New Display Devoted to Kentucky Governors

Jun 13, 2011

One governor was assassinated more than a century ago, and his killer remains a mystery even today. Another governor died soon after being sworn in. A third tried to impose a sales tax and instead caused riots. Theses stories of Kentucky’s governors as well as artifacts from their terms are now on display at the Toyota Kentucky Hall of Governors at Frankfort's Thomas D. Clark Center for Kentucky History. Among the artifacts are pocket watches, walking canes, a wedding ring and the bloody undershirt worn by Gov. William Goebel when he was assassinated.

An unknown assassin shot Goebel on Jan. 30, 1900, and he died on Feb. 3. All the clothes he was wearing at the time he was shot were collected as evidence, including his bloody underwear.

The underwear is interesting because it was a two-piece set of clothing instead of a single piece, which was popular at the time, said Trevor Jones, director of collections and exhibits.

“He was progressive down to his underwear,” said Jones. “He was wearing some pretty cutting edge fashion at the time he was killed.”

The undershirt has a bullet hole in it and has deteriorated because protein in the blood has destroyed some of the fabric.

The hall memorializing Kentucky’s governors was recently reopened after it was renovated and improved with new artifacts, historical information and interactive displays.

New artifacts will be put on display periodically.

Other governors with interesting stories include Gov. John LaRue Helm and Ruby Laffoon, said Jones.

Helm served as governor from 1850 to 1851 and again in 1867. However, he was ill and died only five days after being sworn in. His walking cane is among the artifacts on display.

Laffoon was governor during the Great Depression from 1931 to 1935. In 1932 he tried to pass a sales tax but a mob attacked the governor’s mansion, Jones said. Although he continued to receive death threats, a 3 percent tax was approved in 1934.

“I felt sorry for Laffoon because I think he was a guy who was trying to do the right thing,” Jones said. “There needed to be some way of raising revenue, and he didn’t get a lot of credit for that.”

Other notable governors include Luke Blackburn and Simon Buckner. Blackburn was elected in 1879 because he was known as a doctor who helped fight yellow fever, Jones said.

Buckner was wealthy and gave a personal loan to the state in 1890 when the coffers ran dry, Jones said.

The hall includes the official portraits of Kentucky’s 61 governors except that of Gov. Steve Beshear and Louie Nunn. Beshear’s portrait will be added when he leaves office.

Jones said Nunn’s family asked that the official portrait not be used because he disliked it so much. Instead a digital print is on display at the hall, and Nunn’s official portrait is in storage.

“He did not care for it,” Jones said.

The collection began in the 1890s and expanded when the General Assembly commissioned portraits for all the governors who had served until then.

Now, a painting is commissioned before each governor leaves office. A committee nominates three artists and the governor selects the finalist – usually a Kentucky painter.

Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s portrait cost the state $9,100 and took 10 months to complete. The Democratic Party is paying for Beshear’s portrait, which is not yet complete.

The paintings have been cleaned, and a number of other improvements have been made. Below each portrait is a short biography of each governor including when they served.

There are also interactive videos and maps that include information about the requirements necessary to become governor.

The new exhibit also shows how the role of governor has changed over time.

Isaac Shelby, Kentucky’s first governor, was a strict constitutionalist, Jones said.

“Shelby said he wasn’t doing it if it wasn’t in the constitution,” Jones said.

But governors in later times became responsible for building roads and schools as well as recruiting employers, which were not necessarily provisions in the state constitution.

“In more recent years, the governor’s unofficial powers have become as important as his official powers,” Jones said.
Other historical facts are included to show how politics and government changed over time, such as the story of “Honest” Dick Tate.

Tate served as the state treasurer for about 20 years but vanished in 1888 taking $250,000 from the public purse with him. That is worth about $6 million today.

Whatever happened to “Honest” Dick has remained one of Kentucky’s enduring political mysteries.

Jones said Tate’s theft led to the passage of new checks and balances, such as ban on constitutional officers succeeding themselves, a ban that stood for well over a century.

“He really helped the state of Kentucky,” Jones said.

The official oath of office is displayed around the cornice of the hall, including the clause banning officials from having participated in or assisted with a duel.

“It’s still a part of the oath of office which I find fascinating,” Jones said.

Visitors to the Hall of Governors face a question when at the end of the exhibit: How would you provide affordable healthcare for Kentuckians?

“We wanted people to look at the big issues in the news, the things governors are working with and wrestling with,” Jones said.

Several responses have already been posted including suggestions to ban fast food and tort reform to limit lawsuits against doctors and hospitals.

“It’s nice to see people are thinking about it,” Jones said.

The questions will also be changed periodically.