CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Too much government? As complex as politics in West Virginia, or any other state, might seem today, there was a time in the late 1800s when the Mountain State had four governors at once.
As baffling as that might seem, the matter is a remarkable demonstration of conflicting laws and legal opinions.
In 1888, Nathan Goff, Jr., and Aretas Brooks Fleming campaigned for the governorship. Goff appeared to be the winner, but Fleming contested the vote, and both took the oath of office.
Then the former governor, Emmanuel Willis Wilson, declined to vacate until the matter was settled. At the same time, Robert Carr came forth as president of the Senate with the valid claim that the state constitution required the Senate President to fill any gubernatorial vacancy.
The matter wasn't sorted until 1890 when the Legislature's Democratic majority confirmed its party's candidate, Fleming, voting along party lines.
Fleming became the eighth governor of West Virginia and served three years. (Wilson served five, including his term, and a year Fleming would have served.) Goff, who had won the vote, lost.
Goff later became a U.S. senator and served from 1912 until 1919, after which he retired to Clarksburg.
Wilson left politics altogether after his governorship but left his mark as a fighter against corporate privilege. Historian Otis Rice described him once as the "most noted foe of corporate privilege" among governors of the era.
According to the W.Va. Heritage Encyclopedia, Wilson represented traditional agrarian Democrats in contrast to the Republicans and the pro-industry wing of his own party. He called for improvements in mine safety and the regulation of railroads.
Carr left state politics in 1889.
Photos courtesy U.S. Library of Congress
Sign up to receive a FREE copy of West Virginia Explorer Magazine in your email weekly. Sign me up!