At the beginning of the 20th century, the most violent city in the Pacific Northwest was Aberdeen, Washington. It was a “roaring” town, full of itinerant sailors, lumberjacks and longshoremen, with accompanying saloons and brothels. Fights and accidental drownings in town were common, with dozens of bodies (“floaters”) found in the harbor every year.
Workers also suffered outrageously high levels of occupational injury and death, due to intensely pressured working conditions and lack of safety equipment or care taken by the employers. Wages were very low.
Workers organized and employers vigorously resisted, getting court injunctions against unions and hiring strikebreaking companies to import goons to beat up strikers and guard strikebreakers.
Into this maelstrom stepped William Gohl, a German immigrant sailor and an agent for the Sailors Union of the Pacific. Sailors labored under near-slavery. Once a ship left dock, sailors were legally under the absolute command of the ship’s captain and could be brutally punished and even killed with no repercussions.
Gohl was an effective organizer. Within a couple of years of arriving in Aberdeen, he headed a sailor’s strike in 1906 that won union recognition and an improved contract at Pacific ports; there were similar victories for longshore work. Then the companies struck back. They formed an employers’ association, imported strikebreakers and held firm through long strikes.
As part of this campaign, according to author Alan Goings, they decided to get rid of Gohl. In 1910, Gohl was arrested and charged with the murder of Charles Hadberg, a former tenant in his wife’s boardinghouse. The local newspapers began a campaign accusing him not just of that murder, but also of murdering many of the floaters, eventually naming him the “ghoul” of Grays Harbor. If it was true, he was one of the worst serial killers in the history of the United States.
Gohl was sentenced to life imprisonment for the one murder, but the story of his serial killings grew and eventually became an Aberdeen legend. Aaron Goings, who grew up in Aberdeen, takes a hard look at this legend, asserting that it was a result of newspaper hype — “fake news” of the 20th century variety.
There were a lot of questions left unanswered during Gohl’s trial, starting with whether the body was actually Charles Hadberg’s. Agents of the Thiel Detective Company, which specialized in breaking strikes, collected most of the evidence, and the main witness against Gohl was kidnapped in Mexico and brought back to confess that Gohl had directed the killing — a confession that was later repudiated.
Goings argues convincingly that Gohl was not a mass murderer and that the murder charge was manufactured by the anti-union campaign. However, Goings’ clear sympathy for Gohl sometimes undercuts his own arguments by turning the narrative into a tendentious discussion that attributes any criticisms of Gohl to hostile media and the employer’s association. Conversely, any positive or peaceful statements by Gohl were taken at face value, proving his innocence.
Gohl was no saint. He likely made enemies not just with employers, but with other people, including fellow unionists. His relationship with the police was sometimes oddly friendly; he called them readily in minor conflicts with others. In one incident, the police arrested a soap-box orator who accused Gohl of being a “thief, grafter, and union faker.” Goings makes no comment on this charge, nor examines whether some members of Gohl’s union were hostile to him, but rather takes the incident as an example of how Gohl liked to go through legal channels rather than use violence.
Gohl organized not just against employers and strikebreakers, including incidents where he readily used physical violence and firearms, but also against Chinese immigrants. He was a founder of Aberdeen’s Asiatic Exclusion Club. Anti-Chinese groups in Washington were not only racist, but violently so. Goings treats this racism as “normal” for the union movement of the day. But some unions, such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), explicitly recruited Asian immigrants, and it wasn’t a given that a white unionist would be a virulent racist.
If Gohl had made enemies among the working people of Aberdeen, it would go a long way toward explaining why the media campaign against him was so successful and why so few people rose to his defense, during his trial or afterward.
Goings doesn’t explain Gohl very well. He is too uncritical and too ready to excuse or gloss over his faults. On the other hand, he does a good job of explaining the context of Gohl and his life — the extreme labor conflict of the time, the high level of accidental violent deaths, the domination of the town by ruthless employers and their use of thugs and corrupt police to eventually make Aberdeen an open shop city for a number of years. He rightly points out that the campaign against Gohl and the Aberdeen unions was a precursor to the campaign against the IWW a year or so later, involving many of the same employers and strikebreaking companies.
In this period of protests against police violence, it’s worth remembering how often police and courts have been used to suppress movements for justice.
Read more of the July 15-21, 2020 issue.