'Wrath: The Life and Assassination of a United States Governor' Review: Post-Civil War Fireworks

In 1895 Kentucky State Senator William Goebel shot John Sanford in broad daylight. Five years later he was being sworn in as the Governor of Kentucky while lying on his death bed with an assassin’s bullet in his chest. He remains the only sitting governor of a U.S. state to die by an assassin’s hand.

At the dawn of the twentieth century his will brought the Commonwealth of Kentucky to the edge of civil war. He was a man unafraid to turn the Bluegrass blood red in pursuit of his ideals and personal power.

Politicians don’t need guns to bully their citizens into compliance, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to have one handy. In the case of Goebel and Sanford it is interesting to note that Sanford (while a fellow Democrat) was a banker, not a man of the people. As every good Occupy Wall Street student knows, bankers get what is coming to them. No need to mourn their passing.


Goebel sat down in Chief of Police Atkinson’s office.

“What can I do for you, Bill,” the chief asked.

“I just shot John Sanford in front of his bank,” said Goebel. “I’m sure he’s dead. He had a gun too. Jack Hendricks and Frank Helm were with me.”

Atkinson whistled through his teeth. “Have a seat, Bill.”

Goebel took a chair. The two men sat in silence for a long moment. Atkinson offered a cigarette. Goebel waved it off. Atkinson noticed Goebel fingering a bullet-sized hole in this suit coat.

“And here I thought you wanted to be governor?” said the chief.

Goebel snapped out of his thoughts. “Bitte?” Goebel corrected himself. “What?”

“A big chunk of General Lee’s old Army lives and votes down state, Bill. And you just shot a son of the Confederacy. And you…you as Yankee as they come. The son of a kraut Union soldier.”

“Yes,” said Goebel. “Yes. That will be a problem.” Goebel leaned his chair back against the wall and stretched his legs out. He put his feet on the corner of Atkinson’s desk. “That will be a problem that I will need to address.”

Howard McEwen’s fascinating account of William Goebel’s rise to power and subsequent assassination opens a window into the post Civil War period as it played out in a state where Union soldiers and Confederates were thrown together and expected to return to business as usual. What makes this historical fiction especially compelling is McEwen’s choice to weave the childhood of a would-be assassin with that of William Goebel. Since no one knows who actually pulled the trigger, the mountain man becomes a plausible suspect.

The mountain man surveyed the room. He thought in terms of the hunt. He peered out a large window then looked back to the room. It was an easy shot but he wanted to be careful. He loaded his rifle. Checked the barrel. Powder. Bullet. Rammed it. Put the tape in place. He cleared the desk carefully and sat himself in the middle of it. He took from his pocket a newspaper and placed it beside him.

The lives of the two men are polar opposites. One man wishes only to be left alone. His father taught him the value of freedom…

I hate being told what to do. Presidents do it, mayors do it, lawyers do it, preachers do it. They’re all alike. They just use different named clubs to beat us into obeying. Clubs named patriotism, civic duty, the law, religion. They all become dictators in the end.

We’re not going back to your aunt’s house. We’re not going to any house. We’re going to stay in the wood. We’re heading into the mountains. All a man needs is his brain. A good rifle helps. And no one will tell us what to do.

…while the other is obsessed with seizing power. Only a governorship will satiate his need to control the lives of others.

Goebel was growing frustrated with his brother’s continued questioning. He needed to focus on building for the next campaign. That is what he was being paid for.

“A lot of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle in that document,” gruffed Goebel.

“Do you care about the people William or just the power?”

“That’s a stupid question. I do care about people. But we need to show them what’s needed. This so-called respect for every man’s rights is nothing more than a tyranny of the individual.”

Goebel is determined to win the election at any cost.

Goebel pushed a plan to eliminate the votes from Louisville because of Bradley’s election day calling of the militia. He pushed a request to eliminate Nelson County’s votes because the printer had given Taylor’s middle initial incorrectly. In the mountains several counties used thin paper ballots. Goebel charged employers used the ballots to monitor employee voting and asked that they be thrown out.

McEwen’s page-turning window into the past also illuminates the dangers of a world where politicians declare that individuals don’t know what is good for them.

A sense of confidence overcame Goebel as an upriver wind blew across him. So many of these people are rudderless, he thought. They can’t steer their own lives. The American dream is bunk, he thought. They are buffeted by the currents of their ethnicity, their wealth or lack thereof, their history, the times and politicians. There were only a very few like Wesley operating under their own power. This rabble, he thought, they just need to be told what the hell to do.

The mountain man’s father, on the other hand, understands that true power belongs to the person who seeks nothing from others. A life freely lived is a testament to itself.

When I die don’t build me a monument. It’s not needed. There’s nothing I can build to show what I was in life. How I led my life can’t be carved into a stone or a tree. Who I am and what I believe can only be reflected in you, son. You are my monument.

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