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Our Rich History: It’s Covington, 1895. William Goebel not guilty in ‘duel’ charge, becomes Governor

By Steve Preston
Special to NKyTribune

On April 11, 1895, two shots fired nearly simultaneously rang out in front of the Farmers and Traders National Bank on the northwest corner of Sixth Street and Madison Avenue in downtown Covington. Future Kentucky Governor, William Goebel escaped with just his clothes being grazed by a bullet. Prominent Covington banker and former Confederate Officer, John L. Sanford (also spelled Sandford), was not so lucky, dying of a gunshot wound to the head. No this wasn’t a bank robbery in progress, it was. . . a duel?

Dueling in Kentucky was an all-too-familiar custom for restoring honor lost through insult or other action deemed worthy of killing someone. Even the first mayor of Newport, Francis Taliaferro Helm, was called upon by local young men to learn the “code duello” so that it could be done in correct gentlemanly fashion. Incidentally, Helm had duel experience. While an officer during the War of 1812, he was a replacement duelist and received a wound to the hip that permanently disabled him so that he walked with a limp. Duels were not uncommon in Kentucky before the Civil War. By 1895, duels were an antiquated way to solve differences and were frowned upon. Laws were passed that anyone who participated in a duel in Kentucky could not hold political office.

William Justus Goebel was born on January 4, 1856, in Pennsylvania. Goebel’s father moved his family to Covington, Kentucky in 1863. William Goebel graduated from the Law School at Cincinnati College (now the University of Cincinnati) in 1877. He worked for former governor, John White Stevenson, and eventually became a partner in that firm. He went into private practice in 1883. Goebel became an expert legal mind in what is now termed corporate law.

He was especially interested in railroad companies and the welfare of their workers. He became known as the “railroad lawyer,” never losing a case against the railroads in his career. His interests soon turned to politics.

Despite not being known as overly friendly, he was a gifted politician through his intelligence and his friendship with the former governor. In 1887, he won the unfinished term of a Kentucky State Senate member. In the next election he took the seat as his own, representing the Covington area.

He continued to work for the “common man” while in the statehouse, fighting for better schools and even women’s suffrage. At this time in history, there was a toll to cross the Roebling Bridge from Kentucky to Ohio. Goebel worked to get this toll reduced. This is where he raised the ire of John Sanford, who had invested large amounts in the corporation benefitting from the tolls.
John L. Sanford was a native of Covington. Born December 7, 1837, his father had served as Covington’s mayor. During the Civil War, he served the Confederacy as a general staff officer. After the war, Sanford returned to Covington and quickly rose through the ranks as a banker. He also developed friendships with powerful men in politics. Through these political friends, he attempted to stop the rise of Goebel.

He managed to block Goebel’s attempt at getting a seat on the State Appellate Court. In retaliation, Goebel had city accounts moved from Sanford’s Farmers and Traders National Bank to a competing bank. The hot-tempered Sanford allegedly announced he was “going to kill Goebel or be killed.” The final straw occurred when Goebel had an anonymous letter put in the Daily Commonwealth referring to Sanford as “Col. John Gonorrhea Sanford.”

On April 11, 1895, State Senator Goebel was walking with Frank Helm, owner of a competing bank, and Attorney General William J. Hendrick, in Covington as they came upon Sanford. Sanford was leaning on the railing outside of his bank, with a coat wrapped around his left arm and his right hand in his pocket. As Goebel and the others walked by, Sanford briskly shook the hands of Hendrick and Helm. Oddly, he used his left hand, keeping his other hand still in his pocket.

Sanford directly asked Goebel if he was responsible for the anonymous letter. Goebel readily admitted he was. Sanford drew a revolver from his pocket as Goebel stepped back and drew his own revolver. The two fired nearly at the same time. Sanford’s shot went through Goebel’s coat, ripping his vest and pants. Goebel’s shot found its mark, striking Sanford in the forehead.

Sanford died from the wound several hours later.

In the aftermath, Goebel would be charged with murder and for dueling, in an attempt by his political enemies to exact revenge. Based on Sanford’s own public declaration to kill Goebel and eyewitness accounts stating that Sanford fired first, Goebel was found to have acted in self-defense and was cleared of charges.

Was it a duel?

While not an arranged duel done the genteel way, it was still two men shooting at each other for insults perceived and real. Much like Andrew Jackson who was involved in duels, Goebel’s political career was unaffected.

He would go on to be elected Governor of the state of Kentucky. While he may have participated in the last political duel in history, he became the first governor of a state to be assassinated. He was shot on January 30, 1900.

Wounded and on his deathbed, he took the oath of office and was sworn in as Governor of Kentucky. He died February 3, 1900. His assassination remains unsolved.

Steve Preston is the Education Director and a Curator of History at Heritage Village Museum. He received his MA in Public History from Northern Kentucky University.

Photo: William Goebel. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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