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William Jennings Bryan visited Sanders to campaign in 1899

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By Dave Taylor

The 1899 gubernatorial campaign in Kentucky was quite heated between state Senator William Goebel and Kentucky Attorney General William S. Taylor.

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Republicans had won the governor’s office for the first time only four years before. Democrats largely put their support behind Goebel, a skilled politician whose tendency to use the Kentucky’s political machinery to advance his personal agenda earned him such nicknames as “Boss Bill,” “King William I” and “William the Conqueror.” Goebel’s abrasive personality frequently made political enemies among many.

Goebel’s campaign sought and secured the services of former congressman William Jennings Bryan who, as Democrat nominee for president in 1896, had been defeated by Republican William McKinley.

A two-term congressman from Nebraska, Bryan would eventually be an unsuccessful candidate for the presidency in 1900 and again in 1908. He later served as U.S. Secretary of State in President Woodrow Wilson’s administration prior to the first world war.

A well-known orator throughout the Midwest, Bryan gained national attention as a lecturer on the Chautauqua circuit before and after the turn of the century. In a typical day he gave four hour-long speeches and shorter talks that added up to six hours of speaking. At an average rate of 175 words a minute, he turned out 63,000 words, enough to fill 52 columns of a newspaper. It was said that he once made 12 speeches in 15 hours.

His most popular lecture, and said to be his personal favorite, was a lecture entitled “The Prince of Peace” in which Bryan stressed that religion was the solid foundation of morality.

At the time of his whistle-stop train campaign on behalf of Goebel in 1899, Bryan was riding a tide of national popularity, especially in Kentucky, which was heavily Democratic.

Bryan’s two-state, six-day train campaign began when his party departed Cairo, Ill. on Monday morning, Oct. 16, 1899. Bryan began a three-day tour of Kentucky with a stop at Bardwell, Ky., that morning. Bardwell is about 20 miles by rail from Cairo. Bryan’s tour continued three more days in Ohio culminating at Sandusky, Ohio, on Saturday, Oct. 21, 1899. Joining him on the Kentucky leg of the tour were Goebel; G.G. Coulter, candidate for state auditor; numerous other Democrats of state renown; and an array of newspaper correspondents.

Among other appearances Bryan spoke in Frankfort and Versailles on Tuesday, Oct. 17. On Wednesday, Oct. 18, he “addressed one of the largest gatherings ever assembled on the Jockey Club grounds” in Louisville, the Kentucky Irish American reported.

Bryan had a scheduled stop at Sanders in Carroll County later that day but his train was late to arrive, according to the Oct. 20, 1899 edition of The Ghent Times.

“The train was very late, so the large crowd (variously estimated at from 2,500 to 3,000) had to content themselves with a moonlight glimpse of his face,” the paper reported. “Quite a number reached the car in time to shake hands with him.”

Campaigning by rail was relatively a new concept in national politics until Bryan took to the rails and became the first candidate to unabashedly seek voter support in the 1896 presidential campaign. He traveled thousands of miles by train and delivered hundreds of speeches, stopping even in the smallest of towns.

On arrival in Sanders, Bryan was introduced by candidate Goebel, “whose voice was very husky, showing that he had been put to quite a strain lately,” The Ghent Times reported.

In each town, Bryan spoke from a platform on the rear passenger coach stressing the need to get out support for Democrats in the state races in 1899. He recognized a number of supporters in the Sanders audience as being from Indiana. Several Indiana politicians had spoken during the political rally that had begun earlier in the day in the Carroll County community.

“Whether or not the next president of the United States is a Democrat depends somewhat on what you do in Kentucky this year,” Bryan said. “I am glad to meet the Indianans and Kentuckians who compose this audience. Indianans, like the people of Nebraska, are interested in knowing whether Kentucky is to continue as a Democratic state or is to be classed among the doubtful ones.

“The Democrats of Kentucky are particularly interested in this contest because it is of peculiar local interest,” Bryan continued. “But there is a national election in which all the states are interested in how to class Kentucky politically. I trust that every Democrat in the state of Kentucky will go to the polls and make certain two things—first, the election of Goebel as governor, and second, the return of Joe Blackburn to the United States Senate.”

The Kentucky Irish American periodical called Bryan the “idol of Democracy” following his Kentucky appearances.

“There are a few people who say that Bryan’s flying trip through Kentucky will not help Goebel and the Democratic ticket” the paper reported, “but if his tour through Kentucky does the same proportion of good in other places that it has in Frankfort, Sen. Goebel’s election is assured and Bryan’s election in 1900 is an accomplished fact.”

Initially, Taylor was declared the winner of the election after Goebel’s self-serving political tactics had divided the loyalties of Democrats throughout the state. Taylor was inaugurated on Dec. 12, 1899. Election results were challenged, Taylor called out the militia in an attempt to maintain order in Frankfort and Goebel was shot on the Old Capitol steps on Jan. 30, 1900.

A heavily partisan General Assembly certified an election commission’s report that disqualified enough Taylor votes and allowed Goebel to be declared the winner of the election. Goebel was sworn in on his death bed and served only a few days as Kentucky’s 34th governor before his death on Feb. 3. To date, Goebel remains the only state governor to be assassinated while in office. His assassin was never identified.

Bryan remained a national figure long after his presidential star dimmed. Because of his faith in the goodness and rightness of the common people, he was called “The Great Commoner.” He remained active in a variety of causes, including women’s suffrage, prohibition and Christian fundamentalism. In 1925, he served as an associate counsel in the trial of John Scopes, a Tennessee instructor accused of teaching evolution in a public school. Bryan took the stand and underwent a withering cross-examination by Clarence Darrow. Bryan’s side won the case, but he became the subject of widespread ridicule.

On Sunday, July 26, 1925—five days after the Scopes trial ended—Bryan attended a church service, ate a meal and died in his sleep that afternoon.