Caleb Powers


On July 25th, 1932, former representative to Congress from Kentucky, legal adviser to the U. S. Shipping Board, delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1912 and Kentucky Secretary of State Caleb Powers passed away at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore at the age of 64. Why, you might ask, is that such a big deal? It was because of a political assassination.

Powers was born on February 1, 1869, in Whitley County, Kentucky. He was ambitious, and attended Union College in Barbourville, the University of Kentucky at Lexington and what’s now Valparaiso University in Indiana before attending the United States Military Academy. He also went to law school and became a lawyer in Barbourville before becoming the superintendent of schools from 1894-1899. He was then elected Kentucky secretary of state. And that’s where this story turns dark.

In 1899 there was a heated election between Governor William S. Taylor and William Goebel, a populist. Goebel, a Democrat, divided his party with his populism, leading to a close contest with Governor Taylor, running for a second term. Taylor narrowly won, but Democrats in the General Assembly started arguing about voting irregularities. The Board of Elections upheld those votes, but the Democratic-run assembly managed to invalidate enough Taylor votes to hand the election to Goebel.

On January 30, 1900, Goebel was sworn in at the Old State Capitol admit talk of an impending civil war in Kentucky. Several shots rang out and Goebel was hit in the chest, allegedly fired from the window of Caleb Powers’ office. The next day, as he lay dying from his wound, Goebel was sworn in as governor. He died on February 3, 1900. The actual assassin was never found.

As part of this mess, there was a contest filed in the election for secretary of state, and Caleb Powers lost his post. And, even though he wasn’t in Frankfort at the time of the shooting, he was arrested and charged with being the mastermind behind the assassination of Governor Goebels. He was tried and convicted and sentenced to prison, but an appeals court overturned that conviction. Powers ended up being tried three more times, resulting in two convictions and a hung jury. Eventually in 1908, Governor Augustus E. Willson pardoned Powers after 8 years in jail.

All the elections he won save the one for secretary of state happened after his release from prison. Powers was buried in City Cemetery in Barbourville, Kentucky.

An interesting story, so be looking for Rod and me to put together a podcast about this turbulent time in Kentucky history.

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