Thursday, July 16, 2020

Why I Wrote "The Adventure of the Murdered Governor: Sherlock Holmes and the Goebel Assassination"

by Alfred D. Byrd

I enjoy visiting the downtown districts of Frankfort, the Commonwealth of Kentucky's small-town capital. There, one can hardly miss monumental statues of William Justus Goebel, who briefly became the Bluegrass State's Democratic governor after an unknown party had fatally shot him on January 30, 1900. As a lifelong reader of adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I've wondered what the incomparable sleuth might've done had he taken the case of the murdered governor.

Having lost count of how many times I've read the canonical stories of Holmes, I knew that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle had never mentioned the Goebel Assassination. Still, it seemed to me too good to be true that none of the zealous penners of Holmes pastiches had sent Holmes to Frankfort to look into the case. On line searches of Sherlock Holmes and William Goebel found two pastiches in which Holmes mentioned the case in passing during investigations of other cases, as he was wont to mention historical cases that bore on a present case, but no pastiche in which Holmes actually investigated the case. Incredulous of my luck in finding a gap in the Holmes literature, I've tried to fill it with a novella titled The Adventure of the Murdered Governor: Sherlock Holmes and the Goebel Assassination.

Let me be up front with you, as Dr. John Watson is in his preface to the novella: Holmes doesn't solve Governor Goebel's murder in the sense of identifying his murderer or murderers. Likely like everyone else who's looked into the murder, I have my suspicions about a guilty party or parties, but nothing near certainty. Not yet has anyone repealed James C. Klotter's immortal words in William Goebel: The Politics of Wrath: "Until new information is uncovered, the answer to the question, 'Who killed William Goebel' is simply, 'We do not know.' Nor may we ever." Still, I've written the novella because the murder holds lessons far more important to us today than the mere identity of Governor Goebel's murderer would be.

Readers of the Holmes canon will likely have noted that, in his later accounts, Dr. John Watson uses a high Victorian style opposed to the relatively informal style in which he wrote A Study in Scarlet. As, for reasons that appear in the novella, Watson couldn't have written up the Adventure of the Murdered Governor before mid-1902, I tried to reproduce the style he was writing in then. In the account, Holmes and Watson speak as educated Londoners; the Americans (all Kentuckians) they meet speak as Kentuckians of their social status would speak. The investigators come across Appalachian dialect from southeastern Kentucky. I'll say more of that dialect in due course.

I start my narrative in time-honored fashion with the dramatic arrival of a potential client in Holmes's rooms. At the story's start, these are not at 221B Baker Street, but in Willard's Hotel, a historic establishment near the White House in Washington, D. C., where Holmes has just finished a confidential case for the current administration. The client, Associate Justice John Marshall Harlan of the United States Supreme Court, is also historic — a native Kentuckian, a Union colonel in the Civil War, and a maverick jurist. Some might say it'd be infra dignitatem for a Supreme Court justice to hire a private detective to investigate a murder, but the murder of William Goebel was no ordinary murder, and Justice Harlan was no ordinary justice. He explains his motives for hiring Holmes in the story. Please note that, when this takes place, the Republican Party was the more liberal of the nation's major political parties, the Democratic party, the more conservative, though the historic processes that'd reverse the two parties' ideologies were already in play. Not until the Election of 1968 did the parties take their present forms.

Holmes and Watson take trains often in the canon. In 1901, they could travel by train from Union Station in Washington, D. C., to the L&N depot in Frankfort, about three blocks from the scene of Goebel's murder. Union Station remains, a magnificent piece of architecture; the L&N depot is gone, though the tunnel passenger trains reached the depot through remains, and railroad tracks formerly belonging to the Louisville and Nashville Railroad still run down the middle of Broadway in Frankfort. These days, the closest you can get to retracing Holmes and Watson's trip is to take the Amtrak Cardinal from Washington, D. C., to Cincinnati, Ohio. Passenger rail service to Central Kentucky is a thing of bygone days, likely never to return — but one can hope.

