About William Sylvester Taylor
William Taylor was born October 10, 1853 in a log cabin on the Green River, about five miles from Morgantown, Kentucky. He was the first child of Sylvester and Mary G. (Moore) Taylor. He spent his early years working on the family farm, and did not attend school until age fifteen; thereafter, he attended the public schools of Butler County and studied at home. In 1874, he began teaching, specializing in mathematics, history, and politics. He taught until 1882, and later became a successful attorney, but continued to operate a farm.
On February 10, 1878, Taylor married Sara ("Sallie") Belle Tanner. The couple had nine children, including six daughters and a son that survived infancy.
Taylor's political career began in 1878 with an unsuccessful bid to become county clerk of Butler County. In 1880, he was an assistant presidential elector for Greenback candidate James Weaver. Two years later, he was elected county clerk of Butler County. He was the first person in the history of the county to successfully challenge a Democrat for this position.
Taylor became a member of the Republican Party in 1884. In 1886, he was chosen to represent the third district on the Republican state central committee. That same year, the party nominated a full slate of candidates for county offices, including Taylor as the nominee for county judge. In the ensuing elections, the full Republican slate was elected. Taylor was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1888. He was re-elected as county judge in 1890.
In 1895, Taylor was elected Attorney General of Kentucky, and served until 1899. During his term, state senator William Goebel proposed an election law that created a state Board of Elections which was empowered to appoint all election officers in every county and certify all election results. The Board was to be appointed by the General Assembly, and there were no requirements that its composition be bi-partisan. The law was widely seen as a power play by Goebel, designed to ensure Democratic victories in state elections, including Goebel's own anticipated run for governor. The law passed the General Assembly, but was vetoed by Republican governor William O. Bradley. The General Assembly promptly overrode the veto. As attorney general, Taylor opined that the bill was unconstitutional. The measure was adjudicated by the Kentucky Court of Appeals and found to be constitutional.
Gubernatorial election of 1899
Bradley's election in 1895 had marked the first time in Kentucky's history that the Commonwealth had elected a Republican governor. Angry Democrats, who had controlled the governorship since the fall of the Whig Party, sought to regain what they had lost, but bitter divisions in the party led to a contentious nominating convention that saw William Goebel chosen as the Democratic nominee. A faction of the Democratic Party held a second nominating convention and chose former governor John Y. Brown as their nominee.
The Republicans were initially no less divided than the Democrats. Senator William J. Deboe backed Taylor for governor. Governor Bradley backed Judge Clifton J. Pratt of Hopkins County, and the Republicans of Central Kentucky backed state auditor Sam H. Stone. Taylor organized a strong political machine and seemed in a solid position to obtain the nomination. Bradley was incensed that the party would not unite behind his candidate and boycotted the convention. Taylor unsuccessfully tried to woo him back with a promise to make his nephew, Edwin P. Morrow, secretary of state. Because Taylor represented the western part of the state, the so-called "lily white" branch of the Republican Party, black leaders also threatened not to support him; Taylor responded by making one of the black leaders his permanent secretary, and promised to appoint other black leaders to office if he won the election. Seeing that Taylor's nomination was likely, all the other candidates withdrew, and Taylor won the nomination unanimously.
During the campaign, Taylor's opponents attacked him because of his party's support from black voters and its ties to big business, including the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. They also charged that Governor Bradley had run a corrupt administration. Republicans answered with charges of factionalism and use of political machinery by Democrats. In particular, they derided the Goebel Election Law, which Taylor claimed subverted the will of the people.
Ex-Confederates were usually a safe voting bloc for the Democrats, but many of them deserted Goebel because he had, in 1895, killed former Confederate general John Sanford in a duel. On the other hand, blacks had historically been a safe bloc for the Republicans, but Taylor had alienated many of them by not strongly opposing the Separate Coach Bill, which would have segregated railroad facilities.
Goebel also risked losing support to minor party candidates. Besides John Y. Brown, the dissenting Democrats' nominee, the Populist Party also nominated a candidate, drawing votes from Goebel's populist base. To unite his traditional base, Goebel convinced William Jennings Bryan, a hero to most populists and Democrats, to campaign for him. As soon as Bryan finished his tour of the state, Governor Bradley reversed course and began speaking in favor of Taylor. While he insisted that his motives were to defend his administration, journalist Henry Watterson believed Taylor had promised to support Bradley's senatorial bid if elected.
Governorship and later life
In the general election, Taylor secured just 2,383 more votes than Goebel. The Democrat-controlled General Assembly challenged the election results. Due to the Goebel Election Law, it was up to a three-man Board of Elections to certify the winner in the contest. Two of the members of the board had openly campaigned for Goebel, and all three owed their appointments to him, but in a surprising decision, the Board voted 2—1 to certify Taylor as the winner. The Board claimed that the Goebel Election Law did not give them the power to hear proof of vote fraud or call witnesses, although the wording of their decision implied that they would have invalidated Taylor votes if they had been empowered to do so. Taylor was inaugurated on December 12, 1899. Days later, the General Assembly convened in Frankfort. They now claimed the power to decide disputed elections, and formed a partisan commission (ten Democrats and one Republican) to examine the election results.
Fearing Democrats in the Assembly would "steal" the election, armed men came to Frankfort from various areas of the state, primarily Eastern Kentucky, which was heavily Republican. On January 30, Goebel was shot while entering the state capitol building. The imbroglio led to Taylor declaring a state of emergency, calling out the militia, and calling a special session of the legislature not in the state capital, but in heavily Republican London, Kentucky. Democrats refused to heed the call, and met in Democratic Louisville instead. There, they certified the election commission's report that disqualified enough Taylor votes for Goebel to be declared the winner of the election. Shortly after being sworn in as governor, Goebel died from the gunshot wound he received days earlier.
With Goebel, the most controversial figure in the election, dead, Democrats and Republicans met jointly and drafted a proposal to bring peace. Under terms of the proposal, Taylor and his lieutenant governor, John Marshall, would step down from their offices and be granted immunity from prosecution in the events surrounding the election and Goebel's assassination. The Goebel Election Law would be repealed, and the militia would disperse from Frankfort. Prominent leaders on both sides signed the agreement, but on February 10, 1900, Taylor announced he would not. The legislature convened on February 19, 1900 and agreed to put the election in the hands of the courts.
On March 10, 1900, the circuit court of Jefferson County upheld the General Assembly's actions that made Goebel governor. The case was appealed to the Kentucky Court of Appeals, then the court of last resort in Kentucky. On April 6, 1900, the Court of Appeals ruled 6—1 that Taylor had been legally unseated. Taylor appealed to the Supreme Court of the United States, and on May 21, 1900, the Court refused to hear the case. Only Kentuckian John Marshall Harlan dissented from this refusal. With Taylor's legal options exhausted, Goebel's lieutenant governor, J. C. W. Beckham, ascended to the governorship. During his short term as governor, Taylor had done little beyond making a few appointments and issuing a few pardons.
Taylor was indicted as an accessory in the assassination of Goebel. He fled to Indianapolis, where the governor refused to extradite him. At least one attempt to abduct him by force failed in 1901. Despite being pardoned in 1909 by Republican Governor Augustus E. Willson, he seldom returned to Kentucky.
Financially strapped by the costs of challenging the election, Taylor became an insurance executive and practiced law. Shortly after arriving in Indiana, his wife died. In 1912, he briefly returned to Kentucky to marry Nora A. Myers. The couple returned to Indianapolis and had a son together. Taylor died of heart disease on August 2, 1928, and was buried at the Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis.