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Steelhammer: A tale of four governors

While Monday's inauguration of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin is sure to have its measure of drama and excitement, no 21st century swearing-in ceremony is likely to approach the level of emotion and intrigue that took place in Charleston on Inauguration Day 1889.

When results from the 1888 general election were tabulated, Republican Nathan Goff Jr. appeared to have defeated Democrat Aretas Brooks Fleming by a scant 106 votes in the race for governor. Fleming, naturally enough, contested the vote, and a new tally -- to be overseen by a Legislature top-heavy with fellow Democrats -- was ordered.

But as that era's official inauguration date of March 4 approached, it became clear that the Legislature would take at least until May to resolve the issue.

Fleming, not unjustifiably, was convinced that the Democrats were attempting to maneuver him out of a victory, and made plans to come to Charleston on Inauguration Day to take the oath of office and assume his role as governor.

According to a 1946 article in the journal West Virginia History by James Henry Jacobs, Democrats in Charleston heard a rumor that Goff, a Union general during the Civil War and later a secretary of the Navy under President Rutherford Hayes, was planning to arrive at the Capitol with several hundred armed supporters. In response to that rumor, Democrats placed armed men throughout the Capitol building, "sixteen of whom were hidden directly in the Governor's Office vaults."

Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed. Incumbent Gov. E. Willis Wilson invited Goff and his small, unarmed entourage into his office for a discussion, in which he apparently stated his intention to remain in office as a caretaker until either the Legislature or state Supreme Court declared either Goff or Fleming the winner.

At noon, Goff emerged from the Governor's Office, climbed atop a chair in the adjacent reception room, and delivered "an inaugural speech of defensive oratory," according to Jacobs' account. The Democratic speaker of the House, Goff said, "failed to perform his constitutional duty of opening and publishing the [election] returns and declaring the person who had received the highest number of votes Governor."

After Goff was administered the oath of office by Henry C. McWhorter, a former Republican speaker of the House, he re-entered Wilson's office and demanded to assume the role of the state's chief executive.

As pre-arranged, and apparently pre-announced to Goff, Wilson refused, saying that since no declaration of a winner had been made by the Legislature, he believed it his duty to retain the governorship until the matter was resolved.  Goff, "in his suave and dignified manner," according to a newspaper account, thanked Wilson for promising to help secure an early settlement in court and left the Capitol.

Minutes after Goff departed the Statehouse, Senate President Robert S. Carr entered the Governor's Office, claiming he was in line to succeed Wilson, in the absence of either Goff or Fleming being officially declared winner of the 1888 gubernatorial election. Since Wilson's term expired on March 4, Carr had himself sworn in as governor by an associate, and followed Goff's lead in demanding, unsuccessfully, that Wilson vacate his office and responsibilities as governor.

Fleming also made an appearance in Charleston on Inauguration Day, to announce that he placed his trust in the Legislature to determine he had received more valid votes than Goff. But unlike Goff and Carr, Fleming did not apparently take part in a swearing-in ceremony, according to Jacobs' account.

The Supreme Court upheld Wilson's decision to serve as a caretaker governor after his official term expired, but it took until January of 1890 for the Legislature to approve, in a party-line vote, a revised ballot count that made Fleming the winner.

The idea of four people claiming to be governor at the same time over the course of a year would pose major problems in today's political environment.

Welcome signs along highways entering the state would have to be enlarged to include four names. And if the four governors-in-waiting and their first ladies refused to pose for a group shot, four separate versions of the state's official highway maps would have to be printed.


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