By 1901, Holmes had ceased his abuse of cocaine, but still smoked tobacco at a rate that alarmed Dr. Watson. Himself a smoker, he was likely not concerned with the possibility of Holmes's developing lung cancer or any of the host of other illnesses modern medical science has linked smoking tobacco with; instead, Watson feared acute nicotine toxicity, a condition known to medical doctors of his time. I can think of at least two scenes in the canon in which it's a medical miracle Holmes didn't succumb to it. He preferred to smoke a pipe, but readily smoked cigars and cigarettes, too. In Kentucky, he tries tobacco in a novel (to him) form, with results I shall let the novella tell you.

Blaine Matthews, who meets Holmes and Watson at the L&N depot, is an invented character. The description of Broadway, the L&N tracks, and the capitol grounds is historic. The iron fence I mention is gone, but the general layout of the street, the tracks, and the grounds that then Senator Goebel crossed en route to being fatally shot is still the same. By the time of Holmes's visit to the scene, it would've revealed little more than it reveals today. That bystanders reported hearing one clear shot followed by several muffled shots, but that only one bullet was recovered from the scene, is also historic.

I'm no fan of portrayals of Dr. Watson as a bumbler. Certainly, by 1901, after over a decade of exposure to Holmes's reasoning and methodology, Watson should've been able to carry out significant parts of investigations on his own. Holmes did use Watson's expertise as a medical doctor from time to time, but largely, it seems to me, wasted Watson's expertise as a combat veteran of Great Britain's warfare in Afghanistan. I put this expertise to work when I have Watson comment on the likelihood of of Secretary of State Caleb Powers's office as the assassin's nest and give what seems to me the most likely explanation of the muffled shots.

The Capital Hotel was historic — in Goebel's time, the centerpiece of Frankfort's social life. Alas, the hotel burned down long ago, and only a small part of its original structure remains as the Capital Museum on Ann St. It would've been nothing unusual for two of the eighteen physicians who'd attended Goebel on his deathbed to frequent the hotel. Having worked in a hospital and known doctors personally, I can testify they don't always practice what they preach in terms of health care. Watson, in his prefaces, often made a point he was altering or suppressing names, dates, and inconsequential details of cases to protect parties to them. Certainly, he'd have had motive to conceal the names of the two physicians, whose indiscretions to him could've gotten them into real trouble in Frankfort. As Holmes and Watson often dealt with Americans and were familiar with our national foibles, as the detective and his assistant would've seen them, Watson would've known of the ruse behind Alias Smith and Jones, if I may allude to an almost forgotten TV Western. Goebel did stay at the Capital Hotel when he was in town for legislative business. On the day of his shooting, he walked from the hotel to the capitol's grounds and returned to the hotel to die. What the doctors say of the facts of Goebel's death is accurate; the doctors' speculation is my own.

Some will object that a luxurious establishment like the Capital Hotel would never have served a dish as common as biscuits and gravy. Likely not, but I couldn't resist including a British subject's reaction to this. Some will also object that Governor Beckham would never have involved himself in an ongoing murder investigation. In an ordinary case, he wouldn't have, but then nothing was ordinary about the Goebel Assassination, which had, as Mr. Beckham had witnessed, brought Kentucky to the brink of civil war. Can you blame the Boy Governor for being wary when a hot-shot celebrity reopened a case that could never grow cold enough for Frankfort's peace of mind?

Governor Beckham and the novella's other historical characters are used fictitiously. By that, I mean that the action and dialog attributed to them didn't take place in real life, but is meant to be my best guess of what they'd have said and done in the situation the story places them in. The Boy Governor, as an attorney, would reasonably have raised the issues of cui bono ('whose is the good?': i. e., who benefited from the murder?) and timing to clear himself of inevitable remarks he himself benefited most from his running mate's murder. I don't for a second believe that Mr. Beckham played a role in it, but Holmes would have had to consider the possibility of Beckham's guilt. As a general principle, anyone who proposes a suspect for the assassination, as Holmes will unsuccessfully propose, must answer two key questions: how did the suspect benefit from the murder, and why would the suspect have committed the murder when it happened?

