Murray C. Morgan
Billy Gohl of Grays Harbor
The Last Wilderness
Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1955
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Copyright, 1955, Murray Morgan
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the written permission of the author.
Billy Gohl of Grays Harbor
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
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.
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.
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.
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."
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
he searched the passengers he explained blandly, "to make
sure there ain't nobody going around town illegally armed."
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.
started shooting. The gun battle lasted half an hour before the
Fearless escaped over the bar, which was too rough for the launch.
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.
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
private detective was hired to check on Billy. He's just trying to
scare people," the operator reported. "He's all talk."
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.
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.
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."
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
declined; the next day he shipped out for Mexico.
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.
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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