Beckham’s Counties, pt. 1: The Running Mate

A seven part essay about three efforts to name a county after Kentucky’s 35th Governor.

William Goebel’s monument at Frankfort Cemetery.

There were three attempts to name a county after Kentucky Governor J.C.W. Beckham between the years 1902 and 1906. The first in Northeastern Kentucky, the second in western Kentucky, and the third, and only successful effort, in the new state of Oklahoma.

These efforts would seem to suggest that John Crepps Wickliffe Beckham was a particularly popular politician. However, in the case of the two Kentucky areas, at least, he just happened to governor when longstanding movements for self-determination gathered up steam.

It also must be noted that Beckham was only governor in the first place because he had been the running mate of William Goebel, and Goebel had only been sworn in as governor after he was mortally wounded by an assassin.

Kentucky had been dominated by the Democratic Party, of which Beckham and Goebel were members, throughout the decades that followed the Civil War. In fact, the state didn’t elect its first Republican Governor until 1895.

In 1899, the man who gained the Democratic party’s nomination for governor was William Goebel, a German-American attorney from Kenton County who had built up a smooth, if controversial, political machine fighting for reform against the railroad monopolies.

Goebel had made preparations, perhaps even unethical ones, for his governor run.

In 1898, while president of the state senate, Goebel had pushed through a bill establishing a statewide election board consisting of three members chosen by the legislature who would in turn choose election officials throughout the rest of the commonwealth.

The legislature was then controlled by Democrats and, critics argued, so would be the election board. This effectively meant that any contested election, whether local or statewide, would become prejudiced towards the Democratic candidate.

In 1899, after winning the Democratic party’s nomination through a rather cutthroat act of political acumen, and with Beckham likewise selected as nominee for lieutenant governor, Goebel was set to face Republican candidate William S. Taylor in the General Election.

It was close.

The results were so contested that on a county-by-county basis the decisions of Goebel’s pet State Board of Election Commissioners was to have the final say. However, as James C. Klotter notes in William Goebel: The Politics of Wrath, Goebel had not prepared for the “possibility that the commissioners might be honest.”

They chose Taylor instead.

However, the same election bill that had created the Board of Election Commissioners in the first place had also given the General Assembly the power to contest election results. A committee mostly made up of Democrats would decide the matter.

Fearing a stolen election, a swarm of armed Republican “mountaineers” descended on Frankfort in mass protest. Perhaps, as many alleged in the aftermath of the shooting, it was one of these partisans who shot William Goebel on January 30th, 1900.

The candidate from Kenton County was mortally wounded. Republican William S. Taylor, who was sitting governor at least in theory, called in the militia and attempted to move the legislature to London for reasons of both political and physical safety.

However, with the spirit of martyrdom and further violence in the air, the Democrats in the General Assembly managed to swear in the slowly dying Goebel. This action seized the governorship right out from beneath Taylor’s coattails.

The ensuing constitutional crisis would outlast William Goebel, who finally perished on February 3rd. It was only after a series of appeals that went all the way up to the Supreme Court that his running mate J.C.W. Beckham truly became governor.

As for William S. Taylor, who had been governor of Kentucky for mere weeks, he fled the state. He feared prosecution for a rumored role in William Goebel’s killing, which he always denied.

Beckham, at thirty-one was the youngest governor in Kentucky history, was an attorney from a prominent Bardstown family. He was the grandson of a former governor: Charles A. Wickliffe. Before becoming Goebel’s running mate, he had been speaker of the state House.

Beckham was a more moderate governor than Goebel would likely have been. The late Kenton Countian had campaign upon being vividly against the powerful railroad lobby, but, once in office, Beckham was fairly conciliatory towards them.

In another move that eased tensions, Beckham turned against Goebel’s controversial election law, which critics, both Republican and Democrat, saw as unethical. It was repealed in 1900, two years after its passage.

William Goebel’s assassin would never be definitively proven but the shadow of his death hung over Beckham’s subsequent administration, and the repeated attempts to name a county after him.

