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From Archive to Podcast: the William Goebel Assassination

This article was written by Kyle Capps, a junior in the History program at Centre.

The way you present history is often as important as the history you tell. The dense academic writing often featured in conventional histories has its place among scholars, but new ways of bringing history into your living room, dorm, or morning commute continue to educate people in ways that are just as meaningful. Podcasts, video essays, and blogs like this offer a format that can connect with people beyond library walls. This past January a collection of students (including yours truly) had the chance to explore history from the primary sources of an archive all the way to the digital spaces of podcasts, working directly with Dr. Jon Earle. Our goal was to bring the assassination of former Kentucky Governor William Goebel to a 21st century audience.

First things first, our class was charged with understanding the conditions that led to and follow the shooting of Governor Goebel. Our class learned through lectures and online journals that Kentucky was at a boiling point at the turn of the 20th century. Thirty-five years after the Civil War, Kentuckians were still at each other’s throats, with Democrats and Republicans arming themselves on the streets of Frankfort, Kentucky. The Democratic candidate for governor in 1899, William Goebel, was a controversial politician who was disliked among his own party for his uncompromising political attitudes. Against the Republican candidate, William S. Taylor, Goebel lost the race but refused to concede the election. He and his allies threatened to bring greater violence into Frankfort. On the morning of January 30th, 1900, the Kentucky legislature was in session to investigate the results of the election when Goebel was shot while walking towards the Old State Capitol building. William Taylor and the conspirators implicated in the assassination fled Kentucky, and Goebel died as sitting governor on February 3rd, 1900. He remains the only United States’ governor to be assassinated while in office.

Each five-person group was sent to the University of Kentucky’s special collections library and the Kentucky state archives. Much of the class had never experienced working within an archive. Sifting through court transcripts, telegrams sent by conspirators, and newspaper articles allowed our class to feel and read history in a way that’s difficult in a classroom. Reading the reports from the time challenged our understanding of the case. Was Goebel shot from the second or first floor? Was Centre alumnus Caleb Powers really responsible for the assassination? How far did the conspiracy run? The massive collections we looked through gave us insight into the complicated nature of creating history. Historians face the challenge of creating a narrative that can summarize the lives, lies, and legacies of people that often present conflicting stories, and we faced this challenge during our project. It also allowed us to see how Kentucky politics have been shaped by moments of history such as this. The Kentucky oath of office spoken during the inauguration of every sitting Kentucky governor includes a clause assuring their constituents that they have never fought in a duel with deadly weapons.

Following our work in the archive, we turned our attention to creating a podcast. Inspired by NPR’s “Throughline” and Slate’s “Slow Burn,” my group set about writing a script, recording professional audio, and editing. All the while, each group had a professional expert historian to interview regarding their topic. My group had the opportunity to interview Centre alumnae Dr. Anne Marshall on the political climate of early 20th century Kentucky. Dr. Marshall is a historian specializing in Southern United States history, and her focus on how the Civil War and Gilded Age played into our time period gave us incredible insight. Her answers to our questions acted as the foundation to our podcast. The goal of creating history in a meaningful, entertaining way was a unique experience for students in our class, but it allowed us new ways of expressing our own creativity. The use of music and transitions in the editing process allowed us to create a story that was truly our own. Rather than writing individual research papers, we spent the last week of class refining our podcast. We created something entertaining and educational that could allow people to appreciate the history from an entirely distinct angle.

Our class had six different groups work within the archives to create a series of podcasts that tell the story of the Goebel assassination. From retelling his story to the long-term outcomes of the assassination, we created podcasts that appealed to a 21st century listener. We learned how history in the 21st century has the chance to be far more dynamic and accessible than ever before. We gained experience working with archival sources, distinguishing between historical narratives, and creating professional podcasts for a global audience. This course offered unique ways in creating and telling history that will benefit our class years from now!

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