Murray's People: A collection of essays about fthe fascinating people who settled and developed the Pacific Northwest

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Murray C. Morgan
Billy Gohl of Grays Harbor
The Last Wilderness
Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1955
P. 122-128

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Copyright, 1955, Murray Morgan
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This information may not be reprinted in any manner without the written permission of the author.

Billy Gohl of Grays Harbor

spacerBilly Gohl was a short, round-headed, heavy-shouldered man in his forties. He had brown hair, which he wore parted in the middle, bartender fashion; and, indeed, he sometimes tended bar. His eyes were big and blue and wide-set-honest, you might say. In an era of free-flowing mustaches he went about bare-lipped. His chin was square, his neck short, his chest heavy. He was tough and he looked tough, which was no disadvantage in the Grays Harbor of the Big Cut.
spacerBilly was a great talker. His conversation centered on his business pursuits and his hobbies. If the reports of his listeners to policemen, sheriffs, and grand juries are to be credited, his conversations were unforgettable. You'd start chatting with Billy about the weather, and the next thing you knew he was launched into a recital about a house he had burgled, a hotel he had burned, a ship he had pirated, a man he had murdered, or a deer he had shot out of season.
spacer"Nice weather for ducks," a bartender in a saloon on Wishkah remarked one evening shortly before Christmas in 1909 when Billy rolled in out of the rain.
spacerBilly slapped his sou'wester across his thick thigh, settled himself solidly against the bar, and said, "I've got to kill Charley. As long as that scissor bill is walking around, I'm looking right into the penitentiary." Charley was never seen again.
spacerA cigar-store operator, whose competition had driven Gohl into temporary bankruptcy, told police that Billy approached him amiably on the street and remarked, "You ain't going to be in business so long yourself." That night the hotel housing the cigar store burned to the wet ground-two guests along with it, one of them being an elderly Swede who had annoyed Gohl some years before. Billy was in excellent spirits when he next saw the burned-out tobacco man. "Ain't it funny how things work out?" he said. "I never dreamed there'd be a bonus in it."
spacerOne night in a bar he explained to a considerable group how he had rigged the bomb. "I used electricity to set it off," he said. "I had the damnedest time. I fastened the cord to his light circuit, but the son-of-a-bitch hadn't paid his light bill, and it was turned off. I had to run a wire in from clear across the street to make it go."
spacerThe burned-out tobacco man felt the police should take the matter up with Billy. So did Sig Jacobson, a former associate, who complained to the authorities that Billy wouldn't pay him for the infernal machine he had used to start the fire. A detective was sent around to see Billy, but he came back with the word there was nothing to it. (It was not impossible to get arrested in Aberdeen at this time; Mac DeLane, the proprietor of the Pioneer Liquor Store, who happened to be an enemy of Gohl's, was jailed for smoking a cigarette on the street.
spacerBilly could be remarkably persuasive. A man who shot a friend at Gohl's suggestion told a jury, "Billy looked at me and said, 'You take him,' and I knew I had to. There wasn't anything else to do. He had a great deal of animal magnetism."
spacerDuring one eight-month period while Gohl was active forty-three bodies were found floating in Grays Harbor. Some had been shot, some slugged, a few showed evidence of poison, and the majority appeared simply to have drowned after falling or being pushed into the water while drunk. These anonymous dead men, culled from the hordes of migrant laborers who had flocked to Grays Harbor to cut trees, came to be known as the Floater Fleet.
spacerBilly Gohl was credited with launching most of them. If he was responsible for even half of the floaters found in the harbor during his day, Gohl was America's most prolific murderer. Over a ten year period the fleet numbered 124.
spacerGohl first appeared in Grays Harbor in 1900 one of many men who drifted in broke from the Yukon. He said he had been born in Austria, though one police report credited him to Madison, Wisconsin, and another to Bergen, Norway. He found a job in a waterfront saloon, where he attracted attention with a tale about eating a man during a cold snap near Whitehorse.
spacerHe is said to have picked up bonus money by recruiting seamen, usually unconscious, for misery ships that called at the Wishkah mills for lumber. A bartender could be most useful when shanghaiing was necessary to round out a crew. But this story may be libel, for that is one of the few crimes Billy never boasted of committing, perhaps because he soon graduated from barkeep to agent for the Sailors' Union.
spacerGohl was an effective agent. Aberdeen became one of the first ports on the Pacific Coast with a union hiring hall. People seldom talked back to Billy. Once during a strike, when there were rumors that a citizens' committee in neighboring Hoquiam was planning to intervene, Billy strapped on a pair of forty-fives, cradled a shotgun in his elbow, and boarded each streetcar as it came in from Hoquiam.
spacerAs he searched the passengers he explained blandly, "to make sure there ain't nobody going around town illegally armed."
