A few weeks ago, a note in The Herald-Dispatch highlighting historical West Virginia data caught my eye. It stated, “In 1888, Fleming won the Democratic nomination for governor and then won West Virginia’s most controversial gubernatorial election.” In our 2020 pandemic election season, this long-ago election reminds us that every vote is important and our state has had some wild and not so wonderful elections.
In the West Virginia 1888 gubernatorial election, Republican Nathan Goff Jr., received 49.27 percent of the vote, while Democrat Aretas Brooks Fleming received 49.21 percent. For over a year, four men — these two candidates, the sitting governor, Democrat Emanuel Willis Wilson, and the president of the West Virginia Senate, Robert S. Carr — claimed the right to be governor. Charges of fraud and vote buying with cash and whiskey abounded. The state legislature, split almost evenly by political parties, took more than a year to name the winner.
Goff, with his 106-vote lead, believed he had been elected and was apparently sworn into office in 1889. When he went to the Governor’s Office to claim his position, outgoing Governor Wilson refused to leave. Rumors that Goff had gun-toting supporters nearby led the governor to call out the National Guard.
The West Virginia Supreme Court ruled that Wilson would remain as governor until the Legislature made a final decision. In 1890, the legislature declared that Fleming, the candidate with fewer votes when the election ended, was the winner. Fleming began his term as governor a year late; Wilson served as governor for five years.
The saga of this 1888 election appears in the West Virginia Archives and History and also in a column in the Wheeling-Intelligencer, which credited information on the topic to the former, and now disgraced, West Virginia Supreme Court Justice Allen H. Loughry Jr., who wrote “Don’t By Another Vote, I Won’t Pay for a Landslide: The Sordid and Continuing History of Political Corruption in West Virginia.” The title of his book is supposedly a reference to a statement made by President John F. Kennedy’s father as JFK campaigned in West Virginia in 1960.
My link with Mr. Loughry is personal and sad. Shortly after his book was published in 2006, I had the opportunity to introduce him when he spoke about his book at the Ohio River Festival of Books at the civic center in Huntington. Mr. Loughry’s knowledge of West Virginia’s political history and of some of our peculiar state politics was impressive. I was pleased when he was elected to the West Virginia’s Supreme Court. Then, his sad saga in West Virginia’s politics emerged. In 2018, Loughry was removed as chief justice of the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals (think $32,000 blue suede couch), later found guilty of 11 federal charges, given a two-year sentence and lost his law license.
The story of this 19th century West Virginia gubernatorial election reminds us that elections sometimes have unsavory histories and that in close elections, every vote counts. Don’t forget to vote in the 2020 election.