Sunday, September 17, 2017

The Ghoul of Grays Harbor 1910

Back in 2012, I'd written Killer Jim Miller - Outlaw & Assassin. In that article, I talked about how some said Killer Jim Miller was the worse of the worse when it came to being an outlaw and assassin in the Old West. I also talked about how some believe that he was actually more dangerous than John Wesley Hardin and Clay Allison. Yes, some said he was a true son of Satan because he himself admitted to killing 51 men before being lynched in 1909.

After reading my article on Killer Jim Miller, a reader has written to ask if I thought Miller was the worse killer in that time period? My reader wants to know if anyone topped his claim of 51 murders? 

The first thing that came to mind was a killer up north in Washington state. His name was Billy Gohl. To my knowledge, he may have topped everyone when it came to committing murder in that same time period. While he was never a gunfighter, or a gunman, or an assassin for hire, he was instead a 19th Century serial killer. Yes, a serial killer.

Some say that Chicago's Herman Webster Mudgett, also known as Dr. Henry Howard Holmes and H. H. Holmes, is believed to be America's first serial killer. He was arrested and convicted of murdering 9 people in a 3 year span between 1891 and 1894. He himself confessed to 27 murders. Mudgett that was back East. 

And while Mudgett claimed to have killed 200 people, that was never ever proven true. Also, it's said that several of the people that Mudgett claimed to have killed were later found to still be alive. Police put very little credibility in anything Mudgett said because, besides being a murderer, he was also a bigamist and a con artist. So all in all, knowing he was a con artist alone meant that anything he said was taken as a lie. After all, as a con artist, he was a professional liar. Mudgett was hanged in 1896. 

William F. Gohl was said to be born on February 6th, 1873. Most believe he was born in Germany, but there were reports that he was born in Austria, another report puts his place of birth in Norway. Then again there was a police report that stated he was born in Illinois.

He migrated to Aberdeen, Washington, by way of the Yukon and San Francisco. Most sources agree that Gohl found his way to Aberdeen in 1902, although some say it was two years earlier in 1900. Of course before that is anyone's guess as not much is known about his early life.

From the late 1800s and into the 1900's, a part of the building which today houses Billy’s Bar and Grill in Aberdeen was actually the Grays Harbor headquarters of the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific. Sailors returning from sea would immediately go to the Sailor's Union hall to collect their mail, send money to their families, and of course sign up for another ship. It was there that returning sailors would also put money aside and deposit valuables while they hit the town to connect with old friends and maybe find some female companionship. 

According to many sources, while the building was predominantly occupied by a drug store on one end, the other end of the building was the Pioneer Saloon run by Paddy McHugh. The headquarters for Sailor’s Union of the Pacific was conveniently located above Paddy McHugh's place on F Street near Heron Street right against the Wishkah River.

As strange as it might sound considering what he was hiding, believe it or not, Gohl is said to have been quite a talker. It's said his conversations usually centered around his duties as a Union official. But then again, many who later talked to the Sheriff and then later to the Grand Jury all testified that they couldn't forget conversations with him because of what he talked about.

For example, it's said that if one were talking about ships or whatever else, he'd turn the conversation to a house that he had broken into and robbed or even a building that he had burned down. He was also known to talk about ships that he'd pirated, crews that he'd crimped in San Francisco, crewmen that he had killed in the process, men that he murdered in one way or another for this reason or that. And while Gohl actually bragged proudly about his criminal activities, most listening to him thought he was just spinning yarns to make himself look tough around others who were indeed hard men.

Most sources do say that Gohl was in San Francisco before going to the Yukon seeking gold. Most say he did in fact work as a "crimp" on San Francisco's Barbary Coast. A "crimp" was a person who "shanghais" men for forced labor aboard ships at the time. The practice was actually kidnapping men to work as sailors. Crimps used intimidation, violence, trickery, and even drugs among other things to find crewmen. This practice extended from San Francisco to ports in Oregon and Washington for years. It is said to have started on the West Coast during the California Gold Rush.

Whole crew would jump ship in mass as soon as they arrived in San Francisco, just so they can make a beeline for the gold fields, this left ships stranded without crews. Crimps were well known to troll the waterfronts of the Barbary Coast. They were hired in many cases by ship's Captains. And yes, they would shanghai whoever they could. Some of those kidnapped were never heard from again. 

In the Yukon, he spent time working as a bartender after going broke as a miner. Of course, Gohl is also said to have found other ways a getting money in the Yukon as he was suspected of killing and robbing a large number of migrant workers there. He was also suspected of burning down an Alaskan saloon and killed some people in it. Fact is, the dead bodies of those he killed in the Yukon were washing up on shore near where he had tended bar for years after he left. It is believed that he killed as many as 40 people there, men and women.  

In July of 1903, the Sailor's Union put him to work as a Union official. Immediately after being hired, instead of preventing strikes, Gohl was known to actually start strikes while trying to search for non-union sailors. He was known to either run them off or force them through intimidation and violence to join the Sailor's Union. It's true, as a Union official, Gohl used intimidation tactics, violence, and his reputation as a killer to "recruit" new Union members. He was known to beat a non-Union crewmen until they were close to dead. Of course, he'd stop short of that if his victim would join the Sailor's Union.