The first effort to create a Beckham County would come from Olive Hill, and like most things in Kentucky politics, in the end it came down to a matter of Democrats versus Republicans.

*

Sources

Kentucky dominated by Democrats after Civil War. Klotter, James C. William Goebel: The Politics of Wrath. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1977. Pages 12–13.

First Republican Governor. Walton, W.P., ed. “Bradley, Elected Governor of Kentucky by Nearly 20,000.” Semi-Weekly Interior Journal (Stanford, Kentucky), November 08, 1895. Page 2. Accessed May 23, 2019. Kentucky Digital Library. http://kdl.kyvl.org/catalog/xt7d513tvz6s_2.

Goebel against railroad monopoly. “Goebel on the Issues: Opening Speech at Mayfield of the Democratic Nominee for Governor.” The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), August 13, 1899. Page 16. Accessed May 23, 2019. https://www.newspapers.com/image/30196524. Behind paywall. Illustrative speech.

Goebel election board. “Goebel Election Law.” In The Kentucky Encyclopedia, edited by John E. Kleber. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1992. Page 378.

Goebel secures Democratic nomination. Klotter. 56–63.

Beckham secures Lieutenant Governor nomination. “Other Races Will Be Settled To-Day.” The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), June 28, 1899. Accessed June 2, 2019. https://www.newspapers.com/image/30725941/. Behind paywall.

Election board choses Taylor. Klotter, 86–92.

Legislative committee to decide election. Klotter, 92–96.

“Mountaineers” in Frankfort. “Marched Up The Hill And Down: Taylor’s Army of Intimidation Started Back To Their Homes.” Owensboro Daily Messenger (Owensboro, Kentucky), January 26, 1900. Page 1. Accessed May 23, 2019. https://www.newspapers.com/image/375580682/. Behind paywall.

William Goebel is shot. Moore, Paul M., ed. “Deplorable: Attempted Assassination of Senator Goebel Before the Capitol.” The Bee (Earlington, Kentucky), February 01, 1900. Page 1. Accessed May 23, 2019. Kentucky Digital Library. http://kdl.kyvl.org/catalog/xt7xwd3px11r_1.

Taylor calls in militia. Harrison, Lowell H. “Goebel, William.” In The Kentucky Encyclopedia, edited by John E. Kleber. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1992. Pages 377–378.

Democrats swear in Goebel as governor. Klotter, 102–104.

William Goebel dies. “Complete Is The Work of the Assassin: Gov. Goebel Is Dead.” The Courier-Journal (Louisville, Kentucky), February 04, 1900. Accessed May 23, 2019. https://www.newspapers.com/image/30729139. Behind paywall.

Supreme Court confirms Beckham. Klotter, 112–114.

Taylor flees. Harrison, Lowell H. Kentucky’s Governors. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1985. Updated Edition. “William Sylvester Taylor”. Pages 131–133.

Beckham’s grandfather, Charles A. Wickliffe. Morton, Jennie C. “Mrs. Julia Wickliffe Beckham.” Register of Kentucky State Historical Society 11, no. 33 (September 1913): 51–55. Accessed May 27, 2019. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23367247. Obituary of Beckham’s mother.

Beckham as Speaker of the House. Powell, Robert A. Kentucky Governors 1792–2000: Portraits of Kentucky’s Chief Executive from 1792 up to and including the Election of 1999. Tampa, FL: Silverhawke Publications, 2001. Page 69.

Beckham and railroad lobby. Burckel, Nicholas C. “From Beckham to McCreary: The Progressive Record of Kentucky Governors.” The Register of the Kentucky Historical Society 76, no. 4 (October 1978). Accessed July 4, 2019. https://www.jstor.org/stable/23378562. Pages 292–293.

Beckham turns against election law. Burckel. 290.

Repeal of Goebel election law. “Goebel Election Law.” In The Kentucky Encyclopedia, edited by John E. Kleber. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1992. Page 378.

Goebel’s killer unknown. Harrison, Lowell H. Kentucky’s Governors. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 1985. Updated Edition. “William Goebel”. Pages 135–136.

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