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HOWEVER, before telling my own heretofore untold chapters of the Thaw case, I deem it incumbent upon me to hark back to another and almost equally amazing case, the one which centered about the bushwhacking from cover of Governor Goebel of Kentucky. For it was while covering the Goebel trials in 1900 that I acquired a celerity at recording testimony in long hand, which accomplishment served me most excellently well when, for the New York Evening World seven years later, I wrote running accounts aggregating more than 600,000 words during the first trial of Harry Kendall Thaw, the great all-American profligate, for the murder of Stanford White, the great architectural genius, over the affections of Evelyn Nesbitt, the great international beauty. I might as well say it now and smirk and get it over with, that I never met any reporter who could cover copy paper with more lines of script in a given space of time than I could.
Because of the elements and the individuals involved, and the fact that it had a cosmopolitan setting, the Thaw-White-Nesbitt affair will live in retrospect as perhaps the most spectacular criminal case, not even excepting the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, that ever sucked dry the descriptive reservoirs of the American press. You see, it had in it wealth, degeneracy, rich old wasters; delectable young chorus girls and adolescent artists' models; the behind-the-scenes of Theaterdom and the Underworld, and the Great White Way, as we called it then; the abnormal pastimes and weird orgies of overly aesthetic artists and jaded debauchees. In the cast of the motley show were Bowery toughs, Harlem gangsters, Tenderloin panders, Broadway leading men, Fifth Avenue clubmen, Wall Street manipulators, uptown voluptuaries and downtown thugs a bedaubed, bespangled Bacchanalia dizzily revolving about that newly risen Playboy of the Western World, Harry Thaw of Pittsburgh, and his young wife whose glory of a face had adorned a thousand billboards and gladdened the hearts of a million lovers of so-called art calendars. Charles Dana Gibson had painted her and James Montgomery Flagg sketched her and Archie Gunn and a score of others had drawn her likeness. In her latter teens and her early twenties she was, I think, the most exquisitely lovely human being I ever looked at the slim, quick grace of a fawn, a head that sat on her flawless throat as a lily on its stem, eyes that were the color of blue-brown pansies and the size of half dollars; a mouth made of rumpled rose petals.
On the other hand, the Goebel killing, occurring at the turn of the century, is well-nigh forgotten, outside, that is, of my own state and, in the main, only faintly remembered there. For it concerned neither money nor any woman whatsoever. But it did have in it for a prime performer one of the most monstrous and one of the most brilliant shapes that ever played out a tragic, somber role in the national scene.
Since he passed, I have met a good many of the distinguished men of this country, and of other countries, too, but I have yet to meet one who impressed me as being mentally superior to William Goebel, that son of a poor Pennsylvania German mechanic, whose dreams and whose death and the manner of it practically plunged Kentucky into civil war. Here was a Mussolini of politics if ever one lived. He had audacity, ruthlessness, a genius of leadership, an instinct for absolute despotism, a gift for organization, a perfect disregard for other men's rights or their lives where his own wishes were concerned; the brain to plan and the will to execute. Had he lived I am firmly convinced he either would have ruled the Democratic party in the nation or he would have wrecked it as already he had half-wrecked it in Kentucky. He loved power as drunkards love their bottle and he would have waded through blood up to his armpits to have his way. One man Colonel John Sanford stood as a lion across his path and Goebel shot him to death in the city of Covington. Sanford tried to draw, but Goebel who deliberately had fostered the quarrel between them, and who crossed a street to put himself in Sanford's path after having hideously insulted Sanford in print the day before, beat him to it. It was claimed he had his revolver already drawn; had it hidden under an overcoat folded over his left arm. Next, foreseeing the day when he would need it, he forced through the Legislature, of which he was a member, a measure that bore his name, the Goebel Election Law, the most cruelly, blatantly unfair device for defeating the popular will that had been enacted since Reconstruction days in the Deep South. Even so, there 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.
There were those who blindly followed him, those who hated and despised him, those who feared him mightily, but I do not believe he had an intimate friend, one with whom he was on terms of confidence, and I am sure no living creature read the inside of that dark and sinister and lonesome being of his.
In a belated biography written nearly forty years after Goebel's murder, the lately deceased Urey Woodson, a Kentucky editor of parts and a devoted aide of Goebel in his lifetime, called him "The First New Dealer" and undertook to prove that Goebel had been a pioneer in trust-curbing legislation, antedating the elder La Follette and likening him, in his program of proposed social reforms, to Franklin D. Roosevelt. But I'd say he rather was the political forebear of Huey Long, except that the Louisianian had a born demagogue's knack for rabble-rousing and an almost miraculous sense of mob psychology appraisal, whereas Goebel, with no warm impulsive gift of personality, mainly worked his mischief from behind the scenes, like a skilled operator manipulating a troupe of marionettes. Moreover Long had human qualities human faults, too, while Goebel made me think of a synthetic, self-assembled mechanism. It was remarkable, that both should have had careers much alike and that both, on their respective Statehouse grounds, with complete success for their biggest schemes within clutching reach of their greedy hands, should have fallen before the assassin's bullet.