Fort Hill is an actual place, the driver's description of which is accurate. Would Governor Beckham actually have sent Holmes and Watson there to interview Jim Howard? Maybe not, though Fort Hill does have the twin virtues of being close to the old capitol and all but inaccessible to angry mobs. As the Union encampment at Fort Hill was largely disassembled after the Civil War, the stockade no longer existed in the real world's 1901. Holmes and Watson would have seen at Fort Hill only earthworks, a historical house — and a spectacular view of the city and of the upper reaches of the Kentucky River Gorge. Although Watson didn't notice, and neither the driver nor the great detective pointed out, the carriage would've traveled from the capitol annex to the turnoff to Fort Hill on Holmes St. Hey, maybe, he actually was there!

Testimony by and about alleged shooter Jim Howard is confusing and contradictory. I've had him tell Sherlock Holmes a story that seems to me internally consistent and consistent with his own testimony in court. Howard's remarks about the Bluegrass's neglect of Kentucky's Appalachian region are ones I've often heard in the hills.

Dialect is a regular feature of canonical Holmes, and it would've been natural for Dr. Watson to include it in the novella. Although I was born in Michigan, my parents were born in Morgan County, Kentucky, and, both before and after I moved to the Bluegrass State in 1974, I've spent a great deal of time in Morgan, Boyd, Greenup, Lawrence, and Carter Counties in eastern Kentucky, so I'm familiar with the local dialect. That being said, those counties are far from Clay County, where Jim Howard lived, so I apologize to Clay Countians for any inaccuracies in his way of speech.

Some may wonder why I didn't have Holmes question Howard in depth about the smokeless steel-jacketed cartridges he allegedly showed off to bystanders before Goebel's shooting. The testimony about the alleged cartridges is among the most confusing and contradictory in the case. As far as I can tell, there was at least one such cartridge in the rifle that fired the fatal shot at then Senator Goebel, but other cartridges were red herrings meant to lead justice's bloodhound to a pre-selected quarry, whether guilty or not. I give Holmes credit for being too wise a bloodhound to be distracted by the cartridges, but I see how others could reach a very different conclusion about them from mine.

David Meade Woodson is historic. Retained by the prosecution to provide it with a professional analysis of locations of shooter and of victim and of lines of fire, he told in court a story tightly circumscribed by questioning of the prosecution and of the defense, each of which had its own narrative it was trying to sell to juries. I get an impression Woodson could've told a fuller story had he had a chance to tell it. In the novella, he does get to. He did mention in court the issue of uncertainty Dr. Watson explores with him in the novella. There are many possible explanations of the "muffled shots"; I've chosen what seems to me the simplest explanation on the basis of my own observations of the Old Capitol's grounds. Like Watson and Woodson, I think that a key to solving the mystery is why the shooter chose the risky shooter's nest of the capitol annex rather than any of a set of safer sniper's nests on the south side of Broadway.

Holmes as master of disguise is a common trope of the canonical stories. It would've been daring of him to try to pass himself off as an Appalachian man, but he was nothing if not daring. In Frankfort, he would've had Jim Howard as a model for mannerisms and speech, and Holmes was notoriously a quick study at whatever struck his fancy. Still, I've wondered how often he was found out in disguise. He answers that question, at least for Kentucky, in the novella.

For me, the most difficult part of writing the novella was deciding how to handle Henry Youtsey. An interview of him by Sherlock Holmes would have been dramatic, but would I fear have added more heat than light to the story. Every version of the interview I envisioned turned out to be "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing." In the end, I saw that the most realistic response by Youtsey would also have been the simplest: he'd have stonewalled Holmes. Youtsey did, after all, fake catatonia throughout most of his own first trial. Too, I can't believe that either Youtsey's own lawyers or the prosecutors he was turning state's evidence for would've let him anywhere near Holmes, who would've penetrated whatever subterfuge may've been in play. I believe, as Holmes believed, that Youtsey's the key to the mystery of William Goebel's murder — but what lock that key fits, who can truly say?