Gohl's qualifications for the job was above all his size and demeanor. He was said to stand 6 feet 2 inches tall, was cold as ice and built like a bull. He had strength, a mean disposition, and an ability to intimidate others. His reputation for committing murder helped him as well. Yes, it's said that he was already know in the area of having been responsible for murders that took place in the Yukon. Gohl was said to have been in an argument at a hotel bar in Alaska. He reportedly set the place on fire, burning it to the ground. In the fire, the owner and another man were killed.

In Aberdeen, Washington, his reputation was only grew bigger. For example, on June 2nd, 1906, the lumber schooner Fearless left port with a crew of non-union sailors. The Fearless had been stuck in port because of Union strike, so its Captain sneaked a non-union crew aboard and immediately headed for the Pacific. Gohl got word of that and took a gang of armed Union thugs commandeered a launch and chased after the Fearless

When the launch was in range, it is believed that Gohl fired first in an attempt to shoot the Captain. The crew aboard the Fearless returned fire and the gun battle between the two groups lasted half an hour before the Fearless escaped to open ocean which was way too rough for the launch. The gun battle ended with one casualty which was a crew member of the Fearless. Gohl was arrested and charged with "assembling men under arms." Gohl's arrest resulted in a fine of $1,250. The Sailor’s Union of the Pacific paid his fine. 

Starting in 1903, the number of dead sailors being found in the water around the Wishkah River, the Chehalis River, and Grays Harbor increased drastically. In fact so drastically that Aberdeen residents and visitors alike started referring to the large number of "floaters" found there as the "Floater Fleet". The dead of Grays Harbor was so significant that the harbor picked up the nickname, "The Port of Missing Men." Knowing this, it's said whole crews would refuse ships sailing to Grays Harbor at the time. 

During an 8 month period in 1907, officials fished 43 bodies of sailors out of Grays Harbor. While the majority were shot in the face. Some were poisoned, strangled, and obviously beaten to death. Some even appeared to have been drowned either before or after being dumped into the water while unconscious. Lawmen would later theorize that Gohl was not above getting a sailor drunk, robbing him, and then dumping his unconscious body into the cold river to drown. And yes, while the majority his victims were sailors, a number of those he killed were migrant laborers who arrived in Grays Harbor for work. Yes, no different than those he killed in the Yukon.  

After reading about the bodies that were popping up in Grays Harbor, the authorities in the Yukon contacted lawmen in Aberdeen about a killer who may have relocated to Grays Harbor. As was already taking place, law enforcement was chasing down every lead. 

Though Gohl was always talking big about killing this or that person, no one really realized that Gohl was behind it all. No one realized that Gohl was using the Sailor's Union of the Pacific offices as the perfect location for getting away with his crimes. Of course as a Union official, it was his job to take money and valuables. Gohl was known to use his status at the hall to question sailors about money and valuables at the pretense that he was looking out for their best interest. Most times he did so alone. 

Alone in his second floor office, Gohl would check to see if they were alone, then he would simply reach into his desk and shoot sailors in the face fort the most part. This is surprising in that one would think the noise of a gunshot would alarm anyone in the building. Of course once dead, Gohl would then steal all of their valuables including what they had deposited for safekeeping at the Union office. He would then dump his victims down a garbage chute that led to the Wishkah River which as stated was just outside of the building. 

Investigators believed that he purposely positioned himself to be completely alone with his victims when he would commit murder. Investigators would find out later that he did in fact use many other methods to kill his victims besides shooting them. A few investigators theorized that Gohl also used a small boat to dump their bodies directly in the Grays Harbor. Some theorize that Gohl used a small boat to murder his victims but I can't find anymore written on that. 

According to some sources, estimates are that he may have gotten rid of as many as low as 124 to as many as 136 sailors through that garbage chute which led from a trap door in that building straight into the river. The Wishkah River runs South into the Chehalis River which runs West into Grays Harbor. And yes, that's how Billy Gohl later got the moniker "The Ghoul of Grays Harbor."

In 1909, Gohl was arrested for stealing an "auto robe." An "auto robe" is sort of like a blanket that kept drivers warm and protected from the cold as well as dirt when driving the open-air vehicles of the time. The robes were manufactured by the Chicago Auto Robe Supply Company. They were also called a "lap robe". They were usually made of rubberized canvas and lined with green wool.

The whole idea that he stole an "auto robe" made him very angry. Of course he was acquitted after his friend Charles Hatberg, a man who was a sailor and known cattle rustler, vouched for him by saying that he had bought it from a local pawnshop and given it to Gohl. While Gohl should have been happy that he evaded that arrest, it's said he brooded about it. 

On December 21st, 1909, Gohl told saloon owner Paddy McHugh that he and his cohort John Klingenberg were going to kill John Hoffman who was a friend of Charles Hatberg. Four days later, Gohl is said to have swaggered cheerfully into the Pioneer Saloon. And when McHugh asked about Hoffman and Hatberg, Gohl replied, "They went away for good."

