Goebel Shoots Sanford
On April 11, 1895, then State Senator William Goebel shot and killed John L. Sanford, cashier of the Farmers and Traders Bank of Covington. The men were on the sidewalk in front of the First National Bank of Covington at the time. Mr. Sanford died about five hours after the shooting. He was shot through the head. Stanford got off a shot that entered Goebel’s clothing, but didn’t break the skin. Only two shots were fired; witnesses did not agree on who fired first.
Sanford fell face down at once; Goebel put his pistol in his pocket, walked to the police station, called his brother from a pay phone, and then turned himself in, telling the officer that he had shot Stanford in self defense. He turned over his .38-caliber Smith & Wesson to the officer. There was only one chamber empty.
The antagonism between the two men arose out of an article published in the weekly Ledger. The paper had been owned by Thomas Riley, who had just recently transferred it to Goebel. No public announcement of that fact had yet been made, but Goebel has assumed the role of editor. There had long been bad blood between Sanford and Goebel in the matter of Kenton County and Kentucky politics, but Editor Goebel no doubt escalated the animosity when this ran in the Ledger:
Col. John Gon-h-ea Sanford claims to carry the legislative vote of the county of Kenton in the next Senatorial race, in his pocket and proposes to deliver it bodily to Senator Joe Blackburn in his efforts for a second re-election. ‘Gon-h-ea John owes a peculiar debt to Blackburn and proposes to pay it. When Senator Blackburn’s brother was Governor, the Senate induced his brother, the Governor, to pardon a close kinsman of ‘Gon-h-ea’ John before trial or conviction and while a fugitive from justice in Canada, because of an indictment returned against him buy a grand jury of Kenton County for forgery and embezzlement while city clerk of Covington. There will, however, be some music before that debt is paid in that way.”
The witnesses to the shooting included First National Bank President Frank P. Helm, and the Kentucky Attorney General, W. J. Hendricks.
Hendricks said “I am so shocked I can hardly talk about the matter, it came so suddenly, so unexpectedly, that I have not recovered from the shock. Senator Goebel and I came up the street together with Judge O’Hara and some other friends from the court house. We separated from these gentlemen at Judge O’Hara’s office. I had a check I wished to get cashed, and asked Senator Goebel to walk up to Sanford’s bank with me. He assented and we were going in that direction when we saw Mr. Helm across the street; Senator Goebel said, ‘Helm will cash your check, go over to the bank.” Mr. Helm assented, and we crossed the street and walked up to the bank. As we approached the bank, I saw Mr. Sanford standing there in a waiting attitude. He seemed to be leaning on the iron railing that runs down between the steps and I think was on the steps. As we came up, he spoke to me and shook hands with me with his left hand, having his right hand in his trousers’ pocket. He then turned to Senator Goebel, saying, ‘ I understand that you assume the authorship of the article,’ to which Goebel responded, ‘I do.’ The shooting followed instantly and I was so dazed and dumbfounded that I could not realize what was happening until Mr. Sanford fell face downward on the steps and Senator Goebel backed away. I declare I don’t know who shot first, the shots were so close together.”
The other witness, Bank President Helm, gave this account: I was right up against them and really thought at first that I had, myself, been shot. I was on my way to the bank from dinner and as I came up Scott Street I saw Attorney General Hendricks and Senator Goebel; they saw me and crossed the street, we exchanged greetings, Hendricks wanted a cigar and he and the Senator started up to Beckert’s. I told Goebel that Beckert had died about noon and that his place was closed and directed their attention to Nedler’s Drug Store, where I told them they could get a cigar. Neither Goebel nor I wanted to smoke, so Hendricks went over alone, when he came back he spoke of wanting to go to Sanford’s bank to get a check cashed. Goebel said ‘Helm here will cash your check.’ We then crossed the street (Madison) and turned back towards the bank. As we were about at the gas office, I saw Sanford standing on the bank steps and said ‘There is Sanford now.’ ‘Yes,’ said Goebel, ‘there’s the ____!’ He laughed and repeated his remark. I did not pay attention to it. I did not think of any previous trouble between them and thought Goebel was speaking good humouredly instead of roughly. As we came to the bank entrance, I spoke to Sanford and stepped on the bottom step. Hendricks also spoke to Sanford, and they shook hands. Sanford extended his left hand, his right being in his trousers’ pocket. As he withdrew his hand from that of Henricks, he turned to Goebel, motioning his left hand in his direction, and said ‘ I understand that you assume the authorship of that article.’ ‘I do,’ responded Goebel, and as he said it I saw him with a fumbling motion begin to draw a pistol from his right hand trousers’ pocket. At the same instant, Sanford drew and the two shots rang out. The shots were almost instantaneous and I can not say positively which fired first. The shots were right in succession bang! bang! and Sanford fell forward, instantly, face downward on the bottom step. My impression is that he was standing on the steps as I was, for in falling his head struck the front part of my left leg and my left foot.” Mr. Helm showed the blood stains in his trousers and shoes. “The position of his fall almost threw me down and Hendricks caught me, saying ‘Are you hurt?’ My face was powder burned and I did not know but that I had been shot. I can’t see for the life of me how Goebel escaped. We were right together, all four of us. As we came up I was on the inside of the pavement, Goebel in the middle and Hendricks on the outside. As we reached the steps I stepped up on the first step and turned facing the three. Hendricks was next, Sanford and Goebel directly in front, the width of the step possibly separating them. As Goebel replied to Sanford’s question, he partially turned and he fumbled with his pistol right under my chin, I being partially between them, and fired upward. Sanford fell, as I stated, almost throwing me down. Sanford’s pistol fell to the pavement and Goebel backed away a step or two, then picking up his coat, walked down to the front of the gas office and stood near the curb for a few minutes when I lost sight of him. As I turned my attention to Sanford, several people rushed up and I had them carry him into the office and sent runners for physicians. While I cannot say that Sanford fired first, the impression left on me by the circumstances is that his pistol was possibly first exploded. At the exchange of words, both men instantly drew, and, as I say, it was impossible for me to determine by actual sight who, if either, did shoot first, but Sanford’s falling impresses me that possibly his was the first shot, as he probably could not have shot after being hit.”
Sanford was 58, left a wife, son, and daughter. He had been a Confederate officer, and came from “good stock” in Covington, and was a mentor to John G. Carlisle.
Goebel was 40 at the time of the shooting, successful in business, and in the law. He never married. He was strong fighter in whatever cause he championed, and was eventually elected Governor, only to be shot just before his inauguration. It was the most tumultuous period in Kentucky history, full of bitterness and factionalism.
The trial was held on April 16, 1895. W. McD. Shaw, Mat Harbiwon and Richard P. Ernst represented Goebel; Simmons was the prosecuting County Attorney. Stephens was the judge. Helm and Henricks testified, as did one Claude Desha, of Cynthiana, who said that Sanford had told him the prior august that he would like to kill Goebel.
The trial lasted from ten in the morning to four in the afternoon. Goebel was acquitted.
Sanford’s widow later brought a civil suit for ten thousand dollars against Goebel, but the jury refused to award her anything.
This article is loosely excerpted from an article by L. F. Johnson from 1916, as reprinted in the Kentucky Explorer, in April of 1995.