By a great many of the members of the old and enfeebled oligarchy of the state which finally he overthrew Goebel was called an intruder and an interloper and a presumptuous, ill-mannered upstart. These contemptuously dubbed him poor white trash another parallel to Long. They abhorred him piously. They had reason to he brought their already tottering political aristocracy smashing down in scraps about their heads and did it, too, while defying all traditions of office-seeking and office-holding which those fathers of the faith, the pampered Confederate brigadiers and the Bourbon colonels and the oily understrappers, had been building up since the War between the States ended. He had none of the hand-shaking, pat-'em-on-the-back, ask-about-the-family tricks of the typical Kentucky job hunter. He belonged to no lodges or clubs. He was no orator another point of difference between him and the crown princes and high priests of our reigning political dynasty. He had no social graces. There was no woman in his life, ever. It was said he was a celibate. They say the same thing today about another dictator of Teutonic blood, to wit, Adolph Hitler. In mixed company he was embarrassed and showed it. He was cold and secluded, an aloof, clammy figure and a malformed one; I think it was always snowing in his wintry soul. He had lieutenants to do his bidding. But in "The Dutchman's" camp there was only one commander and that would be William Goebel.
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 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.
His star brightened and soared across the troubled Democratic firmament, at an hour when an already split and disrupted party cried for more modern leadership. Four years earlier and divers homeless bureaucrats still were shivering from the dreadful shock of it the Republicans, aided by fifty thousand disgruntled Democrats, had carried the state for the first time in its history. It was more than a shock; it was a cataclysm, a convulsion of outraged nature. Not so long before that Colonel Bob Ingersoll, casting about for a comparison to express the absolute impossible, had said that he would think of turning Christian when Kentucky went Republican. But the Free Silver issue had made a widening cleavage in the entrenched organization and the Populist movement ate deep sunders in agrarian strongholds, and the current administration wasn't so popular any more. For a crowning disaster a group of the biggest men in the state, men nationally known, several of them Secretary of the Treasury John G. Carlisle, U.S. Senator Lindsay, Colonel W.C.P. Breckinridge, the silver tongue; "Marse Henri" Watterson, the editorial trumpeter for the whole South; the Haldemans and the Knotts, publishers of our largest newspapers; ex-Governor Simon Bolivar Buckner and that smouldering little live coal of a man, Basil Duke, both former Southern generals of distinction; practically all the bankers, and hundreds more had gone, temporarily at least, over to the other side. Even so, the earthquake which sifted a lot of veteran officeholders out of the capital and slid a lot of astonished strangers into it, was a tremendous surprise to the average voter. The slate of Republican nominees had been patched together while seemingly there was no chance for its success, a list mainly made up of lowland nondescripts and petty chieftains from the high ranges who, as usual, were expected to hold a synthetic machine together for the ultimate sake of Federal patronage. It was headed by William O'Connell Bradley, a former Democrat and, surprisingly, a member of an "old family" the only candidate of outstanding ability on the ticket. The landslip carried onward to the highest bench in the state a bushy and somewhat incredible old gentleman whose signboard when first he opened an office at his native crossroads had read:
WAKE SNAKES AND COME TO TAW
You couldn't call him an impossible person because that's a snobbish way of putting it but it was generally conceded that he was highly improbable. You had to see him to believe him and frequently then you couldn't, like the yokel's first view of the giraffe. The new attorney general was one William Sylvester Taylor, a well-meaning but a poor enough creature; and born, for trouble as the sparks fly upward. His profile suggested some ungroomed and dandruffy Hapsburg perhaps a seedy uncle of King Alfonso of Spain. Upon viewing him sideways one understood why his neighbors in a cruel but graphic flight of foothill humor, had christened him "Hawg jaw" Taylor. Not nine tailors nor nineteen could have made his clothes fit his frame. To use a good but shelf-worn simile, he was, in the hands of stronger men, just so much putty. It wasn't very high-grade putty, either. Tragedy lay in wait for him. She stacked the cards so that after this one term as attorney general, and in the ensuing fight for the gubernatorial place, he should be set up, like a frightened puppet, against the iron-willed, the resourceful, the relentless Goebel. When the crowning crisis came after the assassination he, a trapped and foredoomed plotter, lost what remaining shreds of resoluteness he had and fluttered about in an impotent state of complete bewilderment, defiantly threatening his tormentors one minute, abjectly pleading for mercy the next. To top all, he sprouted a dress of yellow tail feathers and ran away when he should have stayed put. Kentuckians of whatsoever shading never cared much for dunghill cockerels. After that, most of those who had voted for him, and, if the count had been fair, overwhelmingly had elected him to the governorship, gagged at the very mention of his diminished name.