There is two stories of how Charles Hatberg died. One says that he was shot while Gohl and Klingenberg were in the process of killing Hoffman. He was supposedly in the wrong place at the wrong time. The other story goes that Gohl was told that his friend Charles Hatberg had been seen talking to a Deputy Sheriff about Gohl. Billy Gohl then tells Paddy McHugh that he has to kill Charles Hatberg. The story says that a few weeks later, McHugh mentioned to Gohl that be hadn't seen Hatberg. To that Gohl replied, "You won't. He's sleeping off Indian Creek with an anchor for a pillow."

Paddy McHugh didn't know if Gohl was serious of not, but decided to report what he said to the Sheriff. The Sheriff decided that Gohl might not be joking, so he waits for a day of low tide and goes to Indian Creek with a few Deputies. Once there the Sheriff finds Charles Hatberg's body weighed down by a 25 pound anchor not far off shore. Hatberg had been shot with a .38 Automatic pistol. The pistol was found nearby. Surprisingly, it's said that the ownership of that pistol was traced to Billy Gohl.

Soon investigators found out that Gohl would ask a returning sailor if they had a family or friends in the area. He would ask about money, valuables, if they received his back-pay yet, or if they felt secure with the money that they had saved on his voyage. As with those who disappeared and were never heard of again on the Barbary Coast, or never seen again after going to a Fandango House in the California gold fields, or going it alone in the vast expanse of the Yukon, a stranger was in peril if a killer found out that someone was just passing through and had no family or friends in the area. As for Gohl, he figured that his victims would not be missed and an alarm would not be raised at their disappearance. 

One of the things that I've found interesting about this is that Gohl was said to be very vocal about the failure of the local lawmen in Aberdeen to find out who was behind the killings. He was known to actually berated the Sheriff's office on behalf of the Union for not being able to solve the murders or protect Union sailors. It's also interesting that some says the Union suspected him of being somehow responsible for the large numbers of disappearances, but they didn't do anything about it. They didn't do anything to stop him or contact the Sheriff to let them know what they suspected. Imagine that.

As for Gohl, his accomplice John Klingenberg told authorities what was taking place at the Union office in Aberdeen. And while he was trying to save himself by turning state's evidence, the only reason Klingenberg was in Aberdeen at the time was because he was brought back there after trying to jump ship in Mexico. Some say he jumped ship to escape prosecution, but others say he was trying to escape from Gohl because he was afraid that Gohl would try to silence him.

Billy Gohl was arrested on February 3rd, 1910. Gohl is said to have made the mistake of identifying a pocket watch that belonged to one of his own victims. Two months later, his went to trial for the murders of Hatberg and Hoffman. Though Gohl is believed to have murdered more than 100 men, he was convicted of only two and given life in prison for each.

His accomplice John Klingenberg got 20 years though he stated that Gohl forced him to help kill Hatberg. Klingenberg testified to seeing Gohl alone with Charles Hatberg before he was near Indian Creek. And while at first stating that he's was "being set up." Gohl himself later admitted to killing both Hatberg and Hoffman.

Gohl stated that Hoffman "cried like a child". But that didn't stop Gohl from putting a pistol to his head, and pulling the trigger. Klingenberg testified that after shooting Hoffman, Gohl simply said, "I guess now you'll shut up." Klingenberg also gave testimony to the fact that Gohl weighed Hoffman’s body down with an anchor and dumped the dead man into the Chehalis River.

Billy Gohl was found guilty on May 12th, 1910. He was sentenced to two consecutive life terms. He was taken to Walla Walla State Penitentiary. He was later transferred to an insane asylum for the criminally insane. He died on March 3rd, 1927 at the age of 54. He is said to have died a long agonizing death from a number of things including dementia caused by syphilis.

Right after Gohl's arrest, the number of floaters in Grays Harbor drastically dropped. But that didn't mean that Gohl's legacy of terror was over, as the body of Carl O. Carlson was found on April 27th, 1910. He was known to have disappeared and is believed to have been a Gohl victim. And then there were the parts of his victims which were still showing up here and there.

For example, in July of 1910, a human skeleton was found in Indian Creek. In March of 1912, a human skull was found near a cabin owned by Gohl. Then another skull was found near the same spot on a beach. The skull was thought to have been "Red" Miller who was a sailor who disappeared and was believed to have been one of Gohl's victims.

He was later given the monikers "The Ghoul of Grays Harbor" and the "Timber Town Killer." Gohl is considered a "serial killer" because he is known to have murdered anywhere from 124 to 132 men, both sailors and migrant workers. And while most of his murders were committed at the Sailor's Union of the Pacific offices while he was employed there as a Union official from 1903 to the time of his arrest in 1910.

As stated earlier, the building that once housed the old Sailor's Union on the corner of East Heron and South G Streets now houses Billy’s Bar and GrillYes, believe it or not, the owners of Billy’s Bar and Grill are said to have actually named their place after a serial killer. Some say in honor of Billy Gohl. Imagine that.

Tom Correa


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