaliation, and hundreds of teary-eyed Goebel supporters packed the Capital Hotel hallways, lobby, and grounds, while others gathered in the streets.  Many onlookers carried guns and pistols.

Within a half hour, Governor Taylor declared a state of emergency and ordered the militia to Frankfort.  He ordered the legislature to adjourn immediately and meet the next week in London, Kentucky, a solidly Republican location, miles away from Frankfort.  Reporting threats and rumors of assassinations, newspapers carried headlines warning of violence and bloodshed, such as “Irresponsible Armed Men Brought to Frankfort.”

That night, Democrats from both Houses quietly searched for a place that was not barred by soldiers and yet large enough for them to meet to vote on the Contest Committee’s decision.  They finally found a secret location – right there in the Capital Hotel, where Goebel lay dying.  By entering the lobby a few at a time, they escaped detection.  Meanwhile, as snow fell outside, Taylor and his colleagues remained locked in their offices in the Executive Building, protected by armed soldiers.

The next day, January 31, the Contest Committee declared Goebel had received the highest number of legal votes and had been lawfully entitled to the governorship of Kentucky for the term beginning December 12, 1899.  The report was signed by a quorum of senators and representatives, all Democrats.

Chief Justice James H. Hazelrigg, along with several others, rushed to the hotel and swore Goebel in as governor.  Although Republicans tried to spread the rumor that he was dead when he was sworn in, eight witnesses testified that Goebel, dressed in a clean white nightshirt, raised his right hand and took the oath of office. . . .

A plaque commemorating Goebel's assassination
At that point, Kentucky had two governors, two lieutenant governors, two adjutant generals, two militias, and two legislatures, each conducting its own business as if the other side did not exist.  But something had to give.

Walker’s account continues:

With his lungs filled with blood, Goebel died at 6:44 on the evening of February 3, 1900.  Before he was buried, two prominent Republicans, David W. Fairleigh, a lawyer from Louisville, and John Marshall, lieutenant governor under Taylor, met with Democratic senator J.C.S. Blackburn at the Capital Hotel.  They proposed a peace conference between Republicans and Democrats, saying that Governor Taylor had agreed to it.

On the cold, rainy morning of February 6, 1900, while Goebel’s body was being carried on a train – not the L&N – home to Covington, a meeting was held at the Galt House in Louisville between an equal number of Republicans and Democrats.  After a few hours of quiet discussion, they signed an agreement “to end the unfortunate condition of political affairs now existant in Kentucky.”  Most important was the statement saying William Taylor and John Marshall would voluntarily retire, leaving Beckham governor of Kentucky.

A statue of Goebel on the grounds
of the Kentucky State Capitol
Four days later, at a mass meeting of anti-Goebel Democrats, Republicans, and representatives from L&N, Taylor refused to sign the agreement . . . .  After Louisville Circuit Court judge Emmet Field ruled in favor of the Democrats, Republicans went to the Court of Appeals, which upheld the lower court’s decision.  The Republicans then took the question to the U.S. Supreme Court, which said [that] the issue was not a federal one and sent it back down to the state.  Fearing prosecution, Taylor fled to Indiana, where he lived the rest of life.

By May 22, 1900, life in Kentucky had finally settled down. The double governments had disappeared. Beckham was governor, and peace prevailed in the old Bluegrass State – at least for a while.  

No fewer than 16 people were indicted in connection with Goebel’s murder.  One of the 16 was Governor Taylor, who promptly skedaddled to Indiana to avoid prosecution.  (Indiana’s Republican governor refused to extradite him.)  

Governor William S. Taylor
Three men were eventually convicted of assassinating Goebel, including Kentucky’s Republican secretary of state, Caleb Powers.  In fact, Powers was convicted three times, but all three convictions were reversed on appeal.  (A fourth trial resulted in a hung jury.)  

Powers and the man who allegedly pulled the trigger were eventually pardoned by a Republican governor.  The same governor pardoned former governor Taylor and several of the others who had been indicted.  

Not surprisingly, Taylor chose to stay in Indiana despite the pardon.  He became an insurance executive, and I’m guessing he didn’t miss politics one bit.

*     *     *     *     *

Like William Goebel, Huey Long of Louisiana was a demagogic populist who demonized a powerful business corporation to win the support of working-class voters.

Goebel’s bête noire was the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, while Long’s was the Standard Oil Company, which had built the largest oil refinery in the world in Baton Rouge.

Huey "Kingfish" Long
Long, who was nicknamed “Kingfish” after the fast-talking conman character on The Amos and Andy Show, was only 35 when he was elected governor of Louisiana in 1928.  Four years later, he was elected to the United States Senate.  But he was assassinated in 1935 shortly announcing that he was going to challenge FDR for the 1936 Democratic presidential nomination.

Goebel is the only American governor to have been assassinated while in office.  Long was one of two sitting U.S. Senators to have been shot and killed – the other was Robert F. Kennedy.

“Kingfish” was released on Randy Newman’s 1974 album, Good Old Boys, which paints a less-than-flattering portrait of white Southerners.  Good Old Boys has been described as “venomous,” “scabrous,” “mean-spirited,” and “infuriating,” and I have a feeling that Newman is OK with that.

Here’s “Kingfish”:

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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