Who knew that the only U.S. governor assassinated while in office would have so many namesakes?
In 1899, the two men running for governor of Kentucky — “the most violent state in the union” at the end of the 19th century — were William Goebel (Democrat) and William S. Taylor (Republican).
Goebel — a crafty politician who had murdered one of his rivals several years earlier — was the favorite.
But, in an unexpected turn of events, Taylor ended up defeating Goebel by a narrow margin.
While Goebel was ready to accept the loss, his supporters were not, and the election results were challenged on the grounds of voter fraud.
Taylor was inaugurated on December 12, but chaos reigned in Kentucky for many weeks. In fact, “Kentucky was teetering on the brink of civil war by January 30, 1900” — the day an unseen gunman shot William Goebel in the chest while he was walking toward the State House.
The very next day, the Kentucky General Assembly decided that Goebel had indeed won the election. He was immediately sworn in as governor, but died on the evening of February 3.
Thus, Goebel became the only U.S. state governor to be assassinated while in office.
And 1899-1900 is exactly when we first see the baby name Goebel appear in the SSA’s baby name data:
- 1901: unlisted
- 1900: 10 baby boys named Goebel [peak usage]
- 1899: 5 baby boys named Goebel [debut]
- 1898: unlisted
The SSA data from that era is incomplete, though, so let’s also look at data from the Social Security Death Index (SSDI):
- 1904: 2 people named Goebel
- 1903: 5 people named Goebel
- 1902: 8 people named Goebel
- 1901: 10 people named Goebel
- 1900: 73 people named Goebel
- 1899: 54 people named Goebel
- 1898: 5 people named Goebel
- 1897: 2 people named Goebel
- 1896: 1 person named Goebel
- 1895: no one named Goebel
I don’t know for sure where all of the 1899/1900 Goebels listed in the SSDI were born, but I can tell you that most died in the state of Kentucky.
Finally, other turn-of-the-century records reveal hundreds of babies named “William Goebel” specifically. Here are a dozen of them:
- William Goebel Bower, 1900-1980
- William Goebel Darland, 1900-1923
- William Goebel Fowler, 1900-1924
- William Goebel Haley, 1899-1936
- William Goebel Johnson, 1899-1908
- William Goebel Kendall, 1900-1947
- William Goebel Locknane, 1900-1977
- William Goebel Mers, 1899-1932
- William Goebel Pulliam, 1899-1924
- William Goebel Spurlin, 1899-1964
- William Goebel Todd, 1900-1956
- William Goebel Whitney, 1899-1965
So what does the German surname Goebel mean? It’s a respelling of Göbel, a pet form of the Germanic personal name Godebert, made up of the elements g?d, “good,” or god, “god,” and berht, “bright; famous.”
- Newton, Michael. Famous Assassinations in World History, vol. 1. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2014.
- Walker, Marianne C. “The Late Governor Goebel.” Humantities Jul./Aug. 2013.
- William Goebel – Wikipedia
- The Four Days Governor: Inside Adams (LOC Blog)
- Hanks, Patrick. (Ed.) Dictionary of American Family Names. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003.