spacerIn 1905 the captain of the lumber schooner Fearless, which was tied up in port by a strike, sneaked a non-union crew aboard, cast off, and headed for the Pacific. A runner bounded up the steps to the union hall, over the Pioneer Saloon, and reported the getaway. Billy recruited a boarding party, commandeered a launch, and put out after her. The seagoing pickets were sighted as they approached the schooner in the dark.
spacerSomebody started shooting. The gun battle lasted half an hour before the Fearless escaped over the bar, which was too rough for the launch.
spacerLater Gohl was arrested. The papers said he was charged with piracy, but actually it was "aggravated assault." He was fined twelve hundred dollars. On leaving court be remarked, "It'll be worth every penny of it, for advertising.
spacerGohl seldom missed an opportunity to expand his reputation for violence. One of his stories was that after the Fearless returned he sent word to four of the scabs that another non-union boat was waiting to sail. "After I got them on my boat," said Billy, "I took them out to the bar at low tide. I made them get out on the spit. Then I held a gun on them until the tide came in."
spacerA private detective was hired to check on Billy. He's just trying to scare people," the operator reported. "He's all talk."
spacerGohl's headquarters were in the union hall, a gaunt, narrow room with flaking yellow wallpaper. A scattering of scarred tables stood stark under bare light bulbs. There were some rung-sprung chairs and sturdy splintered benches. One day a friend told Billy that a rumor was going around town that Billy sometimes killed sailors who left money with him for safekeeping and then dropped the bodies through a trap door into the Wishkah.
spacer"That's silly. There ain't no trap door here," said Billy. "And if there was it would just open into the saloon." Then he took the man by the arm and led him to the window. "Tell you what I did do, though. The other day some Swede came in and gave me some money to hold for him while he hit the crib houses. I told him something was up. I thought a scab boat was coming in.
spacer"I got him to put on a logger's outfit-there was some old stag pants around-and I told him to go out and sit on those pilings down there and keep a lookout for the boat. When he got out there I got my rifle and shot him from here, right through the head."
spacerIn 1909 there was a shift in political alignment at the city hall. Billy was arrested for stealing a car robe. He was indignant. "A auto robe, for Chrissakes!" he said. He was acquitted when a friend who rustled cattle on the Chehalis River said he had bought the robe at a pawnshop and given it to Gohl.
spacerGohl brooded about the fact of his arrest. Rumor reached him that the cattle rustler had been seen talking to a deputy sheriff. It was then that he told the barkeep at the Grand that he would have to kill the man. When the barkeep mentioned some weeks later that be hadn't seen Charley around, Gohl told him, "You won't. He's sleeping off Indian Creek with an anchor for a pillow."
spacerA report of this statement reached Montesano, where the sheriff decided Gohl might not be joking. He waited for a day of low tides and went to Indian Creek. Not far off shore he found Charles Hatberg's body, weighed down by a twenty-five pound anchor.
spacerGohl was arrested. He denied everything. "It's a frame-up," he said, and many believed him. Their confidence was shaken two months later when the schooner A. J. West returned from a run to Mexico. Aboard her was a very nervous seaman named John Klingenberg. He had been seen with Gohl the night Hatberg disappeared. He had tried to jump ship in Mexico, but the captain, who had received a telegram from the sheriff, kept him aboard.
spacerOn its return run the schooner was held up two weeks at the Grays Harbor bar by adverse winds. The delay, said Klingenberg, "left me in a highly nervous state." When a sheriff arrested him at the dock he was anxious to talk.
spacerKlingenberg said Gohl had asked him to go along to kill Hatberg so Hatberg couldn't tell anyone what he knew. They had gone to Indian Creek, where Gohl kept a small schooner. There they met a man named John Hoffman. Gohl asked Hoffman to go with them to Hatberg's cabin. After they were on the launch Gohl drew his gun and shot Hoffman in the back, wounding him. Hoffman begged for his life.
spacerGohl sat on his chest and shot him through the forehead. They threw his body overboard and went on toward Hatberg's. "He'd have been in the way," said Gohl. Near the cabin they ran on a mud bank. Hatberg came out in a skiff and rowed them ashore. The three men spent the night in the cabin. Klingenberg said he didn't sleep much. The next morning Hatberg rowed them out to the launch. "You take him," said Gohl to Klingenberg. And Klingenberg did.
spacer"But," he told the deputy, "I didn't shoot him in the back." Gohl and Klingenberg went back to Aberdeen together. A few days later Gohl suggested to Klingenberg that they go for a walk alone on the beach.
spacerKlingenberg declined; the next day he shipped out for Mexico.
spacerWhen brought to trial for his life, Gohl maintained that Hatberg and Hoffman were somewhere in Alaska, tending lighthouse. He didn't know exactly where; didn't have any idea whose body the sheriff bad found off Indian Creek. The State then brought Hatberg's arm, which had been pickled, into court so the jurors could examine some identifying tattoo marks.
spacerGohl was sentenced to life. He was later transferred from the state penitentiary to a hospital for the criminally insane, where he died in 1928. Klingenberg was sentenced to twenty years in prison.

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Murray's People
A collection of essays

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