When I first knew Goebel he was a state senator and an aspirant for the gubernatorial nomination. By trick and device, by main strength and brutal force, he wrested the nomination from a badgered convention and tore the party into two fluttering pieces. At the election, on the face of the returns and despite his iniquitous election law, he was defeated by the aforesaid William Sylvester Taylor, he whose undistinguished candidacy had been so heartily backed by a great multitude of rudely unsocketed Democrats. Goebel contested the result before the General Assembly and, having coerced and conquered it, was about to be seated when a hired mercenary shot him down from a window of the Executive Building on the old Statehouse Square at Frankfort. He lingered five days long enough to take the oath of office as governor and left as a malign legacy to his people the active seeds of a partisan upheaval which endured until a whole generation had died off.
I followed Goebel through his outrageous campaignings before the nomination and after it. I sat at one of the press stands on the stage of Music Hall in Louisville where the convention was held, and from that dangerous perch, not once but half a dozen times, I saw six-shooters drawn and ducked under the table and flattened myself to be out of the road of the crossing bullets. I heard the shot that felled him on a cold January forenoon of 1900 and, hearing it, I ran out of the Legislative Hall and was one of those who helped to carry the stricken man away. There was blood on my sleeve and blood on my hand when we put him down. I did not send the first bulletin of the assassination but I think I did send the first coherent story of it. From the bodyguards who had been with him when he dropped Colonel "Eph" Lillard and Colonel "Dirk Knife" Jack Chinn I got the hurried details while we were bearing him those three blocks through the street to the old Capitol Hotel, and rushed them over the wire to my paper, the Louisville Post. On the way he fainted and we thought him dead but he very soon revived.
I started back toward the Square then, to fatten out my story and caromed off a company of State Guards (Republicans) hurrying to intercept a hastily armed civilian group (Democrats) who threatened to mob their nested enemies in the Capitol; so I detoured through a comparatively quiet byway just in time to see "Cash" Ireland (heartily Democratic), who was a leading sportsman, perforate a negro (name unknown but naturally a Republican) for committing, so 'twas claimed, the lethal sin of declaring that Goebel had got what he deserved.
This was only noontime and I still had all the afternoon and evening before me to record the making of much exciting history. Subsequently say, three weeks later I gave a paragraph in my daily dispatch to the triumphant acquittal of Mr. Ireland, the negro having in the meanwhile died without benefit of any newspaper mention whatsoever. I was a witness for the defense at the trial which lasted nearly forty minutes, having to testify that at the moment when Ireland's revolver spoke there was a small smear of blood on his face, proof so the jury held that he had been struck before he opened fire.
As the weeks went on I covered the captures, under exciting circumstances, or the voluntary surrenders of several of the men accused of confederating to murder Goebel, and I covered the first trials of three of these alleged conspirators Caleb Powers the Secretary of State, Henry Youtsey a clerk, and James Howard a rifleman from the east Kentucky knobs, naming them in the order of their importance. First and last, I worked on some phase or another of the Goebel story for upwards of a crowded year.
For instance, one phase, insignificant in itself but possessing a value of grim humor, had to do with Goebel's last words. Several hours after he expired, a newspaper proprietor of literary pretensions came forth to where the newspapermen of the "death watch" lingered and from a scrap of paper read what he solemnly, almost tearfully proclaimed to be the farewell utterance of the deceased. It was: "Be brave and fearless and loyal to the great common people." Duly we all telegraphed this sentence in to our shops with our respective tongues in our respective cheeks. The thing sounded entirely too oratorical, too rhetorical for Goebel to have uttered it and besides, he had been a master of plain-spoken, straightforward English. Not even on his deathbed could we conceive of him as using two words meaning precisely the same thing "brave" and "fearless," where either one would have served. So, not for publication but for our own private information, two of us did a little snooping. This was the actual fact: Shortly before he went off into the final coma, Goebel expressed a craving for oysters his favorite dish. His case was hopeless anyhow, so they let him have one. He spat it out and looked up at an attendant physician and whispered: "Doc, that was a damned bad oyster!" I wonder how many of the last words of swooning idols have been manufactured to order by high-pressure salesmen of propaganda?
