Then there was the time that West Virginia had four governors at once

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Then there was the time that West Virginia had four governors at once
The gilded dome of the West Virginia Capitol stands out amid foliage at Charleston, W.Va. (Photo: Sibray)

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Think there's too much government? As complex as politics get in West Virginia, there was a time in the late 1800s when the Mountain State had four governors at once.

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As baffling as that might seem, the matter is a remarkable demonstration of conflicting state laws and legal opinions.

Nathan Goff, Jr.

During that strange election year, 1888, two gubernatorial candidates pulled in a like number of votes. Nathan Goff, Jr., appeared to be the winner, though Aretas Brooks Fleming contested the vote, and both took the oath of office.

Then, former governor Emmanuel Willis Wilson declined to vacate the office until the matter was settled. At the same time, Senate President Robert Carr came forth with the valid claim that the state constitution required the president to fill any gubernatorial vacancy.

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Aretas Brooks Fleming
Aretas Brooks Fleming

The matter wasn't sorted for two years, and in 1890, the Legislature's Democratic majority confirmed its party's candidate, Fleming, in a vote along party lines.

Fleming became the eighth governor of West Virginia and served three years. (Governor Wilson had served five years, including his own term as well as the year Fleming would have served.) Goff, who had first won the vote, lost but later became a U.S. senator and served from 1912 until 1919, after which he retired to .

Emmanuel Willis Wilson
Emmanuel Willis Wilson

Fleming did not pursue a second term and returned to , where he joined his brother-in-law Clarence W. Watson in business, establishing the powerful .

Wilson left politics altogether but left his mark as a fighter against corporate privilege. Historian Otis Rice once described him as the "most noted foe of corporate privilege" among governors of the era.

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Robert Carr
Robert Carr

Wilson represented traditional agrarian Democrats in contrast to the Republicans and the pro-industry wing of his party. He called for improvements in mine safety and the regulation of railroads, according to the W.Va. Heritage Encyclopedia.

Carr left state politics in 1889.

Photos courtesy U.S. Library of Congress


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