The early years of West Virginia’s statehood were tumultuous. Indeed, the new state was admitted to the Union squarely in the middle of the Civil War. As the new government was established, contested elections for political office regularly plagued the state. But perhaps no political face-off was more turbulent than the gubernatorial election of 1888. The infamous contest following this election lasted more than a year. While it obviously involved the two candidates who were running for governor, it also included two men who weren’t even on the ballot. It required the intervention of the West Virginia Legislature, numerous state supreme court decisions, and the National Guard to protect the office of sitting Governor Emanuel Willis Wilson, who refused to leave at the end of his elected term.
The controversy began after the November 6, 1888, election between candidates Aretus Brooks Fleming and Nathan Goff. When the votes were counted, Goff, a Republican, received 78,714, while Fleming, a Democrat, received 78,604—a difference of just 110 votes. Fleming, a circuit judge from Marion County, contested the election, claiming that fraud and several other irregularities had occurred. According to the Beckley Post-Herald, Fleming said “the election had been stolen or bought, and ex-Confederate soldiers and sympathizers who had just regained their right to vote with the adoption of the 1872 Constitution were especially bitter.” As a result, the votes in several counties were recounted.
On December 27, 1888, Fleming, a clean-shaven, serious-looking man with wire-rimmed glasses, said he felt that the people of West Virginia demanded the election recount. As reported by the Wheeling Register, Fleming said, “From the bottom of my heart I did not seek the gubernatorial nomination; but being a candidate I believe it … my duty to my State and to my party to see that the
result of the election is honestly obtained. I have entered upon this contest from these motives alone.”
On January 10, 1889, Fleming filed a petition with the West Virginia Supreme Court, asking it to prevent Secretary of State Henry S. Walker from delivering the Kanawha County election results to the state legislature. Fleming also obtained an injunction from Cabell County Circuit Judge A. N. Campbell against Secretary Walker, preventing him from delivering the certified election results. However, Goff obtained a separate ruling from Kanawha County Circuit Judge Francis A. Guthrie, which commanded Walker “to forthwith deliver said certificate to the speaker of the house of delegates of the legislature.” On January 12, 1889, the state supreme court denied Fleming’s petition and held that neither ruling by the circuit judges was proper.
Ten days later, on January 22, 1889, prior to legislative involvement with the election contest, Gov. Wilson delivered his biennial message to the legislature entitled “Fraud and Corruption in Elections.” Wilson said that the misuse of the ballot was “more dangerous than open revolt [to the] foundation [of the] superstructure of our political fabric.” He also said that it defiled the ballot box when candidates raised money for campaign expenses and then spent money “to corrupt the voter and defeat the public will.”
As the uncertainty continued, the legislature attempted to form a Joint Contest Committee to consider the evidence presented by Fleming and Goff, and to decide who would be declared West Virginia’s rightful governor. But the formation of such a committee proved difficult; indeed, the state senate, which was composed of 13 Republicans, 12 Democrats, and 1 Independent, had difficulty choosing its own leader. The senators spent 12 days attempting to elect a senate president, casting 125 different ballots before finally electing Robert S. Carr on the 126th ballot.
When the committee was finally formed, it considered charges presented by Fleming and Goff,
including vote buying with cash and whiskey, individuals voting multiple ballots, nonresidents illegally casting votes, and underage voting. According to the Clarksburg Exponent, “Probably thousands of individual cases were cited, each of which had to be investigated by the committee.”
The winner of the 1888 election was supposed to take office on March 4, 1889. On that date, with the contest still incomplete, Goff, a sitting U.S. congressman, as well as former secretary of the navy under President Rutherford B. Hayes and Union general, took the oath of office from Kanawha County lawyer and future West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Henry C. McWhorter. Following this, Goff went to the governor’s office to begin his term. However, Wilson, who had been elected governor in 1884, refused to leave the governor’s office, arguing that the election contest was still incomplete.
When it was rumored that Goff and a significant number of his supporters were armed and planning to take the governor’s office by force, Wilson placed other heavily-armed men throughout the Capitol to keep the office in his hands. William MacCorkle, who four years later became West Virginia’s ninth governor, explained in his book The Recollections of Fifty Years in West Virginia, that 16 men with loaded rifles were placed in the governor’s office vaults to protect Gov. Wilson, while “three or four hundred of Goff’s friends were there armed, and it looked like a clash, where many men would be killed, but better counsel prevailed.” The Beckley Post-Herald reported that the National Guard “had orders to resist attempts of any man or group of men to take forcible possession of the governor’s office.”
At that time, the West Virginia Legislature refused to take any action to resolve the controversy, since the election contest had not been completed by the courts. Consequently, on March 7, 1889, Goff petitioned the state supreme court to declare him governor and to force Wilson to leave office. The court denied Goff’s request, stating that it was a decision for the state legislature and thus “beyond the
control or interference of the courts in any manner.”
Meanwhile, as Goff, Fleming, and Wilson fought day after day for control of the governor’s office, State Senate President Robert S. Carr decided to join the fray, declaring that he was West Virginia’s legitimate governor. Carr, a hefty man who wore a cowboy hat, smoked cigars, and sported tight suits with pants that stuck to his bulging stomach, filed a petition with the state supreme court, arguing that as of March 4, 1889, the office of governor remained vacant; thus he, not Wilson, Goff, or Fleming, should be declared governor until the contest results were finalized.
Much the way Goff had attempted, Carr petitioned the state supreme court to compel Gov. Wilson to surrender the office to him. He asked the court to declare Goff’s act of taking the oath of office void. Wilson then filed a response with the court, stating that there was no vacancy in the office and that he was bound by a constitutional duty to “continue in the discharge of the powers of the office until his successor should be declared elected and qualified.”
Despite Wilson’s public declaration of his intent, Carr argued that neither Fleming nor Goff had been officially elected, since the election results were still in dispute; thus both were ineligible to take the office. Carr then asserted, once again, that he should be declared governor, since the state constitution provides that “in case of the death, conviction on impeachment, failure to qualify, resignation, or other disability of the Governor, the President of the Senate shall act as Governor.”
The state supreme court disagreed with Carr, stating that the provision of the constitution did not apply to the specific situation of the 1888 election. In response, Carr argued to the court that Gov. Wilson could not remain for the term succeeding his elected term of office, since the state constitution at the time provided that a governor could not succeed himself. The court disagreed, declaring that Wilson was not starting a new term in office but was simply a holdover under his 1884 elected term.
As this bitter contest raged on, the state legislature, which would ultimately decide the winner of the election, was aligned to favor the Democrats by a single representative. Thus, one vote could select the next governor. The political pressure in the State Capitol was unprecedented.
In his earlier-mentioned book, MacCorkle further explained that Azel Ford, a Democrat and member of the House of Delegates, had been poised to vote for Goff until MacCorkle traveled to Philadelphia by train to convince L. C. Bullett, who was in charge of the Norfolk & Western Railroad, to come to West Virginia and persuade Ford to vote for Fleming. MacCorkle recalled that after Bullett’s conversation with Ford, “the vote finally stood forty-three for Fleming and forty for Goff, and Ford’s vote was vital to the result.” MacCorkle, who was the Kanawha County prosecuting attorney at the time, said that his 1894 candidacy for governor grew out of his efforts to secure Ford’s vote for Fleming.
Finally, on February 6, 1890, well over a year after the 1888 gubernatorial election, Aretus Brooks Fleming became West Virginia’s eighth governor, even though Nathan Goff had been initially declared the victor. When the dust finally settled, Gov. Wilson, whose term was only supposed to last four years, had served nearly five years in office, leaving just three years to be served by Fleming.