The Covington Downtown Commercial Historic District contains the past and present financial, commercial and legal centers, as well as some industrial, wholesale, institutional, educational, and mixed residential elements for the community of Covington, Kentucky. The district represents both the earlier Anglo-American culture of the city, and the German background of the majority of immigrants, entrepreneurs, workers, and residents of the late 19th and early 20th century, when the city was at its peak in terms of economic and population growth. Added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1983, with boundary extensions in 1991, 1996, and 2001, the district contains more than 200 structures that reflect architectural styles in a wide range of structures from the antebellum period of Greek or Gothic Revivals, to all phases of the late 19th and early 20th century styles as adapted to commercial use.
Several structures in the Downtown Commercial District are individually listed on the National Register of Historic Places, including the Roebling Bridge, Trinity Episcopal Church, and the Odd Fellows Building. Other sites of interest are the Coppin’s Building, Motch Jewelers, the Ascent, and the Madison Theatre. The mosaic benches, Matt Langford’s statue of Abraham Lincoln in front of the Kenton County Public Library, and his statue of Frank Duveneck on Pike Street are also located within the downtown district.
One of the most significant events to occur in the downtown district was the Goebel/Sanford duel on April 11, 1895.
William Justus Goebel, the son of German immigrants who came to Covington, Kentucky prior to the American Civil War, was one of the most powerful and abrasive state politicians of his generation. Nicknamed “Boss Bill” or the “Kenton King,” much of what Goebel would accomplish as a Kentucky politician, was often done by ruthless methods. As a skilled politician, he often brokered deals with fellow lawmakers only to break them if a better one came along. This made him many enemies in his rise up the political ladder in Kentucky politics, but it also won him many votes as well.
The duel which Goebel had with a political rival named John Leathers Sanford on the streets of Covington in 1895, would be an incident used by his enemies to label him as a man who would use any means necessary to accomplish his political ambitions.
Sanford, a former Confederate staff officer turned banker, often clashed with Goebel as a member of a local political organization which opposed many of then state senator, Goebel’s, populist reforms which included his platform of railroad regulation and championing of labor causes.
In one of Goebel’s campaigns to remove tolls from Kentucky’s turnpikes, Sanford had lost a good deal of money. Angered over the legislation, Sanford responded by blocking Goebel’s appointment to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, then the highest court in the state. This led Goebel to print an article in a local newspaper referring to Sanford as “Gonorrhea John”. Shortly thereafter, Sanford publicly stated he was going to kill Goebel.
On April 11, 1895, as Goebel and two friends walked down a Covington street, they approached the Farmer’s and Trader’s Bank, near Sixth and Madison, where Sanford appeared to be waiting for them outside. Both men were armed with pistols. Sanford asked Goebel if he was the author of the recent article in the newspaper. Goebel acknowledged that he was. They both drew their weapons. So quick was the exchange of gunfire, no one saw who fired the first shot. One bullet passed through Goebel’s clothing but left him unharmed; Sanford was shot through the head and died five hours later.
Goebel was tried for murder on April 16 and acquitted on the grounds of self defense, but the incident would haunt his career for the rest of his short life. After a short hiatus, Goebel returned to politics to consolidate his power locally in Kenton County.
By 1897, Goebel had become Kentucky’s first real political boss. In 1899, tired of having to wrangle with the governor to get things done, Goebel decided to run for the office. His championing of populist causes and self-serving tactics eventually won him the governorship in a controversial election. He would serve as the 34th Governor of Kentucky for only four days in 1900 after having been mortally wounded by an assassin the day before he was sworn in. Goebel remains the only state governor in the United States to be assassinated while in office.
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