Holmes's and Dr. Watson's being buttonholed at Daniel Boone's tomb by a mysterious stranger reflects my own experiences there. Twice, a perfect stranger — the first time, a native Kentuckian; the second time, a Missourian — has come up to me and begun to tell me of the tomb's mystery. Not surprisingly to me, the Kentuckian said Dan'l's in the tomb; the Missourian, an impostor. Let the reader form your own opinion. The three mysteries the mysterious stranger tells Holmes and Dr. Watson — the identity of the body in the tomb, the fate of "Honest Dick" Tate, and the murder of R. C. O. Benjamin — are historical.

I don't for a moment believe that the potentate whom Holmes confronted with suspicion of Goebel's murder was guilty of it. Still, the four motives Holmes attributes to him are legitimate. It's easy to construct an accusation based on motive — difficult to prove it, especially in the case of the assassination of William Goebel, for which many had motives. Whomever you accuse of the crime, someone else is also a legitimate suspect of it.

The facts in the murder of Brigadier General William "Bull" Nelson, U.S.A., are as history records them and are adduced because of their parallels to the facts in the murder of William Goebel. Readers of the canonical stories may protest what Holmes says about a detective story by Edgar Allen Poe. Although Holmes scorned Poe's detective stories in themselves, his comment in the novella focuses on the superscription of the first story — a superscription I can see as inspiring his future career in detection. The Goebel case would certainly have shaken his faith in the superscription. Readers may also object to the amount of political commentary in Holmes's summation of the case. If you read the canon through, you'll find in it many instances of political commentary — never as much in one place as in the novella, but then the Goebel case differs from every other case Dr. Watson recorded. Holmes's summation stems directly from the facts in the Goebel case. That the summation may be applicable today testifies to the universality of Holmes's summation. The danger he saw at the heart of America's two-party system is inherent in it — a sleeping dragon ready to erupt in flame whenever someone like William Goebel takes the stage.

As Holmes would never leave an avenue of evidence uninvestigated, he pursued the Goebel case to its bitter end. I omitted Holmes's interview with Caleb Powers because, as eloquent as his statements to Holmes would've been, they wouldn't have advanced Holmes's investigation beyond convincing him of Powers's innocence. Governor Taylor would've stonewalled Holmes just as the ousted governor stonewalled everyone else. In the end, after pursuing every line of investigation, Holmes got to where we are now: with no suspect or set of suspects whose guilt can be established beyond reasonable doubt.

Still, all of us may just have been overlooking a key detail that'd enlighten us all. If you're familiar with the case, could my tale of Holmes's failure to solve it inspire you to look at it with fresh eyes? If you're new to the case, could you be the one who sees what no one else has seen? Perhaps, Quester, even thou shalt find the Holy Grail.

If you're new to the Goebel assassination, I've written a brief factual treatment of it, available for free from Smashwords: "Kentucky Scandal: William Goebel's Life and Death". The single best source on the assassination, its prequel, and its aftermath is James C. Klotter's William Goebel: The Politics of Wrath. You can also find useful information about the politician's life in the sections on Goebel in A History of Kentucky, by Thomas D. Clark, in A New History of Kentucky, by Lowell H. Harrison and James C. Klotter, and in The Kentucky Encyclopedia, John E. Kleber, Editor in Chief. I also recommend Assassination at the State House: The Unsolved Mystery of Kentucky's Governor Goebel, by Ron Elliott, who wrote an excellent novelization of the Election of 1900, the Goebel assassination, and the murder trials from the point of view of the mountain crowd. Sadly, all of these works but mine are out of print. Still, if you frequent used bookstores in the Bluegrass, you can find them all.

"The Adventure of the Murdered Governor: Sherlock Holmes and the Goebel Assassination" is available from

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