It was at the outset of the campaign which immediately preceded the contest, and the killing and the trials and all the rest of it, that I heard what I still think, after four intervening decades, was, everything considered scene, moment, setting and all the most devastating retort I ever did hear. It was delivered by Theodore Hallam, a battered-looking, hard-hitting, hard-drinking, little Irish lawyer, and an ex-member of Morgan's Rangers and that for nearly half a century qualified a man for social and political distinction anywhere in the border South and particularly in Kentucky. Despite a high, strident voice, Hallam was perhaps the greatest natural orator in a state of natural orators and had a tongue pointed with a darting, instantaneous wit. Had there been for him a metropolitan background, with newspapers waiting to broadcast his quips, his memory would have endured along with the memories of such other masters of spontaneous repartee as Billy Travers and Wilson Mizner and Joseph Choate and "Mr. Dooley" Dunne.* But his fame was local. It might have been local, but it was deserved. The same with enlargements might also have been said of Charley Russell the cowboy artist. (I'm making a mental note now that elsewhere along in this book, as I go bouncing from one unrelated topic to another, I must bring up Charley Russell and some of the things he said. Nor must I overlook Oliver Herford, one of God's favorite fools.)
Hallam lived in Covington, where Goebel likewise lived, and as a comrade in war and an ally in peace of Colonel Sanford, the Conservative whom Goebel pistoled to death, he hated Goebel mightily. Having bolted when Goebel seized the gubernatorial nomination by craft and device and at the last moment, by open violence Hallam promptly took the stump against him and went about over the troubled commonwealth joyously sowing dragons' teeth and poison ivy.
The seceding wing of the party picked on Hallam to open its fight, and chose the town of Bowling Green as a fitting place for the firing of the first gun, Bowling Green being a town where the rebellion inside the ranks was widespread and vehement. But Goebel had his adherents there, too.
I could fairly smell trouble cooking on that simmering-hot August afternoon when Hallam rose up in the jammed courthouse to begin his speech. Hardly had he started when a local bravo, himself a most handy person in a rough-and-tumble argument, stood upon the seat of his chair, towering high above the heads of those about him.
"I allow I want to ask you a question!" he demanded in a tone like the roar of one of Bashan's bulls.
One-third of the crowd yelled: "Go ahead, Black jack!" The other two-thirds yelled: "Throw him out!" and a few enthusiastic spirits suggested the advisability of destroying the gentleman utterly, and started reaching for the armpit or the hip pocket, as the case might be. Despite the heat all hands were wearing their alpaca or their seersucker coats which, if you knew our sturdy yeomanry in those parlous days, was a bad sign.
With a wave of his hand Hallam stilled the tumult.
"Let it be understood now and hereafter, that this is to be no joint debate," he said in that high-pitched shrill voice of his. "My friends have arranged for the use of this building and I intend to be the only speaker. But it is a tenet of our faith that in a Democratic gathering no man who calls himself a Democrat shall be denied the right to be heard. If the gentleman will be content to ask his question, whatever it is, and abide by my answer to it, I am willing that he should speak."
"That suits me," clarioned the interrupter. "My question is this: Didn't you say at the Louisville convention not four weeks ago that if the Democrats of Kentucky, in convention assembled, nominated a yaller dog for governor ydu would vote for him?"
"I did," said Hallam calmly.
"Well, then," whooped the heckler, eager now to press his seeming advantage, "in the face of that statement, why do you now repudiate the nominee of that convention, the Honorable William Goebel?"
For his part Hallam waited for perfect quiet and at length got it.
"I admit," he stated blandly, "that I said then what I now repeat, namely, that when the Democratic party of Kentucky, in convention assembled, sees fit in its wisdom to nominate a yaller dog for the governorship of this great state, I will support him but lower than that ye shall not drag me!"
From then on the only thing which interrupted Mr. Hallam was applause.
Incidentally, I, still sappy-green, had now my first contacts with some of the big men of my trade such outstanding notables as Charles Michelson, then of the Hearst outfit and now, as I write this in 1940, the marvelously effective head of the Roosevelt publicity bureau at Washington, being the Alexander Hamilton of the New Deal; Homer Davenport, who'd quit cartooning Marc Hanna and the high dogs of Tammany Hall for long enough to come down there among us and do some masterly character sketches and courtroom pictures; J. Murray Allison of the Cincinnati Enquirer, who afterward in New York became a producer of musical comedies and was my close friend; "Harry" Beach, star of the A.P. staff at Chicago, one of the sanest, surest, shrewdest newspapermen that ever lived; plump, slow-moving "Jersey" Chamberlain of the New York Sun, looking deceivingly like a master plumber of a Sunday. And there was one who forevermore is marked in my memory by a blazing red asterisk that redoubtable Washingtonian, the Kentucky-sprouted but Texas-ripened Colonel "Bill" Sterrett.
