There’s more to the Bill Gohl story than you know

Book Review: “The Port of Missing Men: Billy Gohl, Labor, and Brutal Times in the Pacific Northwest.”

Book Review

By John Larson

Director, Polson Museum

So you think you know the story of Billy Gohl? Aberdeen’s infamous mass murderer who dropped his victims into the Wishkah River, creating what became known as the “Floater Fleet” on Grays Harbor? The man who killed upward of 100 people between 1906 and 1909? Billy, the “Ghoul of Grays Harbor”?

Forget everything you think you know about Gohl and reach for a copy of Aberdeen native Aaron Goings’ new book, “The Port of Missing Men: Billy Gohl, Labor, and Brutal Times in the Pacific Northwest.” Through extensive and carefully end-noted research, Goings effectively upends over a century of lore surrounding William “Billy” Gohl, the Aberdeen agent for the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific convicted in May, 1910 for the first degree murder of Charles Hadberg.

Goings, Associate Professor of American History at Saint Martin’s University for well over a decade, has of late been actively writing new chapters of Grays Harbor’s history. His co-authored “Red Coast,” published last year, explored the “red” elements of Southwest Washington, chronicling the Industrial Workers of the World regionally, Aberdeen’s anti-Chinese policies of the 1890s, labor strikes, the Harbor’s 1912 free speech fight and much more. Goings’ newest offering is what Grays Harbor history buffs have been missing for decades – a methodically researched and evidence-based analysis of the Billy Gohl story.

As a Grays Harbor historian, I freely admit that I had not previously done my homework regarding Billy Gohl. I’d read Hollis B. Fultz’s chapter on Gohl in “Northwest Manhunts and Murder Mysteries,” squinted at Robert Weinstein’s purported photo of Gohl in Grays Harbor: 1885-1913 and accepted as fact Pamela Dean Aho’s “Ghoul of Grays Harbor” contribution to “On the Harbor.” I’d never seriously questioned these and other authors and, like so many before me, I blindly accepted that Gohl must indeed be a mass murderer.

Aaron Goings, on the other hand, has long held skepticism of the popular history surrounding Gohl. Goings’ self described “entry point into the world of Billy Gohl” started in 2001 while doing microfilm research in the Aberdeen Daily World on labor history for his Ph.D. thesis. As detailed in the book’s preface, an August 10, 1911, headline titled “Business Men Helped Convict Gohl” caught his attention and sparked what would ultimately become a multi-year endeavor to scour every record available regarding the life and times of Billy Gohl.

What specifically caught Goings’ attention in that 1911 article was an Aberdeen City Council debate regarding the use of public funds to pay private Thiel Detective Service agents hired in 1909-1910 to “investigate” and ultimately help convict Gohl for murder. As a historian well versed in the anti-labor deeds of men employed by the likes of the Thiel, Curtin, Burns and Pinkerton agencies, Goings saw in that one article a much larger story demanding further investigation. He understood that in this time period these agencies had a well-documented track record of nefariously breaking labor unions across the nation. He set out to discover if the militant labor union leader Billy Gohl was in fact the target of Grays Harbor employers acting collectively to eliminate Gohl as a threat to their businesses. As Goings so presciently notes in his introduction, “of all the convicted murderers in the region’s early history, Gohl was the only one capable of shutting down the highly profitable Grays Harbor lumber trade.”

The Port of Missing Men is so much more than just the story of Billy Gohl’s trial for murder. Here biography is given deep context, especially through an understanding of place and time, as illustrated by the chapter “Billy Gohl’s Grays Harbor,” which paints a picture of the Harbor’s meteoric growth during a period when capital and labor frequently clashed. Gohl’s Grays Harbor, according to Goings, was a place of “shocking brutality and gross exploitation” where Gohl actively “worked to ameliorate the worst of these ills.”

Throughout the book but especially in the chapter “Union,” Goings analyzes a growing class inequality on the Harbor. He describes the struggle of the working class to obtain better pay, working conditions and hours alongside the efforts of employers to thwart those goals. In describing the hazardous working conditions in Grays Harbor industries, Goings characterized workers of the era as having “spent their lives with one foot in the grave.” Indeed, industrial accidents were an almost daily occurrence at that time, with injury and even death commonplace. In Goings’ estimation, workers “faced the real possibility that a spinning saw or falling logs would get them” and were all-too-often “pushed to alcoholism and suicide by the depression-inducing conditions of capitalism.” The crux of this class struggle, according to Goings, was that “this collective misery, as much as anything, was the real ghoul of Grays Harbor.”

By quantifying statistics found in the archival Record of Deaths for the City of Aberdeen and the Chehalis County Coroner’s Record, Goings makes a convincing case that the so called “floater fleet” was not the work of a mass murderer but rather an unregulated and dangerous waterfront working environment. Drownings were remarkably common among the population of the day, many resulting from accidents aboard ships or falls from docks and log rafts, all too often precipitated by the mixing of men and their liquor. The death toll laid at the hands of Gohl by the press was quite possibly the result of Grays Harbor’s hazardous waterfront.

At 277 total pages, the book includes 50 pages of end notes that provide ample evidence of the detailed research done to support this thesis. Goings scoured various university archives, state penitentiary records, census records, city directories and labor union records. Newspaper accounts of the day further proved invaluable in telling this story and Goings left no local paper unread – the Aberdeen World, Grays Harbor Washingtonian Grays Harbor Post, Aberdeen Herald, Chehalis County Vidette and Aberdeen Daily Bulletin all are heavily referenced. More obscure publications such as the Coast Seamen’s Journal and Pacific Lumber Trade Journal also provided crucial context. And notably, the Chehalis County (Grays Harbor) Superior Court records gave extensive documentation of Gohl’s trial and proceedings.

Consider putting your preconceptions of Billy Gohl’s story back on the shelf and immerse yourself in this compelling new read.

“The Port of Missing Men” is available for $29.95, in hardback only, at the Polson Museum Store, 1611 Riverside Avenue, Hoquiam. Goings’ earlier book “Red Coast: Radicalism and Anti-Radicalism in Southwest Washington is also in stock for $24.95. Leading up to Christmas, the Polson store is open as follows:

Friday, December 18, 10-4

Saturday, December 19, 10-4

Wednesday, December 23, 10-4

The cover of Aaron Goings’ new book.

The cover of Aaron Goings’ new book.