William Goebel was a Kentucky lawyer, senator and governor of the 19th century associated with many controversial policies and lawsuits. In 1887, he joined the Kentucky Senate. As a senator, he championed legislation removing toll fees from several of the turnpikes in the state. One of the people displeased by this action was John Sanford, who was also displeased when William Goebel took action to transfer funds from the city into Covington away from a bank owned by Sanford. The antipathy between the two men was also stoked by the fact that the family of William Goebel had sided with the Union Army during the Civil War, while Sanford's had sided with the Confederacy.
In 1895, a Convington newspaper began publishing a series of anonymous pieces attacking and mocking William Goebel, who learned from mutual acquaintances that the author of these pieces was Sanford. In retaliation, William Goebel published an anonymous article referring to Sanford in derisive terms and alleging that he had attempted to obtain a pardon for a friend convicted of fraud.
On April 11, 1895, William Goebel was walking to another bank when they encountered Sanford on the steps of his own bank. It is unclear whether William Goebel and Sanford deliberately sought each other out for the purposes of conducting a duel, The Kentucky Constitution forbids anyone who has fought a duel from becoming a governor, in addition to the illegality of the act in general. Sanford asked if William Goebel had been the author of the recent piece against him. When William Goebel replied in the affirmative, both men drew their guns. The timing of the events is unclear, but the shot fired by Sanford only hit his opponent's clothing. The bullet fired by William Goebel hit Sanford in the head and killed him.
Following the incident, William Goebel immediately proceeded to a police station, where he surrendered himself to the authorities. In court, William Goebel claimed that Sanford had withdrawn his weapon first, necessitating that he act in self-defense. A preliminary injunction resulted in the case being released from legal custody. A subsequent jury trial ruled that William Goebel was not guilty of murder by reason of self-defense. This exonerated him from charges of conducting a public duel, making him eligible to serve as governor.
In 1898, William Goebel introduced a law into the state senate creating a new procedure for appointing county election commissioners by creating a three-man panel that would be appointed by the state legislature every year. This panel would in turn be charged with appointing every county election commissioner. While the stated purpose of this legislation was to decrease corruption practiced by members of the Republican opposition, it was widely criticized as serving the equally corrupt ends of the Democratic party.
In 1900, William Goebel was elected governor of the state of Kentucky. However, he was shot before being sworn into the office and passed away a few days later.