The brindle-topped, amber-squirting Sterrett was a stalwart Democrat but he had not been for Goebel alive and, most outspokenly, was not for Goebel dead, as witness a bellowed remark he made while four of us were returning, via hired hack, from the services at the state burying ground up on the wintry. peak of Cemetery Hill overlooking the town. It had been a bitter, miserable day, first thawy, then freezy, with spates of rain and snow mixed. We had remained, we reporters, while U.S. Senator Joseph Clay Stiles Blackburn, from amidst a dense damp pack of active and honorary pallbearers, delivered the stately official oration. Considered that a few years ago he had stood by the open grave of John Sanford demanding vengeance on the slayer of his fellow soldier and lifelong friend, and now stood alongside that identical slayer's coffin demanding the same measure of punishment for whoever had killed him, Senator Blackburn acquitted himself very well. Somebody was unkind enough to say he lifted eloquent and heart-moving quotations from the Sanford tribute and bodily incorporated them into the Goebel eulogy, all with such deftness that you hardly could detect the seams.*
Quickened by the prospect of imbibing copiously of hot whisky toddies, the quartet in our carriage were just decanting ourselves in front of an outlying barroom when a dripping pedestrian hailed the impatient foremost of our little band. There was about this gentleman nothing to show whether he was pro-Goebelite or anti-Goebelite, and just about then ordinary folk were careful of saying things which might arouse antagonism either way.
"Well, suh," he asked, "how did the obsequies pass off?"
"Most beautiful sight I ever beheld!" boomed Sterrett in a tone which could have been heard half a block away. "One infamous sonverbitch being buried and a couple of hundred equally infamous sonverbitches catching their death of pneumonia at the funeral."
There never was the least doubt where Sterrett stood on any proposition. He used spraying tobacco juice to punctuate with. And when he spewed the quid out, that would be an exclamation point.
For me, at the impressionable age of 23, there were so many distinctly thrilling moments in that twelve months' experience. Here's one I recollect that carried distinctly a personal touch: Some three months after Goebel was shot, a group of us one afternoon were sitting in front of the telegraph office discussing as usual the crime in one or another of its phases. A member of the Frankfort police force, a fat, good-natured man named Wingate, joined us. The talk eddied back to the day of the assassination. Each of us told what he did that thrillsome morning. My turn came. I said:
"I was in the washroom on the first floor back of the library. I had just taken my coat off and rolled up my sleeves to wash my hands when I heard the shots. To me they sounded as though they had been fired in the narrow strip of yard between the Legislative Hall and the Executive Building. Bareheaded and leaving my coat behind, I ran out of the side door to see what had happened. Everybody was expecting trouble and plenty of it. Three men had picked up Goebel and were hurrying with him back toward the main gate. I remembered there was a picket out of the iron fence about halfway up the block toward the corner of the Square. So I took a crosscut. I ran diagonally across the lawn, passing directly under the windows of the Executive Building where the shots had come from, but I didn't know that then, and squeezed through that gap in the panel and was out in the street just as the men, with Goebel in their arms, reached that point. That was where I joined them and "
"Say," broke in Policeman Wingate, "say, listen: Now I know who the fellow was I came so blamed near taking a few wing shots at. Me, I busted out of the front door of the Hall less'n half a minute after the shootin'. I knew already who it was that was shot a fellow had just bumped into me, yellin' that Goebel was murdered. So I pulled my gun and bulged for the open. As I came out on the portico between them tall columns the first thing I saw was a long-legged fellow, in his shirt sleeves, and no hat on, with his hair flyin' behind him, tearin' acrost the grounds. It looked to me like he was tryin' to get away from there as quick as he could. I said to myself, 'That must be the fellow that did the shootin'.' So I drew a bead on him. Somebody ran against me by accident and knocked up my arm. I pulled down again and was just about to let go when a representative grabbed holt of me and said, 'Hold on, don't shoot. I know that kid.' Before I could ask him who the kid was he'd darted away and then when I looked again I couldn't see the bareheaded fellow any more. And now, by gum, I find out it was you I came so near pluggin'. Because I'm a better'n medium shot. All this time I've been wonderin' in my own mind who the devil that long-legged youngster was? Say, boy, I'm right glad I didn't plug you that day." I was right glad, too.
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